Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Marius the Giraffe and Abstract and Concrete Harms

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column this week, I wrote about the Copenhagen Zoo's slaughter of Marius, a healthy, 18-month-old giraffe who, according to the zoo, would not contribute to the genetic fitness of his species if he were bred.  I discussed the implications of people's outrage on behalf of Marius for our conduct toward other animals, including -- most significantly -- those whose bodies (meat) and bodily secretions (dairy and eggs) many of us consume on a regular basis.  In this post, I want to take a moment to examine why people are better able to empathize with Marius the giraffe than with the cows, chickens, and fishes in whose slaughter we participate by consuming their flesh, their milk, and their eggs.

One explanation for the disconnect is that we are emotionally invested in regarding the animals whom we regularly harm as "different" -- in some morally relevant way -- from the animals we love, including our companion dogs and cats but also including wild animals like Marius whose stories become known to us through the news.  Most of us lack any particular motivation to believe that exploiting giraffes or dogs or cats is acceptable, because we do not participate in exploiting them, at least not most of the time.  As psychology research has suggested, we tend to rationalize our consumption of animals by diminishing their worth in our own minds.

But this cannot explain everything.  After all, even people who ordinarily consume animal products express sympathy for particular cows who have escaped from a slaughterhouse.  We are accordingly not entirely desensitized to the kinds of animals whom we encounter most frequently in the form of flesh, dairy, and eggs. Yet many people do not immediately understand their reaction to Marius's slaughter as having anything to say about what (or, more accurately, whom) they choose to eat.  Indeed, even people who cheer for the escaped farmed animal often fail to connect the dots between that animal and the one on their plates as well, despite the fact that the same kind of animal is involved.  Why is that?

An important part of the answer lies in the concrete/abstract distinction.  When we cheer for a particular cow or pig to escape from her fate at the slaughterhouse, we identify with that individual animal and think about her specifically.  On the other hand, when people consume milk, they do not connect at all with the baby calf whose birth is what stimulates the cow to lactate and whose death at slaughter, if he is male (and often, even if she is female), is part and parcel of what must occur in humans' appropriation of another animal's baby food.  The harm we do to a cow when we drink her calf's milk or eat cheese or ice-cream made out of her calf's milk -- though real -- is abstract; we inflict the harm by demanding and soliciting more of it through our purchases.

We do understand the supply-demand connection in a market economy, of course.  This is why, for example, the Obama administration recently announced that it would be prohibiting much of the currently permissible import, export, and resale of elephant ivory within the United States.  Each time we purchase the parts and secretions of animals, including not only ivory but also the flesh and lacteal fluids of other mammals, as well as the flesh and ovulatory secretions of birds and fishes, we actively and effectively participate in the slaughter of those animals.

But it nonetheless does not "feel" the same way to most people when the victims of our behavior are not visible and determinate at the moment we solicit the wrongdoing.  This is why, for example, people have an easier time dropping a bomb than shooting a known individual at close range.  With the division of labor in a market economy can come a feeling of disconnection between our conduct and the impact of that conduct on living, breathing beings who literally become the products we buy.  Our moral intuitions tend to be tied to the concrete, because we historically could not as easily commit violence against unknown and abstract victims as we can today.  Taking to heart the lesson that harm to many unknown victims is morally no better than harm to one known individual, however, we can each begin to contribute to building a world in which the slaughter of living beings is an aberrant behavior.  This world would  be one in which we no longer solicit violence to sentient beings with our everyday consumption choices, any more than we would by shooting an innocent baby giraffe in the head at close range.


CNYlawstudent said...

This is certainly plausible. However, this explanations seems to require that those in animal agriculture need a different justification for the consumption of animal products than those uninvolved in the production of meat and dairy. Growing up on a dairy farm, I occasionally discuss my views on the subject with my peers. Usually, we reach an agreement that there is a moral difference between humans and animals quite quickly. As such, I have never been struck that consumers who have never raised an animal for consumption view the issue differently than myself, who has raised hundreds.

Michael C. Dorf said...

CNYlawstudent observes that people involved in the animal agriculture business themselves do not think of their animals as abstractions because they encounter them in the concrete; yet many of them consume meat and dairy too, so abstraction can't be the reason for their behavior; and since they tend to have the same ethical views as people outside of the business, he hypothesizes that the real explanation for their behavior--and for that of the non-farmers--is the view "that there is a moral difference between humans and animals." Here are a couple of thoughts in response:

1) Other psychological phenomena are involved for people raised on farms. First, in addition to the investment in wanting to justify how they eat that they share with the non-farmer population, they have an economic investment in justifiying animal agriculture. Second, in place of the abstraction of the harm, there is the phenomenon of desensitization. Prisons provide a useful comparison. The general public aren't upset about what happens in prisons because they don't think about it, while the guards are (mostly) just used to it. Zimbardo's work comes to mind here. These observations are confirmed by the views expressed by current animal rights activists--like Harold Brown and Howard Lyman--who used to be very successful ranchers.

