Friday, September 2, 2011

Moral Inconsistencies about Animals

Moral Inconsistencies...
That is what I want to write about today.

Why is it that we eat cows, poison rats and let dogs sleep in our beds? Why do we care when a dog is humanely euthanized but not when a pig is slaughtered for food or a seal is clubbed for its fur? Why do we hate Michael Vick for abusing dogs when we sit on, carry around, and wear leather goods?

For some of you, it might be easy to answer these questions by simply saying, "Well, pets are different." But why? Why are we plagued with these moral inconsistencies? Why was Hitler a vegetarian, yet order the killing of millions of jews? Why do some Brazilian tribes both kill adult monkeys and personally breast feed their young monkey babies?  This is the subject of Hal Herzog's book "Some we love, Some we hate, Some we eat."

When we first brought Winnie home, it took me all of two months before I stopped eating mammal flesh. I had always had an aversion to handling animal flesh before it was magically converted into "food" via heat, but I wasn't convinced it was morally wrong until a strange thing happened.
While I was on vacation in the thousand islands a year ago, I witnessed a blue heron fish out a cat-fish from a shallow area and leave it hidden in some dry leaves and grass to suffocate. After it died, it came back and taken it away to eat, presumably to help feed itself and its young as many birds do, I noticed that near the catfish's shallow pool were baby catfish. I had been told that fish of course take very little responsibility for their young, although there is evidence that some fish and amphibians have evolved to do so. For example, the male seahorse holds eggs in his pouch until they hatch and some male frogs actually hold tadpols in their mouths until they are ready to leave. (Listen to this podcast to learn more about how various animals care for their young.)

This did not disturb me much. The young catfish would not be raised by their parents like a fox pup is raised by its mom and dad, but I took particular offense to the way the heron let the catfish die. To be honest, I anthopocentrized the catfish and imagined the agony it felt out of the water- something many children do when they experience fishing with their Dads for the first time- imploring them to throw the fish right back and feeling the guilt associated with yanking these animals in and out of the water for our pleasure.

I was told to forget the fish, that it was part of the nature, and that I truthfully would not want the heron to die of starvation. Of course, I felt that I needed to hold myself to a higher level. My closeness with my dog- the first animal I was ever completely responsible for- led me to feel a closeness intrinsically with other mammals like us.

How should I proceed with this moral quandary? Well, I stopped eating mammals, and am happy to say that in 1 full year I haven't eaten any mammal flesh. I do, however, still eat fish and poultry. My reasoning for this first began with my both practical concerns and my emotional feelings-- I don't really feel so close to a chicken or a fish and I don't necessary believe that my consumption of them is morally wrong.

At first, free-range poultry and wild-caught fish seemed logical, although there is some evidence that chickens actually prefer to be clusterred together- and given the chance to run free- will huddle under each others wings. (Read about other problems associated with anthropocentrizing animals in A. Horowitz's book, Inside of a Dog.) Recently, after much thought, I found a better justification for my eating habits. If forced to live in the woods for years- or on a deserted island, I would forage and eat fruits, nuts, vegetables and whatever else I could find, but I would also be comfortable collecting insects, spearing fish and catching them with my own hands, or if need be- breaking a bird's neck so that I could eat it.

On the other hand, I would be completely unable to trap and eat any mammal of any kind, not under any circumstances. Whatever genetic code brought me to adore my dogs, whether it be due to my affinity for baby-like creatures to secure the future of my own children- or my ability to sympathize with mammals in order to better hunt them (called theory of mind by philosophers and psychologists), something went wrong somewhere- and I could no longer be able to personally kill a mammal or cut up its flesh. Hence, no mammal meat, and if I can avoid it, no leather.

Nor would I be able to hurt any creature (mammal or not) intentionally and without good reason. In ESPN's recent Michael Vick special issue, author David Fleming raises these exact inconsistencies in the moral behaviors of Vick haters.

Jay Paul/ Getty Images/

He writes,  
"From factory farming to horse racing, a multibillion dollar sport where two-thirds of all washed-up thoroughbreds are either abandoned or slaughtered, our perspective regarding animal cruelty is significantly altered depending on the degree of intimacy involved. We don't have to witness the stomach-turning horrors inside a farm factory in order to get chicken nuggets for lunch. They're handed to us through a drive-through window, wrapped inside a clean, colorful package. Theoretically, our hands remain clean, whereas an exhaustive report by the Department of Agriculture revealed that Vick drowned, electrocuted and hung dogs with his bare hands. "The American population may not be guilty of carrying it out with their own hands as Vick did," says Singer. "But it's certainly guilty of supporting animal cruelty through their purchases. It's not any worse to make a dog suffer than to make a pig or a chicken or a cow suffer. If you look at factory farms and if you support them, you can't say 'Vick made animals suffer and I don't.'"

As a dog lover, and a pit bull lover, I found that I was unable to place pits above other dogs, dogs above other mammals, and my own desire for tasty bacon over the pain and suffering of pigs etc. I urge you to think about these issues- about the possible presence of inconsistencies in your own moral code. While euthanasia of dogs in major cities in the U.S. is a huge problem, and a problem that outrages us because of our feelings that dogs are like people- less kind killing of other animals happens every day, on a massive scale, for our indulgences. It is worth ruminating on, isn't it?


  1. It definitely raises some good questions. Why is that in some countries dogs are a main food staple that we feel the need to rescue, while in other cultures believe a cow is sacred will never be slaughtered, even while the people starve?

    Raising several different points on the type of animal's we will or won't eat and the horror of how those for food are processed. And it brings us all back in the same pot.

    Makes you wonder if we are really drawing a line or just moving it to ease our own self consciousness.

    Good post!

  2. This post came very timely for me. I made the decision to stop eating mammals this past week. I've always felt like a hipocrite in my decision to eat say bacon and hamburger but have fooled myself by saying they arrived in this world at the grocery store or the fast food place just like I bought it.

    I read an article though this week about the contraption they raise breeder pigs in that are being raised for pork, specifically sausage that I ate most mornings from McDonalds. They live their entire 4-5 year life in this thing never getting to even stand up and turn around. For some reason this really hit home for me and I realized I can't ride the fence any longer. I'm not diving off into complete vegetarianism but my days of hamburger and sausage are over. We'll see where my conscience leads me from here.

    So you see your article came at the perfect time. Thank you!


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