For French Buddhist monk and prolific author Matthieu Ricard, there is no moral, ethical, or philosophical way to defend our treatment of animals. Aside from our reliance on meat and dairy products, which accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, or the fact that an estimated 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are exploited or depleted, Ricard says a key thing to remember is that we exist on a continuum with animals—we are one of them.

“The . . . problem with treating animals the way we do now is that everybody’s losing—the animals, the environment, the world’s impoverished people—and the scale is huge,” Ricard writes in his new book, A Plea for the Animals.

Ricard, known to many as “the world’s happiest man,” spoke with Tricycle earlier this month about his new book,  the interrelationship between animal and human lives, the role of compassionate action, and environmental ethics. 

How would you describe the relationship between human and animal life in the world today? There are three big problems with the way we treat animals: One is that while we’ve made huge amounts of progress in civilization in regard to human rights, we have a huge gap of ethical coherence when it comes to the other eight million species that coexist in the world with us. In a nutshell, we (rightly) place infinite value on human life—we cannot put a price tag on it—but we give basically zero intrinsic value to other species unless they are of commercial or instrumental interest to us. This is a big gap.

The second big problem with treating animals the way we do now is that everybody’s losing—the animals, the environment, the world’s impoverished people—and the scale is huge. And the last problem is human health. There’s no benefit to eating animals: rather, there’s harm.

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I was giving a conference on this subject the other day in France. I asked the audience who was in favor of morality, ethics, and justice. Everyone raised their hand. Then I asked “Who thinks it is ethical, just, and moral to inflict unnecessary suffering to a sentient being?” One guy raised his hand, but he didn’t hear the question right. Everything comes from this: aside from some Eskimos, there are very few people on earth who need to eat animals to survive. Think about that. See the data, see the science, and decide for yourself. I’m not imposing anything on anybody.

It’s an interesting subject because while these arguments are extremely compelling, when this topic comes up people will often shut down. They’ll ask why they should care, especially when there’s so much human suffering in this world. Well, that’s one of the stupid arguments! And this argument is given many times. People lack logic: how does killing 60 billion land animals a year help the people in Syria? Help progress human rights in China? These things have nothing to do with each other. How will stopping the harm of animals then harm humans? Why can’t you stop the harm of both humans and animals at the same time?

When people go to the beach, listen to music, or garden, do you tell them that they should be in South Sudan helping people? You can have multiple interests in life and stop eating meat. The decision takes a tenth of a second. It doesn’t require much energy, and it doesn’t deplete your strength or the resources that would be used for helping human beings.

Do you think it’s easy to give up eating meat? The choice to avoid using animal products or to stop eating meat seems like one that many would argue is difficult. There was this wonderful study in Australia that made it clear to me why people think that. When researchers asked people why they really want to eat meat, 70 percent said “Because I like it.” “I like it” is not moral reasoning. The second reason is “This is our tradition.” Again, this is a description, not a moral argument. Third, people will say that their family makes it complicated to stop eating meat. And the final reason is “I don’t know what to cook.” So you learn! All of these are pathetic arguments, none of which have to do with ethics. No one can come up with a sound, reasonable, ethical argument to justify it.

[When people find out that you are a vegetarian] they feel you are a troublemaker, an extremist who wants to destroy the status quo. If you sit down at a table and say, “I’m sorry, I have diabetes, I can’t eat that,” they say, “Poor you!” But if you say, “Sorry, I don’t eat meat,” everybody says, “You’re making trouble. Let us eat our meat quietly.” As long as it’s the status quo, we don’t speak about it. When you say it’s possible and that it’s easy to avoid meat, people feel bad—no one likes to feel bad.

This book is a thorough and logical appeal to morality, but the thing about human beings is that appeals to our logic and reason are seldom enough to make us change our actions. What you need, then, is a change of culture. You don’t need to be impatient; it’s coming.

I can see the revolution happening in France. Last year a group of activists released a number of videos that led the French minister to shut down eight big slaughterhouses. The government asked a commission of inquiry to take place. This would have been inconceivable 10 years ago, and in the past the group that released the videos were prosecuted in court for the violation of privacy; the slaughterhouses were never punished. But last year was different because there was so much public opinion behind the matter. Out of the inquiry came 65 recommendations that included putting cameras in the slaughterhouses to see if people were causing undo violence, like starting to cut animals who are still conscious. There has been a big shift in public opinion—we’ve reached a critical mass of information and knowledge, and people speaking out about it. It’s a cultural tipping point. Still, some people think we’ve gone too far.

Slavery serves as an interesting example. In England, everybody laughed when 10 people proposed to abolish slavery. They said it was ridiculous. They said the British Empire could not afford it. They said they needed slavery to survive economically—and 10 years later it was abolished. After that, nobody dared to say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad, let’s put it back, it was nice to have slaves.” Likewise, it takes 10, 20 years, but things happen. I think this is how we should view the sluggishness and inertia that we face when we have to change culture.

