People hate cruelty to animals, so why do we do it?



Shutterstock/light hope

David Killoren, Australian Catholic University and Robert Streiffer, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Animal welfare experts warn our pets could suffer during the coronavirus pandemic, including from abuse or abandonment.

When we hear about animals being neglected, we’re often outraged. Consider the revelation of the mistreatment of racehorses at a Queensland abattoir, or the man who decapitated a kookaburra. These stories left many of us shocked and appalled.

But harm to animals is common in our society. Tens of billions of animals are killed in farms and slaughterhouses every year. Their deaths are sometimes truly horrific. Humanity’s relationship with animals is dysfunctional: humans love animals yet simultaneously perpetrate extreme violence against them. This is not only bad for animals. It’s bad for us too.

But humans and animals cannot simply end their relationship and part ways. We have to share a world. So we have to forge a better relationship. The hard question is: what shape should that new relationship take?

WARNING: graphic content.

Differing standards for humans and for animals?

Here’s an ethics thought experiment. Five humans are dying of organ failure. The only way to save their lives is to kill one healthy person, harvest their organs, and transplant these into the five dying people. Is it morally acceptable to kill the one to save the many?

If you’re like most people, your answer is a firm “no”. Humans have a right to life and can’t be killed in service of the greater good. This is an example of what’s known as a deontological judgment.




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But now let’s change the scenario. Suppose you are the manager of a sanctuary for chickens. An infectious virus is spreading through the sanctuary and you have to decide whether to kill one infected chicken or allow the virus to spread throughout the sanctuary, killing a larger number. Now what?

When confronted with the chicken scenario, many will say it’s acceptable to kill the one to save the many. Your responsibility as manager of the sanctuary is to promote the aggregate health and well-being of all the chickens in your care. If this means you have to kill one chicken to save many more, so be it. This is an example of what’s known as a utilitarian judgment.

When we think about cases where animal lives are at stake, we often tend to think in utilitarian terms. When we think about cases where human lives are at stake, we often tend to think in deontological terms.

Several chickens outside a coop
Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, when it comes to chickens?
Shutterstock/zlikovec

Animal activists put to the test

Even animal activists, committed to a view of animals and humans as moral equals, may be inclined to see animals and humans from these differing perspectives.

At an animal activist conference in Melbourne last year (before the pandemic) we divided the audience into small groups and gave them different scenarios featuring different species.

Only 35% of those considering chicken cases said it was wrong to kill one chicken to save the many, whereas fully 85% of those considering human cases decided it was wrong to kill one human to save the many. An informal experiment, but it seems to illustrate a very human tendency to think of animals and humans according to different standards.

That tendency has been observed in many contexts. Robert Nozick influentially discusses a bifurcated view along these lines in his 1974 classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia. But the question of whether such a view can be attributed to ordinary people is only recently being rigorously studied by psychologists such as Lucius Caviola at Harvard University.




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Beyond psychological research, we can look to institutions for evidence that this sort of bifurcated view is widespread, as we have argued elsewhere.

For example, when animals are used in scientific experimentation, researchers are mainly expected to show the benefits outweigh the costs: a utilitarian standard.

But when humans are used, characteristically deontological considerations, such as consent and autonomy, are brought to bear; a cost-benefit analysis isn’t enough.

So we tend to be more utilitarian about animals than about humans. Yet we also don’t see all animals from a purely utilitarian perspective. Think about your family dog. Would your conscience allow you to kill her to save five other dogs?

A small mouse in the hands of someone wearing medical protection gloves.
We use animals in scientific research.
Shutterstock/unoL

Three perspectives

The upshot: humans seem to be capable of seeing animals in at least three very different ways.

First, we’re able to regard animals as objects that exist solely for the sake of our use and enjoyment and that don’t matter in themselves. For an example, consider the way the fishing industry treats bycatch as disposable.

Second, we’re able to regard animals as beings who matter in themselves yet who are fundamentally interchangeable with others. That’s a utilitarian perspective. It’s the perspective you occupy when you endorse killing one pig to save five. Such a view is defended by world-renowned Australian philosopher Peter Singer, among many others.

Third, we’re able to see animals as beings who not only matter in themselves, but who also have rights, such as the right to life, or the right to bodily integrity, or even the right to liberty.

Perhaps it’s strange to see farmed animals that way, but it’s not so strange to see non-human family members such as cats and dogs in that way. And famous philosophers such as Tom Regan have argued a vast range of animals ought to be seen in that way.

The future of human-animal relations

Currently, many of us see most animals as mere things, the way fishermen typically see bycatch. And this might continue into the future.

But that’d be a tragedy. Despite their differences from humans, animals are conscious individuals with their own welfare, and so do matter in themselves. Recognising this will be an essential step in reducing the tremendous amount of unnecessary suffering and death that humans inflict on animals.

The simple recognition that animals are not mere things is in itself of massive importance, but it’s also only the beginning of the work we have ahead of us. As a society we must confront deep and difficult questions about whether animals have moral rights and, if so, what those rights might be, and how (if at all) their rights differ from those of human beings. Philosophers have been debating such questions for decades but haven’t reached consensus (yet).

Such questions must be addressed before we can we hope to find a new relationship with animals that fully recognises and respects our obligations to them.




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The Conversation


David Killoren, Research Fellow, Dianoia Institute of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University and Robert Streiffer, Professor of Philosophy and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Photos from the field: capturing the grandeur and heartbreak of Tasmania’s giant trees



Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

Jennifer Sanger, University of Tasmania

Environmental scientists see flora, fauna and phenomena the rest of us rarely do. In this new series, we’ve invited them to share their unique photos from the field.


