Bullfighting: The Legal Protection of Suffering
Bullfighting has been recently accepted as Cultural Heritage by the Spanish Government. There is a current initiative to declare bullfighting as Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and include it in the UNESCO list. The proponents of such initiatives contend that bullfighting should be protected and promoted on the grounds that it is an artistic activity, part of the national culture. In this chapter, I discuss the moral arguments and legal aspects that can be pitted against such a cruel practice. More specifically, I will examine the serious obstacles to the legal protection of such practices, which cause suffering and aim at killing nonhuman animals based on cultural or artistic reasons.
The Debate About Bullfighting
The debate about banning bullfighting for moral reasons has a long history.1 However, it has currently gained more intensity because of two recent events: first, the prohibition of bullfighting in Catalonia in 2010, after the law banning it was approved by a slim majority in the Catalonian Parliament,2 and second, the declaration of bullfighting as cultural heritage by the Spanish government in November 2013. The latter opens the door for Spain to start the process of applying for inclusion of bullfighting on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO.
Festivals that involve bulls are varied and are not limited to the well-known bullfighting in Spain and other countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Portugal, Peru, and southern France.3 In Spain, in particular, many villages hold frequent festivities such as the Toro Embolado (“bull with balls”), in which a bull with balls of ignited flammable material attached to his horns is set free in the streets at night, while the people participating “play” to elude the bull. Other similar festivities are Bous a la Mar (“bulls to the sea”) or los encierros (“the running of the bulls”), which is the most popular festival of Sanfermines, an eight-day festivity carried out every year starting July 6 in Pamplona. Especially bloody and cruel is the so-called festival of Toro de la Vega in which a bull is speared to death in the town of Tordesillas.
Although all of these practices can be the target of similar criticisms from a moral point of view, I focus specifically on the case of bullfighting because it entails greater moral complexity than these other activities. The running of the bulls, the Toro Embolado, and the Toro de la Vega can all be criticized in the same way as bullfights for reasons of cruelty, suffering, and the degrading treatment of the bull. However, according to bullfighting’s advocates, bullfighting supposedly shows a higher sophistication in its conceptualization. Bullfighting defenders argue that because the practice is regarded as having a particular artistic and cultural value, bullfights should be legally protected and promoted. Therefore, in order to engage with the points put forward by its supporters, it is necessary here to present a multifaceted critique of bullfighting.
The debate between pro-bullfighting and anti-bullfighting entities focuses primarily on the following argument: The defenders of bullfighting contend that bullfighting is an art resulting from an aesthetic expression that forms part of the cultural tradition of the country. Conversely, those who argue that bullfighting should be abolished hold that it is a humiliating display that praises torture, cruelty, and suffering. Besides this core argument, there is an additional set of arguments made by those who are pro-bullfighting in their quest to justify bullfights, which can be summarized as follows:
Bullfights are cruel, but no more than other common practices of animal abuse, such as experimentation or the overcrowding and slaughter carried out in the food industry.
Bullfights are justified because they are traditional festivals.
Bulls do not suffer in the same manner that humans do.
Bulls do suffer in the bullring for fifteen minutes, but they have previously enjoyed a happy and comfortable life free in the grassland.
The abolition of bullfighting would lead to the extinction of the so-called toro de lidia.4
Bullfighting employs many people and is an important source of income.
Whether or not to attend a bullfight is a matter of individual preferences; therefore, the ban on bullfighting is an illegitimate intervention of the state into people’s freedom of choice.
These arguments, mostly drawn from the popular debate, are contested by Jesus Mosterín in his book A favor de los toros.5 Mosterín contends that contemporary studies show that bulls suffer and feel pain.6 The author also notes that the reference to tradition and the analogy with other abusive practices used as justification are invalid arguments lacking both logical and ethical legitimacy. Furthermore, Mosterín points out that drug trafficking and other illegal activities also provide economic benefits and work, yet they are not institutionally promoted for moral reasons. The contemporary philosophical debate in Spain is led by Mosterín on the one hand and Fernando Savater, who maintains the opposite position on the issue, on the other hand. Savater, a current philosopher, has developed one of the most prominent defenses of bullfighting for what he claims to be ethical reasons.
