Must one suppose oneself mad because one has the sentiment of universal pity in one's heart? -Victor Hugo, The Alps and Pyrenees
In 1988 the Utne Reader published Rosalind Solomon's photograph of a Peruvian woman, Catalin Valentin, breast-feeding a lamb. This photograph provoked an extreme response from the readership. Some saw an image of peace, nurturance, and harmony between species. Others found the picture shocking, even grotesque, a gross and indecent violation of a natural boundary between species. One woman saw perversion: "The photo mimics the innocent gesture of the mother/child images of our traditions yet it presents the perverted usage of a woman's body to feed the appetites of an animal." Others felt it was an "exquisitely tender photo," a "beautiful image-lyrical, erotic, peaceful" and "nothing short of 'real-world' holy." Those who were offended by the photo tended to construe it sexually, as "a form of bestiality" and as "a little eroticism" slipped in to spice up the magazine. One woman even associated it with sexual violence between people:
I have represented people who have been convicted of doing significant damage to the rectum of their three-year-old daughter. I sat through a trial last week where the defendant put a broken light bulb in the vagina of a woman at some time roughly contemporaneous with murdering her. I look at autopsy photographs for a living. Get the picture? I'm used to disgusting. The photo on your endpaper so repulsed me I had to tear it out before I could read the rest of the magazine.
Readers who were shocked saw an unforgivable transgression of species boundaries. According to this point of view there are certain things we are only supposed to do with members of our own species, particularly sexual intercourse and suckling. These two activities are linked in that both are part of the process of producing the next generation.
Biologists define species membership in terms of the possibility of producing fertile offspring. One might use this scientific definition of species membership to ground a claim that certain activities between members of different species are unnatural. Extending care toward members of other species might be deemed unnatural when that caring exceeds certain bounds-such as caring attempts to end the exploitation of other species. A typical argument of this sort is found in Richard Hummel's book on hunting. He writes that "individual animals do not have rights comparable to human rights. Humans are at the top of the food chain and it is a principle of nature that no level in the chain has moral obligations to any other level." Such references to our place in the food chain, though common, are inherently weak because they invalidly slide from is to ought. To say that we are "at the top of the food chain" means nothing more than that while humans are able to exploit nearly every other species on the planet, rarely are we ourselves exploited by other species. This statement of what is the case, that we exploit other animals, says nothing in itself about whether we ought to continue acting in such a manner. The central question of whether we have moral obligations to members of other species is assumed, not supported. We should take care to distinguish empirical and ethical statements, especially when assessing arguments from nature, since the term "natural" can be used either way, or sometimes both ways at once.
Activities deemed naturally to occur only between conspecifics do in fact happen between members of different species. Sexual activities occur between members of different species. Suckling between members of different species also occurs. Moreover, this suckling is also very often effective in that the young do take nourishment; not only do millions of young humans gain some nourishment from the cow's milk they are fed, but there are also numerous cases of women suckling nonhuman animals in order to feed them and help them to grow. This activity is, therefore, not unnatural in the sense that it never happens or is ineffective, only in that it is not the usual way young mammals get nourished. But this observation is not a moral judgment. It is an empirical generality very different in character from the shocked outrage evoked by Catalin Valentin's suckling of a lamb. Those comments indicate moral evaluation, not the judgment that nursing between species cannot happen but that it should not happen. They are supposing that is unnatural in this morally loaded sense.
One Utne reader suggests that our reaction to the image of a woman suckling a lamb is determined by our attitudes toward nonhuman animals: "As long as we regard other animals as essentially different from ourselves and less deserving of respect, we will continue to be troubled by Catalin and her lamb." This comment raises the possibility that our sense of what is natural between species depends on our prior attitudes toward animals. The attitude that animals are essentially different from and beneath us, as I suggested in the introduction, is typically engendered by a commitment to the systematic exploitation of animals. How we construct the "natural" boundaries between species may also be driven more by our relation to the institutions of animal use than by the realities of what happens in nature and what works.
