Behind the word “humane” there is a long, evolving history of how it has been defined and understood. Many of us are now concerned about how this word is being applied to our relationships with other species—and humans. We are living with the legacy of humane as it was understood during a past when we had a limited understanding of individuals from other species—who they are and what their needs demand of us. If a person or organization describes an act or activity as humane, the definition matters. Beings, domesticated and wild, who are capable of feeling physical pain, distress, or psychological harm depend on our best efforts to define and use this term to protect their interests, including the right to life. To do that, we need to reclaim and update what it means to be humane.
During a recent phone call I was reminded that the backsliding of several humane and welfare organizations has required a watering down, or more accurately, ignoring what it means to be humane as we should understand it today. Our actions as individuals, organizations, and industries are measured by this term, so we’d best get it right. Toward that end, I offer the following.
Humane is an early spelling of human. Today, a cursory look at online dictionaries reveals differing definitions:
- Merriam-Webster.com: “marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals”. The Merriam-Webster.com examples are fairly vague in application; “It’s not humane to treat animals that way”; and, “Conditions in the prison are more humane now.”
- Oxforddictionaries.com: “having or showing compassion or benevolence / regulations ensuring the humane treatment of animals, and inflicting the minimum of pain, humane methods of killing”. One example sentence is, “but I am willing to put my concerns to one side if a humane stunning could be inflicted on the animal prior to its slaughter.”
- dictionary.cambridge.org: “showing kindness, care, and sympathy toward others, esp[ecially] those who are suffering.” The example used is, “She felt it was more humane to kill the injured animal quickly than to let it suffer.”
- wictionary.org: “Having or showing concern for the pain or suffering of another; compassionate.” Wictionary gives one contemporary example, “It is no longer considered humane to perform vivisection on research animals.”, and one that is contextual and comparative, “As methods of execution go, beheading is more humane than drawing and quartering.” Of course it is plain that this is not the same as equating beheading with being humane.
- collinsdictionary.com: “characterized by kindness, mercy, sympathy, etc. inflicting as little pain as possible, a humane killing; [formatting removed in all]
Note the common words used to define humane: compassion, kindness, mercy, sympathy, consideration, benevolence, and “concern for the pain and suffering of another.” Now compare those defining words to the examples these dictionaries use to demonstrate the meaning of being humane. You’ll see that the words used to define humane and the examples given in sentences are often at odds with what we know today. Most of the sentence examples do not protect the individual animals from exploitation or slaughter. Being outdated, they also avoid contemporary considerations such as lack of killing necessity, the innate right to life, a requirement that all preventable suffering be addressed—not just a few aspects, and addressing the harms done to others who knew the slaughtered individuals socially.
The harms of using humane as we do now can be demonstrated by making three-year old girls and boys subject to our humane treatment as the dictionaries would have us understand it, instead of individuals from other species—livestock or hunted wolves, for instance.
Oxford Dictionaries would allow that we have “regulations ensuring the humane treatment of [three-year old boys and girls], and inflicting [upon them] the minimum of pain, [and use] humane methods of killing [them]”. For humans, we would be, “willing to put [our] concerns to one side if a humane stunning could be inflicted on the [three-year old boys and girls] prior to [their] slaughter.” Likewise Collins Dictionary would be telling us we were “characterized by kindness, mercy, sympathy, etc. [as we] inflict[ed] as little pain as possible [on the three-year old human children], [as in] a humane killing.” Merriam-Webster would be writing, “It’s not humane to treat [the children] that way” [and as such would be violating the law], and, “Conditions in the prison are more humane now” implies they are still inhumane whether they be prisons for adult humans or individuals from other species. The people at Cambridge Dictionary.org give us a specific case where ending the life of another can be humane. We understand this exception.
Our reference points are the decisions we make about and with the terminally ill. We know when we, our spouses, family members, and our friends consider life at some point in time something they no longer want to experience. Through empathy and basic understandings of physical and psychological pain, we know when ending an unbearable suffering life can be a humane thing to do. When the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) updates guidelines to create a “humane death”, they do so with the intent of creating a low-stress, instantaneous unconsciousness. Regrettably, they do not discriminate between a merciful euthanasia and wholesale slaughter of individuals unnecessarily killed to be eaten. So it is here that I must extend the idea of a humane death towards other sentient beings to be the same I would extend to other humans.
The contradictions between the dictionary definitions of humane as we understand the concept today and the examples demonstrating their application are what we have inherited. In the 16th Century, it referred to the higher qualities desired in human behavior; in 1774 the British Royal Humane Society was established to rescue drowning swimmers. Eventually “humane societies” and “animal welfare” organizations expanded the definitions. We were including more species and more aspects of their care. Historically, these were seen by our species as advances. It did not stop the persecutions and accepted norms of abuse we have grown to oppose today. We now know that what was seen as humane treatment of the past is the inhumane treatment we understand now.
We have arrived at a very uncomfortable place where the past use of humane is being applied today to perpetuate injustice and suffering. The definition and application of the term humane has to change. It must recognize the unmet needs and innate rights of other species, their rights to life, and not being exploited. It stands to reason that when the definition of humane changes, so too must the organizations operating under the humane banner. Both must continue to evolve.
Next: Reclaiming Humane / Part 2