Cruelty to animals

Jo-Anne McArthur Djurattsalliansen

Image by Jo-Anne McArthur, Djurattsalliansen

Originally posted on 22 November 2015, reviewed and links updated 2021

Cruelty to animals. If ever there was a phrase that seems so clear but says so little, then this is it. We all say we hate it, we all agree with those who say they oppose it, and we all condemn those who perpetrate it. But – and this may come as a surprise – almost every one of us is thinking of something completely different when we use it. We almost never acknowledge this, finding it much more comfortable to assume a shared frame of reference with others who use it.

So why is this? It’s because ‘cruelty to animals’ is a completely subjective phrase. Now just to be sure we’re completely clear about the meaning of the word ‘subjective’, it boils down to this: ‘subjective describes something that means different things to different people.

So why might that be a problem?

Why indeed. Lots of other things are subjective and in general, little harm is done. For instance, when each of us thinks of ‘young’ and ‘old’ people, we tend to use ourselves as a benchmark. For example, I am way past the age that I thought of as ‘old’ when I was in my 20s.  To family members, I refer to myself as ‘elderly’ in a tongue-in-cheek kind of a way but to be absolutely honest, I’m not sure what it will take for me to truly see myself as old. I don’t suppose there’s any harm in this and if it serves to make my sons shake their heads fondly at my delusions, I don’t mind.

So some subjective references are not inherently harmful, however I firmly believe that the seemingly innocuous little term, ‘cruelty to animals’ is one of the most dangerous and harmful there is, not in terms of grammar or language, but in terms of the ones who always suffer while we’re mincing our words. Our victims.

Part of the harm lies in the fact that we all think we know what it means, and in our certainty that we know, we rarely question its meaning when others use it. We tend to assume we’re on the same page, on the same side, sharing the same values, and we find comfort and are reassured about our own behaviour in the shared sentiment that we’re assuming.

What we almost never do, is ask others what exactly they mean by ‘cruelty to animals’. Before I became vegan, if someone were to have asked me exactly what I meant by it, I’d have struggled with that question. I’d have done a bit of hand waving to indicate how nebulous the concept is, and I’m sure there would have been a few ‘you know what I mean’s and ‘sort of’s in my explanation. Because really I didn’t have a fixed idea. I could have quoted a few extreme instances of brutality but that was it.

Why don’t we check our frame of reference?

So why don’t we check? There are a number of reasons for this that I have learned during several years of doing advocacy and blogging. Of course as I have lived more than six decades on this planet, it would be fair to say that life has taught me a thing or two and sometimes what is not said is just as telling as what is said. So I have come to the conclusion that for most of us, we subconsciously use two main strategies:

  1. We stick to the beliefs we’ve always had
  2. We use our own behaviour as the benchmark

Sticking to the beliefs we’ve always had

What do I mean by this? ‘Sticking to the beliefs we’ve always had’ means that we each have our own, personal beliefs about what we need to do and what we are entitled to do. For most of us – even those who are ‘young’ by my reckoning – the roots of these ‘beliefs’ are lost in the mists of time. We were taught them at about the same time as we were taught not to poke our fingers into electrical sockets or put beads up our nose. We become adult just ‘knowing’ these things but can’t recall where the ‘knowledge’ came from. No one ever sits down to consider or challenge why we should not put our fingers in sockets etc. because we regard these truths as self-evident.

And so it is with our beliefs about those of other species, our importance and worth when compared to them, and the uses we believe we need to make, are entitled to make, as a consequence of our assumed importance and perceived superiority. We rarely challenge these beliefs and in fact deride the suggestion that we should, in much the same way that we would rightly react to a suggestion that we have a serious debate about the existence of the tooth fairy.

We use our own behaviour as the benchmark

‘We use our own behaviour as the benchmark’, means that in general, we consider ‘cruelty’ to be something that others do. We invariably start from the assumption that we ourselves are doing nothing wrong, as evidenced and emphasised by our ready declarations condemning ‘cruelty to animals’, and we look outward at other people, other nations, other cultures, always others. We look outward, we find fault and we point fingers of blame and condemnation.

Thus armed with our ‘knowledge’ and clearly believing ourselves to be above reproach, we confidently condemn ‘cruelty to animals’. Almost all of us do this before we have even heard of veganism, and when we do hear about it, it’s seldom a welcome topic.

So why is veganism an unwelcome topic for us?

It’s unwelcome because it forces us to examine our actions in a new light, an honest, truthful one. Veganism forces us to reconsider what we were taught from childhood, that animal use is necessary for our well-being. We discover that in fact, the opposite is true.

Veganism forces us to reconsider why we should think ourselves somehow more important, more worthy than other species.  In our eyes as human animals, other animals have previously occupied a no-man’s-land in terms of definition. We were always aware that they are not things or objects, however we resisted the natural conclusion to which this awareness should lead. Our use of them up to the point where we understand veganism, has refused to acknowledge their sentience, our glaringly obvious similarities, and has determinedly ignored the fact that they are the same as us in every way that matters.

Veganism forces us to realise the fact that our every ‘choice’ is a decision to violate the rights of defenceless and innocent individuals who are exactly like us in every way but species. Their lives matter to them. They share bonds of love and friendship with their family and friends. Each one is a unique individual who experiences life as we do, through their senses, their interactions with others, through their memories, through their environment. 

We think we’re on the same page but we’re not

So coming back to the phrase that started this essay, ‘cruelty to animals’, what does this shifting frame of reference mean in real terms? When we are not vegan and living in our western society, and we declare this to others as – let’s face it – nearly everyone does, we are thinking about actions that hurt dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, hamsters or members of the other species that we think of as ‘pets’.

