THE MADNESS OF MODERN MORALITY
When the RSPCA decided yesterday to ignore the protestations of her devotee carers and “put down” the ailing Gangotri–a 13 year-old cow living at Bhaktivedanta Manor–they were moved by compassionate considerations. Their spokesperson said, “We do understand and respect religious beliefs but at the heart of our organisation is the belief that animals should not suffer.” In their view the pain she felt from “infected sores” was such that the only answer was to kill her by lethal injection, which they duly administered as the horrified devotees looked on.
Though it is claimed to be compassion, killing as a response to suffering is not something readily countenanced when it comes to humans. In Britain at least euthanasia is a crime, even if the suffering person desires his or her own death. Even in cases where the suffering is acute or there is terminal illness, killing is not allowed. Care will be administered to give the patient the best possible quality of life till death naturally occurs.
However, in the case of animals, as the instance of poor Gangotri illustrates, the feelings are different. At some point–in this case on the behest of three vets–death will be decreed. This is more or less universally accepted as the right way to treat animals. Even our beloved pets will be “put to sleep” when we think their pain is too great.
From a moral point of view then we have to ask what it is that distinguishes humans from animals. Why do we treat them differently? As far as Vedic theology is concerned all creatures are spiritual equals, eternal souls occupying different bodies. All life therefore has equal value and is entitled to equal protection under law. If the RSPCA truly did respect religious beliefs then this is the first thing they should have respected. But even if they felt they had the right to impose their own moral imperatives on the devotees, then they and the society that supports them should at least show us the consistent moral case.
But can they? I don’t think so. First of all, why do we wish to prolong human life for as a long as possible? Western society as a whole does not function on any overt religious assumptions. It is really just about enjoying life, and if anything we work according to the utilitarian principle of achieving “maximum happiness”. All our endeavours are basically about this; increasing our happiness.
But animals also enjoy. They eat, sleep and mate just like us. They enjoy the sunshine and running free in the fields. They play, fight, talk among themselves and have their societies just as we do. Really, if we take away religious sentiment regarding the higher spiritual purpose of life, about which animals have no notion, then we will be hard pressed to find any difference at all between man and beast.
We might argue that animals have no art, science and philosophy, but if these are divorced from spirituality then again they are simply about increasing our enjoyment and happiness. Even if we argue that such things give greater meaning and value to humanity then what about a less intelligent person who cannot appreciate these so called finer aspects of life? Can we treat them like animals? If a man is intellectually challenged in some way then can we kill him when he has painful, infected sores?
If life is all about sensual and mental pleasures then we simply cannot present any clear moral case for distinguishing man and animal. We have to take recourse to the religious argument before we can make any distinction. Which brings us back to the so-called “respect” that the RSPCA, and indeed everyone else are always so quick to declare for others’ beliefs. Except when it is time to act on that respect, of course. When those beliefs of other people in some way contradict our own then they can be completely ignored.
And that is exactly how the Krishna devotees are feeling today. Completely disrespected and marginalized. While we can respect the compassion that drives organisations like the RSPCA, do they not think that we too have such feelings? Could they not see that we were caring for Gangotri in such a careful and loving way? Obviously we only wanted her well-being and according to our own belief structure we did not see that killing her would in any way enhance her welfare.
But did anyone bother asking us why? Did anyone ask us why we especially respect the cow, a gentle creature that does nothing but eat grass and provide us with her wonderful milk? A creature that society as a whole sees fit to slaughter in countless millions in order to eat her flesh. Where are the compassionate RSPCA then? When the poor cows are being dragged, crying piteously, to a terrible death at the hands of the butchers? When their baby calves are taken away for slaughter, leaving the griefstricken mothers wailing through the day and the night? Who cares about that suffering? It seems that economics and our liking for roast beef and hamburgers put a swift and convenient end to our so-called “belief that animals should not suffer.”
The RSPCA might argue that they do intervene in the meat industry when they see excessive abuse, which is fine, but the level of extreme misery they happily ignore can hardly be compared with the tolerable pain that Gangotri was suffering. She certainly was not howling with tears in her eyes, as we will see animals doing any day of the week in the slaughter house.
Today the devotees at Bhaktivedanta Manor are heartbroken and mortified. When will the madness end? When will we recognise that animals, like us, are eternal parts of God and killing them wantonly for any reason brings in its wake terrible consequences? Our own legal structures may be fallible and ineffective, but God’s laws never fail. As Srila Prabhupada writes, “The material world is itself a place always full of anxieties, and by encouraging animal slaughter the whole atmosphere becomes polluted more and more by war, pestilence, famine and many other unwanted calamities.”
We would perhaps do well to heed his warning.