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Moral Progress and Animal Welfare

PRINCETON – Mahatma Gandhi acutely observed that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” To seek to reduce the suffering of those who are completely under one’s domination, and unable to fight back, is truly a mark of a civilized society.

Charting the progress of animal-welfare legislation around the world is therefore an indication of moral progress more generally. Last month, parallel developments on opposite sides of the world gave us grounds for thinking that the world may, slowly and haltingly, be becoming a little more civilized.

First, the British House of Commons passed a motion directing the government to impose a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. The motion followed the release of undercover footage, obtained by Animal Defenders International, of a circus worker repeatedly beating Anne, an elephant. The measure was, at least initially, opposed by the Conservative government, but supported by members of all political parties. In a triumph for parliamentary democracy, the motion passed without dissent.

More controversially, the lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a law giving the Jewish and Islamic communities a year to provide evidence that animals slaughtered by traditional methods do not experience greater pain than those that are stunned before they are killed. If the evidence cannot be provided, stunning before slaughter will be required in the Netherlands.