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SPEAKING FOR THOSE WHO CAN’T SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

SPEAKING FOR THOSE WHO
CAN’T SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES

Some Thoughts on Cruelty

So much of the history of the humane movement has been colored by the notion of anti-cruelty that it may appear both impossible and disrespectful to suggest that we dispense with this notion—or, if not entirely dispense with it, at least be certain that it no longer plays a leading role. But that is exactly what I think we should do. For the notion of cruelty both muddles the fundamental moral issues and provides an easy way out for those who treat animals in ways we think are wrong. I want to explain, however briefly, why I think this.

When do we say that someone is cruel? A moment’s reflection reveals that this is not whenever someone causes pain. For example, my dentist causes me pain, but it does not follow that he is therefore cruel. But what if he causes me unnecessary pain? Even that won’t do. Suppose he is clumsy or negligent, and that is why he causes me unnecessary pain. Then he is a clumsy or negligent dentist, failings surely, but he is not therefore a cruel person. No, cruelty involves more than causing pain; more even than causing unnecessary pain. Fundamentally, it involves enjoying causing unnecessary pain. Cruelty, in other words, at least in its clearest sense, is a form of sadism.

Suppose this is true, as I think it is, then we can see why relying on the notion of cruelty muddles the central moral question. This it does because it takes attention away from what, say, the animal experimenter does and fixes it on what sort of person the experimenter is. If cruelty is the issue, we need to know whether the researcher enjoys causing pain (whether he is a sadist), not whether what he does causes unnecessary suffering. And yet, surely, what we want to know, what we want to establish, and what we want to object to is that he causes unnecessary pain, whether he enjoys this or not. If he enjoys this, then we ought to regard him as a sort of moral monster. But—and this is the crucial point—he may well cause unnecessary pain and not enjoy it, not be a moral monster, not be a sadist, and still be doing what is wrong. So, what if we want to object to his causing unnecessary pain, and given that he might be guilty of this and not enjoy the pain he causes, it beclouds the case we want to press to charge the experimenter with “cruelty.”

But not only does this muddle our case, it also is counterproductive because it gives the experimenter (or the factory farmer, etc.) an easy way out. If we say they are cruel, then all they have to do to escape our charge is introspect and see whether, in fact, they enjoy causing pain to animals. Maybe some do, but I hazard to guess that most do not. Most researchers, factory farmers, etc., are not sadists, in other words—despite the tendency of some in the humane movement to paint a picture that makes them seem so. But, now, if most are not sadists, and if we charge them with cruelty, their avenue of escape is clear: since they do not enjoy making animals suffer, they are not cruel and thus they are off the moral hook. And if we ask, “How did they escape?” The answer is: because we let them! Because we made it easy for them! Because we have been careless in barbing our hook!

What we must do, then, is not confuse cruelty with the very different notions of causing pain or even causing unnecessary pain. It is on unnecessary pain (and death, as well), I think, that we must focus our attention. And it is because relying on the charge of cruelty detracts from doing this, for the reasons given, that we must stop relying on it, either altogether or, at the very most, only occasionally. Our own language stands in the way of our goal.

Originally published in ‘Agenda: A Journal of Animal Liberation,’ Number 3, July 1980.

Some Thoughts on Cruelty

So much of the history of the humane movement has been colored by the notion of anti-cruelty that it may appear both impossible and disrespectful to suggest that we dispense with this notion—or, if not entirely dispense with it, at least be certain that it no longer plays a leading role. But that is exactly what I think we should do. For the notion of cruelty both muddles the fundamental moral issues and provides an easy way out for those who treat animals in ways we think are wrong. I want to explain, however briefly, why I think this.

When do we say that someone is cruel? A moment’s reflection reveals that this is not whenever someone causes pain. For example, my dentist causes me pain, but it does not follow that he is therefore cruel. But what if he causes me unnecessary pain? Even that won’t do. Suppose he is clumsy or negligent, and that is why he causes me unnecessary pain. Then he is a clumsy or negligent dentist, failings surely, but he is not therefore a cruel person. No, cruelty involves more than causing pain; more even than causing unnecessary pain. Fundamentally, it involves enjoying causing unnecessary pain. Cruelty, in other words, at least in its clearest sense, is a form of sadism.

Suppose this is true, as I think it is, then we can see why relying on the notion of cruelty muddles the central moral question. This it does because it takes attention away from what, say, the animal experimenter does and fixes it on what sort of person the experimenter is. If cruelty is the issue, we need to know whether the researcher enjoys causing pain (whether he is a sadist), not whether what he does causes unnecessary suffering. And yet, surely, what we want to know, what we want to establish, and what we want to object to is that he causes unnecessary pain, whether he enjoys this or not. If he enjoys this, then we ought to regard him as a sort of moral monster. But—and this is the crucial point—he may well cause unnecessary pain and not enjoy it, not be a moral monster, not be a sadist, and still be doing what is wrong. So, what if we want to object to his causing unnecessary pain, and given that he might be guilty of this and not enjoy the pain he causes, it beclouds the case we want to press to charge the experimenter with “cruelty.”

But not only does this muddle our case, it also is counterproductive because it gives the experimenter (or the factory farmer, etc.) an easy way out. If we say they are cruel, then all they have to do to escape our charge is introspect and see whether, in fact, they enjoy causing pain to animals. Maybe some do, but I hazard to guess that most do not. Most researchers, factory farmers, etc., are not sadists, in other words—despite the tendency of some in the humane movement to paint a picture that makes them seem so. But, now, if most are not sadists, and if we charge them with cruelty, their avenue of escape is clear: since they do not enjoy making animals suffer, they are not cruel and thus they are off the moral hook. And if we ask, “How did they escape?” The answer is: because we let them! Because we made it easy for them! Because we have been careless in barbing our hook!

What we must do, then, is not confuse cruelty with the very different notions of causing pain or even causing unnecessary pain. It is on unnecessary pain (and death, as well), I think, that we must focus our attention. And it is because relying on the charge of cruelty detracts from doing this, for the reasons given, that we must stop relying on it, either altogether or, at the very most, only occasionally. Our own language stands in the way of our goal.

Originally published in ‘Agenda: A Journal of Animal Liberation,’ Number 3, July 1980.