Cruel Customs And The Conditional Value Of Tradition
All around the world, there are still cruel traditions involving animals that are seen as a source of entertainment for many people, but which cause the animals terrible distress and pain, and in many cases their death. Whaling, bullfighting or sport hunting are some known examples of such traditions. These practices are often defended by appealing to the value of cultures and traditions in themselves, to their role as creators of social identity and cohesion, or to the risk of cultures weakening or disappearing. In this paper, Paula Casal considers many of these defenses and argues that none of them are convincing reasons to maintain these practices.
The paper begins with a review of many cruel traditions involving animals around the world. It focuses especially on traditions in Spain, the country where Casal is from and which has a particularly bad name for its cruelty to animals, especially due to its fiestas involving bulls.
Casal considers the following possible justifications for the continuation of these traditions:
The case for tradition: one of the most commonly employed arguments in support of these practices is that it is in the nature of tradition to stick to what has always been done. But, as she argues, the fact that some people may have good reasons to follow specific traditions does not mean that there are good reasons to follow traditions in general. We lack a duty to preserve those which violate individuals’ basic interests. Similarly, the argument of the antiquity of traditions, which appeals to the old age of a practice as an indication of its value, can be refuted by articulating the same concerns.
Cohesion: defenders of the continuation of these practices may still argue that the value of traditions emerges from the degree of social consensus they generate. Thanks to traditions, people feel united and have a sense of belonging to their group. However, traditions that involve cruelty to animals are nowadays also a major source of social turmoil, as it has been demonstrated by the often violent confrontations between those who abuse animals and those who want to defend them.
Incoherence: another defense could be made by appealing to the lack of agreement on whether or not these traditions should be banned. Some have argued that we should refrain from prohibiting a practice if comparable practices have not already been prohibited. Casal points out that advocating that nothing be prohibited unless everything comparable is prohibited would be tantamount to lifting all existing bans on comparable forms of cruelty, something that even those sympathetic to the argument would oppose. For example, not many would agree that we should not ban clitoridectomy until sexism is fully outlawed and there is a consensus on gender equality. Moreover, she argues that there is no reason why the absence of a complete consensus on a matter should be used as an argument for maintaining the status quo. We can always temporarily prohibit whaling or bullfighting until existing disagreements are resolved via some kind of referendum or charter, like that agreed on human rights.
Poverty and prejudice: sometimes, animal advocates refrain from criticising certain groups or from engaging in some campaigns because they fear this may increase racial discrimination towards a certain group, or may be misinterpreted as motivated by racism on their part. But Casal argues that granting exemptions from anti-cruelty legislation is not a good way to end stigmatisation and achieve the integration of these groups. Instead, we may have to make some effort to ensure we leave the group’s image more or less as it was (for example, by temporarily subsidising other traditions the discriminated group also values but which are harmless). Moreover, their image is more likely to improve if the cruelty ends and they refocus their attention and identity on some other pursuit, like an art or sport activity.
Cultural survival: it is sometimes argued that in some cases the removal of a certain cruel practice is not possible, because it is too strongly linked with the rest of the culture. To this, Casal responds that the claim rests on a mistaken notion of how cultures evolve. She makes the case for how a culture is actually a set of innovations collectively produced by humanity as a whole, and therefore what some people might deem “their culture” is just an ensemble of free-floating cultural traits developed elsewhere. Cultures, she argues, do not evolve from within but are just the temporary coexistence of a large number of traits that are independent from each other. Therefore, the idea that banning these traditions that cause so much pain and distress to animals could cause a culture to weaken or die is not consistent with what we now know about the evolution of cultures.
Casal also gives examples of instances when a tradition has disappeared from a particular culture in the past, and how this did not damage its robustness but instead gave way to the flourishing of other aspects of that culture.