ISSUES IN APPLIED ETHICS: 7.3 Nature + Animals

7. 3. Nature: Friend or Foe?

7.3.1. Respecting All Life Is an Impossible Goal
Common to many of the environmental, sustainable development, ecological balance, conservation, green, wildlife protection, animal rights, earth ethic, Gaia, respect or reverence for life, vegetarian, etc. movements, organizations, federations, and unions thriving, among other places, on the Internet today is much that makes one proud of belonging to the human race: good will; the aspiration to live in peace with all creatures, to free ourselves of a narrow, egoistic anthropocentrism, to realize a magnificent dream and sublime vision of harmony that have inspired and motivated some for millennia. Projected into the past as a paradisiac state or the myth of the golden age, it conjures up images of humans walking with tigers and lions, drinking from the waters of crystal-clear springs, heeding the serene wisdom of snow-capped mountain ranges, and living happily in the lap of nature without the scourges of illness and death, forever. There is something in us that responds to this, a feeling that it should be that way.

Some environmental groups have limited practical objectives and, for better or worse, do not indulge in romantic fancy or utopianism of any kind. But many of them share the ideal of a state of harmony with all living things. Humans have cut the umbilical cord that once connected them to the rest of the biosphere. We must reintegrate ourselves into this order. We are part of one great family, the children of Earth Mother whom we have forsaken: she will welcome us back and provide for us as she has always done for all her progeny. So the story goes.

We have had occasion to point out at various places in our outline that this dream is unrealizable. Despite all the impressive and growing evidence of instances of symbiosis throughout the biota, the whole system is so deeply agonistic as to be impossible to conceive without mutual destruction: life would have to stop without it. It would entail cosmic suicide. “Respect Earth and all life.” “All living beings possess intrinsic value.” Does this include the AIDS virus? Should we embrace poisonous snakes? In a novel by Silone one of the characters says that if you leave bedbugs alone they will leave you alone. But the children of Mother Earth feed on each other and cannot stop it. This is part and parcel of what is called the interdependence of life. We can become vegetarians, but we cannot do without organic food. The humane treatment of animals just skims off a superficial layer; the operations of nature would have to be profoundly altered to become humane.

Yet looking at it from a different perspective and seeing that, for one thing, these organizations show undeniable benevolence and nobility of purpose and, for another, despite their relative abundance, represent only a tiny minority of humankind–while the vast bulk of it think nothing of polluting the air, fields and streams, driving gas guzzlers and using lethal weapons, exhausting nonrenewable sources of energy, and generally engaging in activity that abuses the environment–does it make sense to criticize them at all?

It does, because even well-intentioned misstatements boomerang in the long term. When advocates of hunting organizations say that the protests of animal rights groups are unrealistic and naive, they are right to the extent that what goes on in the wild is an unremitting massacre anyway. We have initiatives to save the arctic fox, the gray wolf, the Bengal tiger, coyotes, cougars…. Their stomach contents are analyzed, and we are given to understand that they feed mostly on small rodents. “You see, they are not so wicked, after all; on the other hand they are beautiful creatures contributing to the diversity of life and the balance of the ecology.” The ecology, by the way, has never been in (substantive) balance; evolution and (real, permanent) ecological balance are contradictory notions. “Balancing the ecology” has scientific and rational validity, but it is indiscriminately applied and has become a senselessly repeated mantra. Particularly the movements for saving predators reveal the impracticability of respecting all life. We deplore cruelty to pets, yet we feed them the meat of slaughtered animals whose lives should be no less precious to us.

