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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 214 - Spring 2010

The Ark Interview: Richard D. Ryder

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 and sexism.

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 all suffer!

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..

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