Over the past few weeks the meat scandal has received worldwide attention. Horsemeat appears to be used in many more meat products than was presumed. Animal-loving children riding on horseback grew up with the intention of never eating horsemeat in their lives. Now as adults, they are disgusted by the idea of eating horsemeat and therefore they are upset when they discover that some labels on meat products do not indicate that the products contain horsemeat. The meat scandal perfectly illustrates the irrational distinctions we make between species and how it influences the way we treat those different kinds of animals. In this regard we should not be primarily focused on the labels on meat products, but on the ethical matter of making distinctions between species in the first place. To start with the distinction between humans and non-human animals.
An unpleasant equalization
Some readers might already have stopped reading because of the previous sentence. Most people do not like being equated to ‘animals’. Humans prefer to think of themselves as morally superior to other living creatures in the world. But as a matter of fact, Darwin already showed us a long time ago that we, humans, are just another species, like horses or cows. It might seem unnecessary to repeat Darwin’s findings here, but it is essential because the current treatment of non-human animals is not in accordance with the logical implications of Darwin’s findings. Non-human animals are tortured and stuffed with food throughout their lives, and then eventually slaughtered for consumption. Laboratory animals are intentionally exposed to severe pain, just to make sure that the latest cleaning solution will not irritate our human hands. Thus, humans treat non-human animals like objects on a great scale. On what do we base this barbaric treatment, the like of which we would never consider inflicting on human beings?
An argument often heard is that humans are allowed to use other animals to their ends because humans possess some capabilities that other animals do not have. For example, the capability of speech or reason. This difference in capabilities justifies the way in which we treat animals nowadays – as some people argue. This way of reasoning is highly dangerous. To distinguish Creature X from Creature Y based on these characteristics in order to determine what kind of treatment they ‘deserve’, may also justify mistreatment of creatures who, for example, lack the characteristic of having a white skin colour or blue eyes. In addition, as Peter Singer pointed out, the distinction based on speech or reason is not in accordance with common practice. After all, creatures who lack these capabilities, like babies and comatose patients, are not excluded from human treatment.
The ‘Ability to Suffer’ criterion
Thus one must think of another reason why it is morally justified to kick a stone down the road, but not to kick a human being. The best justification for the distinction I can think of was introduced by Jeremy Bentham: ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ Suffering should be the only criterion on which we can base a distinction between things that need to be treated with care and things that can be freely used to ones end. It should be clear that, as horses and cows both can suffer, they both need protection against barbaric treatment. We should not be bothered that our lasagne or Ikea-meatballs contain horsemeat instead of cow- or pig meat. We should be bothered about mistreating and eating things on this planet that are capable of suffering as such.