One cannot help but notice a distinct contradiction when it comes to animal exploitation. As research has shown, in one sense, most people are horrified when a dog or cat is abused, but they are much more apathetic toward animals in the agricultural industry and even more indifferent to animals used in testing laboratories. The level of concern for invertebrates is nonexistent.
We selfishly tend to think of animals for which we do not have a personal attachment in more utilitarian terms and other animals in more deontological terms, though there is a lot in-between to be considered which complicates the issue. Even if research is still lacking in terms of human psychology as it pertains to other animals, what has been demonstrated is that our attitudes are more likely to change with educational and experiential opportunities.
Part of the problem of apathy is reflected in both the inconsistently developed and applied governmental regulations, as well as inconsistently reported and applied research on animal exploitation. This persists despite decades of animal rights activists’ efforts from both a moral and philosophical standpoint. Despite a willingness for people to pay to reduce animal exploitation, it could be argued that the overall focus of animal rights has been blurred, as much of the moral and political conversation has changed or has been developed in ways that have led to distraction from the moral implications of exploiting animals.
Some research discusses the degree to which people care about animals and how this relates directly to psychology. The concept of conservation psychology focuses on the reciprocal nature between human animals and the rest of nature, with a priority given to efforts in conserving the natural world. This approach realizes the indisputable interdependence of all animals, in that without healthy ecosystems all animals die.
There is a noted disconnect between the concrete data readily available that describes the connection between animal interactions and a desire to protect our environment. Conservation psychology, conservation education and education about exploitation, in general, will be key to progress in this area of understanding.
The development of a conservation-psychological approach to animal rights will likely take a wide range of initiatives that aim to research the impact of animal exploitation. Like multicultural approaches to ethics and racial injustice, where we learn about and interact with others of different cultures, opportunities for animal interaction can help develop our empathy and compassion. However, there are ethical complications to this approach when it involves non-human animals, as any situation where non-human animals are systematically handled and cared for is at risk of exploitation.
One suggestion that has been given as an effective way to educate people is modern ethical zoos, where we can interact safely with non-human animals. The caveat is that, even with pro-conservationist ideologies in place, such interactions may still be considered exploitation or encourage exploitation, for example by indirectly promoting the desire for people to own exotic animals.
There exists a dilemma when dealing with animal interaction or any other scenario involving animal captivity, even in a sanctuary setting, specifically that in some cases this could still be considered exploitation and therefore incompatible with veganism. For example, when visitors are down and therefore donations as well, a sanctuary may purchase animals to replace any who have died.
There are technological alternatives, such as interactive virtual environments (IVEs) which can help people develop a connection to nature and other animals, as well as the use of computer-simulated pets which has demonstrated that children interacting with them can foster empathy toward animals.
The emergence of the Metaverse, a project aimed at connecting all online virtual worlds, has also presented interesting capabilities; at least one animal rights themed Metaverse project has already been launched specifically aimed at helping users connect and empathize with animals as part of a shared ecosystem. Another interesting alternative to live pet ownership could be robotic companion animals which have shown to have some success in terms of subjects being able to connect to them. There is promising research demonstrating the potential for robotic companion animals to serve as a low-cost substitute for live animals when supporting the psychosocial needs of geriatric adults.
The main goal of a pro-conservationist ideology would be to help people find connections to other animals and nature in general. As previously mentioned, there are utilitarian, deontological and mixed views of animals, but the lack of a consistent application of empathy within modern philosophies continues to be a major stumbling block in ending the exploitation of animals.
It is noted that people tend to take a utilitarian approach toward other animals outside their circle of care, for example killing one sick chimpanzee to save an entire group is morally justifiable in a utilitarian viewpoint. But when it comes to animals we label as family or friends, we have a deontological bias toward them and feel a duty to protect them.
Some research discusses the apparent cognitive dissonance that is present in our society when it comes to some animals. For example, people are generally outraged when racehorses are mistreated or mascots are harmed, yet they still routinely and willingly condone the horrifying lab-animal testing industry despite the blatant exploitation of animals.