Is there a natural division between species, one that carries moral implications for how we should treat members of other species and members of our own? Is it natural for people to care only for other humans while exploiting nonhuman animals as game, livestock, and research material? These are the questions addressed in this chapter and the next.
According to naturalistic arguments, it is acceptable for people to exploit animals because this is natural. These arguments complement the rationalistic arguments summarized in the introduction. When developed consistently, rationalistic arguments lead to a devaluation of nonrational humans. They imply that nonrational humans should be exploited as animals currently are or that they may be protected but that this protection is supererogatory, that is, it goes beyond what they actually deserve by inherent right. To avoid this diminishment of the moral status of nonrational humans, proponents of animal exploitation must bring in considerations other than those employed by the rationalistic human superiority argument. They must say that it is somehow appropriate to give special treatment-protection from exploitation-to all humans irrespective of the great range of capacities we possess. Being human must carry moral weight in and of itself. One way to develop this position is to claim that species membership itself carries moral significance, that one naturally should give greater weight to the interests of members of one's own species, even to the extent of harming others for the sake of one's conspecifics.
The argument from nature is not a single line of reasoning but a class of related arguments. I distinguish three primary forms of this argument: (1) exploitation between species is natural, (2) humans (particularly men) are predatory by nature, and (3) humans naturally protect members of our own species but to extend such consideration to nonhumans is unnatural. The third argument is discussed here; the first and second arguments are discussed in the next chapter. The general position developed in this chapter is that regardless of the relative degree to which we are inclined to protect humans versus other animals, we show such a consistent inclination to sympathize with the plights of nonhuman animals that it becomes impossible to maintain that the extension of moral consideration to nonhuman animals is contrary to human nature.
Recall one woman's reaction to the photo of Catalin Valentin suckling a lamb: It is a perversion for a woman's body to be used to feed an animal. There is something natural and appropriate, it is suggested, for humans to use our bodies and minds to care for each other, but not to care for members of other species. There is a certain natural solidarity between members of the same species, such that it is not only appropriate for us to direct our resources toward other humans but also appropriate and natural for us to prefer humans in cases of conflict between species, even to the extent of harming nonhuman animals to benefit people. Animal exploiters often defend themselves by implying that their critics have misplaced their affections from their proper object-other people-and unnaturally transferred them to animals. Over the course of many antihunting demonstrations, for example, I noticed that hunters and their defenders consistently call protesters "dykes" and "fags." The reflexive use of these epithets perplexed me until at one protest I heard a hunter condescendingly advise female activists that "someday, when they had children" they would understand. The assumption evidently is that people with children do not misdirect their energy toward animal issues (and isn't it obvious that lesbians and gays do not have children). This attitude toward animal advocacy dates to the onset of the animal rights movement. Consider, for instance, the dismissal of the antivivisection movement by nineteenth-century physiologist Elie de Cyon: "Is it necessary to repeat that women-or rather, old maids, form the most numerous contingent of this group? Let my adversaries contradict me, if they can show among the leaders of the agitation one girl, rich, beautiful, and loved, or some young wife who has found in her home the full satisfactions of her affections." A proper woman directs her affections only to her husband and her children.
The resumption of animal rights activism in the latter part of the twentieth century engendered disbelief and amusement more than dispassionate refutation. The first official demonstration of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for example, garnered headlines because people found it incredible that anyone could care about the conditions under which chickens had their throats cut. Those who think chicken welfare is worth agitating for were widely seen as lunatics.
One may claim that we should direct our resources to humans first, and that we should further human interests even if that means harming nonhuman animals in the process. But can this claim be supported by reference to some natural species solidarity between humans? I argue in the following that there is no natural speciesism among humans. People are not normally indifferent or hostile to the well-being of animals. In fact, in many circumstances we go out of our way to care for nonhuman animals. And this caring is not unhealthy for us but contributes to human flourishing.
