16 December 2003

Jamie Mayerfeld on the Duty to Relieve Animal Suffering

The duty to relieve suffering is universal . . . in the sense that it applies to all significant suffering. That includes the suffering of people from cultures in which the duty to relieve suffering is unrecognized.

What of non-human animals? Like people, other animals have an interest in avoiding suffering. The duty to relieve suffering must apply with the same vigor to animal suffering as it does to human suffering, unless it is the case that the interest of animals in avoiding suffering carries less moral weight than the similar interest of humans in avoiding suffering, even where the intensity and duration of suffering are equivalent. This is a much disputed issue, which I cannot properly examine here. As I said in chapter 1, my own view is that the suffering of non-human animals carries no less moral weight than the suffering of humans, and that consequently the duty to relieve suffering applies with equal force to both.

A strong duty to relieve suffering that does not discriminate between species would require radical changes in the ways that we relate to other animals. It would, for example, require an end to the practice of factory farming, in which billions of animals are annually subjected to extreme suffering in order to supply humans with meat and other products at the lowest possible cost. It would also raise difficult questions about the practice of experimenting on animals to obtain medical benefits for humans. These cases, much discussed in the literature on animal ethics, involve suffering that is inflicted by human beings. But a species-blind duty to relieve suffering would also make it a prima facie requirement to save animals from suffering brought upon them by natural conditions and other animals. That seems right to me. (That the idea is unfamiliar to many people does not make it absurd.) There are, however, limits to what we can do. Efforts to teach animals less aggressive behavior or to protect them from a harsh environment would frequently fail, and when successful, would often require heavy-handed forms of intervention that would do more harm than good. The difficulty and expense of these efforts might also raise concerns about the limits of obligatory sacrifice. And there are moral opportunity costs: an equivalent expenditure of resources, directed elsewhere, might do much more to reduce the cumulative badness of suffering in the world. If we are serious about reducing animal suffering, we should start with the suffering that is inflicted by human beings.

(Jamie Mayerfeld, Suffering and Moral Responsibility [New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999], 116-7 [footnotes omitted])