Dogs and cats are part of the family. Beef and pork end up on the plate. Why do we treat animals so differently? Sociologist Dr. Marcel Sebastian asked – and wrote a book about it. A conversation about morality, love for animals and power.
“Battle or Stroke” – that’s the title of your book. It takes a sociological look at our relationship with wildlife. Why is now the right time for this, Mr. Sebastian?
Marcel Sebastian: It is extremely important that we talk about the human-animal relationship. And so far there has been a sociological gap in that connection. Until now, the public discussion has been shaped by moral philosophy or biology: How should we treat animals and what abilities do they have? Of course, these are also important perspectives, but an analysis of social changes in relation to animals is needed.
And what is your conclusion on the current human-animal relationship in our society?
We are blessed with so much freedom as a society that we now have many more opportunities to relate to our environment than we used to. This also applies to our relationship with animals. That we think, feel and act so ambivalently towards animals is due to our conflicting interests and values.
What exactly do you mean by that?
On the one hand, we want to build an emotional relationship with animals. For example, we enjoy contact with dogs and cats, and perceive these animals as friends or family members. On the other hand, we as a society also want to use animals for our purposes. When people consume meat and animal products, they are also accepting the killing of the animals and usually also keeping them in fattening facilities. This opposition between petting and slaughter also creates an internal opposition.
About animal-loving butchers and the fate of our pets
The internal contradiction between animal friend and animal enemy?
E.g. I have had many conversations with butchers who say they love animals. They were convinced that it was okay to kill animals for food if they had a good life beforehand. Previously, this view was almost unchallenged. Today, there are more and more deviants who say that killing an animal cannot be compensated for a supposed good life – especially since the conditions of livestock in agriculture are also highly controversial. There has been movement in the moral order in the human-animal relationship.
So while we process pigs and cattle for food, we sometimes treat dogs and cats almost like humans. What determines how we treat an animal?
How we perceive animals is primarily determined by social constructions. It’s always about the time-space context we live in and the stories people tell about animals. This is why there are so many different forms of human-animal relationships from a global perspective.
But which animals seem lovable in our social perception and which are useful to us are highly variable. The characteristics of the animals do not necessarily play a role here. Pigs are about as interactive as dogs and cats. Nevertheless, they are eaten, while dogs are mostly guarded and protected.
Are pets basically better off than other animals?
We personalize and objectify animals at the same time. While we increasingly think of pets as subjects and individuals, domestic animals are being declared material assets. But that doesn’t mean we automatically treat pets well. Many pet owners simply do not know what their pet’s needs are and how to meet them. Keeping pets is also usually determined by human interests.
How we rethink our human-animal relationship
Where does man’s claim to be able to decide on the life and death of other living beings come from?
With the Enlightenment, the idea spread that man could not only dominate nature, but was also allowed to do so. However, the way we treat nature has not only created prosperity, it has also triggered several ecological crises, such as climate change or species extinction.
In the face of these crises, many people are slowly changing their attitude and see themselves as part of the global ecosystem that we must protect in order to survive. However, it is not a question of whether we control and transform nature, but how and with what consequences. This question is of existential importance because our answer depends on our way of life and probably also our survival on this planet.
The human-animal relationship is a far-reaching and complex subject. What core message do you want to send with your book?
We need to be more aware of our relationship with animals. Our adversarial relationship with animals increasingly leads to social conflicts over the sovereignty of interpretation. Can we eat meat or not? Are animals someone or something? Most are still undecided here, so to speak. Only when we take a stand here can we as a society meaningfully discuss the question of what the future human-animal relationship should look like. This is also the hope that lies in my book: the start of a debate culture about the complex human-animal relationship.
Now people tend to lean towards repression rather than conscious confrontation. How can I begin to actively manage my relationship with animals?
A first step can be to consciously change your perspective and critically question your own behavior. The next time we go shopping, for example, we can stop and consider what values are inherent in our behavior. My goal is to uncover the possible contradiction between interests and ideals. Often people act in ways they don’t actually approve of. Or we can ask ourselves the question every time we meet an animal: is my counterpart someone or something? Such questions alone show us very well where we are in the vast space of human-animal relations.
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