7.3.2. Optimum Realistic Limits of Respecting Life The Ethics of Environmentalism Sustainable development, conservation, environmental protection make sense primarily in a contingent way as the defense and maintenance of an ecosystem where human beings can lead rewarding lives. To appeal to higher transcendent values is entirely justifiable. But where these values would make human life impossible or where they are self-contradictory and unattainable they should not be asserted and demanded. However generous, such efforts will backfire. Cruelty to Animals Wrong?
Most assuredly. It is absurd to blame a spider for trapping and killing its victims, just as it is absurd to accuse the cholera bacterium of malice aforethought. Nature’s ways are a fact; they are unedifying and frightening in a direct sense because we might be among the victims, but in an indirect sense also because there is always a possible analogy with and spread to human conduct: the risk that people will imitate them. And by the same token there is a palpable likelihood that persons who see nothing wrong with maiming, torturing, and killing animals will find it easy to transfer this onto the human plane.

There is of course an opposite logic: let people vent their aggressiveness where they cause no harm to other humans, and they will behave like lambs in their interpersonal relations. In today’s society this might hold, at least in some cases. The frustration of overweening ambitions, instilled by parents or peers, can cause pent-up anger that can be channeled this way; in a similar sense, sports that allow participants to kill symbolically are greatly preferable to actual murder. However, the venting of one’s fury on animals or the joy of chasing them is unlikely to provide a lasting fundamental remedy to society’s ills.

The answer runs parallel with the general requirements of environmental ethics. All unnecessary, wanton harming of life, whether animal or plant, is to be avoided. Some Examples of Unnecessary Harm Done to Life Forms Hunting and Fishing
A pro-hunting spokesperson will maintain that, in the first place, this activity causes no, let alone unnecessary, harm to the animal population: it rather serves as a tool of conservation in that it keeps numbers within sustainable limits. There is some truth in this. Generally, to adopt a confrontational stance with hunters is likely to be counterproductive. Persuasion is always preferable to prohibition and coercion. Instead of an adversarial approach, people should be brought around to a rational view that will ultimately protect their own interests. Those who object to hunting and fishing on moral grounds can hardly be accused of having a financial stake in the matter; therefore, anti-animal-rights proponents should realize that they may be dealing with well-intentioned people.

Especially fishing is widely seen as a peaceful, relaxed, in fact morally praiseworthy activity that permits a person to appreciate nature. But why is it necessary to use deceit (bait), violence (killing), and exploitation of incognizance to enjoy nature?

Whereas sports are predicated on a roughly equal chance between opponents, these activities are heavily weighted in favor of the pursuer. Much of the fun appears to consist in the chase: pursuing a virtually defenseless creature and, without being provoked, wreaking a kind of vengeance on it by torturing and hurting it and taking its life– an analogy of the worst kind of evildoing, were this at the human level.

Hunting and fishing are largely speaking no longer a means of livelihood and a necessity for those who engage in them. Technology has liberated humankind from it.

When ecological considerations justify restricting animal populations, the sound and efficient way to achieve this will be increasingly to employ safe and painless scientific methods of control. (Unfortunately methods used at present in fish and game management are not always either efficient or painless. Game wardens all too often fancy that they are authorized to treat animals in inhumane ways not permitted even to the public.) Meat Eating, Animal Husbandry, Pets
A potent argument hunters use is that those who shed tears over the extinction of wildlife will sit down to a dinner of roast beef or lamb chops. Meat eaters could at best protest that they do not personally engage in the barbarous ritual of slaughter.

In 6.8. we already referred to the quandaries of animal husbandry. We bring up children to regard farm animals as friends; we blather about bunny rabbits and moo cows. How straight could those youngsters expected to be when they notice that the lovable cuties wind up on our tables? Domestic animals often trust their keepers who pretend to and sometimes actually imagine that they do care for their welfare, while at best they are being perverted and exploited–if we regard the relationship as an analog of interhuman relationships–more usually they are just fattened to be butchered: a flagrant betrayal of trust.

Often animals are raised in confined quarters, their entire existence amounting to an endless tale of misery. Many of them are mammals having sympathetic nervous systems very like those of humans, so that they suffer much as we do.

