Ethics in the Context of Cruelty to Animals

Last week I wrote a post condemning the cruel sport Jallikattu involving bulls. The post was incomplete in some respects. For one thing, I did not elaborate my stand on cruelty to animals. I thought I will do that here.

Before I do that, I should point out that I’m a little surprised to see unequivocal support for Jallikattu coming from several religious leaders on grounds of culture. My surprise arises from the fact that Hinduism strongly advocates the principle of Ahimsa or nonviolence. Our scriptures declare – Ahimsa paramo dharmah, meaning, nonviolence is the highest virtue or value. Here’s how it is considered as the highest form of dharma? Ahimsa prohibits violence in all forms – thought, word and deed. And all other values – love, compassion, sympathy, empathy – are derived from this all-encompassing value.

One has to go back to our history to understand how this value got distorted over time. Hindus always talked about preferential treatment to be given to cows. That is, within the animal species, we select cows as being holier than any other animal. The question is why don’t we extend this protection to all life forms. Failure to do so has led to practices like Jallikattu, bullock cart races or cock-fights (famous in Andhra Pradesh) with religious sanction.

In a way human beings have all along been taking  similar morally indefensible positions in different degrees at different periods of history.Racists are convinced that the race they belong to is far superior to those of others and hence they deserve a better deal. If this defines a racist, do you know who is a speciesist? A speciesist is one who thinks that members of human species or Homo sapiens  deserve better treatment over other species like animals.

When a white man says life is precious or sacred, he means it’s the life of the white man that is sacred. Likewise speciesist are conditioned to believe the life of a human is more sacred than that of an animal. With a similar logic, a hard-core Hindu would believe that among animals, the life of a cow is more holy.

While Hindu scriptures discussed dharma at length, the philosophers of the West tried to systematise their thoughts on ethical values only in the last few centuries. Peter Singer, a contemporary philosopher who is regarded as the philosophers’ philosopher, in his famous book titled Practical Ethics, captures the essential principles of ethics spelt out by philosophers of the previous centuries like Emanuel Kant, Stuart Mill, John Rawls, David Hume etc and adds his own definition of an ethical action. He proposes that an action should be judged ethical based on the criterion of what he calls equal consideration of interests. Let us try to understand and apply this principle of ethics to, say, Jallikattu or any other similar animal sport. The interest here is the experience of pain by the bulls. The principle of equal consideration implores us to consider a bull’s pain on par with that of a human. It could be a bull in Jallikattu or a cock in a cock-fight. The same considerations should hold regardless of which species it belongs to. Normally, most of us don’t take into consideration the effect of our actions on animals which also have well-developed central nervous system to respond to pain or pleasure, although they do not have the language to express the same.

So, clearly, ethical principles are well laid out whether one relies on our scriptures or studies the philosophers from the West. It’s only our lack of sensitivity that makes us ignore and indulge in actions to suit our whims and fancies.

Published in: on January 29, 2017 at 10:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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