An author, photographer and doctor of molecular genetics, for almost forty years Matthieu Ricard has worn the kasaya, the set of red and yellow robes worn by Buddhist monks. Dedicated to his pacifist, altruist and compassionate approach to life in all its forms, he campaigns body and soul for the protection of nature and its creatures. For them this freedom to exist independently is essential. We sat beside Ricard, who now calls the Schechen Monastery in Nepal his home, to discuss this essential freedom. Between his scientific arguments and his spiritual beliefs, his point of view leaves little room for debate.
To live freely is unquestionably the most universal and natural of aspirations. But how is it possible to develop one’s full potential in a restrictive environment ? Throughout history, in the name of freedom men and women have dedicated their lives so that we, without distinction, can live freely and be ourselves. Thanks to these selfless individuals of the past and present, who strive to break the last chains that bind our existence, freedom continues to gain ground against its staunchest foes.
But is the notion of “living freely” an aspiration reserved exclusively to human beings? Do not the 1.6 million animal species with which we share the planet also aspire simply to live their lives unhindered? The question is sufficiently important for us to look up from our Instagram accounts and ponder the matter for a while. At the pace of current events, by 2050 30% of animal species will have become extinct due to the “freedoms” that man allows himself to inflict on his environment.
Today 60 billion terrestrial creatures and 1,000 billion marine animals are sacrificed each year by mankind (those figures are not typing errors). So that we can indulge our desires to dress, feed and amuse ourselves.
Matthieu Ricard is a scientist and a Buddhist. His struggle for animal freedom is unique, as his approach is philosophical, spiritual and pragmatic. His book A Plea for the Animals is essential reading to discover and to understand how, by depriving animals of their freedom, we are also depriving ourselves of our own.
If you think that eating meat is good for your health, that our protein requirements justify the veiled massacre of animals, or that animals are non-sentient and without intelligence, you will be surprised… and taken aback.
Maybe the real “pigs” on this planet are its human beings?
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Antidote : Surveys taken around the world have shown that the large majority of humans feel respect, compassion and friendship towards animals. However, each year we deprive billions of animals of their freedom, killing them for our own benefit (food, clothing, scientific experiments, etc.). How can this paradox be explained?
Matthieu Ricard : It is the result of cognitive dissociation and a lack of ethical consistency. The cognitive dissociation is linked to the fact that we love dogs, eat pigs and clothe ourselves with the skins of cows. These distinctions and the consequences they have in terms of the suffering or welfare, the life or death of different animal species, are entirely illogical and unacceptable.
We cannot divide animals up on the basis of whether we think they are edible, marketable, intelligent or cute. The only worthy criterion is do they suffer or not? And the answer is “yes.” Why make them suffer and prevent them from living their lives until their natural death?
Why not provide them with conditions suited to their well-being?
The ethical inconsistency derives from the fact that we have made immense progress in the field of human rights, and the status of women and children, and that today it is unacceptable and illegal to place a monetary value on human life. In contrast, no intrinsic value is placed on animal life unless for commercial or sentimental reasons (the latter regarding pets). Our code of ethics will not be complete until we have rectified this huge anomaly.
Antidote : Many religions infer more or less openly that animals were created for our benefit. Distinguished philosophers like Descartes consider animals as inferior beings, “animal machines” devoid of emotions, intelligence and non-sentient, in particular of pain. What does science have to say on the subject of the consciousness and psychological and physical sentience of animals?
Matthieu Ricard : When they became sedentary, humans were able to domesticate animals systematically. Today, only cultures that have domesticated animals argue that they are inferior to man. Hunter-gatherers do not consider animals as inferior, just different to us, and capable of thought and feelings similar to ours.
Breeders, who live in close contact with their animals and have a personal attachment to them, inevitably suffer feelings of guilt at making them suffer and having them slaughtered. It is generally uncomfortable to live with a persistent bad conscience. Man therefore had to find a way to morally justify his exploitation of other species. Some religions base their anthropocentrism on divine will. However, other religions – Buddhism and Jainism in particular – have always advocated compassion towards all sentient beings, of which animals are clearly part.
