Today, Yahoo Health posted an article titled “Why Even Meat-Eaters Are Outraged by Cecil the Lion’s Killing”. I found this article on Facebook, along with this caption (presumably authored by Yahoo Health’s social media expert): “Why meat eaters can justify what they eat, but are furious over 13-year old lion Cecil’s death.” I knew this was a curious caption, mainly because I know that the vast majority of meat eaters can’t successfully justify what they eat–regardless of what happened to Cecil the Lion. So, I knew that this was going to be good. Let’s see what the justifications were.
The central question for the author, Korin Miller, is: “why is there such outrage over the death of an animal we’ve never met — outrage that seems to be shared by vegetarians and meat-eaters alike?” This is a very sensible question. In fact, there are actually two related but very different questions here: (1) a descriptive question about why some meat eaters are outraged by the death of Cecil, and (2) a normative question about whether a meat-eater is inconsistent in demanding justice for Cecil while participating in a system of misery and injustice for millions of farm animals that have roughly the same capacity for suffering as lions.
Miller only attempts an answer at (1). She asks psychologists, and these psychologists give answer like “[the killing of Cecil] touches on our cultural and societal beliefs around themes of injustice and victimization — and these beliefs are certainly not limited to people,” or
“Killing an animal to eat feels much more ‘just’ in our minds than killing an animal for a trophy…many people consciously or unconsciously disassociate the bacon on their plates from the pig they see in a field [but are] able to feel OK about it knowing that the animal died for a reason (i.e. to feed us), rather than sport.”
Psychologists may be good at giving answers to questions about descriptive morality. Why does culture X participate in practice Y? That’s a great question for a psychologist, sociologist, or anthropologist. But, as the caption to this article hints at, this is not the only question being asked. We also care about how meat eaters might justify their meat-eating, and still be outraged at the Cecil murder. This is a question that we (or at least me and the social media expert) want answered as well. But Miller didn’t interview any ethicists of philosophers to try and answer this question. This fact is telling; culturally, we seem to respect the views of psychologists because psychology is, in some sense of the word, a science (although psychology, like a few other sciences, is having a tough time with certain scientific gold standards like reproducibility and disinterestedness). Perhaps we don’t interview ethicists because philosophy isn’t a science. But, no matter what Sam Harris says, the simple fact is that science alone does not decide questions about right or wrong. David Hume taught us long ago that just because X is the case (e.g., it is the case that some countries in Africa practice genital mutilation) doesn’t imply that X ought to be the case (e.g., that it is morally permissible to practice genital mutilation). To answer the question about whether meat-eaters are justified in their outrage over Cecil while at the same time eating meat, is a question about oughts–and it’s a question for an ethicist.
The arguments against eating meat–especially meat from factory farms, where the vast majority of meat in the US comes from–are spectacularly good. I won’t restate them here. But I will note that the answers above provided by psychologists clearly don’t answer the ethical question (question (2), above). Just because we happen to disassociate the bacon on our plates from the pig we see in a field says absolutely nothing about whether that disassociation is justified on ethical grounds. What is morally relevant, according to some ethicists, is that (a) pigs feel pain, (b) they are basically tortured everyday on factory farms, and (c) the vast majority of us have plenty of other healthy (and tasty) food options. Given these facts, our disassociation is not at all justified. Just because we don’t want to admit that a certain atrocity is happening doesn’t imply that it’s not actually happening.
And then there’s this video of a presidential candidate cooking bacon with a machine gun. If you are calling for Dr. Walter Palmer to be brought to justice for his actions, what shall we do to Ted Cruz?