Compassion, Freedom, and Justice for All

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
—Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Other Nations

This 90-year old quotation from Henry Beston is one of my all-time favorites. It needs to be read in full and I always wish it could be made into a poster that would go viral globally. It could form the basis for an entire course in animal-human relationships. I go to it constantly because it says so much about who other animals are and about our relationships with them. First, we do indeed view others through our own senses and they don’t sense the world how we do. So our views are, indeed, distorted. We also patronize them for not being like us, for what we perceive as their incompleteness, as if we are complete. This misrepresentation allows some people to place dogs and other animals below us on some mythical evolutionary scale. They’re referred to as “lower” beings, a move that results in rampant mistreatment and egregious abuse. As Beston asserts, “And therein we err,” for we should not be the template against which we measure other animals. I also like how he views other animals as “other nations,” since this asks us to view them as the beings they are, not as what we want them to be. And surely, numerous other animals are caught up in the “travail of the earth,” captive to whatever we want them to do and whoever we want them to be. As we’ve seen, this makes for a good deal of stress in their lives as they try to adapt to a human-dominated world.

Power is not a license for domination or abuse

Humans engage in intimate and necessary relations with other animals and in most of these interactions we hold the power. But power is not a license for domination or abuse. Trying to imagine a world without human-animal interaction is both absurd and sad, especially since we evolved together. But can we imagine and perhaps create a world in which our interactions with animals are more respectful of their own needs and interests? We think the answer to this is a resounding yes! However, working toward such a world will require that we stop using science and human-centered arrogance as tools of violence against other animals. We need to move beyond welfarism.

Animal-welfare science is going strong and has firmly developed into an internationally recognized field of research. But where exactly is it headed? On the one hand, there have been some positive changes on behalf of animals. In March 2016, China released its first set of guidelines for the more humane treatment of laboratory animals, and the United States Congress passed reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act, one of which requires that the Environmental Protection Agency reduce and replace animal testing for chemical safety where scientifically reliable alternatives are available. The editorial board of the The New York Times called for the Pentagon to put an end to the use of live animals in combat medic training. The Buenos Aires Zoo is closing after 140 years, citing as its reason that keeping wild animals in captivity is degrading, Iran banned the use of wild animals in circuses, and at the time of this writing, 42 airline companies have adopted bans on trophy animal shipments on their carriers. We recognize that these are positive moves; however, the science of animal well-being will require more thoroughgoing changes.


And as time goes on, we are accumulating more precise data about the wants and needs of animals. Donald Broom and Andrew Fraser, two of the world’s leading welfare researchers, write, “Our knowledge of . . . welfare indicators has improved rapidly over the years as people with backgrounds in zoology, physiology, animal production and veterinary medicine have investigated the effects of difficult conditions on animals.” Welfare concepts have been refined and methods of assessment have been developed, expanded, condensed. We have a good list of things that “challenge” animals: exposure to pathogens, tissue damage, attack or threat of attack, social competition, excessive stimulation, lack of stimulation, absence of key stimuli (e.g., “a teat for a young mammal”), and inability to control one’s environment.

In addition to the data, the Five Freedoms seem to be evolving conceptually. For example, David Mellor, of the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University in New Zealand, has suggested a shift in terminology to the “Five Domains.” The domains model addresses certain weaknesses of the Five Freedoms and offers, according to Mellor, a more scientifically up-to-date method for assessing harms to animals. One of the key problems with the Five Freedoms is that the language “freedom from” in four of the five statements implies that the elimination of certain experiences (hunger, fear, pain) is possible. In fact, as we all know, these affective experiences are part and parcel of life and serve, biologically, to motivate an animal to engage in behaviors essential to survival. Mellor claims that the goal of welfare science should not be to eliminate these experiences, but rather to balance them against positive affective experiences.


None of this amounts to a substantial evolution in the fundamental moral or scientific tenets and tenor of welfare science. Mellor acknowledges that the welfarist paradigm allows for negative welfare states, but he encourages a kind of reweighting of the scales so that the suffering we impose is tempered by tossing animals a few extra “positive welfare state” crumbs. He admits that animals will still experience pain and suffering but wants to give them as much comfort, pleasure, and control as possible and reduce the intensity of negative states to “tolerable” levels, within the context of using them as we wish. We are still caught in the “welfarist vortex,” and are simply accumulating bigger and bigger piles of data about how exactly we are harming animals and what they are experiencing within the various “challenging” situations we impose upon them.


While some may argue we are being too critical or not paying attention to the number of changes that have been made to improve the lives of other animals, welfare science continues to favor our interests over those of other animals and to patronize animals by acknowledging only their most superficial needs. There are new welfarist data—lots of new data—and this information is filling in what we know about how best to “humanely” slaughter, trap, confine, and constrain. But the value commitments of the welfarist enterprise are so strongly biased in favor of human self-interest that our treatment of animals under this regime will never move beyond exploitation and violence. We may try hard to give animals a better life but a better life is not necessarily a good life.
The moral commitments (or in our minds, the immoral commitments) of welfarism have remained constant: we are still the purveyors of pain and suffering. In what kind of world do we live when an entire research program is focused on how best to harm animals, and how to salve the conscience of those who might have reservations about the violence?

