The notion of ‘ahimsa’ provides a clear path to guide moral treatment of other animals, writes End Animal Slaughter’s Sandra Kyle
Today I found a photo of the Prime Minister of New Zealand’s partner, a celebrity fisher with his own television show, holding an enormous game fish that he had just reeled in. The giant bass, so big it took three men to hold him, had blood congealed around his wounded mouth where the hook had torn through his delicate skin as he sought to escape his hunters. This photo with the beaming smiles of the fishers and the lifeless body of the bass shocked me, and a question formed in my mind. Can we say that fishing is wrong, when so many ‘good’ people go fishing? Isn’t morality subject to time and place, and dependent on culture and tradition? Is there even any such thing as Objective Morality?
The old saying ‘Do not judge until you walk a mile in someone’s shoes’ is one I am fond of. It reminds us that life is not a level playing field, and that we all receive and filter information differently. Genetics, upbringing, education, friends, life experience and encounters, cognitive biases – even, some might say, karma – are different for each of us, and all of these play a part in determining our behaviour.
Our conditioning also affects what we believe is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. In a world that is increasingly diverse, and therefore increasingly tolerant of difference (it might not seem that way, but it is) moral relativism is growing. We may well ask: therefore: Are there any moral certainties any more? If there are, then what are they?
The way I see it there is a key ingredient to a universal and powerful moral objectivity and this is the notion of harm. The moral equivalent is ‘ahimsa’ (Sanskrit) or harmlessness.
Every living animal, human and non-human, so long as it possesses a rudimentary nervous system, experiences harm. Nature is no touchy-feely mother. She is the Mother from Hell, dishing out harm to her children with complete impunity. Natural disasters, disease, difficulties, accidents are her stock in trade, and because she has equipped her children with emotions, we suffer emotional as well as physical harm – a double whammy. When you think about it, Nature’s modus operandi is the very soul of heartlessness – Survival of the Fittest. Anyone who has seen moments-old hatchling turtles being picked off by seagulls as they frantically scramble towards the water’s edge – to take just one example from a million possibilities – has no illusions about Nature’s goodness. She is completely indifferent to suffering, and the best you could say of her is that she is impartial! But we humans need not be so unfeeling. We are rational, and can make compassionate choices. We can be better than Nature.
Of course, we are always harming others, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. I am not talking about unintentional harm here. We harm those around us, and our environment, through our deeds, our thoughts and our words. We harm the environment by industrial development, land reclamation, spraying toxic chemicals, choking oceans with plastic waste and a myriad other ways. We harm our fellow creatures by refusing to acknowledge their sentience and their rights, equal to our own, to live their natural lives. We hunt them. We keep them in tiny cages in darkened smelly sheds where they cannot even walk, cannot even stand up. We genetically modify them causing them to become deformed and die prematurely. We force them to lead sterile lives in laboratories because we want to experiment on them. We deliberately put them in harm’s way to be entertained by, or to profit from them. We sacrifice them for religious reasons. We murder them in their billions every single year, so we can eat them, even though we and the planet would be much healthier if we didn’t. It is a holocaust of unimaginable proportions, the harm we routinely cause to other sentient creatures. We cannot keep denying its enormity. The time has come to look at the harm we are causing, and to stop it.
I would like to finish these musings by coming back to the example I began with: fishing. We cannot plead ignorance any more; the scientific jury is no longer out. They’ve announced that Fish are sentient, intelligent and sensitive. They feel pain and fear. They are inquisitive, have long term memories, learn fast, and their complex social relationships and mating behaviours rival other animal groups. If we are to follow the path of ‘harmlessness’ in our guide for moral behaviour, then this means that fishing is wrong and therefore we shouldn’t be doing it. It means that our exploiting and killing other animals is wrong, and we shouldn’t be doing it.
It is all quite simple. ‘Primum non nocere’. “First, do no harm” This is the key to moral certainty in a pluralistic world. If we think of ourselves as moral beings, and wish to lead moral lives, then we have to stop harming other animals.