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Browsing Twitter yesterday — what, like you spent the whole weekend building low-income housing and going to the gym? — I stumbled across an interesting exchange being curated by NR’s Kevin Williamson on the topic of animal rights. His take: that the whole idea of animal cruelty is awash in confusion.
A few other offerings:
I recall, around the time I was an undergraduate — that point in your life when you think you need a single, conclusory sentence on hand to resolve each and every philosophical question — trying to work my way through the animal rights issue. I never could. You can try to make the arguments in a vacuum of pure logic, but for me — and I think for many of us — it’s ultimately a judgment largely influenced by what Williamson rightly calls “sentimentality” (which, I would argue, is not always and everywhere a vice). There’s nothing about the existence of a chicken, a pig, or a cow that makes me intrinsically recoil at the idea of slaughtering it for food. Would I want to do the killing (the question the animal rights crowd will often pose to you)? No. But there are a lot of endeavors vital to society that I wouldn’t want to execute myself. That’s not sufficient to establish them as morally suspect. Viva comparative advantage!
By the same token, there are plenty of animals — dogs, cats, horses, etc. — that tend to inspire an elevated sense of attachment in us. Maybe it’s something intrinsic to them. Maybe it’s actually just a reflection of us — something about those species that makes humans more likely to think of them as possessed of discrete personalities and worthy of greater respect than lower beasts (can you imagine forming the same kind of bond with a pet spider as with your Labrador?). Regardless, I think it’s generally folly to dismiss such widely-held, naturally-occurring sentiments just because they can’t be justified with pure logic.
I sort of understand where Williamson is coming from on the question of cruelty. I myself have entertained a similar thought in the past — if taking a life is the most violative act we can perform, how can we simultaneously be okay with killing animals yet outraged at lesser offenses against them?
On closer inspection, however, it’s a matter of stewardship, isn’t it? Most of us non-vegetarians don’t think twice about someone slaughtering pigs, cows, or chickens for food. But I’m willing to bet that almost all of us would be uncomfortable with the idea of someone gratuitously making one of those animals suffer. Would it be philosophically inconsistent to be okay with someone killing a deer for sport but to blanch at the idea of a hunter taking a non-fatal shot just for the sadistic pleasure of watching the crippled animal limp away? Because I think the vast majority of us would make a clear distinction there, even without introducing the (philosophically messy) concept of “animal rights.”
The higher the regard that we have for the species, the less accommodating we are. You may think that cockfighting is abhorrent, but, if you’re even slightly sympathetic on the matter, it probably doesn’t effect you as viscerally as Michael Vick’s dogfighting (the topic that began Williamson’s Twitter exchange). Is it consistent? Probably not. But does that mean it’s wrong?
As is probably clear, I’ve never been able to work out a concise articulation of the controlling principle here. And I’m not sure I want to. Go too far in one direction and you’re living in an impractical universe where we all ought to be vegans (I guess it’s okay to eat living things as long as they don’t have mouths?). Overcorrect the other way and you’re in a place where all animals are nothing more than instruments of human desire, with all considerations of mercy superfluous. I’m not sure exactly how you to get my world — where spiders and snakes get what’s coming to them and everything else is on a sliding scale.
Help me out, Ricochet. How would you articulate the proper principles by which we ought to think about the treatment of animals?Published in