It is indeed remarkable to look back in time and see how abusive, inhumane and morally reprehensible practices not only persisted for decades or even centuries, but flourished and commanded the support of so many people in their day. Why did it take so long to halt practices, such as chattel slavery, that should have been viewed as unacceptable even by the less developed moral standards of the time?
It is a question that has special relevance for the animal protection movement because so many of us believe that we are now part of the process of making history—challenging the systemic abuses of animals that have themselves persisted for so long and calling for a new and better relationship with other creatures, enforced by the standards of the law.
Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah examines the broader question of social change in his fast-moving and succinct new book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” Appiah looks at four subjects: dueling, foot-binding, Atlantic slavery and honor killing, which is the only one he examines in depth that persists today.
Appiah argues that there was a psychology to the continued conduct of these activities, and in many cases, it had to do with a certain code of honor. When it became dishonorable to engage in these practices, often with the broader society or even the world looking askance at the activities and the people participating in them, that inversion in the honor code led to their demise. Appiah sees a turn-around occurring with honor killing, which is an extraordinary and horrific abuse of women in some parts of the Islamic world.
I think our children and future generations will look back on our modern-day abuses of animals and wonder how they persisted so long. Appiah himself, in a piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, identified the cruelty of factory farming as one of those issues that future generations will condemn us for. I’d guess that it’s just one of the animal-related items on the list, which also will include seal killing, animal fighting, canned hunts, and other horrific practices.
In Appiah’s account, we see that history did not unfold in some sort of self-executing or passive way. All social change has always required that good people emerge and call cruel things as they are, insisting upon a fair and consistent application of already-established standards in society. That’s still our duty today. None of us should be bystanders as animal cruelty persists. By joining in the fight, we can hasten its demise.