One of the most indelible impressions I have from my childhood is of my father rescuing a frozen seagull from our front yard. I grew up in Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan. One extremely cold winter morning as he was leaving for work, my father spotted a seagull standing stiffly at the end of the driveway. The bird was alive but frozen solid. He brought the gull into the house where my mother and father placed him on a towel on the bathroom floor to give him a chance to revive. For my parents this was normal, natural behavior. If a creature is in need, you try to help. My memory of this childhood event has always been accompanied by the assumption that the gull survived and was released. It was only recently, in the course of writing this book, that I asked my parents about the frozen gull and was told that in fact the bird did not survive.
Years later I was part of another memorable animal rescue effort. Picking up my four-year-old son from his preschool in Dayton, Ohio, I saw a rabbit sitting on the grass median between the sidewalk and the street. He did not move away even as my car approached. I thought this was peculiar and that maybe he was injured. As I slowly walked up to the rabbit, he began hobbling away, dragging himself into the street at my approach. I then saw blood around his hindquarters. I knew he was likely to be hit by a car, so I kept walking toward him until he had gotten himself out of the road. I went into the school building and discussed the situation with the teachers and clerical staff in the school office. They had no concrete suggestions, other than one of the secretaries, who said we should wring his neck to "put him out of his misery." I pointed out that he was not obviously dying but may just have a leg injury from which he could recover if not left vulnerable to predators.
I got my son Adam from his class and explained the situation to him. I asked him what he thought we should do. He responded without hesitation: "Take him to the hospital to be fixed." This course of action had somehow escaped all the adults in the school office. Adam and I wrapped the injured rabbit in a towel and drove to the veterinary clinic. The receptionist there told us that by law they were not allowed to treat wild animals, but she gave me directions to the one wildlife rehabilitation center in the region, about twenty miles outside of Dayton. We drove to the center. The rabbit was still alive when we got there. The worker examined the rabbit and said that he had a broken leg but no evident internal damage, so he did have a chance of recovering. He explained to me that the center received about fifteen hundred animals a year, all injured or orphaned wild animals people brought in with hopes they could be helped.
The next day at Adam's preschool, two of the adults made a point of addressing me about the rabbit. The secretary who had casually suggested that we wring the rabbit's neck came to me and apologized for the suggestion, saying that she grew up on a farm and that was just the way they were with animals. Another woman approached me nearly in tears. She thanked me for what we had done the previous day and told me how moved she had been to see that.
It is a commonplace that animal rights activists are primarily from the city and, as such, do not see animals and our relations to them the way that farmers and hunters do. The implication is usually disparaging, that urban animal activists have a deficient understanding of how the world really works. Those who grow up on farms know that we must injure and kill animals at times. We can provide care for them as well, but only within the limits of what is useful and profitable for us. We cannot afford to be too sentimental about the lives of domesticated or wild animals. The kind of sympathetic concerns that drive animal rescue and protection efforts are anomalous. According to this point of view such sympathies arise only from the recent unnatural separation of large numbers of people from direct acquaintance with the natural cycles of interspecies exploitation. This interpretation is not accepted by animal rights advocates, such as sociologist David Nibert, who accept the connection between increasing urbanization and the rise in empathy for animals but see the latter as an adventitious benefit of demographic change:
Forced to give up family farms, millions saw their day-to-day economic dependence on the direct exploitation of other animals diminish as they moved to urban areas and took up blue- and white-collar jobs, some of which provided for a reasonable level of economic comfort. Possibilities for empathy for oppressed others grew, so long as the oppression was not directly related to one's own economic aspirations or other self-interested pursuits. Consequently, the capacity for many humans to be moved by the suffering of others has increased.
I learned something about caring for animals from being around my parents, seeing how they treated nonhuman animals with respect and concern and how they did so without fanfare. For them it was normal and unremarkable behavior. My parents are not farmers, and I've never known them to hunt or fish. I acknowledge that my family relations and my nonfarming, nonhunting background have conditioned my ability to be responsive to the needs of nonhuman animals, as they have for my sons. But it does not follow from this that my sympathies-or anyone else's-for nonhumans are unnatural or anomalous.
Excerpted from BRUTALby Brian Luke Copyright © 2007 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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