The Social Science of the World in 100 objects – The Cage

The cage: protecting animals from liberation?

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects is an innovative project that provides a social science perspective to everyday objects. It is inspired by the popular BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project, initiated by Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology, provides a social science angle to everyday objects through short articles written by University of Leicester academics. Drawing on their specialist research, academics from the College of Social Sciences deliver interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on objects in and out of the home, which might just change your perceptions on the things around us.

A cage usually holds negative connotations; it is an agent of oppression where freedom is either limited or unobtainable. The image of an open cage is stereotypically representative of animal rights activists who are thought to believe that there should be a complete abolition of animal suffering in every sense; no animals should be used or killed for food or medical purposes. But whether animal rights activists actually hold views similar to Tom Regan, a moral philosopher who says that animals ‘should be liberated from human use’, is subject to much debate.

If someone were to use a blowtorch on a rabbit, it would surely be classified as cruelty in the form of the unnecessary infliction of pain on an animal. But what if the person using the blowtorch and the rabbit was doing it in the name of science and medicine? Perhaps to test a new ointment which could be used on human burns? Would the use of the blowtorch then be necessary?

If this is deemed acceptable because it is furthering our understanding of burns and will perhaps contribute to better medicine for humans, is it then acceptable to use humans in this way, if it furthers our medical knowledge even more and provides cures to previously incurable conditions? For example, the Nazi experimentation on humans in the early 1940’s provided useful medical information, yet because of its abhorrent use of humans, this period in history is remembered as a time of terrible suffering, not human advancement.

Humans are perhaps morally superior to animals because they have free-will, rationality, agency and personhood. They certainly seem to have a greater capacity because they intrinsically value liberty, whereas animals do not. For example, locking large groups of humans into a confined space is morally wrong and could lead to some psychological harm, but locking large groups of animals into an average-sized pen seems to lead to no long-term effects. However, despite these advantages and differences, is not the experience of suffering still similar?

One person’s ‘necessary’ is often another person’s ‘gratuitous suffering’ and it is inherently subjective as to whether certain experiments are required or not. For example, the testing of another product cleaner or shampoo when there are already hundreds of varieties seems wasteful to many, but not to the manufacturer testing them who is subject to masses of health and safety regulations.

What many don’t take into account when the phrase ‘animal testing’ is mentioned is the fact that this is one of the final stages in the process. There should be an extensive amount of preliminary research carried out before any physical testing can begin and although this does not ensure no harm will come to the animals involved, it means that people do not go blindly into experimentation that involves animals. Unfortunately in some cases, this preliminary research is undertaken on animals.

The animal welfare ethic is flawed because it doesn’t often take into account the common interests of humans and animals. This is open to much debate and takes a rather radical position in the animal rights discussion. Do animals want an open cage? Or is their subordination necessary to both human and animal welfare?

By Professor Robert Garner, Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester.

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