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I am so incensed by a comment left on an oil-spill thread here this morning that I wanted to highlight it in a special post. A reader who blogs under the name “polistra” has no sympathy for people who express concern over oil-soaked pelicans in Louisiana. He wrote:
If you eat chicken and duck, you are NOT ENTITLED to bitch and screech and howl and beat your breast about the fate of a handful of “esthetically pleasing” birds.
This is all about high-class prissy-ass esthetics. Nothing else.
I responded in the combox:
That has got to be the most idiotic and nasty thing anybody has said on this blog in ages. Congratulations on your achievement.
For your information, there are a lot of people in south Louisiana who are sick over what’s happening to those pelicans and other birds, and not because they’re “prissy-a*s”. How I wish you would make that remark in front of hunters, trappers and fishermen on the marshes! I’d pay cash money to see their reaction, though I would hope your health insurance pays for rhinoplasty. I was raised in a south Louisiana culture of hunters who were also conservationists, because they respected the natural world. I talked to my dad on the phone yesterday — my father, who has hunted many a wood duck in his day out of Louisiana duck blinds — and he was upset over the fate of the pelicans and the other coastal birds. The pelicans have special symbolic resonance among Louisianians because they are the state bird; the images of them dead and dying with oil covering their bodies has particular emotional power.
Nobody with any moral sense can be indifferent to the cruel deaths those birds and other animals down there are facing. By maligning people who are sick over the oil-covered pelicans as aesthetic dilettantes, you condemn yourself by your disgusting remark.
How representative do you think this kind of attitude is among the American people? I mean, the idea that to care about what’s happening to coastal wildlife is something sissies do? I am afraid more people share polistra’s basic sentiment than I care to think.
UPDATE: I should say that there’s a serious moral issue here, beneath the crankiness of this guy. He’s saying that if you consume the meat of birds, then there is no reason to be especially upset about the death of these particular birds in Louisiana. You have already established (on this view) that there is nothing sacrosanct about avian life, so what grounds, aside from aesthetics, do you object to the deaths of the pelicans?
For starters, I strongly object to the idea that there’s anything wrong or “prissy-a*s” about aesthetics as the basis for moral concern. Leaving that argument aside for now, I want to make a couple of remarks about the idea that declaring animals edible evacuates the grounds for moral concern over how they are treated, which is to say, how they live and how they die. As I see it, the only consistent basis for this judgment is a scientistic, philosophically materialistic ethic that sees the natural world, including all non-human life within it, as lacking intrinsic moral value. If animals are just meat, then why should one really care whether they are raised in a healthy natural environment, or in crowded cages and pens? It may be regrettable that pelicans are dying in spilled oil, but so what? Does it ultimately matter if a wood duck meets his end choking in oil-soaked water, or falling from the sky with a breast full of buckshot?
If you are a Jew or a Christian, you should read your Bible. Man is given dominion over the animals, and permitted to eat animals for food. But man, as the most powerful creature by virtue of his intelligence, and the only creature endowed with moral responsibility, is also commanded by God to treat the natural world with an ethic not of exploitation, but of stewardship. Jews and Christians are not permitted to be indifferent to how they treat Creation. That many are is a cause for divine judgment.
The best non-religious answer I can think of to this is Matthew Scully’s utterly remarkable book “Dominion.” My copy of the book is at my office, and it’s Saturday, so I can’t quote from it here. But here is a link to an op-ed against factory farming that Matthew wrote in 2006. In an interview with National Review (to which Scully, a conservative Republican, has contributed over the years), Scully said that the way we regard animals is a good test of our character. Excerpt:
In the same way that human beings are prone to abusing any other kind of power — by forgetting that we are not the final authority. The people who run our industrial livestock farms, for example, have lost all regard for animals as such, as beings with needs, natures, and a humble dignity of their own. They treat these creatures like machines and “production units” of man’s own making, instead of as living creatures made by God. And you will find a similar arrogance in every other kind of cruelty as well.
Scully is a vegetarian, and wishes everyone were. But he has used the words “decent compromise” with carnivores to describe meat-eaters who choose to live by an ethic that recognizes animals, even animals we intend to slaughter and consume for our food, deserve a certain quality of existence by virtue of their intrinsic natures as creatures capable of feeling emotion and pain — and by virtue of our moral responsibility as stewards of the natural world. If we are cruel masters, the victims of our cruelty will not only be those in our power, but also our own character.
Since I wrote the first part of this post, I spoke again to my parents, who are bereft over the oil spill. They talked specifically about the agony of watching video on the local Baton Rouge news of pelicans dying in the oily surf, unable to escape. They feel this way because they have good hearts, and they know that human beings are to blame for the horrible way those birds are dying. One would hope that they would move from the ethic of compassion they feel towards the dying pelican and apply the same reasoning to the lives of factory-farmed chickens. Maybe they, and others like them, will. It would be a moral loss to reason the other way: that because we eat chickens, and don’t care how they get to us, that we should harden our hearts against the dying pelicans.
UPDATE.2: A Catholic theologian reader sends along this reflection from Godfried Cardinal Danneels about how indifference to beauty is indifference to God. Excerpt from a 2001 interview with the cardinal:
In the same train of thought, I ask myself whether we are using sufficiently one of the doors that leads to God–the door named Beauty. Indeed, God is Truth, Holiness and Moral Perfection, but God is also Beauty. One can find God through the door of truth, for truth attracts us. But many of our contemporaries are little Pilates who ask: “What is truth?” and remain outside the door without entering. God as Moral Perfection and Holiness also attracts us. But many will say: “Moral perfection attracts me, but I’m incapable of it,” and they remain outside that door marked by their moral weaknesses. But beauty disarms: it is irresistible for contemporary men and women. Young students discuss and study courses on questions of dogma (the True) and morality (the Good). But after a performance of the “Passion According to Saint Matthew” by Johann Sebastian Bach, they are disarmed and left speechless. The church has so many beautiful things to say and to show to the world, not only in its artistic heritage, but also in so many saints who shone with beauty. (To name only two, there are Francis of Assisi with his Canticle of the Sun and John of the Cross and his poems.) There is much more here than aesthetics. For those who would still doubt, allow me to remind them that beauty has everything to do with truth: “Beauty is the splendor of truth.” And beauty has everything to do with the good. The Greeks even made it into one single word: kaloskagathos.Beauty can make a synthesis of the true and the good. Truth, Goodness, Beauty. Here are three names and three access roads to God.