The exploitation of animals: bad for us, bad for the environment, and bad for animals

On October 14, the Dhaka Tribune published an open letter, in which my co-authors and I, along with dozens of signatories, urge Muslims in Bangladesh to reconsider the practice of animal sacrifice on Eid al-Adha [1]. Six days later, the same newspaper published a response to our open letter by Muhammad Shafiullah (subsequently referred to as “the author”) who is pursuing his Ph.D. in Economics at Griffith University in Australia [2]. As both publications received a lot of attention in Bangladesh, particularly on social media, and raise fundamentally important questions about the relationship between humans and other animals, I decided to write this rebuttal. What follows are my personal thoughts which do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of those who signed or co-authored the original open letter.

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The author argues that modern animal agriculture is overall beneficial to both humans and other animals. His argument is based on the evolutionary theory of self-domestication:

Histories of domestication suggest that, prior to active domestication by humans, symbiotic relationships between humans and other animals developed. Arguably, the ancestors of today’s dogs and cats were attracted to human settlements by the protection offered from some of their predators, and by feeding opportunities. Adapting to living with humans was beneficial for survival. Wild cats, for example, became less aggressive and tamer, which enabled them to live in closer proximity to humans, and hence closer to grain stores where rodents were easy prey. At a later stage of domestication, humans started to actively manipulate the breeding of animals to select for characteristics useful to humans.

The author seems to believe that human use of opportunistic animals cannot be exploitative because those animals, or their ancestors, “sought” domestication. That seems clearly false. Just because living with humans gave some animals an evolutionary advantage does not mean that we have a licence to do to them whatever we want, just as the fact that some desperate humans would sell themselves into slavery does not morally legitimize slavery [3]. Descriptive statements by themselves cannot make a moral argument. What kinds of interactions between humans and other animals are fair and right is still an important moral question. For example, almost everybody shares the intuition that setting cats on fire for fun is immoral, and I doubt that anybody would reject that intuition merely because he or she is being told that part of the domestication of cats can be explained by self-domestication. Similarly, even if it is true that all domesticated animals went through a period of self-domestication, that does not change the fact that the active domestication of non-human animals by humans involved injustices, and that domesticated animals today suffer unjustly from human oppression. We breed animals in ways that compromise their health, we confine them in miserable conditions and thereby violate basic freedoms, and we kill them [4]. The suffering and death that typically comes with being a farm animal is no more plausibly described as good for the animal than the same treatment would be described as good for any of us. It is true that farmers provide food, shelter and protection from predators to their animals, but the author owes us an explanation why he thinks that these benefits morally justify the exploitation and intentional killing of these animals. By the same principle, one could argue that it is okay to exploit and kill humans as long as one confers sufficient benefits to them while they are still alive. It does not help any individual farm animal that, “thanks” to animal agriculture, their species is not endangered. The fact that “livestock animals are among the most numerous of vertebrate species” is simply irrelevant to the question whether our treatment of individual farm animals is morally justifiable. Animal agriculture is “beneficial” to animals in the very limited sense that animal agriculture ensures their survival as a species (and I personally don’t see any significant intrinsic value in that). But animal agriculture is hell for – rather than “good for” – individual animals, and that’s what is at issue here.

As a side note, animal agriculture is also overall harmful to humans and the environment. If everybody adopted a vegan diet, we, other animals and the environment would probably be much better off:

  • Animal agriculture generates more greenhouse gas emissions than does the use of gasoline in cars, trucks, and other vehicles used for transport.
  • Livestock use 30% of the earth’s entire land surface, including 33% of the global arable land used for producing feed for livestock.
  • Animal agriculture is a major threat to the world’s increasingly scarce water resources. Large quantities of water are needed to produce feed for livestock, widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles and animal agriculture is a serious source of water pollution.
  • Animals consume more protein than they produce. For every kilogram of animal protein produced, animals consume an average of almost six kilograms of plant protein from grains and forage.
  • Because animals consume much more protein than they produce, grains that should be consumed by humans are consumed by animals instead. Thus, along with other factors, animal agriculture condemns many human beings to starvation [5].
  • A well-balanced vegan diet is healthy and often said to decrease the chances of suffering from diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers [6].

The food animal industry is a moral catastrophe because it is both bad for humans and other animals, and an environmental disaster. In contrast, going vegan is likely the single most effective step you can take toward protecting the planet. A vegan diet requires only a fraction of the land and water needed to produce a typical non-vegan diet, and a vegan diet produces only a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a typical non-vegan diet.

However, the most important reason to be vegan is a moral one. I believe that it is morally wrong for humans to kill other animals for their meat (with the possible exception of rare survival situations). The animals we eat or use otherwise – much like us – have lives that matter to them. They have a unique psychological presence in the world and they are capable of experiencing pain and pleasure. They have beliefs and desires, and some of them are self-aware and can use certain forms of language [7]. Non-human animals hence deserve our respect, and we must take their interests into consideration when we act. For most of us, it is unnecessary to use animals. We can have good lives without killing and torturing other animals, so why do it? None of us would want to be kept in filthy conditions and endure serious health problems that come with these conditions just to be killed at a young age, so we should not impose that kind of life on other sentient beings either. In a sense, it is as simple as that [8]. Also, every Bengali who loves vegetable curries, daal, and bhortas knows that vegan food is delicious!