Savater, in his book Tauroética, holds four key ideas that show some depth from a philosophical point of view and that support the idea that bullfighting has ethical justifications. The first argument argued by Savater assumes the premise of the exceptional nature of human beings. Exceptionalism has a long tradition in the history of thought, and on the grounds of this assumption, it has been affirmed that humans have a superior nature to nonhuman animals. Based on this belief, Savater contends not only that animal rights are inconceivable but also that humans do not owe even a number of indirect duties or moral obligations to nonhuman animals.7 Therefore, bulls cannot be attributed any moral status, nor can they be holders of any rights.8 The second key idea put forward by Savater is closely related to the first. He contends that animals have no interests, and therefore they cannot feel suffering or happiness; thus, they are not entitled to any right that prevents them from being tortured or killed. Hence, by denying that nonhuman animals can have interests, Savater separates himself from any utilitarian approach such as the one adopted by Peter Singer9 about the maximization of happiness as a moral criterion.10
In order to support his position, Savater makes a distinction between interests and needs. The latter, conceived of as those involuntary and necessary actions that involve no conscious intention, are what animals possess. However, for Savater, animals do not have interests, which imply awareness and willingness.11 Therefore, animals, in the words of Savater, are not subject to moral praise or blame. They are not guilty or innocent because they do not choose their actions. This assumption not only may justify belief in the moral uniqueness of humans in contrast to animals but also implies that nonhuman animals do not have any protectable moral status.12
The third argument put forward by Savater that feigns to ethically justify bullfighting is that despite being a cruel spectacle, it has an artistic and cultural value that represents the reality of life as a struggle. That is, bullfighting is conceived of as a metaphor for the risk inherent to being alive and the fatal destiny of all mortal beings. In this regard, bullfights do not soften or hide the tragic sense of life.13 The fourth idea put forward by Savater in his thesis is the notion of human freedom. In this sense, the institutional support for bullfighting is based on the adoption of a liberal policy that centers on respect for the maximum of non-intervention in the subjective preferences of citizens.14 Accordingly, any ban by the state on bullfighting would be an unlawful intervention in the personal choices of citizens in a state of law.
In what follows, I discuss and counter these four ideas while arguing that bullfighting is a cruel tradition that should be banned in any society that claims to be just and ethically decent.
Bulls Are Especially Vulnerable
One reason put forward by pro-bullfighters for support of bullfighting is that the bull does not suffer. This argument—that animals do not suffer—has been repeatedly used throughout our history to justify many other practices of abuse and mistreatment of nonhuman animals. Focusing in particular on bulls, it is feasible that, as demonstrated by biological and neuroscientific studies,15 bulls have the same kind of brain and nerve structures as humans. Bulls have identical receptors and neural structures, comparable neurotransmitters, and similar brain areas to process pain. Furthermore, as mammals, bulls are endowed with a sensory cortex, a limbic system, insula, a cingulate, endorphins, and other brain systems involved in the perception of pain, and mammals, including bulls, react to stabbing stimuli with behaviors of avoidance, gestures, cries, and other nonlinguistic conduct comparable to that of humans responding to pain.16 On these grounds it is very difficult to argue that bulls, despite being regarded as particularly brave and strong animals, suffer no pain. However, it is still necessary to further refine this argument because it appears that the experience of physical pain is not considered to be the same as the experience of suffering. Those who are pro-bullfighting do not deny the scientific evidence that bulls feel pain in the bullring, but they are reluctant to admit that the bulls experience suffering.
