Reflecting on the Michael Vick case, Crispin Sartwell writes that the priciple take-away is that "as a society, we have no idea what we think about animals." I think I might rephrase it: As a society, we have no idea what to think about animals." But the point is well taken, and since two of my main interests are moral reasoning in the use of violence and the culinary arts, I thought I might add a few thoughts.
Sartwell writes, "[O]ur moral counting of animals seems to vary with their proximity to ourselves." As one of his commenters notes, that moral reckoning isn't unique to our interactions with pets and livestock and wildlife. Every year for the last five years the United States and its agents have killed tens of thousands of people, the majority of them "innocents" or "bystanders" or otherwise categorized to indicate that their deaths were incidental to our military and policy aims. An Iraqi life is not counted as much as, say, a Spanish life, and a Spanish life isn't counted as much as an American one. South Korea is far removed geographically and culturally from America, but certain political, cultural, and economic affinities render South Koreans "closer" to Americans than Iraqis, and so the plight of two dozen caputred South Koreans appears to us as more significant than the commensurate plights of many, many Iraqis abducted and killed on a daily basis. It is probably fair to say that all moral accouinting proceeds from proximity or rather arbitrary affinity. I'm not sure, therefore, that it's fair to imply our interactions with animals--moral or otherwise--are unique in this regard.
I've previously written that I think of J.M. Coetzee as the most profound living moral philosopher, and the moral autonomy of men and animals is the great theme of his life's work. In The Lives of Animals and then in Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee imagines an aging Australian author named Elizabeth Costello who is less an authorial stand-in or interlocutor than a sort of Coetzeean doppleganger: neither quite the author nor quite not the author. Costello is increasingly obsessed with animals' "sensation of being," with man's right to destroy animal life, and ultimately with the primacy of reason (the possession of it) in determining moral stature. Would we kill babies? Would we kill the mentally ill? Have we before? What are our current judgments about such practices? Do they not extend naturally to other living, autonomous beings, even if those animal beings likewise lack certain capacities of adult, human consciousness?
Elizabeth Costello shocks her audience. The killing of animals for food in mass agriculture is worse than the Holocaust. It is not merely the extermination of life, but the perpetual breeding and maintenance of life for the purpose of perpetual, utilitary slaughter. Livestock are bred to be executed. Creatures like cattle were actually created by man for the purpose of nevending death. Coetzee is too subtle an author and thinker to let this go by without suggesting that Costello is engaged in some attention-grabbing hyperbole, and later in the narrative of Elizabeth Costello it becomes evident that Costello isn't quite right herself. That she's getting old. That she's not certain where her sympathies lie. That she perhaps feels secretly that she lacks the authority to make the arguments that she makes. That perhaps she's wrong. (Coetzee, meanwhile, is so rigorous a moralist that this same Elizabeth Costello shows up again in the recent Slow Man, to make it a meditation on an author's moral responsiblity to his own fictional creations. And you thought you had a lot on your mind . . .)
In Disgrace, Coetzee's slightly earlier novel set in post-Apartheid South Africa--a grim, despairing, brutal, and beautiful book--one character far out in a rural province makes a living putting dogs to death. There's simply nothing else to be done. And the main character, another kind of doppleganger named David Lurie, eventually joins her in this work, and finds in its awful necessity a kind of grace, such as it is, though never redemption. Coetzee doesn't seem to be a fan of the illusions of the redeemed and redeeming.
I eat meat, but I believe that eating meat should be a conscious and moral decision. I don't think that everyone should set up their own abbatoir in the basement and raise their own hogs out back, but I do believe that anyone who wishes to eat meat ethically should be willing, at least once in his life, to participate in slaughtering an animal. To shy away from the gore seems to me to be wrong. That animal is alive, and it has agency. Whether grass-fed or high-density feedlot raised, the steak on your plate once lived and experienced this world. It felt sensation--perhaps our words like pain, fear, anger, love, pleasure are meaningless in the context of another species, but there can be no denying that animals live in this world and know it through senses as we do. A person who can't wring the neck of a chicken has no right eating McNuggets.
But I admit there's a poverty to such reasoning, because it raises an attendent question: If the bar to morality is participation, aren't all manner of atrocities against other humans open to us as well. I have no clear answer to that question, but I will suggest that as regards abortion, infanticide, and euthenasia--not to mention end-of-life and palliative care for the terminally ill or chronically pained--there are gray territories that many of us shy away from addressing, in part because of past abuses. Yet anyone who says he's seen a severely mentally and physically handicapped person and not at least entertained the idea that it might have been better if that life had not been preserved is a liar.
Then there are the attendant questions raised by our increasingly sophisticated neurological, biological, and behavioral science. The great apes; certain marine mammals; even the octopus--these are animals that have a capacity for cognition. Some of them live in clear, cultured societies with plain behavioral parameters--what we would call ethics, maybe, or rules. Just this weekend, I read an article about rebels in the Congo executing gorillas. I found it terribly painful. Those animals are so nearly human that their killers actually executed them as if they were: lining them up and shooting them in the back of the head. There, I think, is a terrible exemplar of our moral confusion on this issue: that these creatures so remind us of ourselves that we subject them to our atrocities as if they really were human. How absurd! No matter how much Koko loves her kitten; no matter how much sign language you can teach a chimpanzee, neither is human. Still . . .
Here, Sartwell is right on:
What we need to figure out is: do animals count and how, not as dwarfish or four-legged or stupid people, but as real things whose existence is, though connected to ours, profoundly external and different?Ronald Reagan infamously used to muse that if extraterrestrials invaded Earth, the United States and the Soviet Union would join forces through common humanity to resist. It occurs to me that a great impediment to our reckoning with the different lives of animals is the fear that a divide contemplated is a divide already partially bridged.