News broke earlier this week regarding the Bowood Lamb abattoir in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. It was a report of reprehensible treatment of the animals in the act of, and shortly before, their slaughter.
This animal cruelty is abhorrent. We should be aiming for the strictest of standards to be upheld in all abattoirs. If I had to guess, I’d say this isn’t an isolated incident and maltreatment occurs at other abattoirs in the UK. The risk of this grows as people who work in the abattoirs become desensitised to the type of unpleasant work they are performing.
The reporting of these incidents can sometimes be troublesome. It can be used to demonise Muslims and Jews and assert that this appalling behaviour can only happen in the abattoirs dedicated to ritual slaughter. This is clearly wrong.
It also muddies the ethical issue. The ethical question as I see it can be framed as this:
1. Are halal / kosher slaughter methods more humane than the ‘secular’ standard?
2. If they are not, should Muslims / Jews have the right not to adopt the ‘secular’ standard, thus understanding that the methods are sub-optimal for animal welfare?
The first question is one that is answered through science. It is measurable and demonstrable which is more humane (once we’ve defined ‘humane’).
The second is an ethical question involving the relative rights of humans and animals, and isn’t so clear.
I will put forward arguments for ‘No’ answers for both of the questions above.
Are halal / kosher slaughter methods more humane than the ‘secular’ standard?
Humane – Minimising the suffering of the animal during the slaughter process.
So, is this first question a straw man? Does anyone actually believe ritual slaughter methods (here I’m talking about non-stunned animals) are more humane than the stunned alternative?
Now, I know the source isn’t highly credible, but this argument appears to be the orthodox stance. As always, I’m open to having my mind changed. Whilst Mo Ansar doesn’t state halal is more humane in the longer article, he does in the tweet.
His argument is deeply flawed and I’m not going to spend time unpicking it, except to say that arguing that prescribed standards not being met somehow makes halal as humane is a non sequitur. It just means controls need to be put in place to ensure standards are being met. A position I totally support.
Mo does think he has evidence on his side. Ignoring the piece of the argument commented on above, he quotes the scientific studies to back up his position. And this IS a scientific argument….
He quotes 4 papers in the last 90 years. I couldn’t find the first 3 papers online. They’re just now referred to when the paper by Schulze (the misspelling isn’t mine) is quoted. This is what proponents of halal slaughter hang their scientific hats on.
What of this paper by Schulze? It was written in 1978 and quoted results of a small study done by a colleague on 15 cattle. An excellent review of this study is here. The bottom line is that this study isn’t good science. Or rather the conclusion of the report isn’t good science. Old EEG (Electroencephalography) equipment, flawed assumptions and small sample sizes eventually persuaded the author himself to distance himself from his own paper in his later years.
What about positive evidence that stunning is more humane?
These are just some of many modern studies. EEG understanding has moved on and scientific consensus (including the British Veterinary Association (BVA)) has now concluded that stunning is more humane than non-stunned ritual slaughter.
The answer to the titular question is a resounding ‘No’.
I hope that those proponents of ritual slaughter can now look beyond the first defence of science (because it is no defence, just confirmation bias and cherry picking on their part) and admit that they want the practice to continue on the grounds of their faiths.
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that slaughter techniques have improved over the last 1500 years.
Should Muslims / Jews have the right not to adopt the ‘secular’ standard, thus understanding that the methods are sub-optimal for animal welfare?
Given the scientific consensus, we move on to the ethical question. The question here is which scenario gives least suffering to the sentient beings involved.
Obviously, from the point of view of physical harm, the case is clear. It’s only the animals we consider in this scenario and scientists have reached consensus. In purely physical harm terms, it’s clearly unethical to ritually slaughter, rather than stun.
However, this isn’t the only consideration. We must accept that psychological harm can also be inflicted on the humans whose sincerely held beliefs may be being attacked. This is a valid consideration.
Herein lies the moral and ethical conundrum. Does appeasement of sincerely held beliefs in humans outweigh the incremental suffering of animals?
Even though I think reasonable adjustment should be made to accommodate faith, I don’t think this particular accommodation is reasonable.
We know societal pressure have persuaded religions to adapt their interpretations of scriptures on many things over the centuries – slavery, homosexuality, etc all now have much different orthodox interpretations to centuries ago. This has happened more quickly than this particular issue because the suffering of humans outweighs the suffering of animals. This is true, but it is not absolute. Even though I attach more weight to them, a balance still has to be struck.
I believe the alleviation of the incremental harm to the animal does outweigh the ideological belief of a human in a liberal, secular democracy in the 21st century.
As a reasonable accommodation, the ritual element of the slaughter should be allowed post-stun, when the animal is unconscious. Proper best practices and stunning methods should be enforced throughout the industry and proper monitoring should be put in place. Once the stun is effectively and professionally performed, religious minorities should be free to practise whichever final slaughter method appeases their conscience.
I accept that some people won’t agree with this view (religious and not). Let’s make sure we continue the dialogue and this is an ethical, not a scientific, discussion. The science is clear and unlikely to change.
PS For the record I think, with the advancement of artificial meat technologies and availability of other protein sources, that this will be an issue our descendants will look back in 500 years and say ‘They used to eat animals!?!?’.
A (slightly) opposing and well argued view – Matthew Scott (@BarristerBlog), here.
A more detailed & politically astute view – Rye Zuul Iblis (@RyeZuul), here.