Matthieu Ricard

In the book, you quote Jane Goodall on the “moral schizophrenia” within our culture: we treat pets as if they’re family members but then economically and personally support industries that slaughter hundreds of billions of animals every year. Melanie Joy has a book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, where she gives a wonderful example of this. Say you have a dinner at home, serve some delicious meat, and your guests ask you for the recipe. You say, “Well, this morning I took my dog and cut it into pieces . . .” and everybody decides they can’t eat it after all. What’s the difference? Pigs are smarter than dogs. It’s well known now. Is it because they aren’t as cute? And of course, in China people eat dogs and even beat them to death because it’s said that the meat will be softer. This is speciesism—it exists not only in how we treat animals as instrumental to human beings, but even in the way we classify different animals. In France, they eat snails, but will puke if you tell them to eat slugs. A French writer said, “So, you don’t like homeless snails.” It’s so ridiculous if you think about it: why would you not want to eat a dog of any kind but don’t give a damn about pigs?

There was a big uproar in France because one guy threw this little cat up in the air and against the wall, filmed it, and put it on YouTube. People went after him and identified him. He was taken to court and sentenced to a year in jail. All the newspapers were talking about the little cat Oscar. But that same day in France 500,000 animals were killed behind the walls of the slaughterhouses and nobody spoke about it. Again, it’s schizophrenia. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance. There are examples of this cognitive dissonance from the concentration camps: there was a great musician who would cry when he’d listen to some of his prisoners play Chopin, but the next day he would send them to the crematorium. And at home, he was good father. All of this is cognitive dissonance. You split your mind. You do terrible things on one side and are good father on the other. I don’t know how it works, but people do this.

Humans are capable of great cognitive inconsistency. Why not be more coherent? That’s how you will flourish. If you keep on being incoherent there must be something in you that’s not healthy, that undermines your flourishing. It cannot be mentally and physically healthy to have this deep incoherence.

This cognitive incoherence has repercussions that extend into the social world very quickly. Yes, this is where racism comes from. You can do anything if it’s socially accepted. If you find your group, you create a kind of legitimacy, because your group shares your sense of incoherence. You’ve decided it’s OK. This is why people don’t like whistleblowers and troublemakers—it reminds them that they are incoherent. Even if I sit silently at a table of big meat-eaters—not eating meat, but not saying anything—they will ask, “Are you disturbed because we eat meat?” I say, “Of course I’m not disturbed.” If they push I’ll joke a little; if they ask why not, I say, “Well, animals are my friends. I don’t eat my friends.” And they laugh, but for them it’s something that pricks. I don’t do it in an aggressive way, but it is perceived as that. People who are experiencing cognitive dissonance are not very tolerant because of it, and they present the image of people who are trying to be coherent as extremists, as asocial people, when all we’re trying to do is to be a little bit more compassionate.

Was there anything about animal sentience that surprised you while you were writing the book? I was really impressed by a few things I learned—the cognitive faculties of birds, for example. Caledonian crows manufacture hooks to keep in their nests, and then they’ll fly with them in their beaks to get insects. And parrots do incredible things. In the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, Christof Koff [president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle] said that consciousness can come through many pathways, not only in the development of the prefrontal cortex like mammals. He gave the example of fish and birds that don’t have a prefrontal cortex and do incredibly smart things. Fish can remember a place where there was a hook three months later. Pigeons can distinguish Matisse from Picasso. Not bad.

One of the most compelling chapters in the book was “The Continuum of Life.” You write that “the intelligence, empathy, and altruism present in the human species are the fruits of millions of years of gradual evolution.” We see signs of these “human” emotions in animals. Here in France they say, “I’m not a bonobo. I’m not a chimpanzee.” This is true even though we share 98.5 percent of the same DNA. Five million years ago we had a common ancestor, but now we are different. But the fact that there were about 15 other hominids before Homo sapiens shows that there was no magic moment—it’s all gradation. There’s no quantum leap. There’s just an increase in the brain and its faculties. The emotions were already there. There wasn’t a single magic moment between the monocellular organism to the human beings or to migrating birds or to bats that use sonar. Each one went on their small line of thousands of changes over millions of years.

In the very first chapters of the book I talk about this because I was debating with the French humanists, who said that you can’t compare us to animals because we are just so different. We aren’t, not unless you bring God into it, which most philosophers won’t. And if they say they don’t believe in evolution, they’re still completely in trouble.

I think the positive thing is we have seen a continuous progress in civilization just by what people say. Look at how much we care about human rights and big international organizations. People might criticize them, but it is a huge bonus to have the United Nations and the World Health Organization. We won’t stop there—I think the next step is to embed in that the consideration for other species and consideration for our common environment. I don’t see why it should stop. This is the way we can all survive together. Evolution may push us: maybe a gene will be selected, a variation that will make us perceive our interdependence more, because if we bring about the sixth major extinction of species, we are in terribly bad position. Species build up to their own demise by, at some point, getting something wrong about the way they should change their functioning. We would not have been smart enough to see the next turning point. There’s a race out there between degrading the environment to the point that it threatens our survival or using that intelligence to change the culture.

A Plea for the Animals: The Moral, Philosophical, and Evolutionary Imperative to Treat All Beings with Compassion is available from Shambhala Publications. 

[This story was first published in 2016.]

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