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Animal rights and wrongs

By John Humphreys - posted Saturday, 11 June 2011

The recent report by Four Corners about the live cattle trade to Indonesia has got people talking. The report showed that some Indonesian abattoirs are acting "inhumanely" towards the cattle, where some cows take over three minutes to die (instead of the industry standard 30 seconds) and other cows are beaten and abused. Many scenes from the report were gruesome to watch, and it has stirred a popular backlash against the live animal trade. In response, GetUp started a campaign against live animal exports, and the government has responded.

This debate is framed as being about "animal rights". But it isn't. If anybody was honestly determining the rights of animals, surely the first right would be the right not to be killed just so that people could eat their flesh. No honest person would say that "the right to not be punched in the face" comes before "the right to live". If I told you that there was a guy called Brian… and that one person wanted to beat him up, and another person wanted to kill him and eat him, are you honestly going to say that you think the first guy is doing the greater crime?

What if I told you there was a cow called Brian? This is from the GetUp campaign:


Brian (a cow) did nothing to deserve being hit in the face, whipped, or kicked. Each time this occurred he called out in a way which was heart-wrenching. I swear I could hear him call out 'why'

There is a bit of false morality at play in this debate. Vegetarians can rightly claim that they are being consistent, and I admire them for that. But for the meat-eating population to say that they believe in the inalienable right of cows not to be punched is absurd. What did you have for lunch?

There are only two intellectually honest and consistent positions to take on animal rights. Either animals have rights, and so you can't kill them to satisfy a craving. Or animals do not have rights, including the right to life or the right to not be punched. Given that few people are calling for the banning of "animal murder", it's safe to say that our society denies meaningful rights to animals.

This isn't a debate about animal rights. It is a debate about human squeamishness.

Us modern middle-class city types don't like to see death or suffering. I certainly don't. Most of us don't want to see animals get slaughtered, which is why we out-source that responsibility to slaughter-men so that we can eat our cow-flesh without seeing blood. We like to anthropomorphise animals and treat them (relatively) well, until they disappear into a magical building and come out as bacon, burgers & bratwurst. Our culture now generally condemns people who let animals suffer, and we condemn them twice as much if we have to see the suffering (or if the animal is cute). But instead of dressing up our squeamishness in the moralistic jargon of "animal rights", let's be honest and admit that this is about our personal preferences.

Of course, it didn't always used to be this way. Through much of history, people felt comfortable doing their own "dirty work" and killing their own food. Around the world today there remain many people who are comfortable with the site of animal suffering and death. In your next life, I recommend not coming back as a dog in the wrong part of Asia. Or a rooster in Haiti (where cockfighting is legal). Some Muslims believe that stunning cattle before the kill (to minimise suffering) is not "halal" and so they remain committed to the idea of a messy kill. Whether you think those Muslims are being barbaric savages or religiously enlightened is not the point - their approach to animal welfare is nothing new or unique.


I am not a cultural relativist, and so I feel comfortable saying that I prefer our approach to animal welfare. But I'm also not a cultural imperialist. While my squeamishness will lead me to argue for stunning (and other simple steps to minimise suffering) I do not think it is appropriate for me to use the government to impose my culture and my personal preferences on others, by banning the live animal trade. We should engage with the Indonesians, and encourage them to see things our way. Committed people can go to Indonesia and set up better abattoirs, or pay Indonesians to improve their standards, or directly buy the cattle themselves and refuse to export them to Indonesia. Those are all reasonable avenues for voluntary community action to promote our personal preferences. But as much as we want to force change, the one thing we should not use is force.

Further, even if you believe in forcing your preferences on others, there is another reason why a live animal export ban makes no sense. If Australia decides to impose live cattle sanctions on Indonesia, that will undoubtedly cause problems for Indonesian businesses and consumers in the short-term… but after a while they will adjust and start buying their cattle from elsewhere. When that happens, what will the benefit have been? Instead of Australian-born cows suffering a slow death, there will be foreign-born cows suffering a slow death.

The idea that "Australian" cows are more important than foreign cows is nationalism gone mad.

As David Leyonhjelm explained in his refreshingly logical article: "The objective ought to be the adoption by all of Indonesia's abattoirs of humane slaughtering practices, whether the cattle are Australian or not". Imposing trade restrictions, insulting millions of Indonesians, and destroying an Australian industry will do nothing to achieve that end.

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About the Author

John is the Director of the Human Capital Project and a PhD student at the University of Queensland. He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Centre for Independent Studies, Editor-in-Chief of Menzies House and the founder of the Australian Libertarian Society. His personal blog can be found at

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