How do we treat animals? This question is not a fad, but instead is a key part of a social debate. At the same time, it is interlinked with another issue: What does our relationship with animals say about ourselves? The animal question is also a human question. On the one hand, it is related to our development model. Animal abuse reflects an economic system that is socially and ecologically counterproductive. The system reduces animal husbandry to an industry: we treat animals as meat on legs. Yet this system is not only harmful to animals, but also to ourselves. We see this when we look at the working conditions of farmers and slaughterhouse employees, for example. Mass production of meat at the lowest possible cost ignores its negative impacts, plays down the relevance of farmers' work and forces slaughterhouse employees to work at an absurd pace.
Industrial production also has high environmental and health costs. Pig farms pollute the environment and the massive use of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance, even among humans. Another cost comes in the form of the coronavirus and other animal-to-human transmitted diseases that we cause by taking wildlife out of their natural habitat and getting too close to them. Then there is the deforestation of the rainforest in South America. The cleared areas are used to grow soy to be fed to European and American livestock. And then there are the animals that we transport thousands of kilometres to be slaughtered without stunning them first. This system only benefits a minority of people, but is terrible for our planet, our health and for the farmers and workers.
“Cruelty to animals is a war on animals - and a war on ourselves. It is an amputation of our self because we stifle any sense of compassion.”
Beyond that, there is the problem of dehumanisation: the violence we inflict on animals is so egregious that we humans don't want to acknowledge it. We use psychological defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from negative emotions. But this comes at a moral cost: by denying and repressing, we remain indifferent to the suffering of other living beings. Our moral compass is dulled. Cruelty to animals is a war on animals - and a war on ourselves. It is an amputation of our self because we stifle any sense of compassion. Compassion does not mean justice, but it is the condition of justice: it is identifying with every sentient being that needlessly suffers, Rousseau said. Without compassion, justice is often just an abstract concept that does not encourage us to change our own way of being and acting.
Animals share with us the ability to live their lives in the first person, to feel pain and suffering, and to have curiosity and preferences. But they are also very different from us. They are other existences, according to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Their behaviour is not mechanical, but has meaning. They are competent, that is, they are capable of caring for their children, and they know exactly what is good for them. Every animal is a subject: it has an ego structure and shapes the world. It sees the world in its own way, even if it is not capable of reflecting or discussing notions of good.
“It is high time to build an ethical approach that takes into account the interdependence of us humans, nature and other living beings.”
Our relationship with animals is a school in otherness. To subjugate beings who are different from us and to consider them as a means to an ends opens up a cursed cycle, as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said. This humanism subordinates the value of a living being to homogeneous and elitist criteria and recognises only a limited number of beings. Such humanism is wrong and is also responsible for discrimination and racism. Only when we accept both the similarities and the differences between humans and animals can we live a humanism of otherness and diversity. Only then can we also accept the special responsibility that goes with the asymmetry between us and animals. Only when we accept our vulnerability and our fragility—something we share with all sentient beings—can we succeed in overcoming this hierarchy. In this way, we can also acknowledge the interconnectedness of all human beings instead of despising other cultures. In other words, the animal question reveals who we are and therefore it requires a new humanism.
Our relationship with animals raises not only moral problems relating to our cruelty, but also issues of justice. Justice means limiting one's own freedom in order to respect the right to exist of others, human and non-human, present and future beings. Ethics and justice are necessary as soon as I consume the earth's resources. Ethics is not just a normative discipline. My existence has an ethical meaning. What I consume shows whether I make room for other beings or whether I believe that my rights are unlimited. Until now, we humans have acted as if we were alone in the world, as if the earth belonged solely to us. It is high time to build an ethical approach that takes into account the interdependence of us humans, nature and other living beings.
“An animal's existence also poses a question to me and the way I respond to it helps constitute my identity. Thus, our relationship with animals is a reflection of ourselves.”
The way I behave towards animals reflects who I really am. Like the philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, I say: others tell me who I am. An animal's existence also poses a question to me and the way I respond to it helps constitute my identity. Thus, our relationship with animals is a reflection of ourselves. This gives the animal question a deep and civilising significance.
