Friday, 8 January 2010

A case of 'enlightened self-interest'

It's not clear that having kittens is supposed to produce any philosophical reflection.

But in the last couple of days, my mind has drifted to Jeremy Bentham and his comments on the rights of animals.

    The day may come when the rest of animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.

    The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why human beings should be adandoned with redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may be one day recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.

    What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the facility to reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.

    But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? But Can they suffer?

    Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)

The central point here is that we do not grant a concept of human rights on the basis of certain abilities – primarily, the ability to think, so why do we exclude animals from any idea of rights on the basis of a lack of sentience, for instance? It's not logical.

Otto and Loki were 10 weeks old just two days ago. It's extraordinary to think of that incredibly short timespan (from a human perspective at least) when you see just how much of their world they already understand and know how to deal with. And how they're learning every day.

Loki, for instance, already knows how to open doors. He's too small and light to do it yet, but he knows the basic idea and jumps up to try.

One of his predecessors, Mack, could do it most adroitly. If we had guests staying overnight, we'd warn them to put a stack of big books against the door if they didn't want a feline visitor in the night. New guests would generally laugh in the way that you do when you're trying to humour overly-indulgent parents who are raving about the fantastic abilities of their child. So then they'd go in the spare room and shut the door.

We took to standing nearby to watch what unfolded. Mack had a deep belief that internal doors in the house should be open. All the time. So he'd saunter up to this offense to his sensibilities, stand against it, reach up and pull down the leaver handle while pushing. It was always most gratifying to watch people's reactions to this.

I've also seen him do things like sit in front of the old stereo – a mass of knobs and buttons and sliding things – and move them around. Now I doubt if he was actually trying to correct the balance for Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, but he'd seen that such things could be moved – he'd seen and understood what door handles were for – and he could do the same. On other occasions, he'd quite deliberately plop his paw down on the button on the telephone that would finish a call.

So never mind Bentham's dogs and horses: the same applies to cats – even kittens are way more developed intellectually than infants, so if we say that a new-born baby has human rights, it isn't on the basis of an ability to reason.

And then there's emotion: more than once it's been asked as to whether animals have emotions. I'm not sure that I've ever known such an absurd question. It could only ever be asked by someone who hasn't actually lived with a non-human animal.

A week or so ago I described how, when I was in my youth at home, our new family dog (who'd have been just over one at the time) went into a corner, ears back, as we were getting Christmas presents – only to go utterly potty when she got something at the end. Now I know anthropomorphism is a danger, but it's not rocket science to interpret that as emotional responses.

And right now Boudicca is going through a range of emotions over having the kittens in the house: fascination and downright irritation are but two that are blindingly obviously. We're having to make especially sure that she doesn't feel ignored.

Of course, it gets a bit complex – and cats make it even more so. If you say that cats have rights, on the basis of Bentham's analysis, then what about their food? Cats are obligate omnivores: they need meat. Humans – and dogs – are omnivores: they can get by healthily enough with no meat in their diet (although I always feel sorry for the vegetarian bloodhound in Shirley Valentine).

It would be one thing for me to say: 'oh, I think animals have rights – and I won't eat meat'. But it's downright wrong to try to make an obligate carnivore abide by such a moral position. But to accept nature and allow them to eat meat, also means that you accept at least the possibility of suffering by the animals that constitute their food.

Back in the 1980s, I was a vegetarian. There – that's an admission over and done with.

It started as a financial thing – I had little money – but I stuck with it after finding that I seemed to have more energy.

My vegetarianism lasted for close to a decade, but died a death one day in east London when, on the way to work one morning, the smell of a bacon butty being served in a deli bar was just too much.

It was still a long time before I learned to really love meat. But then, it was a long time before I really learned to love food in general. What has subsequently developed is an appreciation that the meat that is worth eating is the meat that has come from animals that have been treated in the best way possible; that have not been crammed into factory sheds or fed on the boiled down remains of other animals that they, as vegetarians, would never naturally consume.

Chicken is a perfect case in point. The battery farmed birds that you can buy for little more than pennies in supermarkets are pretty dreadful in terms of flavour. It's no wonder that cookery books and shows are full of dishes that make the use of loads of spices and sauces with such meat almost obligatory. They've little or no flavour otherwise. And dieting means that most people want breast meat rather than anything else – even though it has less flavour yet. If I'm buying only portions of a chicken, then I'll get the thighs – they're tastier and far cheaper, since they're so much less in demand.

Bacon is another case worth noting. The pigs that are reared in appallingly inhumane conditions in mass factories produce pretty dire meat. As an example, I could nip around the corner to a little shop and buy a pack of six slices of factory bacon for around £1.99. But when it hits the pan, white gunk will start to spew out (water that has been pumped into the flesh to make it seem better), it'll shrink to half its size and the rind will never crisp up. I'd rather pay double, less often, and get far more for my money. And the pig will have got a far better deal out of it too.

Of course it doesn't come cheap. Which is rather where the Mediterranean approach of eating meat – but not every day – comes in.

So I think it's still perfectly possible to believe in a concept such as animal rights – and be a meat eater. The key is how we treat our food animals (and the animals we use for leather etc). And after all, most of them wouldn't even exist at all were it not for our food needs.

And the better we look after them – the better life we give them – the better the steak on our plate at the end of that life.

And taste isn't the only issue: BSE – or 'mad cow disease' as it became popularly known – was the result of farmers feeding cattle (vegetarians) with the boiled down remains of other animals (although at a reduced temperature, to cut costs – which was the prime cause of the disease spreading in the first place). And it's no coincidence that swine flu broke out in humans right next to one of those whopping big pig factories.

So I'm going to quote Babylon 5 again to conclude: let's apply G'Kar's philosophy to this – let's make it a case of "enlightened self-interest".


  1. This is an especially interesting entry, Syb.

    And here I go, plugging Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" once again. I think I saw "Omnivore's Dilemma" at Costco the other day. Next time I'm in I believe I'll pick that one up too.