The status of animals among philosophers experienced one of its darkest periods with Descartes’s “animal machines”. He said that not only do animals exist purely for the benefit of man but, furthermore, they have no feelings.
Science has dismantled all these absurdities. The experiencing of pain in particular has been developed over millions of years, as it is essential to survival. It is an alarm signal that goads an animal to avoid what is threatening its physical welfare as rapidly as possible. Today we know that not only mammals but fish, birds and crustaceans feel pain and have nerve endings dedicated to experiencing pain. And subjective suffering, which appeared with the development of emotions, is also present among many species.
Today it is clear that a great number of species are endowed with consciousness. In 2012 a group of distinguished cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists drafted the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (1), in which they stated, “…the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates”. We thus have no excuse for treating animals as we do.
Antidote : In addition to all animals having the specific awareness of pain, science has also revealed that they have surprising levels of intelligence. What, in your opinion, are the most extraordinary and unexpected examples?
Matthieu Ricard: There are dozens. A Japanese scientist has shown that, in return for food, pigeons are able to recognise paintings on the grounds of the painter’s style, distinguishing, for example, between works by Picasso and Monet. They were even capable of making generalisations and recognising “style” groups.
The first Japanese primatologist, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, has shown that the short-term memory of chimpanzees is better than that of an adult human. They are able to remember without effort a random series of nine numbers and make fewer errors than humans. In nature, chimpanzees can recognise more than 250 nutritive and medicinal plants.
The primatologist Roger Fouts taught American sign language to several chimpanzees, including the famous Washoe, who built up a vocabulary of 350 signs. It turned out that these great apes were able to communicate between themselves using these signs and researchers recorded several hundred conversations between them.
In the laboratory, crows and kea parrots are able to exploit complex tools that they had never used before. In nature, the crows of New Caledonia make hooks using twigs to find insects. It was only 30,000 years ago that man began using hooks. In winter, keas make snowballs by pushing them with their head, purely for amusement.
After five attempts, rainbowfish learn to find a hole that allows them to escape from a net and, yet more surprising, they succeed at the first attempt eleven months later. There are hundreds of equally convincing examples of animal intelligence.
Antidote : In the 1970s the psychologist Richard Ryder coined a word that allowed us to conceptualise the pain and indifference that animals suffer. The word is speciesism. How is it defined?
Matthieu Ricard: Speciesism refers to the attitude that denies respect for the life, dignity and needs of animals of species other than humans. The philosopher Martin Gibert even talks about speciesism as a form of human supremacy, such that belonging to the human species intrinsically confers superiority over other species: superiority “thought to give us the right to place human interests above those of other animals, whether they are as futile as an interest in foie gras, fur coats or dog fights”. (2)
It is way overdue that we recognise that animals are not simply for our exploitation. They were not placed on Earth to serve us, feed us or comfort us. They have their own subjective existence and thus equal and inviolable rights to life and freedom, which forbids us to do them harm, kill them, imprison them, own them or use them as slaves.
Taking into consideration the continuity of evolution, trying to find lines between individuals belonging to different species is poor biology. This is nothing but the creation of artificial boundaries that has disastrous consequences for species considered “inferior.”
« We cannot divide animals up on the basis of whether we think they are edible, marketable, intelligent or cute. »
Antidote : Every year billions of animals are slaughtered purely to nourish us. However, it seems that the protein value of animals is much less than is generally believed.
Matthieu Ricard : There are between 550 and 600 million vegetarians in the world and they are as healthy as, if not healthier than, meat eaters.
The idea that people who do not eat animal products suffer from certain lacks has no scientific basis. According to data provided by the WHO and FAO, on which a great number of studies are based, essential amino acids are present in quantity and sufficient proportions in most plant-based foods. With regard to total protein content, comparison of a hundred or so food types shows that the 13 richest in protein are vegetables (including soya at 38.2%, grass peas [Lathyrus sativus] at 33.1%, red kidney beans and lentils at 23.5%, and a fungus used as beer yeast at 48%). The first meat (ham, 22.5%) is only in 14th position, followed by tuna (21.5%) in 23rd, and eggs and milk respectively 33rd (12.5%) and 75th (3.3%). Therefore, normal vegetable-based nourishment is largely sufficient for our protein requirements.
