On the ethics of bullfighting: From tradition to extinction

In his second blog, Dr Manuel Magalhaes-Sant’Ana, a specialist in animal welfare science, ethics and law, discusses his views and opinions on bullfighting.

Bullfighting is the one event that all animal lovers love to hate. It is bloody, violent and inhumane. The bare idea of a crowd cheering an artistic performance achieved at the expense of animal suffering is plainly unacceptable for most of us. So why do bullfights still exist? And should they be abolished?

In an article written to the Portuguese veterinary community in 2010, I cautioned that

“Bullfighting stands at a crossroads: whether it continues to turn a deaf ear to the cries of revolt from animal rights organisations or conscientiously accepts their blows and works to reformulate some of its practices".

Seven years have passed and the dices are loaded. In the face of social change, the bullfighting community – be it in Spain, Portugal, France or Latin America - has chosen to ignore their detractors and resist change at any cost. Along the years, several arguments have been used to justify the status quo and garner supporters: the economic impact of bullfighting, the ecological importance of raising bulls for the dehesa/montado ecosystem or aesthetic reasons. But one argument in particular seems to resist better than others- tradition. According to this argument, bullfighting is a cultural heritage – even an element of national identity - and therefore must be preserved. In effect, this same argument has been recently vindicated by Brazilian MP’s to legalise vaquejadas, a sport where bulls are chased by men on horses, pulled by their tails and thrown to the ground.

A valued tradition

Contemporary bullfighting has its roots in animistic religious rites, going back to ancient Mediterranean civilizations, where fighting bulls was a matter of fertility, bravery and authority. It seems beyond dispute that the fiesta brava is part of the cultural landscape for many Latin countries, spanning all age groups, social classes and educational backgrounds. Praised by poets, novelists, painters, and even philosophers, bullfighting is a highly valued tradition for many. Some liberal philosophers argue that cultural diversity has moral value on its own and should be preserved. In the same way that genetic diversity is invaluable for evolution to occur (and for species’ survival), cultural diversity has moral worth because it provides civilizations with the armory required to face societal change (and prolong human life on earth).

Others think that tradition, not culture, is a normative notion.

“For traditions are repositories of value, and are themselves object of value, and the whole point of a tradition is to perpetuate the survival of what people value: to hand these values down from generation to generation”. (Scheffler, 2010, p.305)

Can the same argument be applied to justify bullfighting? Well, hardly. In my view, there is only a duty for a nation (or group) to preserve a cultural tradition if it contributes significantly to the wellbeing of its people and does not violate fundamental rights (theirs or of others). That is why it seems baffling that rodeos and vaquejadas have recently been considered intangible cultural heritage in Brazil (Law 13.364/2016), a decision that ignores zoocentric values (Hanlon & Magalhães-Sant’Ana, 2016). Even if someone is not willing to ascribe the most basic of rights to animals (such as freedom from pain, fear or distress), that person would still have to take into account all the people who would be harmed by bullfighting (or to vaquejadas, for that matter) for the sake of preserving a tradition.

The above reasoning may seem to imply that bullfighting should be abolished. In reality, trying to abolish bullfighting has so far yielded poor results. Firstly because very little - if anything - has been accomplished in terms of improving the welfare of animals during bullfighting, be they bulls or horses. And secondly, because traditions cannot be abolished by decree. With the notable exception of the Spanish autonomous community of Cataluña, few citizens are willing to have politicians deciding for them which entertainment shows they are not allowed to attend.

Therefore, I suggest that we should not try to abolish bullfighting. To do so would trump people’s autonomy since citizens should be allowed to freely decide which traditions express the shared values and customs of society. Instead, I suggest that bullfighting should be allowed to continue, although probably deprived from state financial subsidies, or else invited to adapt to the modern scientific concepts of animal sentience (and in my next post I will suggest some measures that may help improving welfare during bullfight). Either way, bullfighting should be prepared to face extinction: either because it is economically unsustainable or simply because future generations will consider that even a more humane form of bullfighting is not part the modern world.


Further reading

Hanlon, A. J., & Magalhães-Sant’Ana, M. (2016). Zoocentrism. In H. ten Have (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Global Bioethics (pp. 3023–3030). Cham: Springer International Publishing. 

Scheffler, S. (2010). Equality and Tradition: Questions of Value in Moral and Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.