“Intensive livestock farming is ethically reprehensible”

PIgs in a den

Professor Nicola Erny, ethicist and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and Dr Matthias Herrgen, anthropologist, are planning a series of lectures and seminars on animal ethics for the next two semesters. In this interview with impact, they explain how the relationship between humans and animals is changing, why it is becoming increasingly difficult to define the difference between humans and animals, and why witnessing the slaughter of a pig might be a helpful experience.

An interview by Christina Janssen, 28.7.2022

impact: Ms Erny, Mr Herrgen – when did you last visit the zoo?

Professor Nicola Erny: In 2010 in Gelsenkirchen. Meanwhile, however, I try to avoid visiting the zoo.

Dr Matthias Herrgen: I’m regularly at the zoo because I’ve got some projects there and I’m supervising theses that students are writing there. But I ask myself beforehand whether I’ll observe the animals in the zoo or the people. It’s fascinating to watch people watching animals – to see how animals are humanised in the process or which patterns of animal behaviour cause irritation.

impact: What goes through your mind when you see caged animals?

Erny: When I see caged animals, I think of Rilke’s poem “The Panther”. And I remember a visit to Sumatra. Since experiencing orangutans in the wild there, I can no longer bear to see animals in zoo enclosures, at least the great apes. The fundamental question is: What kind of life is species-appropriate for animals? And life in zoos is just not species-appropriate – regardless of the many reasons there are for having zoos. I don’t blame anyone for going to the zoo. But I myself don’t really enjoy it anymore.

Herrgen: Yes, the animals are in captivity, we can’t dispute that. But the way zoos see themselves is changing. Enclosures are often no longer separated by bars, but by moats, ramparts or green fences. The enclosures are getting bigger. Efforts are being made to give the animals a better life.

impact: You’re both dealing scientifically with the topic of “Humans and Animals”. What is animal ethics and why is it an important field of research?

Erny: Animal ethics is part of ethics, that is, practical philosophy, and concerned with the fundamental question: How should we act? In this case: How should I act when dealing with animals? Animal ethics has meanwhile led to animals being taken seriously as living beings to be considered from a moral perspective. However, this is relatively new in the history of the human-animal relationship. Equally new and interesting are the ecological aspects of the topic. The way we treat animals influences climate change – the keyword here is intensive livestock farming. So the way we act towards animals is also a kind of “environmental action”.

impact: Your colleague Christine Korsgaard from Harvard University claims in her book “Animals Like Us” that animals and humans are, ethically speaking, equal. Do you agree?

Herrgen: Korsgaard refers to Kant in this book. On the one hand, she breaks with him, but at the same time she continues his line of argument. She contradicts Kant’s proposition that we can only enter into a moral relationship with “rational” beings. However, she agrees with him that every animal has a kind of raison d’être, Kant calls this an “end in itself”. But Korsgaard draws a line between different animal species. For her, it’s not a matter of a relationship to a dust mite. Her bold proposition is: “I cannot establish an ethical relationship with a dust mite because it’s too small”. Korsgaard actually uses size as an argument here: we cannot build a relationship with such a small creature as a mite.

impact: Maybe we don’t want to either...

Herrgen (laughs): We don’t want to. But what I by all means appreciate is Korsgaard’s fundamental proposition: we must recognise that animals have their own interests, their own “purpose in life”.

impact: With all the consequences that entails?

Erny: That would mean, for example, living strictly vegetarian or vegan. This really is the very core of animal ethics. For example, the question of whether we’re allowed to kill animals. And of course Korsgaard says: “No”. My own position is different and more pragmatic, even if the inherent logic of Korsgaard’s argument is consistent.

impact: Over the centuries, many philosophers have commented on this subject, starting with Aristotle. How has the perception of animals changed over the millennia?

Erny: Aristotle states in “Politeia” that animals do not have reason. And he arrives at his meanwhile famous definition of man as a “zoon logon echon” (later translated as rational animal), that is, as a living being that has language and reason. Animals, in his view, don’t have this at all. They cannot distinguish between true and false, cannot form organised communities. And therefore, according to Aristotle, they are not to be considered from a moral perspective. And in the Christian tradition, in which the human being is established as the measure of all things, this line is drawn further.

impact: And that still shapes our perception of animals today?