In fact in species that are evolutionarily close to us learning plays an important part; there is indisputably intelligence at work and some rudimentary free choice. It is not altogether mistaken to blame a dog for misbehaving when it should “know better;” this of course applies to a yet greater extent to anthropoid apes. Such cases are in an uncomfortably intermediate, gray area; animal rights advocates could justifiably invoke in this connection, if not the inherent value of life in an absolute sense, value understood not just analogously but much as applied directly to human beings, urging to respect it on grounds of reciprocity.

The ethical dilemma here is that, while it must be recognized that many animals can be assumed to have sensations, feelings, and emotions very similar to ours and intelligence comparable to ours in kind, many of them are also unalterably pitted against each other by nature: this is why we said (in 6.8.) that identification–solidarity–cannot be extended to all living organisms. Albert Schweitzer, who made the phrase “reverence for life” current, and was no hypocrite, himself acknowledged that life on this planet is tragically divided against itself.

It was a fatal choice for humans to choose two predators, the dog and the cat, as their closest friends in the animal world. But it was not inconsistent with the Code-One principles that characterized early human history. At this point we are just beginning to recognize the irony of it. The hope to bring them up on and get them accustomed to a vegetarian diet may seem odd to some, but it is the only reasonable course to adopt unless we wish to part with them. It is also possible that some innately herbivorous or at least omnivorous species might eventually develop into suitable pets to partially replace them.

It may be proposed that protection be extended to some herbivorous animals, e.g., deer, as opposed to carnivores. The feasibility of this would depend on ecological sustainability. Yet we should realize that such selective measures would be qualified as ingenuous even by some hardheaded environmentalists and would in any case barely graze the surface.

Knowledge is the liberator of the human race. The pressures that at one time necessitated hunting, enslaving herds of animals for use as food, labor, clothing, etc. no longer weigh on us nearly as heavily as they once did. Notwithstanding all its curses and perils, technology is bringing us closer every day to the prospect of a more humane lifestyle. On the other hand, we cannot fundamentally change the ways of nature. Animal Experimentation
We do not wish to deal with bioethical issues such as genetic engineering and cloning here, but will briefly comment on the ethical implications of the use of animals in laboratory research. Considerations obtaining in this matter are the same as those in the foregoing sections.

The view that animals come under a completely different category than humans, known as speciesism in this context, has made many scientists conclude that they have a free hand in treating them in a manner that has been arguably characterized as abhorrently cruel and sadistic. Extrapolation from nonhuman to human life in research is not as easy and reliable as the public is led to believe. Much of the experimentation is whimsical. Nevertheless, some biomedical research seems justifiable within strictly imposed guidelines. In our judgment no vivisection ought to be performed. The number of animals currently used for this purpose is astronomical. Animals are subjected to torture even in the science laboratories of high schools, where–optimistically–perhaps a fraction of the students can be expected to profit from such experiments. The practice can be expected to instill a callous disregard for human life; it is objectionable per se when done to animals possessing feelings and intelligence; much of it is wanton, unnecessary, and wasteful to resources. Plants When we talk about respect for all life we of course have to include flora. The serenity and tranquillity that a beautiful landscape exudes is something of an illusion. Vegetation acts slowly, so that we are not immediately aware of the ruthless struggle that characterizes it. The truth is however that–despite fairly extensive symbiotic arrangements–plants are engaged in ceaseless competition for light, space, and nutrients, and do everything in their power to deprive these from one another.

Nature conservancy, organic gardening, disuse of chemicals, protection of rain forests, generally curbing unsustainable development, desirable as they are, do not address this problem, which is so basic that it cannot be effectively counteracted. You may plant a garden where flowers thrive, you can plant wildflowers instead of cultivated ones, yet even within those walled, artificial surroundings you will only crudely change conditions and not at all the iron laws by which nature operates.

Apart from this and most relevantly, humans (supposing that at one time in the future most of us will be converted to vegetarianism) and herbivores belonging to other genera cannot revere life in the sense of abstaining from plants as a source of diet.

Certainly we can prevent the wanton destruction of the vegetative environment.This important aim is the optimum realistic limit to respecting plant life.


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