The experience or emotion of suffering requires a degree of rational complexity in the subject who experiences it in order for it to emerge. Many authors have denied that nonhuman animals are rational, and some even deny that they can experience emotions. Donald Davidson is one of the proponents of this thesis, on the grounds that nonhuman animals do not show linguistic competence.17 Because nonhuman animals are said to not have propositional attitudes, which are, according to Davidson, the basic requirement of rationality, he infers that nonhuman animals are not rational.18 This position has been discussed by several authors who are critical of the assumption that we can deny rationality to animals who do not verbalize.19 However, within the debate about the moral legitimacy of bullfights, arguments of this nature are still used. In particular, Savater argues, as noted previously, that bulls do not have interests in the sense that they do not make choices.20 According to him, bulls, like other nonhuman animals, have only needs and instincts. Since nonhuman animals are said to have no interests, they cannot suffer because they have no understanding of their lives as being damaged or disrupted.
Nevertheless, it is very difficult to accept uncritically that a living being who is endowed with a brain structure and nervous system and who is capable of movement has no interests. If this were true, as Aristotle said, the animal would not even move. Aristotle notes that movement in animals represents precisely their innate faculty to desire.21 The animal (human or nonhuman) mentally forms a desire, conceived of as an end, which triggers an intellectual process to find the means available to achieve that end. The fact that a bull moves to go drink water is mediated by his capability to desire to drink in order to satisfy a need that is mentally represented as an end. In other words, bulls do have an interest in quenching their thirst, which is felt as a necessity. But the meanings of need and desire are substantially different. Desire prescribes the representation of both an end and an intention and therefore is the result of an intellectual faculty. Nonetheless, even though a need is the result of a kind of insufficiency that can be physical or psychological, this does not imply that if someone has a need, he is also willing to satisfy it necessarily. In order to satisfy a need, one has to wish to satisfy it. Thus, animals must have some interests, or they would not bother to move.
However, this does not resolve the question of the nature of suffering experienced by the bull in the bullring. It seems clear that the suffering that the bull feels is not confined only to the experience of pain, which he evidently feels, nor is it confined to his inability to satisfy his interest or desire to peacefully graze in the pasture. The nature of the suffering of the bull is marked by the extreme vulnerability he experiences in the bullring. For example, the so-called toro de lidia, a bull who in principle is bred to die in the bullring and is said to be a particularly brave and fierce animal, does not exist as a breed. It is quite striking that the characteristics that the pro-bullfighting forces attribute to these bulls are rather typical of other animals who are usually included in the group of predators. The reality is that the bull, including the toro de lidia, is a placid and herbivorous animal, whose natural reaction to a threat is to flee.22
Despite the fact that bulls can be regarded as strong animals, they are especially vulnerable. Fragility and vulnerability are not the same. What defines vulnerability is not a lack of physical strength, but the inability to cope with the environment. Especially vulnerable groups are those whose various circumstances (personal, socioeconomic, political, etc.) prevent them from carrying out any life project in an autonomous and independent manner. But what also creates a situation of extreme vulnerability that generates emotions of real suffering and terror is a kind of inability to intervene in the environment in a very particular way: a lack of understanding. Lack of understanding of what is happening in both his surrounding environment and his body incapacitates a subject from making any decision that may ease his pain or improve his situation. The vulnerability of bulls when they are in bullfighting rings lies in the fact that they have no choice because they do not understand what is happening. Bulls do not understand what is going on and why and therefore do not have resources to cope with the situation. They are terrified beings because they do not understand the context in which they have been placed. Hence, they are defenseless. Bulls do not understand what culture, art, tradition, heritage, and so on are, but they breathe, feel, snort, bleed, think, and are able to show anger at what humans are doing in the bullring. The bull struggles to live another day, another minute, and, as it is said in taurine jargon, is punished for it.23
With this in mind, it is possible to state that there is no equality in bullfights because the bull is an especially vulnerable being who does not understand the game. I have to agree with Savater in this point: the bull is disinterested, that is, he has no interest in winning or continuing the fight. An improper goal has been imposed on him because that goal is not freely chosen. Therefore, the argument that bullfights represent struggles in which courage is specifically praised is meaningless because it is not a fair battle between equals. One of the supposed contenders is completely ignorant of the rules of the game, and it is essential to note that he is a defenseless, vulnerable, and exposed being, and therefore he suffers greatly.
