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.