Animal ethics, founded in the 1970s by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, elevates sentience to the rank of ethical and legal criteria. It denounces practices that do not respect this sentience. This ethic has two crucial shortcomings: first, it places too little emphasis on emotion, which, together with economic interests, are the drivers of change. It turns exclusively to reason, to argumentation. Secondly, it does not show how it is concretely possible to build a society in which the rules of coexistence between humans and animals do not only benefit humans. I would like to remedy these two shortcomings - through the politicisation of the animal question and also through the concept of self-transformation.
The political struggle around the animal question has a number of levels. On the normative level, we need a new social contract, because the state must not only guarantee security and social justice. Instead, its duties should also include the protection of nature and animals. We also need institutional innovations that ensure that all legislative proposals includean ecological and animal welfare component.
“We must abolish the emblematic dualisms of the West: this has cut civilisation off from nature and radically separated humanity from animality.”
At the level of the economy, transition, retraining and innovation are key words in my strategy. If we want to put an end to animal testing, new approaches in this area must be encouraged. Innovations in fashion and cosmetics can encourage people to reduce their consumption of animal products. At the same time, this contributes to economic progress. And as far as nutrition is concerned, we should make vegan food more accessible: through new ideas for cooking, offering vegan menus in canteens, hospitals and restaurants. At the level of education, we need to acquire moral convictions that allow us to integrate the well-being of other living beings into our personal well-being. We must abolish the emblematic dualisms of the West: this has cut civilisation off from nature and radically separated humanity from animality. This humanism based on domination turns everything into war and could lead to the undoing of our civilisation.
Concrete changes in our relationship with animals do not only result from rules or prohibitions, but rather from a profound change in who we are: self-transformation. No longer dominating animals, no longer locking them up in cages, are consequences that will follow changes in how we think and behave. This makes the ethics of virtues so interesting: it emphasises what prompts us to act and also shows the connection between our values, our desires and our behaviour. This approach to morality dates back to Aristotle. He showed that there is no separation between duty and happiness, rather that a person with a developed sense of justice takes pleasure from doing what is right.
“By experiencing through my own body that I am part of a world that is bigger and older than me, I feel connected to other living beings who are equally vulnerable.”
However, this is not enough to make a human consider another living being’s fulfilment as a component of his or her own fulfilment. The ethics of virtues I have developed therefore goes even further. It assumes that the key to a healthy relationship with nature and animals can be found in the relationship with oneself. The first condition of virtues is humility: after all, no one is virtuous all the time. Through humility we remember our carnal state, our own fragility and fallibility. Secondly, it takes a process of realising that we are dependent on others and that our existence is made up of webs of relationships. By experiencing through my own body that I am part of a world that is bigger and older than me, I feel connected to other living beings who are equally vulnerable. This expansion of consciousness changes my relationship to myself and with others.
Respect for animals depends on this self transformation, which affects all layers of the psyche, intellectual, emotional, conscious and unconscious. The relationship with animals can teach us to reconnect to a part of ourselves that we have neglected during our techno-scientific civilisation. In this respect, our relationship with animals is both a test and a lesson of appreciation: it shows that we still feel the need for domination and that we are at war with ourselves.
“Changes in our relationship with animals require a moral and spiritual revolution that is slower to achieve for some people than others. We must give everyone the opportunity to transform.”
We need to be forgiving of each other during this transformation. Changes, such as ending bullfighting or hunting, are difficult for some people. This is because these activities are linked to identity, ideas of masculinity and other social constructions. I myself am vegan and would like to see an end to the exploitation of animals. But this is not something that we can do overnight. Changes in our relationship with animals require a moral and spiritual revolution that is slower to achieve for some people than others. We must give everyone the opportunity to transform and find their place in a more just world without animal cruelty. And we must not let polemics get out of hand: political inaction will ensue if our representatives view the issue as too divisive.
The animal issue is among the key themes of this “age of the living” that I am trying to accompany. The desire of more and more people to reform how they eat and live, the concern for nature and animals and the recognition of our vulnerability are all harbingers of this age. But identity politics, the rise of racism and nationalism, and the excessive use of technology are signs that there is a struggle between the age of the living and a decomplexed nihilism. We are at a crossroads. All our efforts to promote a sustainable and just model of development, to improve the living conditions of animals and to peacefully win over other people to these goals - all these individual and collective steps are proof that moral progress is possible despite all the obstacles and all the violence.
Translated by Jess Smee