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In defense of animals

By Matthieu Ricard on January 14, 2015

When my latest book, ‟In Defense of Animals”, was published last fall in France, the complaint I most often heard during interviews and in TV and radio talk-shows was that my concern about the fate of animals was ‟offensive,” because so much suffering already afflicts human beings. To my critics, to be concerned for the welfare of animals was an insult to mankind. At first sight their indignation seemed to be grounded upon high virtues, but when it is actually examined, it turns out to be highly illogical.

Their argument is based on the idea that devoting some of our thoughts, words, or actions to reducing the unspeakable suffering deliberately inflicted on animals is indecent because it distracts us from the task of alleviating human suffering. If that is the case, then what about the time and energy spent on listening to classical music, practicing sports, or even getting a tan on a beach? Are these activities offensive because they are not preventing the famine in Somalia?

What harm is caused to human beings in trying to alleviate the suffering of animals? Benevolence is not a commodity that has to be distributed sparingly like the last pieces of a delicious chocolate cake. It is a way of being, an attitude, an intention to do good and to remedy suffering.

By caring for animals as well, we do not love human beings less, we actually can love them better because our altruistic love becomes stronger and vaster. Someone who only cares for a small fraction of sentient beings demonstrates a biased, narrow and diminished benevolence.

French philosopher Luc Ferry rightly noted: ‟Can someone explain how torturing and killing billions of animals help to promote human rights? Is the fate of Christians in Iraq improved because people cut up dogs alive in China? [...] Is it thanks to mistreating animals that we become more sensitive to the plight of the Kurds? [...]We can take care of our families, our jobs, and engage in political life or in community service without having to slaughter animals.” (quoted in the French paper Le Figaro, November 6th, 2014)

Declaring that it is immoral to be concerned by the fate of animals while millions of people are starving looks like an easy escape hatch for those who do not do much either for humans or for animals. The late humanitarian Sister Emmanuelle asked a cynical interviewer who questioned the ultimate usefulness of her charitable work in Egyptian slums by asking: ‟And you, sir, what do you do for humanity?”

(This article was published in the French newspaper Le Monde, December 16th, 2004)