Tragedy and Cruelty
One of the arguments that the pro-bullfighting faction appeals to in defense of tauromachy is its alleged value as an artistic expression. As Savater notes,24 bullfighting obtains its prominence and value, which is what gives it its status as something worthy of protection, from the fact that it represents a truth of life: the tragedy. Savater, as an exponent of this pro-taurine view, argues that the bullfight is an allegory depicting the tragic struggle for life in which fate and risk necessarily interplay. Therefore, bullfighting represents the truth of life and its tragic character by means of expression that only humans, with their innate creativity stemming from their capacity for fantasy and imagination, can achieve. Savater admits that the “art” of bullfighting is a cruel spectacle but holds that it is justifiable. The term “cruel” comes from the Latin words cruor and crudelis,25 which refer to what is raw, to what shows spilled blood explicitly. Therefore, Savater’s justification for a spectacle that is grounded in cruelty lies in the fact that it is a representation of the tragedy that necessarily accompanies life. What happens in the bullring is a sublimation of the tragedy. By shedding blood and exposing the audience to real, live death, tauromachy has a justified artistic value that goes beyond moral limitations because in its artistic expression there takes place the narrative of the tragic truth of life that cannot be eradicated.
According to this interpretation, tragedy and cruelty are united, and despite being a cruel spectacle, bullfighting still has an artistic value as an expression of the tragedy of the narrative of life in its intensity, unambiguously without nuances or sweeteners. However, this is a very incomplete and distorted vision of the meaning of the tragedy as an art form. The notion of “tragedy” emerged in Classical Greece and entails a set of distinctive notes that turn it into a painful spectacle but with a moral value.26 The work of art, in its authenticity, does not have to soften or hide the painful nature, the reality of suffering and death that accompanies life; on the contrary, its moral obligation is to show it. However, there is a difference between the artistic and the sadistic, which is precisely cruelty. Cruelty understood in this accurate sense: the act of showing the bloody spectacle in its crudity and the reality of its bloodshed. There is nothing fictitious in the sadistic act; conversely, the main characteristic of art is its fictional nature as representation. Tragedy is a depiction of a state of life in which a painful, unavoidable, and unjust event befalls the hero. The hero does not deserve it; he is not involved and has no guilt, which triggers, in the viewer, an emotion of compassion.
If we look at the spectacle that takes place in the bullring, we can identify some of the characteristics typical of the tragedy; however, the resulting analysis is surprising and categorical. What is happening in the bullring has two components: a fictional element and a real one. The fictional representation stems from the struggle for interspecific life, a battle that theoretically occurs in nature. But the main component in the bullring is reality. Everything that happens in the bullring is real and not faked: the blood, the banderillas, the spears, the severing of the bull’s nerves, and sometimes the goring of the bullfighter are real. Everything is explicitly shown in all its crudity, and that turns bullfighting into a cruel spectacle in the sense explained previously. If the hero is the one who fights for his life against an unjust and befallen event that occurs beyond his control and that causes him great and unnecessary suffering, we can state that indeed in bullfights there is a hero: the bull.
What is striking in the analysis is that the putative hero (the bullfighter), by choosing to place himself in the bullfighting situation and having the clear intention of achieving his goal (to inflict pain and cause unnecessary death), is much closer to the sadistic figure than to the hero, but there is another variable that is perhaps more worrying: the reaction of the public. The audience that attends a tragic play participates in the event by feeling sorry for the hero, by grieving with him. Tragedy arouses different emotions in the spectator: compassion, sadness, indignation, or anger. These emotions have a moral substrate: they arise because the spectator perceives an unfair event that should not be happening; they arise precisely on the grounds of the sense of moral good that the viewer holds, which triggers an empathetic process. What is shocking in the taurine spectacle is that it produces in bullfighting fans opposing feelings: joy, delight, or pleasure. Because cruelty is an act of objective moral evilness, those who rejoice in cruelty are commonly described as sadistic.