Erny: You still hear: “Of course we can kill, eat and treat animals the way we do because they don’t have a mind, reason or feelings like us humans”. It was Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, who took a quite crucial step in the development of animal ethics. In 1789, in his famous book “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation”, he draws a comparison – interestingly enough in a footnote – between the treatment of black slaves and animals: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but, Can they suffer?” This is truly a milestone in the history of animal ethics. Another is Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” from 1975. He coined the term “speciesism”. Speciesism means that we ultimately believe, in an extremely arbitrary way, that we can subjugate other species because we think that our species is superior.

impact: Peter Singer’s book is considered a classic on the subject of animal rights. Through it and since then, a lot has changed...

Erny: What has happened in the last 20 years alone is simply amazing. Two or three years ago, I was at our dinner for new students. They are served a nice meal in the canteen, the professors work as waiters and waitresses, it’s a very nice event. And to my astonishment, far more than half of the 250 meals were vegetarian. The burden of justification has shifted: today, people who consume meat – often indiscriminately – are obliged to justify themselves, and rightly so. Twenty years ago, vegetarians were still asked what all the nonsense was about.

impact: But when we talk about the relationship between humans and animals, it’s not only about whether we’re allowed to kill and eat them. We’re talking about pets, zoo animals, circus animals, film animals, laboratory animals, therapy animals, animals in intensive livestock farming. Is it all one and the same thing, or do you focus on different aspects?

Erny: For me, the question at the centre of all this is a species-appropriate life for animals. Of course, there are differences between the areas you mentioned. On the other hand, I’m looking at the question of animal suffering. Some animal ethicists take the view that the life of an overfed pug that sits on the sofa with its mistress or master all day is just as insufficiently species-appropriate as that of a fattening pig. Personally, I find that ethically difficult to justify. I tend here – within reasonable limits – to weigh up the different interests and needs.

impact: To quote Loriot: “A life without a pug is possible, but pointless.”

Erny (laughs): Yes, exactly, the love of particular animal species.... But when it’s a matter of intensive livestock farming, I see things entirely differently. Since this is not the only possible way to keep animals in order to produce meat, I would say that intensive livestock farming on an industrial scale is ethically reprehensible. Because it condones animal suffering. Even if people are not always aware of this when they pile tons of meat into their shopping trolleys at the beginning of the barbecue season.

impact: Mr Herrgen, you’re the expert on zoo animals. What are you working on at the moment?

Herrgen: In a current project, we’re trying to strengthen the zoo as an extracurricular learning environment and working on corresponding didactic concepts. In a nutshell, it’s about teaching philosophy in the zoo, for example on the basis of the question: What is consciousness? It’s possible to observe great things in the zoo in relation to that. We observe mental states and feelings in the animals that we can describe. We see that there is something that we philosophers call “animal mind”. And as human beings we share this mind. So ultimately, by looking at the zoo animals, we’re describing phenomena of our own existence.

The second project I’m working on tries to expand the concept of zoo animals in the direction of farm animals. Today, we no longer have any idea of what it means to keep an animal, to kill an animal, to slaughter it and to process it because that mainly takes place behind high walls. That’s why we’re currently developing an expanded zoo concept together with Nordhorn Zoo, in which this entire process is made public. Where’s the charm in that? You should not make a taboo out of anything. You have to show the cultural practice of keeping, slaughtering and killing animals so that everyone can form an opinion. So that people know: because of my schnitzel, a pig died. I think that making this transparent in a zoo is important educational work.

impact: This means that schoolchildren go on a jolly class trip to witness a piglet being slaughtered?

Herrgen: It’s about information and raising awareness. What does it mean to kill an animal? I’ve got a student on the Applied Social Sciences programme right now who is asking precisely these questions. You have to show all this so that everyone can form an opinion.

Erny: I believe that the transparency aspect is good and important. But the premise here is, of course: in principle, killing animals is legitimate.

Herrgen: Yes. And it’s part of our culture.

