Dr Richard D. Ryder is one of the pioneers of the animal liberation movement.
He has been chairman of the RSPCA, Director of the Political Animal Lobby (PAL),
author of numerous books and a university professor. In the following interview
with our Editor, he explains what motivates him in his work on behalf of animals.
DMJ: You began your career as a psychologist, working in a laboratory
where animals were used. What was it that turned you against this work?
Richard D. Ryder: I was appalled to read about all the cruelty that was
being inflicted: animals blinded, starved, shocked and having their brains
surgically damaged. So-called psychologists were terrifying and torturing
animals all over the world in experiments. But that was in the 1960s. Today,
thank goodness, the situation is marginally better, at least in Britain.
DMJ: You invented the term ‘speciesism’. How did that come about?
Richard D. Ryder: In 1970 I was in my bath at home near Oxford thinking
about the huge gap between the way humans worry (quite rightly) about how we
treat other humans and how relatively little concern we showed to the other
animals. We kill them, chase them for sport, imprison them, torture them for
science and eat them, and nobody worries. It seemed totally disproportionate!
The scientific evidence suggested strongly that dogs and cats and monkeys and
pigs and hundreds of other species could suffer pain and distress almost exactly
like humans, so what was the real difference? It struck me that the implications
of Darwinism had just not sunk in.
Darwin had said there was no real difference in quality between us and the
other animals, only a difference in degree. Clearly we had got used to being
prejudiced against the other species just like many people did with race in
those days. Racism was a bad habit that overlooked the fact that humans of other
races suffer just like we do. We are doing the same towards the other species. I
called this unintelligent prejudice ‘speciesism’ to draw the analogy with racism
All these prejudices emphasise various real or imagined differences between
groups of suffering individuals (such as skin colour, physical strength,
sexuality or intelligence) not realising that these differences are morally
quite irrelevant. What matters morally-speaking is that these individuals can
DMJ: You also, more recently, came up with the term ‘painism’. What do
you mean by that?
Richard D. Ryder: I have proposed a new moral theory which I have called
painism. It says that the only evil is pain (by pain I mean any kind of
suffering whether it is sensory, cognitive or emotional) and that the goodness
of an action can be measured by the amount of pain reduced and the consequent
happiness caused. This sounds rather like Utilitarianism except that I reject
the central flaw in Utilitarianism which is the adding up of all the pains and
pleasures of separate individuals, when calculating whether an action is good or
bad. This is nonsense and leads to ridiculous results.
Take the case of a gang rape. Utilitarianism could be forced to say that a
gang rape is a good thing if the added-up total of the pleasures of all the
rapists comes to a total of pleasures that is greater than the pain of the
victim! But, of course, pains and pleasures cannot be added across individuals.
Pains are not like apples or pears; they have to be experienced. You can’t add
the loves or fears or nostalgias of several individuals and make meaningful
totals, so why try to do it with pains? No-one experiences these totals. Painism
rejects such totalling although it does still allow the trading-off of the pains
of one individual against the pleasures of another individual in cost-benefit
situations. In conclusion, painism says it is wrong to cause pain to another
individual, regardless of species. X amount of pain in a dog or a duck matters
equally with X amount of pain in a human being. I deal with these issues in my
new book Speciesism and Pianism: a morality for the future, to be published by
Imprint Academic in 2011.
DMJ: You worked with Peter Singer and Tom Regan – do you share all their
views? How do yours differ?
Richard D. Ryder: We are all anti-speciesists. That’s the important
point. However, Tom Regan does not attach the supreme importance to pain that I
do, and Peter Singer (as a Utilitarian) has the problem with adding up the pains
(and pleasures) of separate individuals that I have just described in the
previous answer; this has led to the justification of some painful animal
experiments, for example, because they appear to benefit (however slightly) a
huge number of others. Torture can be justified by Utilitarianism if it leads to
greater total benefits and this can easily happen if the benefit affects a huge
number. So the torture of an individual can be justified, theoretically, by
Utilitarians, if it leads to a greater total of some mild advantages or luxuries
for, say, a few thousand others. Surely that’s not much of a moral theory! When
it comes to an atrocity or an act of great cruelty, the greater the number of
beneficiaries there are (however slight the benefits to each), the greater the
chances are that Utilitarianism will have to permit it!