Does this mean that all those who attend bullfights are sadistic? It could be that there is an important group of the population that has not sufficiently reflected on what is happening in the bullring and therefore is unconsciously blocking the empathetic process that is central to every work of art. There are also those in the audience who are so captivated by the idea that what is actually revealed in the bullring is the courage of the matador that they are unaware of or they ignore the state of vulnerability of the bull. Arguably, this stems from poor education in which people have not sufficiently developed certain moral emotions that are associated with creating emotional bonds by means of identifying the pain and suffering of others. That said, we cannot deny that there is a percentage of people (of all nationalities) who indulge themselves in the show and understand it in its magnitude, thus demonstrating their sadism. But the point at issue is not whether there is a percentage of the world human population that shows signs of sadism because obviously there is. But what is being discussed is whether that sadism is morally justified and thus can be a legitimate object of legal protection and be promoted institutionally. That is what is at stake.
Bullfighting Protected as Intangible Cultural Heritage
Bullfighting advocates put forward a range of arguments to promote and support tauromachy, including economic, traditional, cultural, or even aesthetic reasons, but nevertheless, they find it very difficult to justify bullfighting on moral grounds.27 However, it is essential to note that economic reasons or reasons that are based in tradition, culture, or art may have an ethical value. They are valuable if they can be justified morally. But appealing to economic, cultural, or aesthetic reasons when there are practices that do not pass the filter of moral review contests the legitimacy of the practice; therefore, it is a moral obligation to eradicate such practices. Consequently, it is necessary to assess whether a practice can be considered an artistic or cultural activity worthy of legal protection despite of not being morally justifiable, because not all the reasons possess the same legitimacy to be regarded sufficient for legal protection of the activity and even to get subsidies and public funding.
Recently, the government of Spain approved a legislative initiative to declare bullfighting a Bien de Interés Cultural (BIC).28 The initiative was presented by the Federación de Entidades Taurinas de Cataluña (Catalan Taurine Federation) with two goals: to guarantee and protect bullfights throughout the national territory and to revoke the 2010 Catalan law banning bullfighting in Catalonia.29 The declaration of a practice as a BIC entails a number of benefits, and public funds are spent on its promotion; it also involves the initiation of procedures for the application to include it in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list of UNESCO. However, the final text that was approved in November 2013 declared bullfighting a cultural heritage, but not a BIC. This was because of the difficulties encountered, such as the conflict of jurisdiction between the central state and the regions and inconsistencies with certain articles of the penal code, which in fact penalize the torture and mistreatment of animals. Nevertheless, advocates of bullfighting still insist on increasing the legal protection of bullfights to preserve the activity and to gain access to public subsidies, and thus to insert bullfighting into the list of UNESCO, which enjoys special promotion.
This situation is highly problematic because it implies the possibility of providing legal protection to a practice that has no moral legitimacy. The text of UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage of 2003 is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 in order to recognize the “the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as a mainspring of the cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development.” The convention defines “intangible cultural heritage” in Article 2.1 as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.”30 The only limit imposed by the convention on the elements in order for them to be considered intangible cultural heritage is that they must be “compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.”31
It is essential to note that the convention does not include any reference to the prevention of cruelty and suffering to animals. Furthermore, among UNESCO’s five criteria for a proposed element to be considered, we do not find any reference to torture or cruelty against living beings other than humans as a limit for that element to be listed. But requirement number 4—“the element has been nominated following the widest possible participation of the community, group or, if applicable, individuals concerned and with their free, prior and informed consent”—would pose a serious difficulty for inclusion of bullfighting in the list because this would require public consultation, and the vast majority of the Spanish people appear to disagree with bullfighting.32 Even though, on the grounds of this requirement, the possibility of inclusion of bullfighting in UNESCO’s list as an ICH seems unlikely because it is not greatly supported by the majority of the Spanish people, the convention should be reviewed to explicitly incorporate the prevention of cruelty to nonhuman animals in the guidelines governing what activities and practices can be included in the list.