Erny: But many people – partly for very good reasons – are now rejecting this.

impact: You just spoke of the animal mind that we share. Is it in fact possible to say clearly what exactly distinguishes us from animals?

Erny: The classical domain used to explain what is known as the “anthropological difference” is language. But animals communicate in a way that we can, in a sense, understand semiotically, that is, by interpreting signs. And there are meanwhile also revolutionary studies on the use of sounds that go in the direction of language. Then we have reason. But what is reason? What is mind? What is consciousness? For a very long time, self-consciousness was one of the criteria that was considered a one-hundred-percent distinguishing feature. Until Gordon G. Gallup’s mirror tests in the 1970s revealed that great apes, for example, recognise marks on their foreheads in the mirror as their own. The discovery that animals also use tools is another aspect of this, as is the ability to act in the consciousness of another consciousness. There are great experiments on this. For example, on deceptive behaviour in chimpanzees: a chimp hides a banana and then emits a call that warns of snakes. He does this to lure the rest of the gang away from where he’s hidden his banana. It’s an incredible achievement to be able to anticipate an opponent’s intentions – something occasionally sorely lacking among us bipeds.

impact: The question has recently also been raised as to whether there is additionally something like moral behaviour in animals...

Erny: The ability to empathise plays a major role here. Of course, it would be silly to demand empathy from a lion towards the antelope it’s busy devouring. But experiments with monkeys have shown that there are behaviour patterns related to cooperation, comforting or sharing food, for example, which at least suggest a type of behaviour that is analogous to empathy. Time consciousness is also part of it, that is, reflecting on past or future occurrences. For a long time, it was assumed that even highly developed animals were not capable of this in the slightest. But then it was discovered, for example in elephants, that they mourn. That after three years they return to the bones of dead animals, stand there and sway their heads back and forth. There, too, the absolute distinction between humans and animals no longer exists.

Herrgen: In the past, the “essential difference” between humans and animals was referred to as the Rubicon. That is, as a real border river that separates us categorically. Meanwhile, we answer this question gradualistically: we have language, but animals communicate too. We have many characteristics that are more pronounced in us, but which animals also possess. Fascinatingly, the philosopher Max Scheler formulated this idea as early as 1928 – funnily enough, also in a footnote. He wrote that the difference between a chimpanzee and the physicist Thomas Edison was, technically speaking, only a difference of degree. That caused quite a stir at the time. But it’s precisely this idea that shapes our present understanding of the difference between humans and animals.

impact: What guiding principles do you derive from your dealings with this topic? As ethicists, do you also formulate political recommendations and demands?

Erny: Political demands are not formulated directly on the basis of ethics. But if I come to the conclusion that intensive livestock farming is ethically reprehensible, then that has political consequences because in that case everything would have to be done to stop it.

Herrgen: In fact, it’s quite paradoxical. Since 2002, animal welfare is anchored as a state objective in Article 20a of the Basic Law. So it’s surprising that political stakeholders are putting a state objective into practice so feebly: the keyword here is agricultural policy. I would focus the question of consequences on the following aspect: Whom do I make my purchasing power available to?  Especially buying food usually means supporting something that misses the state objective of “animal welfare”. And that’s why I think transparency initiatives are good, even though they are often thwarted. I’m also in favour of declarations and labels, but some of them are misleading or even fraudulent. We need to talk about this. That’s why it’s really important to sensitise people and obligate them as consumers. The younger generation is already on the right track.

impact: Your faculty is planning to set a focus on animal ethics in the next two semesters. What exactly are you planning?

Herrgen: We would like to look at the animal-human topic from an interdisciplinary perspective. We’ve already held a symposium with international delegates. We will organise seminars for our students and a public lecture series with representatives from various disciplines who are dealing with the topic of animals – from urban planners and zoo architects to primate researchers. There will also be interdisciplinary workshops. We want to place the topic on the university-wide agenda and show that we have – or could have – points of contact with animals in many areas where we don’t even suspect it.

impact: Thank you very much for the interview.


Christina Janssen
Scientific editor
Press department
Tel.: +49.6151.16-30112
E-Mail: christina.janssen@h-da.de

Translation: Sharon Oranski