Monday, April 12, 2010


Dominion, part 2

Last week, I noted a comment about an aspect of uniqueness of humans among animals, and I said that it brought up a number of thoughts. Here’s another.

I said this on Thursday:

We want to believe that we’re unique. Dr Consolmagno’s religious learning has taught him that God created us specially, created us in his image. That he gave us dominion over the animals, and so on.

Whether you believe that it’s God’s plan or not — I don’t, as you’ll know if you’ve been reading these pages for a while — it’s clear that we do have some sort of “dominion” over animals. We have the ability, with our intelligence and use of tools, mostly to be in control. We hunt and farm and keep pets, all with efficiency that surpasses what other animals can do in general. We even bring other animals in to help us, as with dogs for hunting and herding. We are the prey of no large animal.[1]

So what are our moral and ethical responsibilities? We can use animals for pretty much any purpose we like. Should we? Should we use them as workers? Should we keep them as pets. Should we hunt and farm them? Should we use their products (eggs, milk, honey, wool... leather)? Should we eat them?

That’s where I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think we should treat them compassionately and respectfully, and not mistreat them. If we have them work with us, we should treat them well and reward them for their work. If we farm them, we should do it responsibly, keeping them in good living conditions that are comfortable for their species.

On the other hand, I think that our bodies are made to eat animals. We come with the means to do it, and we need the proteins they provide. That many of us have a choice in that matter is a testament to where our intelligence and tool use has brought us... and there are people in many parts of the world who do not have a choice: it’s absolutely necessary for some people to eat animals, and use their skins and other products, in order to survive.

Of course, for those of us tho do have the choice, the question of what choice to make remains open.

And I admit to some inconsistency, some hypocrisy, in that regard. I’m willing to eat animals, but I couldn’t kill them myself (I neither hunt nor fish). And factory farming bothers me a great deal. I was driving through Delaware once, and I followed, for a while, a truck carrying live chickens. They were in tiny cages, stacked up on the truck, and their feathers were being blown all over the place by the wind whipping through, because the truck was going 50 miles per hour and the cages were not well covered. That made me feel very bad about how the chickens I eat (or whose eggs I eat; I’m not sure which these were) are treated.

I choose to wear leather, but not, say, ermine or sable. Is there really a difference? Maybe: we eat cows, and we also use the skins, so the leather can be thought of as a by-product of food production. We use ermine and sable purely for their skins. That makes the difference for me. More inconsistency?

On the difficult subject of testing things on animals, I’m in favour of doing that testing before we use the products on humans. That does mean that I put people ahead of animals; yes, I admit that. Of course, I think we need to make sure the testing is done ethically. Humanely. But I’d rather have a furry animal be blinded because a cosmetic or drug turns out to be hazardous... than have it happen to a human. I do, perhaps arrogantly, put us at the top of a hierarchy.

But none of this is cut and dried, none of it is straightforward to justify, and I think about it a lot. I know that I could live perfectly well by eating and wearing only plants and artificial fibers. I recognize that not doing so is a choice that I make.

[1] Interestingly, that leaves it to the very smallest to prey on us: viruses and bacteria, tiny parasites, and such. Over those, we clearly do not have dominion.

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