Some will object that human beings needed animal protein to survive and increase the size of their brains. But now that we are technologically advanced and claim moral superiority over our ancestors, those proteins can easily be obtained from a vegan diet. Others will object that eating meat is natural. But what is natural is not necessarily morally permissible (e.g., numerous kinds of violence), just as what is unnatural is not necessarily immoral (e.g., using cell phones). Also, I think the reader will agree that modern agriculture has little to do with nature.

I am going off on a tangent, so back to the author’s argument. The author rightly points out that Allah did not order the Prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael.

“And when he reached with him [the age of] exertion, he said, ‘O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I [must] sacrifice you, so see what you think.’ He said, ‘O my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.’

And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead,

We called to him, ‘O Abraham,’

‘You have fulfilled the vision.’ Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good.

Indeed, this was the clear trial.

And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice” [9].

In our open letter, my co-authors and I wrote that “the Prophet Abraham (pbuh) had a recurring dream in which Allah commanded him to sacrifice his son Ishmael (pbuh).” The wording of this sentence is misleading. It sounds like we are saying that Allah, through a dream, commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. That would make little sense, as Allah presumably would never ask anybody to perform an immoral act such as killing an innocent human being. The Qur’an teaches us that Allah never advocates evil [10]. What we meant to say is that Abraham and Ishmael interpreted Abraham’s dream of Abraham sacrificing Ishmael as a dream that came from Allah and communicated a divine order.

As for an alternative interpretation of the other Qur’anic verses the author mentions, I would like to refer the author to Shahid ‘Ali Muttaqi’s brilliant essay, The Sacrifice of Eid al-Adha [11], which I hope will make clear that Islam is not as univocal on the question of animal sacrifice as many would have it. In fact, there are a number of Islamic scholars who argue that animal sacrifice is not mandatory in Islam and should be replaced by a less violent practice. Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri reports in his book, Animals in Islam, that the well-known Sheikh Farid Wagdi wrote that “there might come a day when Muslims shall have to substitute the rite of animal sacrifice with other methods of giving alms” [12]. Many Muslims all over the world have already stopped the practice of sacrificing animals during Eid al-Adha and replaced it with a ritual of compassion and mercy [13].

I mentioned above that the Qur’an teaches that Allah would never ask anybody to perform an immoral act. The Qur’an further clearly says that Allah is “the Benevolent, the Merciful”. I think there is a tension between the attributes of Allah and the belief that Islam requires the sacrifice of animals. If Allah is all-merciful and benevolent, why would he ask believers to kill sentient animals? Whatever the supposed purpose may be, that purpose could surely be achieved through non-violent means.

I would like to end my response by saying a few words about the last paragraph of the author’s article. The charge of “Islamophobia” levelled in that paragraph is absurd and offensive, especially given the fact that, while the open letter was published under my name, it really is a joint statement by more than eighty people, most of whom are both Bangladeshi and Muslim [14]. It is not too much to ask that people refrain from using pejorative labels to describe others, and charitably assume good intentions, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. I do not know how our open letter could have been written more respectfully, and I hence think the author’s name-calling was impolite, unwarranted and unnecessary. The topic at hand raises important questions about how we ought to treat animals, and it has to be possible to discuss these questions openly and respectfully. Muslims should welcome that discussion, just as anybody else for that matter. After all, it is uncontroversial that Islam encourages critical thinking and implores believers to seek knowledge.

References

[1] Rainer Ebert, “Compassionate Eid: An open letter,” Dhaka Tribune (October 14, 2013), available online at http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2013/oct/14/compassionate-eid-open-letter.

[2] Muhammad Shafiullah, “A response to Rainer Ebert,” Dhaka Tribune (October 20, 2013), available online at http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2013/oct/20/response-rainer-ebert.

[3] Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka make a similar point in their book, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 88.

[4] For a vivid and informative description of the horrors of modern animal agriculture, see Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: New York Review/Random House, 1975).

[5] This and the previous bullet points are taken from Gary L. Francione & Anna E. Charlton, Animal Rights (2008), an educational brochure available online at http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/media/pdf/ARAA_Pamphlet_A4.pdf. Most or all data comes from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (cf. http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000448/).

[6] It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), the United States’ largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, “that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” (Winston J. Craig & Ann Reed Mangels, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109 (2009), pp. 1266-1282; available online at http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/2009_ADA_position_paper.pdf)

[7] David DeGrazia, Taking animals seriously (Cambridge/New York/Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996) contains a fascinating review of the relevant scientific literature and careful arguments for attributing the capabilities and mental states I mentioned to non-human animals.

[8] Of course, it is not really that simple. If the reader wants to learn more about modern animal ethics, I highly recommend the following websites and books: “Animal ethics,” BBC Ethics Guide, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/animals/; G. Francione, Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996); L. Gruen, “The Moral Status of Animals,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-animal/; T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); T. Regan, Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); P. Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009); P. Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); S. D. Wilson, “Animals and Ethics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/anim-eth/.

[9] The Noble Qur’an, 37:102-107.

[10] The Noble Qur’an, 7:28 & 16:90.

[11] Shahid ‘Ali Muttaqi, The Sacrifice of Eid al-Adha: An Islamic perspective against animal sacrifice, available online at http://www.islamicconcern.com/sacrifice01.asp.

[12] Al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad Masri, Animals in Islam, available online at http://www.call-to-monotheism.com/animals_in_islam__by_al_hafiz_b_a__masri.

[13] Some Muslims who abandoned the practice of animal sacrifice explain their reasons for doing so at http://thecompassionatemuslim.com/.

[14] For the list of signatories, go to http://tinyurl.com/eid-signatures/.

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