For those who think that being vegetarian affects physical performance negatively, take note of the following vegetarian athletic champions:
– Carl Lewis, winner of 9 gold Olympic medals and 8 world championships;
– Bode Miller, American downhill skier, Olympic medallist and world champion;
– Edwin Moses, unbeaten in 122 consecutive races in the 400-metre hurdles;
– Martina Navratilova, winner of the greatest number of competition titles in the history of tennis;
– Scott Jurek, American ultra-marathon runner, who in 2010 set the distance record for running 266
kilometres in 24 hours;
– Patrik Baboumian, called “the strongest man in the world”.
Mention should also be made of Fauja Singh, an Indian vegetarian who became the first centenarian to complete a marathon (he did this in Toronto in 2011), and the young memory world champion, Jonas Von Essen, who is vegan.
Antidote : The consumption of fish and meat is thus not essential to our food intake. What can you tell us about their impact on our health?
Matthieu Ricard : Animal protein has no special, unique value; quite the contrary.
Commissioned by the WHO, a group of 22 experts from the International Cancer Research Center (ICRC), from 10 different countries, analysed more than 600 scientific studies on the health effects of the regular consumption of meat. Their conclusion was that the consumption of processed meat has been classified as cancerogenous for man (Group 1) and placed in the same group as asbestos and tobacco, while the consumption of red meat in general is classified as probably cancerogenous for man.
In just one of those studies – carried out at Harvard University in 2012 by An Pan, Frank Hu and their colleagues on more than 100,000 subjects followed for a number of years – it was revealed that the daily consumption of meat is associated with an 18% increased risk of cardiovascular death in men, and with a 21% greater risk in women, while the risk of death by cancer was increased respectively by 10% and 16%. For consumers of large quantities of red meat, the simple fact of replacing meat with whole cereals or other sources of vegetable protein diminished the risk of premature death by 14%.
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Antidote : In your book you use the word “zoocide” to refer to the organised massacre of animals. The parallel with “genocide” is obvious. What do human genocide and animal zoocide have in common?
Matthieu Ricard : I took every possible precaution to properly distinguish between the mass killing of animals and the concept of genocide, which only concerns human beings. There are many differences between the two, here are some:
– the value of human life cannot be placed on the same level as that of an animal and, if a choice has to be made between saving a human life and an animal life, there is no question about which is the course to take. Nonetheless, this does not in any way justify making an animal suffer or putting it to death without need.
– genocide is motivated by hate while the killing of animals is caused for the most part by greed, profit or pleasure, and is accompanied by indifference to the animals’ fate.
– the aim of genocide is to eradicate a people or ethnic group. The aim of animal exploitation is to breed them physically and numerically as quickly and cheaply as possible, then to kill them and use them, generation upon generation.
What genocide and zoocide have in common are the devaluation of their victims, the desensitization of their executors, the mental dissociation that operates within them, the methods of extermination, the concealment of the facts by their executors, and the refusal to know by those able to learn the facts.
Devaluation: humans and animals are both devalued. Humans are dehumanised and are thought of and treated like animals like rats or cockroaches. Animals are “deanimalized” and relegated to the level of “things”, “sausage filling”, “industrial products” or “food types”.
Desensitization and mental dissociation: in both cases we see the executors become desensitized and undergo mental dissociation, allowing them to carry out their violence while continuing to function normally in ordinary life, to be ruthless with their victims and loving towards their families, friends and other members of their group.
The methods: the most striking resemblances between genocide and zoocide are the methods and techniques used. Huge numbers of living beings are reduced to mere numbers and devalued, stocked in filthy conditions and places, then transported long distances without water or food to their place of death, where they are executed without mercy. For animals, almost all the parts of their bodies are used to produce food, clothes, footwear, fertilizer and even food for other victims of the same system (fish meal given to livestock, for example).