Though psychological research concerning this bifurcated view is only recently emerging in academic literature, one does not have to look too deep into institutions for evidence of its existence. In the case of animal testing, researchers use a purely utilitarian approach to demonstrate that the benefits of animal experimentation outweigh the cost, whereas many deontological considerations are made for human-animal experimentation like consent, autonomy and safety.
Another example is we would never accept that those animals we label as family or friends be enslaved or be subject to slavery-like conditions, yet we regularly purchase products that are made by these animals under those conditions.
Humanity will only shift toward a deontological view for all animals when we recognize that animals are not mere things, and we all have our own welfare and awareness. We must ultimately confront our selfishness concerning our views on animal exploitation.
The inconsistent view of animal exploitation can easily be seen in how we handle animals in the agricultural industry. Despite an apparent willingness to prevent animal exploitation, inconsistent moral decisions muddle progress in terms of ending it. Various studies illustrate this disconnect.
In one study, they looked at the impact of ethical attitudes on the willingness to pay (WTP) for farm animal welfare (FAW) improvement in Germany. They found utilitarian, deontological and mixed attitudes, which indicate that presupposing a moral attitude is too simplistic due to the pluralism of moral attitudes in this case. Their study revealed two ends of the spectrum in terms of WTP, with one group of outliers willing to pay almost quintuple for animal welfare than the rest of the sample group on one end, and “zero-bids” who are not willing to pay anything extra for animal welfare.
They found that the existence of these two extremes could potentially skew WTP analysis without their specific consideration. It was also found that many people were concerned about the environment and did assign intrinsic value to animals. One would think that the next logical step for those who report a high WTP would be to go vegan, however, this transition depends on several factors other than animal welfare, such as personal empowerment and enrichment, identity development and the realization that all animals are just like we are in wanting to be happy, avoid pain and minimize effort.
In the other study, the state of FAW in both Brazil and the United States were compared, finding that both countries have an institutionalized indifference to animal exploitation despite having different overall approaches. The US has relatively few FAW statutes, giving agricultural animals limited rights, while Brazil has an exhaustive and comprehensive list of FAW regulations that are poorly enforced, giving agricultural animals unrealized rights.
In their article, the authors propose the creation of an independent federal agency to reduce systematic animal cruelty. They openly state that they have no delusions that the agency will solve the problem of animal cruelty in the agricultural industry, but it should progress the international conversation about FAW, which they believe drastically needs to take place.
The ongoing controversy concerning the killing of research animals, particularly that not enough care is being taken to minimize suffering, is another good example. This is devastating, as there does not seem to be any progress being made to research how to end animal exploitation. Society, in general, has taken animal exploitation as a normalized function of its system. The acceptance of animal exploitation as a necessary part of animal agriculture stands at odds with veganism and falls into a purely utilitarian view of animals.
The inconsistent view that society tends to demonstrate toward other animals becomes even more capricious when considering the exploitation of invertebrates. Researchers and their governing bodies are not adequately incorporating knowledge about animal exploitation into their reports and studies. Studies also indicate that not all animals are treated equally, as the focus of animals has almost exclusively focused on mammals, virtually excluding 97% of the animals who are invertebrates. This is known as institutional vertebratism, and it will require education about non-mammals, particularly with children, to prompt a paradigm shift. These “lower animals” are crucial to all ecosystems, and it has been shown that being educated about animals who are less like us can help children identify with non-mammals. It is recommended that groups design learning materials around various other non-mammals.
We need a regroup in terms of agitation, education and organization. Discussions should adapt to incorporate clear terminology, moral consideration, learning opportunities, relevant research and, of course, protection for all animals, not only those we prefer.
We should critically inquire into environmental education practices and work to further the understanding of the interdependence of all animals. The goal would be to introduce new paradigms that include all animals and the rest of nature that need equal protection. This also means addressing selfishness, racism, classism and other social injustices.
If we want to end animal exploitation, we must seek to unravel the systematic causes of exploitation and recognize that global stability is dependent in part on our ability to realize the interdependence of all animals and nature.