Tasmania’s native forests are home to some of the tallest, most beautiful trees in the world. They provide a habitat for many species, from black cockatoos and masked owls to the critically endangered swift parrot.

But these old, giant trees are being logged at alarming rates, despite their enormous ecological and heritage value (and untapped tourism potential). Many were also destroyed in Tasmania’s early 2019 fires.




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Former Greens leader Bob Brown recently launched a legal challenge to Tasmania’s native forest logging. And this year, Forestry Watch, a small group of citizen scientists, found five giant trees measuring more than five metres in diameter inside logging coupes. “Coupes” are areas of forest chopped down in one logging operation.

These trees are too important to be destroyed in the name of the forestry industry. This is why my husband Steve Pearce and I climb, explore and photograph these trees: to raise awareness and foster appreciation for the forests and their magnificent giants.

Climbing trees is not just for the young, but for the young at heart. Kevin is in his early 70’s and helps us with measuring giant trees.
Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

What makes these trees so special?

Eualypytus regnans, known more commonly as Mountain Ash or Swamp Gum, can grow to 100 metres tall and live for more than 500 years. For a long time this species held the record as the tallest flowering tree. But last year, a 100.8 m tall Yellow Meranti (Shorea faguetiana) in Borneo, claimed the title — surpassing our tallest Eucalypt, named Centrioun, by a mere 30 centimetres.

Centrioun still holds the record as the tallest tree in the southern hemisphere. But five species of Eucalypt also grow above 85 m tall, with many ranking among some of the tallest trees in the world.

It’s not only their height that make these trees special, they’re also the most carbon dense forests in the world, with a single hectare storing more than 1,867 tonnes of carbon.




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Our giant trees and old growth forests provide a myriad of ecological services such as water supply, climate abatement and habitat for threatened species. A 2017 study from the Central Highlands forests in Victoria has shown they’re worth A$310 million for water supply, A$260 million for tourism and A$49 million for carbon storage.

This significantly dwarfs the A$12 million comparison for native forest timber production in the region.

Chopped wood in a logging coupe.
Chopping down old growth trees doesn’t make economic sense.
Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

Tasmania’s Big Tree Register

Logging organisation Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s giant tree policy recognises the national and international significance of giant trees. To qualify for protection, trees must be at least 85 m tall or at least an estimated 280 cubic metres in stem volume.




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While it’s a good place to start, this policy fails to consider the next generation of big, or truly exceptional trees that don’t quite reach these lofty heights.

That’s why we’ve created Tasmania’s Big Tree Register, an open-source public record of the location and measurements of more than 200 trees to help adventurers and tree-admirers locate and experience these giants for themselves. And, we hope, to protect them.

Last month, three giant trees measuring more than 5 m in diameter were added to the register. But these newly discovered trees are located in coupe TN034G, which is scheduled to be logged this year.

Logging is a very poor economic use for our forests. Native forest logging in Tasmania has struggled to make a profit due to declining demand for non-Forest Stewardship Council certified timber, which Sustainable Timber Tasmania recently failed. In fact, Sustainable Timber Tasmania sustained an eye watering cash loss of A$454 million over 20 years from 1997 to 2017.




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The following photos can help show why these trees, as one of the great wonders of the world, should be embraced as an important part of our environmental heritage, not turned to wood chips.

A portrait of an entire tree captured. Its canopy breaches the clouds.

Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

It’s not often you get to see the entirety of a tree in a single photo. This tree above is named Gandalf’s Staff and is a Eucalyptus regnans, measuring 84 m tall.

While Mountain Ash is the tallest species, others in Tasmania’s forests are also breathtakingly huge, such as the Tasmanian blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) at 92 m, Manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) at 91 m, Alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) at 88 m and the Messmate Stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua) at 86 m.

A woman appears tiny standing against an enormous felled tree.

Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

This giant tree, pictured above, was a Messmate Stringybark that was felled in coupe, but was left behind for unknown reasons. Its diameter is 4.4 metres. Other giant trees like this were cut down in this coupe, many of which provided excellent nesting habitat for the critically endangered swift parrot.

Nine people sit across the trunk of an enormous tree.
The citizen science group Forestry Watch helps search for and measure giant trees in Tasmania.
Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

Old-growth forests dominated by giant trees are excellent at storing large amounts of carbon. Large trees continue to grow over their lifetime and absorb more carbon than younger trees.

A man wraps a measuring tape around a huge tree trunk, covered in moss.

Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

The tree in the photo above is called Obolus, from Greek mythology, with a diameter of 5.1 m. Names are generally given to trees by the person who first records them, and usually reflect the characteristics of the tree or tie in with certain themes.

For example, several trees in a valley are all named after Lord of the Rings characters, such as Gandalf’s Staff (pictured above), Fangorn and Morannon.

The tops of the giant tree canopies are higher than the clouds.

Steve Pearce/The Tree Projects, Author provided

Giant trees are typically associated with Californian Redwoods or the Giant Sequoias in the US, where tall tree tourism is huge industry. The estimated revenue in 2012 from just four Coastal Redwood reserves is A$58 million dollars per year, providing more than 500 jobs to the local communities.

Few Australians are aware of our own impressive trees. We could easily boost tourism to regional communities in Tasmania if the money was invested into tall tree infrastructure.The Conversation

Jennifer Sanger, Research Associate, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.