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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Confusing equal with identical

Now, the philosophers are very careful to note that having equal moral consideration does not imply equal treatment. So, a squirrel might have the same interest in not being poked with a stick as a child; but the squirrel does not have the same interest in going to school. Nor does the child have an interest in not having her nut caches dug up by an over-eager gardener.

But the waters are still really muddy.

I can only gesture at this because it's complicated and I have not thought it through. However, let me hint at various areas where philosophers are... or seem to be... blind.

Firstly, I should say that Christine Korsgaard does make the point that the interests of a being are, in her words, tethered to its evolutionary history, biology, mental capacities and so on - so that a chicken, unlike a duck, does not have an interest in having water to swim and forage in. Though chickens will happily eat tadpoles from a trough if they can. That was one of my zoological discoveries.

The thing that gets me is that the quest for a universal ethics for all sentient beings seems misguided. Not harming or killing is fine. But this misses out so much.

Partly there are matters of ignorance. Like the fact that stabling does harm a horse (its digestive system relies on movement for peristalsis to be optimised). What we feed horses (rye grass and horse feeds) harm them (too much sugar, too little roughage). But that does not mean that captivity per se - or domestication per se - harms them. I do not think horses are harmed by the fact of being owned; they are harmed by how we manage them. And, often, by how we interact with them and probably by riding. As for dogs, they see us as their pack - horses do not (there is some difference I recently learned but I can't recall the word). Dogs are fine with being in our pack - so long as their interests are fulfilled. And that is harder and less certain. Being passed on to a new owner or an animal rescue place is harmful to a dog - but the dog can integrate into a new pack. What I am getting at is that while it is bad for a person to be owned, that in itself is not bad for a dog or a horse. There is so much else that does matter, though, which falls by the wayside.

In this list of bugbears there's also the matter of animal relationships. For a herd of elephants, the loss of an older matriarch is worse than the loss of anyone else - because she is the one who has the knowledge that they need for survival There's evidence of this: a drought in Kenya in I think 2007 or 2008 - and the herds with older matriarchs did not lose members, while those with young matriarchs lost many many individuals. It's similar with orcas and I think sperm whales.

Individuals are not JUST individuals... they are also their roles in a society.

And those societies have their own internal rules that matter. A wolf pack has its own code - you can call it 'wild justice' or 'species morality', I don't care. The point is that these animals have adapted ways of being that work for them in structuring workable communal bonds. We might not like it - but there has to be, there just HAS to be, relativism in this context. Sure, cultural relativism in Homo sapiens has much against it. But cultural relativism must be granted to wolves and meerkats and ravens. We just don't know enough - and probably never will - to be adequate judges. And we should have much humility given the impact we have had so far.

Then there's this whole crazy and fashionable focus on the suffering of wild animals. Nature red in tooth and claw. We must stop predation! Make lions vegan!!

One thing I want to say about this is that wild animal lives are made infinitely worse by our outsized footprint. We have made their food scarce and their habitats unduly crowded (both of which lead to conflict, starvation and the greater incidence of disease).

Secondly, when we put their suffering (being eaten, not having painkillers) on one side of the scales, why don't we put their pleasures in the other? I will go into this another day as it's time to feed the crows.

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