On Using Animals for Sport
No one denies the cruelty of activities like cockfighting or dogfighting and few would argue they should be legal. These are distinctly different from legitimized forms of animal-related sports because they involve “competition” that is designed to kill and maim animals. However, just because other animal-related sports do not reach this level of cruelty, does this mean they are justified?
To begin: no.
As a feminist and a man, I have a strange relationship with sports. There is something to a physical, nearly-violent struggle that is appealing even to me, someone who is sympathetic to pacifist ideologies. However, there is a culture of sexism and homophobia surrounding sports that I will state axiomatically for now. Sometimes this culture has bullying and violence in it at lower levels like the sexual assault known to be meted out on lower echelon teammates or even at the most prestigious levels. One need only look to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair. I am making this statement to establish that sports and the culture surrounding sports are not unambiguously good and sometimes do not meet the standards I will use for this argument about animals and sports. That being said, even if sports themselves can be considered a societal good, the good only exists inasmuch as participants are consenting to their participation,* something animals cannot do.
Okay, decadent is an aesthetic choice, but one which I will justify for describing animal sports to appeal to the socialists who sometimes are too sympathetic to the pastoral romanticism of animal usage or animal sports themselves (e.g. Ernest Hemingway). Decadent has an upper-crust sound to it, a word Marxists like to throw at the capital class meaning un-useful, done for a spectacle, and perhaps exploitative depending on context. Animal sports are in fact this. Now, un-useful might not be the right word in some contexts because participating in animal sports can mean participating in cultural production, as in the case of bullfighting. However, animal sports are in every sense a spectacle. It is a show without determining value relevant to the unwitting participants, the animals. It proves nothing amongst the participants in society. Animals are not participants in society. However foolish and masculinist the value of physical prowess may be, in society amongst people participating in sports, at least this value is being laid against those who participate in society. The animals are participating to an end they cannot see or from which they can benefit, much like the class manipulation all manner of leftists abhor. The relationship between audience and participant is not of seeing willing and rewarded participants struggling, but of, to use a more exaggerated sense (though maybe not if you really want to feel uncomfortable) gladiatorial games. They may not be considered slaves (though…again…) and they may not be fighting each other to death, unlike animal fighting, but they are doing work, even suffering, to no use value, only entertainment. It is an exhibition of the status of human over animal, as decadence in an exhibition of privileged over unprivileged. It is to mark a distinction. If you can make someone do something for nothing other than your entertainment, knowing no use, you are exhibiting your power, perhaps not in a juridical or administered sense, but ultimately in a sense in which you have the power to influence outcome. Now, I do not wish to enter into Lacanian psychoanalysis of culture as this is too essentialist automatically assigning meaning on a societal level, a mistake many on the Left like to make. What I am saying is that the power relations are comparable and that decadent is perhaps the right word.
Again, this is perhaps purely aesthetic at worst and contextually value-centered at best. On this second point that’s the best of any ethical basis. Sorry to get frighteningly existential, but rest assured we can more rigorously establish the implications from values. (E.g. we know what compassion is and it’s not content-neutral. It’s not compassionate when someone decries or even “nicely” speaks out against homosexuality. The only guard against this societally is to say “Compassion is a value to which we adhere”, but yes, adhering to this value means that that someone is wrong if they adhere to this value which is one most would be remiss to say they don’t.) Depravity is not meant here in the way that moralists like to use it as something disgusting, but is meant as cruelty and lack of empathy here. So let’s get at this on the most accepted and culturally ubiquitous form of animal sport in the US: horseracing.
Is the Kentucky Derby cruel? Well, it depends on who you ask. Sure, by making horses run you may be preventing them from languishing or even providing them enjoyment. “They are fulfilling what they are evolved to do.” Well, first rebuttal to this is that the exceeding ability to run might not be as “natural” as they perceive it to be. Particularly within the racing populations of horses, they have been artificially selected and bred which may not be wrong, but again not as fitting with the naturalistic fallacy we like to apply. (I have a dog myself, another prime example of artificial selection.) My second rebuttal is this: the switch. Is the use of the switch on the animal to make it stretch its limits, possibly to a lethal or injurious extent as is known to happen, cruel? Well, if by cruel we meaning causing pain without purpose to the recipient of the pain, then unequivocally yes. The horse does not desire to win the race in the same way the jockey does or the owner does, however much people want to presume that the animal loves its circumstances (much like us pet owners like to think pets fully understand us on our terms even though this would be a rather spurious claim). One can say the jockeys, owners, and trainers love and care for their horses all you want, but they clearly suspend this love and care and compassion ultimately for a period of time and not just a period of time but during the activity which was the purpose of the horse’s existence to the owner.
Animals cannot consent to participation in sports, however much people want to justify it. The central motif of team sports beyond effort and athleticism is that through continued participation a participant is continuing his or her consent by continuing without enforceable punishment.‡ No one in an acceptable sporting environment will be whipped to prod him or her into performing better or beaten mercilessly if he or she refuses to participate. Consent is how sports operate on a “perfect” level of what sporting means. Teamwork, the most celebrated value of sports, is predicated on agreement i.e. consent. Teamwork is agreement to do one’s own part to achieve the maximum end, but nothing forces one to do that if that is to be considered genuine teamwork in a sporting sense. If values like teamwork are to be considered central to sports, animal-based sports like horseracing fall incredibly short. In a more comparable sport, running, the participant is maintaining agreement rather than being prodded along with a switch. The runner may stop at any point yet with each step whether from psychological inertia or from consciously forcing the next step being decided consensually. If one has to be prodded, as in horseracing, the subsequent action, such as running faster, cannot be considered consensual.
Ultimately, despite all the argumentation and rhetorical construction, it comes down to this: the animal can’t be considered to have agreed to participation. For those that that isn’t convincing in saying perhaps that’s unethical, it is cruel despite to the animal despite how it may be perceived by the audience, a conclusion one might draw if one is willing to take postmodern thought to a truly meaningless extent. But as you and I know my thinking in itself does not change how you feel, only in how it affects my actions as you perceive them. Furthermore, as in the case of decadence, the relationship is done to a vain end, not in that the goal is to show the animal the power of humans over it, but as creating a show of entertainment as it arises out of the powered relation of humans over animals within the perceived realm of human society.
*I know there are exploitative relations such as poverty, the pressuring parent, etc. but hypothetically given the right conditions people could actually exhibit consent whereas a nonhuman animal could not.
†I am drawing the rhetorical construction from this part of the argument from Hunter S. Thompson’s essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”, an essay I have not read. I am only drawing from the title itself.
‡There may be enforceable punishment in a financial sense say for professional athletes who are violating their literal, written contract. Also, under some circumstances athletes have faced violence for performance or lack of performance in addition to the myriad exploitations that could affect an athlete’s decision to play or not play.