We are thinking about actions or circumstances that fall outside our own, personal, accepted range of ‘necessary’ actions (our benchmark), although we will sometimes concede that even these should be done ‘humanely’ (which is another subjective and loaded word). Examples of this are when we call for ‘compassion’ (a subjective concept), ‘kinder choices’ (a subjective concept), and for more laws to ‘regulate’ the ‘welfare‘ of our unnecessary victims while we are carrying out the inevitable denial of their fundamental rights that forms the bedrock of all the uses that are made of them to satisfy our consumer demands.

This is a path that invariably leads to xenophobia and ‘otherisation’, because other cultures have a different set of species to which they give ‘special’ consideration and a different range of actions that are perceived as ‘necessary’. It’s a path littered with grey areas, with personal definitions of ‘essential’ and ‘necessities’, little individual justifications that we each invent. Most significantly, it’s a path where we always ensure that the parameters excuse our OWN behaviour, regardless of what we do .

So is there an objective definition of ‘cruelty to animals’?

There is a definition; all we need to do is define our frame of reference. ‘Cruelty’ is the inflicting of harm or distress on another and let’s presume for the sake of avoiding argument that we accept the (debatable) qualification that all humans tend to adopt; that in certain circumstances ‘harm’ may be justified as being unavoidable or even necessary, and further define cruelty to mean ‘unnecessary or avoidable harm’. Is it possible to define ‘cruelty to animals’ objectively (i.e not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts)?

Humans do not need to use or consume or otherwise use members of other species for any purpose. We have a myriad alternatives and as a highly inventive species we have no trouble at all in finding them. (Even if we did not have these alternatives, it would still be immoral for us to confine, use and kill countless billions of sentient individuals every year simply because we can – but this is a moot point). Using other individuals is inherently harmful to them. It is harmful because it prioritises our unnecessary habits, our convenience and our selfish indulgence over every single right they have. They are our victims.

The recognition of the fact that we have no need to make others into our victims, and the decision to live true to this recognition, is the definition of what happens when we become vegan. So in fact, the objective definition of ‘cruelty to animals’ may be summed up in a single word; nonveganism.

Telling it like it is

So let’s stop talking about ‘cruelty to animals’, because as a phrase it is meaningless. I have seen so many arguments arise between self-proclaimed ‘animal lovers’ (a subjective concept) many of whom are still using other individuals as I once did, excusing my own actions and seeing fault only in others. These arguments frequently accuse vegans of being divisive, claiming that since we all condemn ‘cruelty to animals’, we must all be on the same side.

Make no mistake, we’re NOT on all the same side at all and in our complacency about our shared (mis)understanding, lies a bloodbath, a continuing nightmare for over 80 billion land animals and trillions of aquatic individuals each year; each one of them an innocent, vulnerable creature who needs us all to be absolutely clear on their behalf.

There is a crystal clear line that separates being vegan from not being vegan. That’s the one we need to recognise and cross. Let’s keep working towards that day.

Be vegan.


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28 Responses to Cruelty to animals

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  24. Howard says:

    Unfortunately, promoting veganism as it relates to the direct *use* of animals is merely a single-issue campaign. Is it a consistent and morally justifiable approach to refuse to consume animal products, while tolerating (or ignoring) the suffering and death that enables other elements of our comfortable lifestyle? For instance, I’d suggest that air travel = nonveganism, by your definition,


    • In the context of animal rights, single issue campaigns focus on promoting welfare standards or treatment of an individual, a group of individuals, a species, a group of species; in fact any area within the overall arena of animal use. However they do not – and this is the key – do not promote an action that ends all unnecessary use. Veganism does this.

      When you claim that veganism is, in itself, a single issue, I assume that your context is in a wider area than animal rights and I can appreciate your viewpoint.

      You have previously mentioned air travel as a comment on a previous post so I take it that this is a subject particularly close to your heart. As someone who last flew in 1984, it is not something that I am very knowledgeable about. I would say, however, that the need to minimise consumption in every area of our lives is something that every ethically and environmentally aware person ought to be doing.

      Veganism’s definition as originally stated by Donald Watson describes ‘a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.’ This, to me, suggests that we should all be ever mindful of the harm that our actions may be causing and should always seek the path that causes the least harm. It is most certainly a mistake to consider that veganism is a dietary choice; it’s an ethical stance.

      My focus is and will continue to be on the animals that we deliberately and unnecessarily breed into existence to kill. Annual deaths of land animals for ‘food’ are currently about 60 billion and this does not include deaths for other purposes such as testing, clothing and the myriad other ‘justifications’ our species devises. Neither do statistics include those nonhumans who are kept alive in the dairy and egg industries so that their reproductive systems may be exploited to breaking point before their deaths. It does not include the estimated trillions of aquatic creatures who die for our indulgence each year.

      These numbers are known, as is the deliberate and cynical process that begins and ends their lives as if they were nothing more than objects. Also becoming known and publicised globally, are the environmental and human health disasters that our obsessive use of other beings is causing.

      I would suggest that the wild creatures on whom air travel has a negative impact, although I have found no statistics on this, are certainly a symptom of a wider environmental disaster caused by our species’ utter failure to recognise that we are destroying this planet at our extreme peril.

      I promote veganism as a moral issue – always have, always will. Others promote the move to plant based living for health and environmental reasons. Whatever the driving force, I believe it is the only way that our species and this planet can survive.


  25. Very well reasoned and analyzed piece on the human propensity for side-stepping and shuffling our perceptions to accommodate how comfortably to fit within the status quo.


  26. critical thinking in action – well done.


  27. Anna Daftari says:

    You are so right ! I think sometimes it is important to have a reminder like this ❤ Love, Anna xx


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