Here’s a cheerful news story I read about Daisy the cow: every night the farmer locks Daisy in her shed, yet every morning she’s missing, along with her bovine companions. The farmer (who is a great Orwell fan, according to the sardonic reporter) does a bit of investigation and finds that each night Daisy picks the lock on the gate (with her tongue!) and makes off into the fields…
Reading about Daisy and her bid for freedom got me thinking about whether animals can, or would, consent to the way we treat them. Consent does powerful work in moral matters, a certain Mr Hurd even wrote a book about it – he called it ‘The Moral Magic of Consent’ – and it is a transformative concept, it can make right an act that would otherwise be a terrible wrong. Think of the difference that ‘yes’ can make, both in the upper echelons of morality and in our everyday actions – consent can turn rape into sex, torture into pleasure, murder into euthanasia, harassment into taking the piss.
Consent is about as translucent as morality gets – a practical guide to knowing whether you should do what you’re about to do. But it’s not as simple as all that. Does consent always come down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’? What about situations where someone is unable to consent to our treatment of them? Do we have a free pass to treat them as we please? I think not.
Back to Daisy, what could her escape symbolise when we’re thinking about consent? Is is possible that in making a bid for freedom she is actively objecting to her confinement? Consent isn’t always verbal. Imagine a woman has been bound and gagged whilst someone rapes her. Although she can’t say the word ‘No’, if she were struggling, or able to escape and flee her captor, would that not be as clear a statement? In the act of running away she is saying ‘I do not permit you to treat me like that’. Can we interpret Daisy’s behaviour in the same way? Like our feisty lady, Daisy can’t say ‘No’, but she can certainly demonstrate it. We keep animals in cages and behind fences because we know that they would escape if they could, and that might tell us something about what they would agree to if they were able to express it. I’m fairly confident that Daisy would be making quite the fuss!
If we accept that consent isn’t necessarily verbal, along with this idea that animals are somehow able to withhold consent, then we can make a stronger point – anyone who has witnessed the slaughter process will surely acknowledge the struggle and physical distress of animals being led to their death. Is that terror and desperate desire to escape not communicative? Is it not an explicit ‘No’? Whether it be primal,or cognitive, it is a reaction that we humans share with animals. We know what it means. If we’re taking consent as a moral guide, then no means no, and we shouldn’t treat animals in the way we do.
Even if we shun the idea that animals are able to communicate their wishes, even if we take Daisy’s rebellion as instinctual, or incidental; there is still something to be said for consent. Think about instances where people are simply unable to approve, or object to, our treatment of them – someone in a coma, someone who is severely mentally and physically handicapped. Does that inability in any way suggest that they are outside of the moral realm, or that they are morally inferior? Of course not, they are beings of equal value and, if anything, their inability to consent entails that we consider our actions towards them far more carefully. If it turns out that animals are unable to consent, that doesn’t give us permission to treat them as we please – we run the risk of committing grave moral wrongs.
Whether it’s that Daisy can’t say no out loud, or that she can’t say ‘no’ at all – we shouldn’t interpret her silence as complacency. We can see from her determination that she is far from complacent. So, we should think very carefully about how we behave towards her, given whats at stake. I’m sure it would be a very different news story, if the farmer kept locking his wife back up after she made a nifty escape night after night…
You can read a full account of Daisy’s exploits here: http://news.sky.com/story/862664/udder-genius-daisy-the-cows-great-escape
Photos courtesy of ‘NoMeansNo’ band (https://www.facebook.com/wrongrecords/)