Antidote : What does the law say about the rights and freedom of animals? Do you believe things are moving in the right direction?
Matthieu Ricard : Obviously, it’s a good thing that French law now says that animals can no longer be considered as “biens mobiliers” (personal property), an astonishing position, but as “êtres sensibles” (sentient beings). It was about time. But that’s not enough. If we really believe animals to be sentient beings, is it ethically acceptable in France to kill 1 billion each year for our benefit?
« If we really believe animals to be sentient beings, is it ethically acceptable in France to kill 1 billion each year for our benefit? »
Antidote : Which countries are leading the way for animal “freedom and rights?” What are the ideas and established mechanisms?
Matthieu Ricard : In 2002 Germany was the first country in the European Union to include animal rights in its constitution, and several countries have followed this lead by inserting the protection of animals in their national charter, thus making it a duty of the State. The German legislators approved by a majority of 66% that the clause obliging the State “to respect and protect the dignity of humans” be modified to include “and animals.” And the constitutions of Switzerland, Luxembourg, India and Brazil protect all animals without distinction. The laws of Finland go even further, recognising that animals have intellectual capacities.
Austrian law is the most advanced, however. The law on animals there requires “the State to protect the life and welfare of animals as cohabitants of humans”. According to this law, no animal can be killed without good reason, nor can they be kept or used in a circus (apart from domestic animals), even if it is not for commercial gain. The law also states that each province must pay lawyers who specialise in animal rights and are qualified to act in trials concerning animal protection.
Antidote : You raise the subject of international reform regarding animal rights. What would be the main principles on which it would be founded?
Matthieu Ricard : We would need to assign animals with rights that vary according to their manner of existence. The most innovative approach to this is expressed by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka in Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. These authors envisage three types of animal rights. They propose treating wild animals as communities with their own territories. The principle of sovereignty aims to protect communities against paternalist or self-interested meddling by more powerful communities.
Wild animals are able to feed themselves, move independently, avoid danger, handle the risks they take, play, choose a sexual partner and raise a family.
They generally do not search out contact with humans. It is thus desirable to protect their lifestyle, protect their territory, respect their will for self-government and avoid activities that harm them either directly (hunting, destruction of biotopes) or indirectly (pollution, environmental degradation caused by human activities).
Domestic animals that live with us and are dependent upon us could be considered as citizens of our political communities. Citizenry is not simply the right to vote, it also gives the right to live on a territory, in decent conditions, and to be represented in institutions. Domestic animals could express their preferences in many situations by, for example, either coming to us or moving away from us.
This does not exclude the fact that humans might intelligently profit from normal animal activities in an environment suited to their needs and liking, though without inflicting suffering or death on them.
As for those animals that are neither domestic nor wild, which live independently in a territory that is either inhabited or cultivated by humans, such as pigeons, sparrows, gulls, crows, mice, bats, squirrels, etc., they could be treated as “permanent residents”. They would have the right to be there but we would have no obligations to look after them, such as protecting them from predators or providing them with health care.
Antidote : Matthieu, you say “every living being has the right to live and not to be the victim of suffering imposed by others,” and that “if it is possible to live without inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals, then we should do so.” Imagine that tomorrow all animals are suddenly in a position to enjoy freedom, how will we be able to control and manage them?
Matthieu Ricard: That is a non-problem. It is not a question of suddenly putting the billions of domestic animals into the streets and fields. Over the period of a few years the transition could be made gradually. What’s more, we can lively perfectly well with pets, taking care of them, without inflicting violence on them or an early death. Dairy cows and egg-laying chickens can very easily live outside in the fields, from which we can take the milk (once they have fed their young) and eggs without harming them and allowing them to live until they die a natural death.
Antidote : Lastly, what would be your advice for each of us to participate, in our own way, in the animal rights movement?
Matthieu Ricard : Do not ignore the question: decide in your heart and conscience whether you wish human life to continue by benefiting from the suffering and death of other sentient beings.
(1) The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf
(2) Gibert, M. (2015). Op.cit., p. 168
(3) Donaldson, (S.), & Kymlicka, (W.), Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford University Press, 2011.