Saturday, July 28, 2007

Crispin Sartwell: We pet the dog, and then we eat the cow

Our idea of moral behavior toward animals varies by species.

The Michael Vick dogfighting case, and all of the attention on dogfighting and its attendant practices, show one thing very clearly: As a society, we have no idea what we think about animals.

I watched cable news recently, and almost every anchor interviewed an official of the Humane Society, and all expressed horror, especially that Vick's indictment had accused him and his fellow defendants of executing dogs in ways apparently designed to be as cruel as possible: drowning, strangling, electrocution. One official compared the practice to child pornography.

Then I went into town for some lunch, driving past all of the franchises peddling ground cow for human consumption.

If killing dogs is the equivalent of child pornography, while eating cows is simply a way to put off mowing the lawn, we seem to be conflicted -- or reeking with hypocrisy and confusion.

We have a set of intuitions, driven partly by our interactions with pets, that many animals can experience pain in a morally significant way, that they can suffer, or be used and degraded. Perhaps they have somewhat less of a claim on us than human beings do, but they make a claim.

But another set of intuitions is driven by our dietary habits or our experience of thumping squirrels and armadillos on the road: that an animal is little more than an inanimate object, and can be used in whatever way a human being sees fit.

In practice, the moral claims of animals vary by species and track our sense of the animal's proximity -- cognitive, emotional, physical -- to ourselves. We become truly sentimental: We write memoirs with our dogs, talk baby-talk to them, let them lick our faces. But about other species we are as hard-nosed as possible. Essentially, we do whatever we feel like to them whenever we want.

If we really believed cruelty to animals debased humans who participate, we'd have to accept that our massive, industrial-scale systems of cruelty to cows deeply debase all humanity.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. He wrote this article for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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