Thursday, August 31, 2006

How we think about treating animals

My man Daniel wrote this to me in an email, and gave me permission to blog it:

This always strikes me as a weird tactic, that a certain species has
qualities that we find admirable when we see them in human beings, and
therefore we shouldn't be cruel to them:

"If a goose.s mate or chicks become sick or injured, she will often refuse
to leave their side, even if winter is approaching and the other geese in
her group are flying south."

And also that they're similar to us:

"Researchers at Middlesex University in Britain recently reported that
ducks even have regional accents, just like humans!"

In practice I'll bet that all the tender emotions I've had towards animals
have been from noticing a similarity to humans, or some interesting or
unique quality I've learned about. So it's probably an effective tactic.
But it doesn't hold up - by all accounts chimpanzees are vicious murdering
hierarchical motherfuckers. And would you have less givings about eating
ducks if you learned that gang rape is a regular part of their life cycle?

Rape Among Mallards (in Reports) Jack P. Hailman; Frank McKinney; Julie Barrett; Scott R. Derrickson;
David P. Barash Science, New Series, Vol. 201, No. 4352. (Jul. 21, 1978), pp. 280-282.

Not to mention homosexual necrophilia,
(choice quote: "Another drake mallard raped the corpse almost continuously
for 75 minutes.")

I don't think you can use your heart to make policy decisions in cases
like this. You have to have some kind of rational, careful work in
philosophy. It might be based on principles at bottom that are basically
intuitive (like that the more sentient an animal is the more wrong it is
to harm them) but that at least assigns animals worth independent of the
kind of tenderness that they happen to trigger in us. An animal who's
lifestyle is basically evil by human standards, that involves rape and
infanticide on a regular basis, does not deserve more cruelty than a
similar animal that is gentle and pairs for life (awwww).

1 comment:

Anthony said...

I disagree.

Part of the reason that we approve or disapprove of the treatment of animals is based on "the animal's rights" (e.g., the sentience principle), part of it is based on utility (hence why many people disapprove of the historical slaughter of buffalo for their skins but approve of the modern sale of buffalo meat from managed hers) but another reason we evaluate it is based on what it indicates about the person performing that behavior.

Daniel may be right that an animal whose lifestyle is "evil" by human standards does not DESERVE more cruelty than an "awww" inducing animal. However, the willingness in a human to commit cruelty towards an animal that invokes a great deal of empathy and tenderness from other humans is a strong SIGNAL about that human's capacity to commit cruelty to other humans, and as a society we choose to discourage or even punish that behavior as a firewall against such men.

Which does not mean that we can't decide as a policy decision to allow the use of awww-inducing fuzzy bunnies for their meat or some other purpose - sometimes we must do so. However, if we do not require that humans processing animals which evoke human empathy treat those animals humanely, we run the risk of institutionalize cruelty - creating policies that desensitizes us to the very signals evolution has built into us to guarantee we protect other members of our own species.

So the argument might go "if a certain species has qualities we find admirable when we see them in human beings, we shouldn't be cruel to them because that cruelty would degrade the barriers we have towards being cruel to each other."

My $0.02, obviously.