Jonathan Balcombe, author of Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals, speaks at a special Festival event next week. We asked him to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him.
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
Here are two issues that have been preoccupying me of late (and which I discuss in Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals). First, that sentience – the capacity to feel pains, pleasures, emotions, etc. – is the bedrock of ethics, and the weighty moral implications that many animals’ sentience is, as far as we know, on par with our own. Another important idea concerns pleasure and its implications. Pleasure enriches life. It’s what makes life worth living. As pleasure-seekers (like us), animals’ lives have intrinsic value – that is, value beyond any utility they may have for us (as things to eat, for instance). If we accept this, then there is a higher moral burden attached to abusing or taking the life of an animal. Someone might protest that animals don’t hesitate to kill another, so why should we? But we can choose not to. We can live healthy, happy lives without harming others, so why shouldn’t we? A world with less suffering and misery is better.
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
The disconnect between our basic values concerning animals and our actual behaviour towards them. This is brought to light in Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals. Most people abhor cruelty to animals. Yet every day, good citizens fund some of the worst cruelty to animals imaginable, through the simple act of purchasing animal products at the supermarket or the restaurant. We must take personal responsibility for our choices as consumers. When we buy products that have been procured by cruel means – as practically all factory farmed products are – we are telling the producer to ‘do it again’. We don’t need to change people’s values, we need to change behaviour.
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
I’d encourage everyone to read Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, after reading Second Nature (smile).
Finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago ‘What will the future make of the present?’ What is your answer to this? What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
Great question! I believe the 21st century will turn out to be the century of the animal. Humankind has an immense capacity for recognizing injustices and correcting them, witness colonialism and slavery, the subjugation of women, and the denial of civil rights. Future generations will look back on the present and shake it’s collective head that we should have treated other sentient creatures as if they were so many blocks of wood.
Jonathan Balcombe was born in England, raised in New Zealand and Canada, and has lived in the United States since 1987. He has written many scientific papers and lay articles on animal behaviour, humane education, and animal research. A popular speaker, he has given invited presentations in six continents. In 2000, the Humane Society Press released his first book The Use of Animals in Higher Education: Problems, Alternatives and Recommendations. His second book, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (www.pleasurablekingdom.com) was released by Macmillan in May 2006 and is also available in five foreign translations. Balcombe’s third book, Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals (Palgrave Macmillan), is due out in March 2010, and Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure (University of California Press) is expected around September 2010. Balcombe lives near Washington DC with his wife and daughter, where he works as an independent consultant.