2) The foregoing leads me to conclude that for most people, views about the ethics of consuming animal products do not precede behavior but follow it. However, I would also add that the existence of a moral difference between humans and animals does not, by itself, justify using animals as things. I think that I have greater moral duties to my children than to the children of my neighbors, but that doesn't mean I can kill and eat my neighbors. I think that there is a moral difference between criminals and law-abiding citizens, but that doesn't mean we can do whatever we please to criminals. More broadly, the moral argument against using animals as things does not depend on equating humans with non-human animals. It only depends on the proposition that sentient animals have some interests that warrant their entitlement to some moral consideration--and that our interest in satisfying our tastes that can be satisfied roughly as well (and with better consequences for our health and the environment) are insufficient to justify utterly disregarding the animals' interests. I very much doubt that the people who were upset by the killing of Marius the giraffe think that giraffes have equal moral status with humans; but they do think (correctly) that giraffes have some moral status.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Michael's right. People who are involved in inflicting violence on sentient animals face to face, like people who do so (in war, for example) are strongly motivated to desensitize themselves to feelings of empathy that might otherwise surface and interfere with their work. Slaughterhouse workers are similarly motivated to come up with an argument to defend what they do, while consumers can more readily rely on the abstractness of victims (by making the accurate though irrelevant observation that "they're dead already by the time I eat them"). Zimbardo's work is precisely on point. I'm not sure what it even means to say that there is a moral difference between humans and animals. Humans are animals, and whatever potentially morally relevant traits distinguish humans from other animals are not universal to all the humans to whom we would (rightly) extend protection against unprovoked violence, which puts the lie to the notion that moral agency or abstract reasoning or some other such trait is what entitles some to protection against violence. Because most of us become accustomed to thoroughly exploiting members of other species (whose suffering we solicit and thus inflict without facing what we do), we rationalize (rather than actually justify) our behavior by making poorly defended assertions about moral inequality that don't stand up to critical scrutiny. I recommend the film "Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home" to get a sense of the process by which people who previously farmed animals come to understand the injustice of their prior occupations and the inherent cruelty of farming sentient beings for their flesh and secretions.

Jimmyd said...

Professor Dorf: That is a thoughtful and insightful reply. My question for you is as follows: How does one determine the moral status of various life forms? For example, plants are also alive. Upon what basis does on determine that humans>animals>plants?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Jimmyd: For me, sentience--the ability to have subjective experiences--is the crucial threshold. There is extremely persuasive evidence that most multi-cellular animals are sentient. There is some evidence that some plants respond to stimuli in some of the ways that multi-cellular animals do, but at least based on what I've seen, these responses are very similar to the ways in which autonomic systems in animals function (as in immune responses). It didn't have to be this way, I realize. We might have evolved in ways that made it essential that we eat animal foods, or the plants that we eat might have been sentient. If either of those were true, then I think the moral calculus would be very different. (Professor Colb and I have a chapter in a book we're writing that defends and elaborates the sentience criterion.)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Professor Dorf: do you believe it is possible to objectively prove sentience of a non-communicative species?

if a computer were programmed to have subjective experience, would it be immoral to throw that computer away?

Michael C. Dorf said...


1) I don't understand why you focus on communication at the species level. There are human beings who don't communicate to us as clearly as many non-humans (e.g., infants) but we have good reason to think they're sentient, even though adult humans don't remember being infants.

2) In fact, most other animal species do communicate with each other in ways that are most readily understood as reflecting actual subjective experiences, rather than mindlessness. Occam's Razor strongly suggests that they are actually having experiences. I'm not a creationist so I don't see how sentience would have evolved suddenly in humans but in no other species with the same or similar brain structures, neurotransmitters, etc.

3) Ultimately, of course, I can't prove anyone, human or otherwise, is sentient, except myself. But the burden of proof should be on anyone who denies the obvious.

4) Sure, if computers were sentient, we would owe them moral duties of non-harm.

Joe said...

The "sentient" test is basic here and reading Prof. Colb's book, the main focus were verterbrae (particularly to address the consumption of eggs and diary productions) though there was a few pages on bees and a bit on other non-verterbrae.

I think some works need to spend more time on them since veganism involves not eating clams or insects (which some find tasty and nutritious). We would also have to go down to the level of worms and the like. Prof. Dorf did in a comment some months back provide three basic reasons to avoid mollusks and other like seafood.*

The test isn't being "alive" as noted though I personally think there is some reason to care about all life, so reckless destruction of plant life would be immoral.

* One reason was health as a I recall, another might have been the danger of catching other animals while the third was that even if a borderline case, they should be given the benefit of the doubt. A recent book on octupus, I would add, received many positive reviews but a few at Amazon didn't like the emphasis on catching and eating them.

Bill Walton said...
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Bill Walton said...

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