We're Different

Despite many similarities, we must put more emphasis on what sets humans and animals apart, says Markus Huppenbauer. The ethicist talks about our relationship with animals and the right to kill them.  

By Roger Nickl

Markus Huppenbauer, there’s more and more research showing that animals have many capabilities that we were previously unaware of. They have memories, feelings and rudimentary thinking skills. Does this mean we have to change the way we treat animals? 

Markus Huppenbauer: In Switzerland the way we treat animals has already changed quite a bit. Twenty years ago, animals were still considered to be objects and were also allowed to be treated as such. The new Animal Welfare Act of 2005 now states that vertebrates have dignity and requires anyone who handles them to ensure their welfare. So a lot has already happened in this area.

What do you understand by dignity and welfare?

Research indeed shows that the old distinction between rational humans and animals, which were more or less considered soulless objects, can no longer be maintained. The boundaries between humans and animals are blurred. Most animal ethicists in philosophy tend to emphasize the similarities between humans and certain animals, and then conclude that there is no reason for in principle treating these animals differently than humans. The well-known Australian ethicist Peter Singer believes that the needs of sentient animals are just as important as those of humans.

Which animals does this concern?

Singer in particular highlights animals that are self-aware and have an awareness of time – dolphins and other mammals, for example, but also certain bird species, such as magpies and jays. According to Singer, these animals shouldn’t be killed, because they have some characteristics in common with human beings.

Do you agree?

No, it’s my impression that we’ve recently gone a bit too far in playing up the similarities between humans and animals.  Most animal ethicists are also animal rights campaigners and call for radical measures when it comes to animal protection. Some, for example, press for animals’ right to life, which would on principle forbid us from killing sentient animals. In my opinion, however, we shouldn’t lose sight of the differences between humans and animals.

Why is that?

Because these differences exist. We as humans are the ones carrying out experiments with animals, and we’re also the ones asking ourselves whether or not we should be doing this. There are obviously substantial differences between humans and animals in terms of our ability to think and reflect on our actions.

Our ability to differentiate our thinking is precisely why we have a moral responsibility towards animals – or isn’t it?

We’re moral beings, yes, and this compels us to ask what we should and shouldn’t do. Nevertheless, I still reject the argument that whatever applies to humans also applies to certain animals in the same measure. I’m concerned with the question of what the consequences are if we completely level out the differences between humans and animals, thereby increasingly expanding the community of morally relevant beings. Isn’t that a bit excessive? Are we not losing sight of what it means to be human? Does this have consequences for how we treat other people?

Let’s talk about a specific example: Pigs are considered sentient, social and intelligent creatures. And yet, we kill them for their meat. Should we be doing this?

The way I see it is that we’re allowed to do this if the animals are kept in proper conditions and don’t suffer. Our duty to treat animals well and the question of whether we’re allowed to kill them shouldn’t be confounded. There is still room for improvement when it comes to animal-friendly husbandry – in Switzerland as well as elsewhere in Europe. For livestock farming in Switzerland, we should choose to go beyond the requirements of animal welfare legislation. This makes meat more expensive, but eating less meat also makes sense in environmental terms.

Knowing that animals are sentient and have feelings, why then should we still be allowed to kill animals?

The key ethical question is whether animals such as pigs have a right to life. This is highly controversial. Peter Singer would say yes, they do, because they have awareness of time and of themselves. I would say no, they don’t have such a right, because this can’t be justified by the fact that a living creature has certain biological traits.

By what then?

To me, the concept of a right to life only makes sense in the context of a specific moral community. The underlying norm is that we will not kill anyone belonging to this community. The crucial question, of course, is who belongs to this group and who doesn’t. For me, this group is primarily made up of people, since humans are the ones we share our stories, fears, hopes and plans for the future with.  It’s humans with whom we can have complex relationships and cooperate. Being human means considering all of this as relevant to living and morally protecting it together. All this isn’t possible with animals.

That sounds like a very self-important view.

It isn’t, it’s a view that is based on significant differences. But I wouldn’t draw quite such a strict line as in the tradition of philosophy. There may well be certain animal species that we could include in the moral community –   great apes, for example. And of course, it’s clear that there are many people who maintain very complex relationships with specific animals. It goes without saying that here the question of killing doesn’t even enter into the equation.

Many people have pets as companions.

Exactly, this fits in well with my idea of community. The question is whether, based on these individual relationships with specific animals, we can establish that certain animal species (?) should not be killed in general. For the reasons mentioned above, I doubt it.

Animal testing in science is another controversial topic. Is it justifiable?

I’ve never met anyone who seriously claims that animal testing isn’t problematic. There have to be good reasons to justify it.

What do you consider to be good reasons?

In Switzerland, testing on animals must be approved by a cantonal animal testing committee. In other words, this committee has to be convinced of the benefits of an experiment. The main issue here is the question of how immediate the benefits of such tests have to be.

Sometimes the immediate benefit cannot be foreseen, for example in basic research. Is animal testing nevertheless justified in such cases?

This is indeed a problem of basic research, and one that universities are well aware of. Higher education institutions in Switzerland are committed to the principles of the 3Rs. These state that experiments must be designed in a way that minimizes the number of animals used as well as their suffering. Ethically speaking, this is a form of utilitarianism,  according to which any moral considerations must take into account the consequences and weigh up the costs and benefits. That’s exactly what the testing committees do. Radical animal rights campaigners believe that this utilitarian model is morally wrong as a matter of principle. If you take this view, there’s nothing to discuss and all tests on animals are wrong.

So the two discourses are ultimately irreconcilable?

Yes, they’re ultimately irreconcilable. But there is room for middle ground: The Swiss Animal Protection organization, for example, calls for a ban on animal tests that are very severe. All other testing is accepted, precisely because we don’t live in an ideal world. But again,  we must have very good reasons for performing these tests.   In my opinion, the arguments for banning all animal testing are ultimately not as strong as those for allowing it in justified cases – and this goes for basic research, too.

Markus Huppenbauer

The professor of ethics is the managing director of the Center for Religion, Economics and Politics at the Faculty of Theology at UZH. He has 20 years’ experience of researching and teaching topics of environmental and animal ethics at UZH. His current research focus is on questions of economic and business ethics.