The Expert Series (8): Betraying Animals

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» The Expert Series (8): Betraying Animals

In our 8th edition of the Expert Series, RAC member Dr Steve Cooke discusses a different way to think about morality: Betraying Animals[1]

Usually, when the moral relationship between humans and nonhuman animals is debated the discussion is conducted in terms of harm or rights. For example, you might hear an argument that we ought to act in ways that produce happiness and minimise suffering and this means it’s wrong to make nonhuman animals suffer. Or, you might hear someone argue that because nonhuman animals have important interests, such as the interests in not suffering and in continued existence, then they ought to have rights that protect those interests. These are both very important ways of thinking about morality, but they aren’t the only way. Thinking about ethics solely in these terms can sometimes lead us astray.

Imagine your friend accidentally discovers an embarrassing secret about you and then you later find out that they’ve shared it with everyone in your office. You might rightly think they’ve done something wrong, but that wrongness isn’t solely describable in terms of the shame you feel or any special obligations they might have towards you. Imagine a similar case but this time the secret is told as an amusing anecdote to some strangers you’re never likely to meet. Your friend hasn’t harmed you and he hasn’t violated anything that might be called a right – no promise was made to keep the secret safe. Most of us are likely to still think your friend has acted badly. Sharing an embarrassing secret just isn’t the sort of thing a good person and a true friend would do.

I think that the wrongs done to nonhuman animals in certain farming and research practices are a bit like this. They can’t just be described in terms of the harm they do or the rights they violate. In fact, I think the kind of relationships humans foster with animals used in farms and research reveal social and individual character defects that we ought to feel ashamed of, and that would not be present in a truly good society. Specifically, I think humans are untrustworthy towards nonhuman animals, and that they often deliberately foster trust in order to make animals more vulnerable and to betray them. Indeed, many of the animals we use have been bred in order to increase their vulnerability towards us by making them more docile and dependent.

When the First Royal Commission on Vivisection published its report in 1876, it included remarks from one of the commissioners, Richard Hold Hutton, pleading exemptions for dogs and cats because of the special relationship humans have with those animals. Hutton wrote that, having fostered this special relationship:

 ..."there is something of the nature of treachery as well as of insensibility to their sufferings, in allowing them to be subjected to severe pain even in the interests of science... if suffering is to be inflicted at all, with whatever humane economy it is meted out, it is better both as regards the evil of enduring and the evil of inflicting it, that the humble friends of man, which have been taught to obey and trust him, should not be selected as the victims” (Report, pp. Xxii-xxiii).[2]

Hutton felt that animals farmed for food ought not be exempted from vivisection because such relationship is present. Although he was right about dogs and cats, I think Hutton was mistaken in his views about other animals.

A few years ago, a former pig farmer described his journey to veganism in an online farming magazine. He wrote:

‘In a way, livestock farmers lie to their animals. We’re kind to them and take good care of them for months, even years. They grow comfortable with our presence, and even begin to like us. But in the end, we take advantage of the animals, using their trust to dupe them into being led to their own deaths.’[3]

Various techniques are used in animal husbandry, including gentle touching and familiarisation, to make handling easier and there is growing interest in these approaches amongst researchers and farmers. These methods create an emotional connection between animal and stockpersons or technicians, one that I believe is aptly described as a relationship of trust.

Forming a trusting relationship is often recommended in the animal science and agriculture literature as a way of reducing stress in animals. At first glance this appears admirable, but stress reduction is often seen in the same literature as a means to increase yields, make handling safer, improve ease of slaughter, reduce toughness of meat, and even to save money on keeping knives sharp.[4] There is something deeply unsettling about the idea of fostering trust in order to achieve these sorts of ends. When we think about the sorts of people who foster trust in order to exploit it, they are generally regarded as possessed of bad character: con-artists, shysters, scammers, imposters, and so forth. My contention is that if we were to describe an ideally good society, it would not be one where practices of serious betrayal and exploitation are a built into much of the fabric of the everyday lives of citizens. Yet, if we consider the lives of nonhuman animals in our care then this is exactly how our society can be characterised. 

Consider the difference between someone who grudgingly gives to charity because they wish to give the impression of being benevolent to their companions and someone who gives to charity because they are disposed toward kindness. A good person does not only do the right thing, they do the right thing for the right reasons. So, whilst it is undeniably right to fight for the increased welfare of animals in our care, if we do so in order to make harming them easier then we are not doing it for the right reasons. There’s a passage in Plato’s Republic where Socrates is discussing the nature of justice with Thrasymachus.  Thrasymachus, who thinks justice is simply the rule of the strong over the weak, compares political rulers with shepherds. Socrates, he says, is mistaken to ‘suppose that shepherds and herdsmen study the good of their flocks and herds and fatten and take care of them with some other object in mind than the good of their masters and themselves’.[5] In other words, those who govern only act in ways that improve the lot of the people in order to protect their own interests. Where humans are concerned, we don’t view justice in this way. We think Thrasymachus was wrong. Good politicians don’t act purely out of self-interest, they are motivated by a desire to do good for others. In response to the cruelty of industrialised farming practices there has been a push towards farming methods that involve greater human-animal interactions and the reduction of stress. Whilst suffering is thereby reduced it is often replaced by cruel betrayal. This, I contend, points to a hitherto largely ignored ethical flaw in the welfarist approaches to animal ethics: in improving welfare by fostering trust we at the same time do wrong by committing betrayal.


[1] This article is a summary of arguments I have published in an Open Access paper in The Journal of Ethics. That paper can be found here:



[4] See, for example,

[5] Republic 343a-b


The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

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