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Morality, rationality and self-interest, The Science of Mind

On Predation, Animal Suffering and Meaty Morals


Jeff McMahon’s recent writings on the NY Times on predators and the plight of the animals they prey upon prompted some intriguing debates. En route to making his claim that a world free of predatory animals is preferable to one with such blood-thirsty creatures, McMahon argues that once we factor in the suffering of animals, the only civilized response is to convert to vegetarianism. As a lover of animals, both the cute and playful and the roasted, this naturally gave me some food for thought. How do I as a meat eater reconcile the immense pleasure I derive from a succulent lamb roast/filet mignon/what have you, with my affinity for pets and distaste for animal cruelty? These considerations and others recently had me pondering the moral significance of the plight of animals.

Not that long ago, we were all shocked to learn of Michael Vick’s vile and inhumane treatment of dogs. Now while some of that horror stemmed from what his actions indicated about his capacity for cruelty and insensitivity to suffering, a significant number of commentators focused more on the suffering his actions caused to the animals. In a sense this distinction seems somewhat artificial – the cruelty of the actor and the suffering of the victims are two sides of the same coin. However, in making such a moral judgment, which aspect of these brutal actions we emphasize – outrage at such wanton predatation or empathy for the innocent vitims –  can be quite revealing about the hierarchy of our value systems, and how we might judge other cases involving animal (and perhaps even human) suffering.

But is there a major distinction between such wanton cruelty apparently for sport, and the suffering experienced by the animals we eat? Most of us would find such a comparison absurd and insulting. Yet in a very real sense, the experience of the victim is not significantly altered by the motives of the predator: it is of little significance to the chicken wether his head is chopped off to provide a meal for a poor family or entertainment for a cruel child or healing through a witch doctor. As on-lookers however, we certainly do factor in the value of motive. Though our outrage at the wickedness inherent in acts of sadistic cruetly may at times dominate, it isn’t immediately clear which way our moral scales would tip were we to discover that the “lifetime of misery and torment” experienced by chicken raised in captivity for human consumption outweighs the suffering of dogs killed after a dogfight. If our empathy for the victims dominate, then (as McMahon argues) perhaps such considerations ought to prompt us to abandon our omnivorous appetites in favour of less violent dietary habits.

And yet most of us still feel somehow that the suffering of animals raised for our consumption pales in comparison to the suffering of animals caused by the brutality of wicked men. This double standard intrigues me. How is it that we can claim such moral outrage in the name of the suffering of innocent animals in one circumstance, and yet condone arguably greater suffering when we are the direct beneficiaries? It would seem that the motives behind the suffering outweigh our considerations of the actual amount of suffering experienced by the victims themselves.

We may also defend our apparent double standard on the basis that dogs exhibit certain human-like traits of loyalty and warmth, making Vick’s apparent ability to inflict suffering and torture on them that much more callous and evil, whereas the suffering we tolerate among livestock is of significantly lower moral consideration given the inferiority of such animals in the moral pecking order (or at least, we might say, in their ability to experience the consciousness we readily ascribe to pets and such). We just don’t care as much when it comes to the moral value of our food. This distinction raises the question of how we assign such moral value to animals.  Time.com recently (and not so recently) featured articles on the animal mind that raised interesting questions about where we draw the line between the animals we are willing to consider in moral contexts (e.g. humans, elephants, dolphins and pets), and those that we can probably get away with killing on sight without any moral misgivings (e.g. cockroaches, ticks and fleas). Having explored numerous activities indicative of thought and high levels of mental capacity in various animal species, Time’s Eugene Linden concluded in his March 1993 article that:

“If the notion that animals might actually think poses a problem, it is an ethical one. The great philosophers, such as Descartes, used their belief that animals cannot think as a justification for arguing that they do not have moral rights. It is one thing to treat animals as mere resources if they are presumed to be little more than living robots, but it is entirely different if they are recognized as fellow sentient beings.”

17 years of research later, and the question is now less about whether animals can think and more about whether they are capable of consciousness, even self-consciousness. Jeffrey Kluger concluded that:

“Ultimately, the same biological knob that adjusts animal consciousness up or down ought to govern how we value the way those species experience their lives. A mere ape in our world may be a scholar in its own, and the low life of any beast may be a source of deep satisfaction for the beast itself. Kanzi’s [the famous “bilingual” bonobo monkey] glossary is full of words like noodles and sugar and candy and night, but scattered among them are also good and happy and be and tomorrow. If it’s true that all those words have meaning to him, then the life he lives — and by extension, those of other animals — may be rich and worthy ones indeed.”

