“No animals were harmed”: Strict film standards are not evidence that violence toward animals is decreasing

Blackfish, a film about orcas in captivity, has stirred up a recurrent debate about using animals for entertainment. This tiny fraction of animals who suffer under human care in the service of entertainment is much more controversial than other animal uses that cause greater harm in aggregate. This could be for a variety of reasons, and here I’ll reference Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, a framework for understanding moral reasoning. The harm/benefit calculation of animal suffering may not add up when the ends are as obviously unnecessary as entertainment. Liberals, those most concerned with animal welfare, tend to be more focused on harm/care but can also be concerned with purity (aka sanctity/degradation) in the form of what is “natural”. Eating meat is considered natural but using animals for entertainment (or shooting them for sport) is much more maligned. Moreover, animals used in entertainment are, almost by definition, charismatic and anthropomorphized, a recipe for identifying with those who are unfairly treated. Is this moral outrage the beginning of consciousness raising about animal treatment more generally?

In “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, Steven Pinker impressively maps out all the ways that violence is decreasing in our world. However, as I pointed out in a radio episode about this book and its implications for animals, I fundamentally disagree with his idea that violence towards animals is decreasing as well as what he sees as the major barriers to an animal rights revolution (e.g. where to draw the line of sentience, “meat hunger”). Moreover, as I pointed to in a previous blog, I am skeptical that pushing for improvements in animal welfare will have significant impact on actual animal welfare for a variety of reasons (e.g. evolved ethical blind spots toward animal suffering).

One of Pinker’s central arguments is that a reduction in animal harm in films is indicative of this trend toward a reduction in violence towards animals. At the time, I made the argument that, because of more nonviolent social norms, people have become less tolerant of visible animal harm (as in films) and their reputation regarding harming animals (e.g. distaste for hunting, better treatment of pets, support for stricter laws concerning animal treatment). Unfortunately, humane use of animals in films is a case study in superficial regulation that does a better job of assuaging the guilt of consumers and polishing the reputation of producers than actually preventing animal harm.   

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