What constitutes the cultural heritage of a country and what therefore should be protected must be justified and supported by moral reasons. Most of our actions have a moral impact on the world in which we live. Consideration of these impacts should be above tastes, habits, and preferences: they are moral acts that leave our mark on the world. It is necessary for institutions and states to reflect on the kind of moral values that are being promoted every time they subsidize, protect, or promote practices such as bullfighting. It is not a matter of preferences or tradition, nor is it a neutral issue, but what is at stake is the type of society we want to build. A society that demonstrates more sensitivity to animals can only engender greater compassion for weaker and more vulnerable humans.
During the reigns of Carlos III and Carlos IV, bullfights were banned in 1771 and 1805. The practice was restored by Fernando VII in the nineteenth century. See J. Mosterín, A favor de los toros (Pamplona: Laetoli, 2010), 31, 35.
The abolition of bullfighting in Catalonia was passed by the Catalan Parliament on July 28, 2010, through a legislative initiative originated by the proponents of the group Prou! which secured the prohibition of bullfighting. The vote was sixty-eight votes in favor of the prohibition, fifty-five against, and nine abstentions.
G. Ortiz Millán, “Ética para Matador: Savater, los toros y la ética,” Tópicos, Revista de Filosofía 46 (2014): 206.
The toro (“bull”) de lidia refers to male bovines of a heterogeneous population developed, selected, and bred for use in different bullfights, festivities, and running of the bulls. They come from breeds of the Iberian peninsula. See R. Barga, El toro de lidia (Madrid: Alianza, 1995).
Mosterín, A favor de los toros, 96–100.
Ibid., 75, 96. In order to examine what practices are carried out during bullfights, see Mosterín, A favor de los toros, 37–43, and Ortiz Millán, “Ética para Matador,” 216–17. Both authors describe what events occur during the whole bullfight.
F. Savater, Tauroética (Madrid: Turpial, 2011), 34.
Ibid., 19, 29.
P. Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1975).
Savater, Tauroética, 25.
J. L. Díaz, “El sufrimiento de los toros,” El País, August 1, 2010; M. S. Dawkins, “Scientific Basis for Assessing Suffering in Animals,” in In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, ed. P. Singer (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 26–39.
Díaz, “El sufrimiento de los toros.”
D. Davidson, “Rational Animals,” in Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, ed. E. Lenore and B. McLaughlin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 473, 476.
D. Davidson, “Actions, Reasons and Causes,” Journal of Philosophy 60 (1963); D. Davidson, “Thought and Talk,” in Mind and Language, ed. S. Guttenplan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), 7–23; Davidson, “Rational Animals.”
Singer, Animal Liberation; D. DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); R. Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Debate in the Western Tradition (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1993); R. Sorabji, “Animal Minds,” Southern Journal of Philosophy 31, supplement (1993): 1–19; M. Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008).
Savater, Tauroética, 26.
Aristotle, Acerca de la generación y la corrupción: Tratados breves de historia natural (Madrid: Gredos, 1987), 433b, 27–30.
Mosterín, A favor de los toros, 11–16.
The “punishment” (castigo) is a taurine figure executed by a picador (a sort of bullfighter’s assistant) that consists in breaking the nerves of the neck of the bull with a lance so that the bull loses control over his head. See Mosterín, A favor de los toros, 38.
Savater, Tauroética, 67–68.
Savater, Tauroética, 66–67; Mosterín, A favor de los toros, 27.
M. C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Pedro Talavera, Derecho y literatura: El reflejo de lo jurídico (Granada: Comares, 2006), 94–95.
Ortiz Millán, “Ética para Matador,” 208.
A Bien de Interés Cultural (BIC) is a category of the Spanish heritage register aimed at preserving and promoting Spanish cultural property, which comprises both material and intangible national heritage.
The Canary Islands banned bullfighting in 1991.
UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, October 17, 2003, Article 2.1.
According to the “Cultural Habits and Practices Survey” published by the Spanish Ministry of Culture, during 2010–11, 76% oppose use of public funds to support the bullfighting industry.
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