Animal Rights (1) – October 2000

Question: “It seems to me that Process Ethics would affirm the Buddhist Precept about ‘Not Harming’ unless absolutely necessary. On the subject of ‘Harming Animals’, does this mean God wants all Compound Individuals (and other entities capable of ‘high-grade’ prehensions) to become vegetarians?”

Publication Month: October 2000

This question is for October and November 2000.

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Buddhism teaches compassion toward all sentient beings. This constant refrain about sentient beings rather than just human beings certainly has practical and religious consequences. This is largely in continuity with Hindu teaching and has its greatest impact in South Asian cultures related to the Indian one. It has had less effect in China, Korea, and Japan, where Buddhism often seems hardly less anthropocentric than Christianity.

Process ethics, when not too distorted by its context in the anthropocentric West, definitely shares the view that we should have concern for the suffering of all sentient beings. Many of those most influenced by process thought, like many Buddhists, reflect this concern by being vegetarian. Others distinguish between killing for food and causing unnecessary suffering. Process thought is more clearly against the latter than the former. But since so much suffering is inflicted today in the “meat industry,” vegetarianism remains for these, also, a form of protest and refusal that should be supported. 

The lack of unqualified support for not killing is related to the question. Does God want carnivores to cease killing herbivores? The answer, I think, is that if the actual course of events reflects in any ways God’s purposes, this is not the case. God seeks “intensity” in the world rather than anaesthesia. Anaesthesia would be the total lack of suffering. Strictly speaking, the goal of ending suffering for all sentient creatures would mean the end of sentient creatures. But God seems to have lured creation in a direction in which both suffering and enjoyment have been heightened. Clearly, the God who shares the feelings of all sentient beings wants enjoyment to outweigh suffering, and probably in the wild this characterizes the lives of most sentient beings, even though these lives may be cut off at an early point.

If we examine how higher intensities of experience have come to be, we see that the predator-prey relation has played a major role. It leads to greater intelligence on the part of both, along with greater sensitivity. Herbivores whose development is not checked by carnivores seem to deteriorate as a species. Human hunting tends in the same direction, since humans seeks the prime members of a species to kill whereas carnivores go after the weak, the sick, and the old.

What does this mean for human action? I have indicated that I, at least, do not draw the lesson that all killing of animals is wrong. When the number of cats or dogs exceeds the number that can be cared for by humans, the Humane Society does us a service by killing them with as little suffering as possible. Of course, it rightly urges that we reduce their birth rate rather than bring them to life only to kill them.  If farmers raise chickens and cows and hogs, and if they are treated well so that they can enjoy their lives, killing them for food seems to me in line with the general order of things and not to be forbidden. A mixed farming of vegetables and animals enables a farmer to maintain the ecology of the farm better than a monoculture of grain. When the Heifer Project introduces rabbits or goats into impoverished communities in the Third World, knowing that in due course they will be killed for food, the gain seems to me to greatly outweigh the losses. Once we have killed off all the predators of deer, hunters must take over the task of keeping their numbers down, or they will suffer more keenly from starvation than from a bullet.

But when we return to the present reality, process ethics has as its primary role to protest the enormous suffering inflicted on domestic animals. We do not have a healthy farm ecology composed of livestock and plants. We have factory farming with monocultures of plants on the one hand and animals on the other and destructive consequences to the land as well as to the animals involved. From the perspective of process thought this is a profound distortion of the desirable human relation to other species and their individual members.