Let me preface this by saying that all I have is questions, no answers.
My father has a real farm, 300+ acres, cows, big tractors, and lots of haying equipment. It’s not at all like my dinky 10 acres, two pigs, chickens, and bees. On this real farm he has a barn with stacks of feed. Stacks of feed always equals lots of mice. So my dad always has barn cats. Their population waxes and wanes in direct proportion to the hunting adeptness of the local coyote population. This is unremarkable.
One day though, my dad went out to feed his feline warriors after an especially fecund period and found every single kitten dead, not eaten, just dead, and a new tomcat on the premises. What happened to the old tomcat we never knew. He was either killed or exiled by the new tom, or became coyote food.
What we did know was that the new tom, however he came to be cock of the walk, had killed all those kittens. That’s what happens when a new feline male takes over a pride with young. The death of the kittens causes the females to come back into estrus and the new tom gets to pass on his DNA. This is unremarkable in the natural world as well.
Fast forward to my Introduction to Moral Philosophy class. That class, of course, just happened to include a section on Utilitarianism which of course led to an exploration of Peter Singer and his animal liberation movement and his self-made “speciesism”. Suddenly, the cat that was so unremarkable made me question everything I was being taught.
It is no understatement that a major reason Peter Singer is so important is because he is so divisive and provocative. If he weren’t, he would probably exist in obscurity like the other 99.9% of current philosophers. But the fact is he is well known. His arguments often seem to make sense despite his monstrous conclusions and millions of people around the world are forming their ethical frame on his ideas. Another fact is that being exposed to him has caused me to constantly reexamine my relationship to, well, I was going to say the natural world but that’s just the world.
Back to the cat.
We define morality as knowing the difference between right action and wrong action. We define ethics as a system of moral principles. A moral agent has the power to cause intentional harm to another. A subject of moral worth is anything that can be harmed.
I began to question, was the tomcat a moral agent?(I think not.) Or was he just a cat?(I think so.) If he was just a cat then does that mean that morality does not apply to him? If he is just a cat and we can’t hold him to the same moral standards as ourselves then doesn’t that make morality a purely human concept? If I see a cat bring a mouse to its injured mate and I call it kindness then don’t I also have to call the killing of these kittens murder? If I am not allowed to anthropomorphize one shouldn’t I also not anthropomorphize the other?
I seriously think these are important questions because if it does turn out that morality (knowing right action from wrong action vs. instinct or natural behavior) is purely human (even if it grew out of our evolutionary path) then it affects the way we apply it to the world outside our species. I’m not talking about whether we eat meat or not, or if factory farming is ethical. I’m talking about the view we have of our actual planet and ecology.
Michael Pollan in his article “An Animal’s Place” quotes Peter Singer thusly, “It must be admitted,” Singer writes, “that the existence of carnivorous animals does pose one problem for the ethics of Animal Liberation, and that is whether we should do anything about it.” And Matthew Scully as saying predation is “the intrinsic evil in nature’s design . . . among the hardest of all things to fathom.”
I would posit that Mr. Singer and Mr. Scully have decided that morality is innate and universal. I would also posit that pursuing action to support their decision would lead to catastrophic consequences not just for us but for all life on this planet.
Anyway, it’s almost 10 o’clock and I have to work tomorrow so I’ll sign off now. I truly look forward to your thoughts!