Why Good Welfare Is Not and Cannot Ever Be Good Enough

Hebrew University’s Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the landmark book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, wrote an opinion essay for the Guardian in 2015 calling industrial farming the greatest crime in history. “The scientific study of animals,” he writes, “has played a dismal role in this tragedy. The scientific community has used its growing knowledge of animals mainly to manipulate their lives more efficiently in the service of human industry.” Harari has captured the essence of why welfare can never be good enough. Animal-welfare science operates in the service of a variety of industries, and while in this role it can and will never do more than reinforce the status quo. It will never challenge the brutal exploitation of animals in farming or in laboratory research, zoos, pet stores, or conservation-research programs. Indeed, as Harari suggests, science hasn’t just been silent about our violent treatment of animals; it has lent its support and expertise to the endeavor.

Worst of all, welfare science has woven a cloak of objectivity around abusive practices. Broom and Fraser write, for example, that, “the assessment of welfare can be carried out in an objective way that is independent of any moral considerations.” Like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, the objectivity of welfare science is meant to shield those wearing it from moral examination. But the status quo that welfare science perpetuates is a set of value assumptions, including the assumption that the feelings of animals don’t really matter all that much, and even if they do matter a little, their interests can be trumped when doing so serves our interests.


Science has been put to work to make our manipulations of animals more efficient, more productive, and more profitable. It has been a partner in crime with industries that use and abuse animals, and has been employed to substantiate and scientize and ethically neutralize crimes against animals. But this is not an inevitable role for science. Science has the potential to help animals and to heal our fractured relationship with them. Indeed, as the science of animal cognition and emotion continues to advance, it may well be that the weaknesses of welfarism will become more apparent and the basic inconsistencies will be laid bare. The more we know about the inner lives of animals, the more incongruous animal-welfare science in the service of industry becomes.

Science, Ethics, and Advocacy

The basic insights of animal-welfare science are profoundly important. The first of these is that animals have subjective experiences. The second is that animals not only experience negative feelings like pain and fear and frustration, but also experience pleasure, happiness, excitement, and other positive feelings. Following on these, the final insight is that behavior offers a clear window into animal feelings.


Behavior is, indeed, a good window through which to see and know animals. But it can be a very tiny welfarist window, in a house we design, build, and manage for our own ends. Or, it can be a much bigger window, one through which we can peer but didn’t build, the dimensions of which are unknown. If we looked inside an abattoir or peered into an orca tank at SeaWorld, we would see a vast collection of “welfare” concerns. But the abattoir and the orca tank need to be seen from a much larger vantage point. We shouldn’t be looking in the abattoir and the orca tank and tinkering with the conditions we find, but looking at them, taking full measure of what these places mean for animals. The essence of the ethology of freedom is that behavior is a window onto what animals really want and need—to be free to live their own lives, to be free from the suffering and exploitation to which we subject them—but only if we are looking the right way: straight into the eyes of the animals themselves.

In contrast to welfare science, the science of well-being uses what we are learning about cognition and emotion to benefit individual animals, continually seeking to enhance their freedom to live their own lives in peace and safety. To the three basic scientific insights of welfare science, the science of well-being adds the essential ethical corollary that the feelings of individual animals matter. In contrast to welfarism, a science of well-being acknowledges up front that science and values are intertwined and that our assessments of what individual animals need are scientific and ethical. Indeed, values come first and inform the kinds of scientific questions we are open to asking and the kinds of answers we are willing to discover. Welfarism is a cage that traps human perception, one that also confines our sense of empathy for other beings. We need to open the doors of the cage.


There will always be trade-offs in what humans need and what animals need. Humans inevitably interact with and use other animals, and we are not advocating a hands-off approach to animals and nature, although that might not be a bad idea in a human-dominated world. But a great number of things that we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachments on wildlife. The threshold for taking away an animal’s freedom or denying any or all of the Five Freedoms is, at present, extraordinarily and offensively low. The bar must be raised.

To read this article, by Marc Bekoff, PhD, in its entirety, click here.

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Image credits:

Feature image, and Other Nations with Henry Beston quote by In the Shadow of the Wolf

Merscmealuwe by Kate Wyatt

Down and Dusty by Angela Sheldrick

Wolf on Wolf photo by Jody Trappe

Coastal wolf lying in a bed of seaweed by Ian Mcallister

Bunny In The Tulips by Carol Cavalaris

Highland Cow/calf by Jen Buckley

Tabitha by HaresAndHerdwicks

Baby Chicken by Tom Brown

Birds in flight watercolor by Peggy Macnamara

Tiger watercolor by Louise DeMasi

Eyes of a wolf by Renaud Visage

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4 thoughts on “Compassion, Freedom, and Justice for All

  1. I love the quote too. When I first read it many years ago it just floored me. I thought it was the most thought-provoking and insight collection of words I had ever read. The quote makes me very sad, however. That animals are “nations” with their own lives and evolutionary means of existing, indicates to me that humans have been waging endless wars with them for centuries. These nations –with a collection of innocent beings–deserve so much better.

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