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Bird Flu Gives Rise to Moral Dilemmas

Is killing animals morally admissible? DW-WORLD spoke to ethics professor Ralf Stoecker about the moral aspects of preventive poultry slaughter in the context of avian influenza.


Regardless of bird flu, consumption of animals by people is an ethical problem in itself

DW-WORLD: While no poultry has been struck by the disease in Germany , thousands have been killed on the island of Rügen as a preventive measure. One has the impression that these measures were introduced in order to calm the public. How would you asses these actions from the point of view of a moral philosopher?

Ralf Stoecker: There is a very simple answer to this question: Killing animals for the purpose of pacifying people is not morally justified. But it is the prevention of an epidemic that is usually cited as the reason for these killings, and the question is then if that is morally sufficient.

But keeping poultry confined can prevent the spread of the disease from wild fowl to livestock. Yet on the island of Rügen poultry was slaughtered preventively.

Philosophers have traditionally had great difficulties integrating animals into their moral categories. Albert Schweizer said: "The same way that a housewife who has just mopped up her parlor makes sure the door stays closed so that the dog doesn't come in to dirty up her floor its paws, European thinkers keep watch that no animals muck up their ethics."

Ralf Stoecker

Prof. Ralf Stoecker teaches applied ethics at the University of Potsdam

This has led -- both in everyday life and in moral philosophy -- to contradictions. We are, on the one hand, absolutely convinced that animals are not just objects, but living beings that we need to protect. At the same time, everybody knows that millions of animals are killed every year for human consumption; experiments are conducted on animals; and animals in circuses and zoos are not always treated properly.

How would you act in the current situation?

The question is often posed as if one had to choose between saving people or animals. But so far, the actual effects of avian influenza on humanity have been slight; fewer have died of it globally than the average number of flu-related deaths in Germany. People in Germany are thus not under acute threat at the moment.

The other question is whether it is justified to kill animals as a preventive measure. If you argue that the animal stock in which bird flu has already broken out is already condemned to death, and that by killing some animals you could actually save many other animal lives, that is an altogether different kind of argument. In that case you're juxtaposing some dead birds on the one hand with many dead birds on the other.

This kind of juxtaposition is not acceptable when you deal with people. You couldn't simply sacrifice a few people for many others. But it's at least not strange to say that it is a good argument when birds are concerned. Whether it is convincing or not, depends on the extent of problems related to the vaccination alternative.

Can one reach a moral judgment then?

Angst vor Vogelgrippe in Frankreich

People are still not under direct threat

What's important is not how you decide the moral philosophical question, but that you actually recognize the moral philosophical dilemma. Statements by politicians and experts often make it seem that the mass killing of birds is a purely technical, organizational or economical problem. And that's fatal, because they're suppressing the fact that killing so many animals is something that people can do only most reluctantly.

No matter how you argue about it, even when animals die without pain; it seems to me that very little thought is given to the fact that we should be have moral and ethical concerns about it. And if we don't care that these are living beings that are in many ways similar to us, that they are capable of feeling pain and joy, happiness and sadness, then we must have lost some part of our moral sense. And that is something we should try go regain immediately.

In its theoretical transmissibility to humans, H5N1 reminds us of how close we are, biologically speaking, to animals. On the other hand, we are committing mass killings of those same animals. How can we solve that paradox?

The question is: How come we are so special in this world, and to what extent can we say that animals share that special status with us? If we take this question seriously, there will be serious consequences for our interaction with animals. But not only in the context of bird flu, but also in relation to the 18 kilos (40 pounds) of poultry which are eaten per capita in Germany every year.

In the end, the main issue with the mass slaughter of poultry is not whether animals should be killed at all, but rather whether they should perhaps be killed a little earlier than usual. With all the opposition to these measures, it is important not to lose sight of the more comprehensive question about the moral justification of our everyday animal consumption.

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