If animals are really conscious (whatever that might mean – given our limited understanding of consciousness itself, much less how to go about putting a value on relative levels of it), then the moral dilemma regarding how to treat them might be more complex than a purely utilitarian view based on their function as food, value as companions or contribution to biodiversity. I’m sure there are those (like McMahon) who regard meat eaters who willfully chomp down a lamb leg or chicken thigh in the same way some of us see the cannibalistic Korowai people of Papua. Though they only ate captives from wars with rival tribes, or convicted criminals and witch doctors, indicating a moral criteria to judge who was to be considered edible and who wasn’t, I doubt a significant number of people would find their moral sentiments particularly worthy of emulation. While we might object that their criteria are “inhumane” and violate the sanctity of human life, they might retort that the only sacred human lives are those of law abiding, non-witchcraft practicing people within one’s own tribe. We’d be hard-pressed to explain how their criteria are any less valid than criteria based on notions of “species” – a concept which is quite hard to nail down, or utilitarianism or the various standards we use to distinguish between dogs and mutton. And if our criteria are based on consciousness and ability to experience suffering, then in light of recent findings regarding animal consciousness, then at the very least the studies cited in time’s articles (above) raise significant questions that require thoughtful consideration of the morality of condoning animal suffering (and not merely the Michael Vick variety).

On the other hand, such concern over the moral significance of animal suffering does also require some further justification. Suffering is an inescapable part of the natural world. Carnivores eat their pray as a matter of the natural order of the wild, and this is not a matter of concern for most people. Few if any of us would attribute any moral significance to the suffering of a deer when its flesh feeds a lion, nor would we disapprove of a wolf hunting a rabbit. Such natural acts of predation do not trigger any moral misgivings. It seems fair then to look for the basis on which our predatory inclinations are to be of moral valuation.

It seems we must distinguish between the suffering inherent in animals competing for limited resources (say food and water), and the suffering that might be caused by gratuitous blood lust or torture. While the latter seems clearly immoral (based both on what such behaviours imply about the actor and for the unwarranted suffering that such actions cause), there seems to be very little of moral significance in a hungry lion eating its prey. The suffering we introduce out of our recklessness, greed and depravity seems morally objectionable, while that caused by one animal’s need to eat another to survive, seems an unavoidable aspect of nature.

However, when we lock up millions of chickens and cows in tiny spaces – this is the product of human artifice, greed and wanton disregard for the animals’ welfare. Should we care? Should it be any different from the more ‘natural’ and amoral suffering that the prey suffers as the result of the natural predatory behaviour among carnivores? I’m not sure. There is an argument to be made that such “inhumane” treatment is bad because we’re introducing an unnatural level of suffering. But if the suffering of prey at the hands of their natural predators is amoral, then arguably, there is no reason to give any moral consideration to the suffering of our prey when that suffering is necessary to feed us. (This is separate from the question of whether we are too gluttonous – perhaps we could incidentally reduce animal suffering if we weren’t too gluttonous, but the issue of moral significance there is our gluttony and excess; not the incidental suffering of the animals we eat – that is simply a result of their being lower in the food chain; we, with our instruments of mass food production, are no different from the lion hunting a wild zebra; we may just be better hunters with better technology – unfortunately for the cattle, pigs and chicken). Of course the unsanitary conditions and health-risks associated with our mass-food production industries remain of moral significance, but only insofar as these create conditions that are detrimental to human-well-being. Again, it would seem, too bad for the animals. Their moral significance is trumped by our natural predatory instincts and dietary habits, just as the zebra’s suffering is of no moral significance to the lion.

We can then conclude that predatory behaviour then isn’t of moral significance when such predatory behaviour stems from the natural tendencies of carnivores to kill for food. Going beyond these natural needs, e.g. indulging in animal torture for sadistic pleasure, wantonly killing animals for sport – these perhaps may be of moral significance (perhaps both because we deem such sadistic blood lust immoral, and also because the suffering that such behaviour brings about is beyond some threshold that we find acceptable as part of the naturally occurring food chain).

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