Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

The subtitle of this book, by psychologist Hal Herzog, is Why It's So Hard to Think Straight about Animals.  That's the main thesis:  our thinking is a mess.  Our attitudes about animals are so inconsistent that we even have "double standards" when it comes to members of one species.  For example, in the introduction we hear about one of Herzog's neighbors in the Smoky Mountains (I love his writing)--

Not even a dog is a dog is a dog--the breed counts.  It gets even crazier in a research laboratory.  The mice in the cages are treated according to government guidelines, while those scurrying around on the floor after hours are caught in traps and disposed of.  Weird.

If we can't even treat all members of one species the same way, obviously we're going to be even less capable of treating members of different species consistently.  We don't just "not care" about all animals equally, some we even hate.  Mice aren't so bad, but rats have those long thick tails....eww.

Even people with a high level of animal concern are shown to be basket cases.  Apparently people who consider themselves vegetarians eat quite a bit of meat and many wind up going back to omnivory altogether.

Chapter after chapter describes inconsistency after inconsistency, making me think (frequently)--what about the committed, passionate, and consistent?  They exist. They really do. I was delighted to find portraits of them in the last chapter, and Herzog seems genuinely impressed.  There are portraits of people who run an animal sanctuary and a wonderful couple of pages about people who are devoted to helping out endangered sea turtles.

Are we really as inconsistent as Herzog says? I think he overdoes it at a few points.  For example, he opens the book with a story about a friend who doesn't eat land animals and birds, but does eat fish.  The first sentence of the book gives his assessment: "The way we think about other species often defies logic."

The friend doesn't treat all animals uniformly, but it doesn't follow she's inconsistent.  If the principle is "don't eat factory farmed food," then consuming fish is consistent with rejecting other kinds of meat.  Yes, there are likely to be ways she deviates from that principle, but that's life.  To make a diet liveable, you have to simplify:  yes to fish (and I won't worry about farmed fish); no to other meat (and I won't make an exception for "humane meat"). 

In the chapter on animal ethics, Herzog has a very clear and accurate picture of the main perspectives, but his fondness for uniformity makes him see just a little too much virtue in hyperegalitarianism. First he couldn't be more negative:
Joan Dunayer lives in a moral universe that should cause even hardcore animal activists to shudder.  Can a reasonable person really believe, as Dunayer apparently does, that one should flip a coin when deciding whether to snatch a puppy or a child from a burning building, or that duck hunters should be imprisoned for life?
But then he does an about face:
The problem for animal liberationists is that Dunayer is right. If you take the charge of speciesism literally, if you refuse to draw any moral lines between species, if you really believe that how we treat creatures should not depend on the size of their brains or the number of their legs, you wind up in a world in which, as Dunayer suggests, termites have the right to eat your house.
I don't think consistency or eschewing speciesism mean seeing no differences between species. It means seeing only those differences that are real and morally relevant, whatever they may be.  Of course, we're in big trouble if we start seeing differences between canine breeds, between floor mice and cage mice, and the like.  But there's nothing that says we have to think there's one uniform system of ethics that applies to every single type of animal there is--from dust mite to dog to chimpanzee to human being.

We can make distinctions without falling into inconsistency, but clearly we humans make way too many distinctions, and many of them are biased and cultural and indefensible..and downright nutty.  This book is a bit depressing (why can't people be smarter and more conscientious?) but also amusing.  Humans sure are strange.

1 comment:

Faust said...

I would point out that this inconsistency applies even (or rather, more importantly) to humans:

Some we love.
Some we hate.
Some we kill (we just don't eat them).