Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Criteria for Killing or not Killing Life

To say “killing life” is a redundancy: After all, to kill means to cause death. Only life can die. All other usage of the word “kill” is metaphorical. To kill a story or to kill a project simply means to destroy it.
Today, I want to write about true killing, i.e. the killing of LIFE, the taking of ANIMAL life. I was prompted by the recent killing of Cecil the lion by Walter Palmer, a trophy hunter from Minnesota. He lured Cecil out of his sanctuary, wounded him with an arrow, tracked him for forty hours and then killed him with a rifle. Some might argue that it would it be better to have Palmer’s taxidermied head on display than Cecil’s.

Why has the story of Cecil touched so many of us? It also generated many subsequent articles pointing out that on the same day that Cecil was killed, one hundred elephants were also killed in Africa, as happens day after day non-stop. Our assault on the animal kingdom is relentless, but we treat different species very differently. So here are a couple of questions: Why is it (more) okay to kill some species than others? And: What CRITERIA do people use to either condone or condemn the killing of life?

Of course, there are different groups: There is the animal rights movement, which addresses issues regarding our moral responsibility as stewards of the animal kingdom. There are vegetarians, there are vegans, etc. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, fish and poultry. Vegans, in addition, do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps derived from animal products. Some vegetarians may be motivated by health reasons rather than idealistic love for animals. Others grapple with this moral question through various compromises. Some eat fish, but not meat; some eat hamburgers but not veal (calves); some eat free-range chicken but not caged chicken. And of course, a majority of humanity continues to eat just about anything.

On the day that Cecil and one hundred elephants were killed in Africa, there were probably a thousand gazelles and antelopes killed, millions of fishes and millions of cattle, chicken and other “commercial” animals killed, not to mention billions of insects. So the question remains: which killings do we condone or condemn, and what are our criteria? I discern the following ones: (Don’t become polemical: These are not necessarily MY criteria. I merely list, as a sociologist, the criteria which I believe are being used in society today, either overtly or latently).

It is morally more acceptable to eat (= kill) animals which:

1. have had a happy life rather than those which have not (e.g. free-range chicken)

2. have had a long life rather than those which have only had a short life (e.g. calves vs. cows).

3. look very different from us (fish and worms, as opposed to mammals). The most immoral is to eat primates (apes and monkeys, our nearest cousins). This is the “anthropomorphic” criterion.

4. are small (e.g. rabbits, gophers, rodents, etc. as opposed to elephants, bears or whales). This is the “size criterion.”

5. are plentiful. This is the “endangered status” criterion.

6. are deemed to have a high level of “consciousness” rather than those deemed to be less intelligent. 

7. are seen as a threat to humans. It’s still open season on sharks and rattlesnakes, and of course mosquitoes, flies, ants, spiders and many other insects are our natural enemies. However, some insects are our allies (e.g. bees). 

8. are domestic rather than wild (e.g. dogs and horses, as opposed to hyenas and zebras). 

9. are killed as painlessly as possible. This criterion is severely violated by all recreational fisherman, who routinely drag their catch of trout all afternoon behind their boat, hooked through an eye or a gill, in order to keep them alive and fresh for dinner. Not to mention the worm hooked as bait onto the fishhook. Other examples of culinary cruelty include the live boiling of lobsters, the force-feeding of ducks and geese to produce foie gras, and the preparation of snails, which entails cleaning them out  alive, by filling them up with salt.

10. are not “culturally honored.” Different cultures place the same species on different levels of the totem pole: We frown on killing wolves, because the wolf is a beloved cultural icon (Jack London, Kevin Costner, etc.). Dozens of Asian countries eat dogs. France eats both cows and horses (boucherie chevaline), whereas we only eat cows.

11. are necessary for human sustenance. We rarely condemn tribal man’s hunting.

12. I am at a loss how to fit “entertainment” in my list of “criteria.” Among the most retrograde forms of animal killing are bullfights, dogfights, cockfights, and other such forms of entertainments. Of course, most hunting and  fishing by modern man is also recreational.

I find criterion #3 the most interesting - the “anthropomorphic” criterion: Other things being equal, it is considered morally worse to kill mammals (especially primates) than members of other classes, because we ourselves are mammals and primates. Reptiles are another class, so we don’t mind killing crocodiles and snakes as much. Same with most aquatic life (of any class). Apart from whales, it is still open season on most fish, regardless of their size, witness the popularity of marlin, halibut, sharks, dolphins and other large fish. We kill billions of insects for a variety of reasons, but I venture to guess that one reason why we have no qualms about this is - in addition of course to the harm they can cause us - that they are so very different (and small, too). So what I am saying is, yes, the less they look like us, the more okay it is to kill them. Would anyone cry over killing jellyfish, a species that could in fact become plentiful enough to clog up even the largest bodies of water on the planet?

Here is a final, and dangerous question, and it is about abortion. I realize that I may now be jumping over an impossible gap. Perhaps the moral questions surrounding the killing of animals and those related to ending human life should not be discussed in the same conversation. We kill animals for a variety of reasons: pleasure, sustenance, profit, cruelty. Abortion is not for pleasure, sustenance, profit or cruelty (the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood by undercover video footage notwithstanding).

My essay has been about the killing of animal life, not about homicide. But there is no consensus that abortion is homicide. Those who oppose abortion categorically do so on metaphysical grounds, positing that all human life, from the moment of conception, has a soul, i.e. is human. However, a majority of the people who oppose the repeal of Roe v. Wade (as I do, of course), if asked what it is that is being killed when an embryo is aborted, would be at a loss for an answer. A proto-human? A pre-human? What is that?

A consistent pro-life stance - be it in utero, at the end of life (euthanasia) or as opposition to the death penalty - means that the termination of human life is ALWAYS more immoral than the killing of animals. However, wouldn’t killing Joseph Mengele have been more moral than killing even one of his lab rats? Animals are innocent, like children; only (adult) man can be evil.

 For a well-known treatise on such questions about morality, see Thomas Nagel’s book: Mortal Questions). For now, such a discussion will have to wait for another day.© Tom Kando 2015 leave comment here