The Way Ahead

There has been steady progress, at least in the West, towards extending basic rights to the weaker members of society. Until this century, children were treated with little or no respect, and little emotion was invested in their welfare. A Victorian child was told to "keep quiet unless spoken to", and to give unquestioning obedience to adults. In this climate, physical abuse of children was actively encouraged, while even sexual abuse was largely ignored.

In the last century, it was common for people to visit mental homes to laugh at the inmates, who were chained up "for safety". Until a few decades ago, it was assumed that American blacks were second-class citizens, and women were expected to work as housewives.

The history of changing all of these attitudes is that the needs and feelings of the weaker members of society were not considered important. Victorian parents did not stop to consider whether their children might have preferred to have been treated with respect: the idea would have seemed ludicrous. In the same way, the needs of animals have been, until recently, completely ignored. A Korean person who beats a dog to death in order to make the meat taste better appears to be incapable of taking the animal’s feelings into account: either he is unaware that the animal has feelings, or he is completely indifferent to them. Most probably, he has never even stopped to consider the issue.

Are Korean people particularly cruel? Possibly. However, since there is no evidence that they are equally cruel to their own species, its seems reasonable to assume that their cruelty is caused by a lack of understanding. In the same way, a person in a western society who eats an animal which has been raised in the brutal conditions of a factory farm is not deliberately cruel. He may be ignorant of the cruelty which he is supporting; or maybe, he knows, but does not care.

The premise of the Animal Consciousness Foundation is that most humans are not inherently cruel. The evidence for this is that, except under conditions of war, most people do not deliberately hurt others, nor do they take advantage of their strength, for example, to attack weaker members of society. It follows that, if they understood the cruelty that they are a part of, there is a chance that they might stop.

While it is probably true that most humans are not cruel, it is probably also true that most humans are incapable of thinking for themselves. The Vietnamese person who suffocates a dog to improve the taste, or the Americans who murdered Vietnamese peasants because their government told them to are both essentially acting like automata. They do what they are told, and don’t question it. Probably the single biggest barrier to changing people’s attitudes towards animals is the fact that they don’t think about what they do.

Nevertheless, it is not impossible to change people’s behaviour. The attitudes that middle-class American whites have towards blacks is now almost the exact opposite of the attitude that their parents had. Universities that, a generation ago, were actively biased against blacks are now actively biased against whites. Women who, a generation ago, would have thought it absurd to take their career more seriously than their marriage, now think the exact opposite. Concern for the environment, which, a generation ago, was considered almost lunatic, is now the norm.

Two things are clear from this. The first is that dramatic change in people’s attitudes is possible, and can happen over a surprisingly short period of time. The second conclusion is that the tide of change of attitudes in other areas is moving in a direction which makes animal welfare the next obvious step on the agenda.