DMJ: Of the many campaigns in which you have been engaged, which have
been the most satisfying and successful?
Richard D. Ryder: Gosh, I have been involved in dozens. The earliest were
my campaigns to stop otter hunting (which succeeded in 1977) and to get new
legislation to protect laboratory animals in Britain and the EU (only achieved
in 1986 after sixteen years of work!) My friends and I stopped the use of Beagle
dogs in smoking experiments in 1975 (I think) and eventually helped to stop the
testing of cosmetics on animals in Europe. Most recently I played a part in the
passage and contents of the recent Animal Welfare and Hunting Acts in Britain.
More and more RSPCA colleagues became involved over the years and they often
deserve more credit than I do. Nearly all the improvements in farm animal
welfare that I have been involved in were led by organisations like CIWF. With
them I initiated the successful campaign to put animal welfare into the basic
constitution of Europe at Maastricht. With the protection of elephants and seals
I worked with IFAW (and PAL).
I played a leading part in introducing Dog Wardens in this country and in
putting animals into the heart of politics in Europe generally. (The highly
successful Eurogroup was established only after long and hard campaigning on my
part.) The reform and modernisation of the RSPCA has often been the hardest
campaign of all. In the EU there were thirteen major legislative achievements
between 1983 (the ban on baby sealskin imports) and 2003 (the ban on cosmetics
testing) and I was closely involved with all but three of them. It has become
increasingly a team effort where individuals do not so clearly stand out as we
pioneers were privileged to do. Now we need to look for reforms in the new giant
economies like China, India and Brazil, and in the UN. Over the years I have
also lobbied in the US, Canada and Australia. We must press forward
internationally, using science, publicity, law and reasoned compassion.
DMJ: How helpful, or otherwise, do you consider to have been the
contribution of religion – or, to narrow that down – the Christian Churches, in
the cause of animals?
Richard D. Ryder: I am afraid the Christian Churches have not been very
helpful. Of course there have been wonderful individuals like Andrew Linzey and
Cardinal Heenan (who wrote me a strong letter of support shortly before he died)
but generally the Churches have acted heartlessly towards animal suffering. They
are like the arrogant Pharisees in Jesus’ time. If Jesus were on Earth today he
would undoubtedly be an animal rights activist! Why do you think he went into
the temple and overthrew the tables of the dealers in animals being sold for
mass and bloody sacrifice? He was incensed by the cruelty! Christianity is
supposed to be about love and compassion isn’t it? Then why leave out God’s
creatures? Look at most of the early saints – they loved animals and rescued
them. It was only when that pompous pagan Thomas Aquinas came along that they
were told not to do it. It’s time the Church woke up! At the moment it is not
only sexist, it is totally speciesist!
DMJ: What do you think that we in CCA (and CCA-USA) could be doing better
to bring about a conversion of attitude among our co-religionists?
Richard D. Ryder: Well, I would not presume to tell you. To an outsider
the Church seems to be obsessed with sex and trivial gender issues while too
often ignoring suffering. Why don’t they concentrate on trying to reduce all the
pain in the world, including that of the animals? People would respect them more
if they did.
DMJ: Do you consider that we, in the West, are becoming more or less
concerned about the plight of suffering animals?
Richard D. Ryder: I think we are gradually becoming more so. At the
moment the deeply corrupt media in Britain are not so interested in the subject
because it appears to have lost its novelty. But the ideas that were revived in
the 1970s still continue to sink in. We must keep writing emails and letters to
MPs, chief executives and television directors demanding better animal
protection. The encouraging thing is that all humans have a compassionate side
to their natures and if they are shown cruelty they will often react against it.
Sadly, the technologies of exploitation continue to expand but societies that
are increasingly affluent and peaceful do tend to find time for the animals – as
we are beginning to see in Asia and South America today..