The Internet is now filled with rage against Walter Palmer, the dentist who reportedly paid $50,000 to kill a well-liked lion from Zimbabwe named Cecil. Dr. Palmer has been called a monster, a psychopath, and one of the worst human beings on the planet. As the Internet reflects on Dr. Palmer’s character and on the needlessness of Cecil’s slaughter, I propose that the Internet should also give some consideration to the thousands of cattle that are slaughtered every hour in the US, along with many more pigs, chickens, sheep, and other living beings often raised in abject misery. If Cecil’s death is worthy of our sadness and our rage, is it right to exclude all of those other animals from our sphere of concern because they do not happen to be endangered celebrities with human-assigned names? Given that we slaughter all those creatures not because we would starve without their meat, but simply because we prefer it, why are our actions exempt from the moral outrage now levied against Dr. Palmer? If the Internet agrees so readily that an individual hunter who killed one lion is deserving of brutal mockery, the destruction of his business, and threats against his life, how does the Internet feel about our factory farming system, about the people who run it, and about those who consume its products? If you think Dr. Palmer is a terrible person for slaughtering Cecil, remember that feeling and let it inform your decision the next time someone offers to sell or serve you the remains of another slaughtered animal.
Imagine some aliens descend on earth looking for intelligent life; the self-dubbed homo sapiens proves disappointing in that regard, but we turn out to be tasty.
Imagine the aliens have such cognitive sophistication that they can hold thousands of simultaneous conversations at rates thousands of times faster than the fastest human speech, never losing their places. From their vantage point, all of human behavior – anything we might do or say – is predictable and boring, and yet they adore the succulence of our flesh.
We can’t converse with them, since we can’t formulate thoughts that match the complexity of even their most vacuous chit-chat, and yet they do understand our own grunts and gesticulations – in fact, they can anticipate these grunts with stunning precision. To them we are robots acting on a discernible program. We might proudly present the greatest achievements of our science, our literature, our music, and to them it all seems as insect architecture might seem to us.
These aliens notice how we pollute our habitat, how we slaughter and enslave our peers, and how we eat other animals we deem inferior and expendable. How then could we persuade the aliens that while we can be ground into delicious burgers we should rather be allowed to live, even to be recognized as members of their moral community?
If we had no hope of befriending them as equals, and if we could offer them nothing new in the domain of information, perhaps our best argument would simply be that we’re alive, that we feel pain, that in our capacity to suffer, we are like them. But that’s not a logical argument, it’s an appeal to empathy, and how could we expect these aliens to relate to creatures as primitive as we are, particularly when the aliens are hungry and the smell of our flesh on the grill makes such a persuasive case against compassion and for exploitation. How – tell me – how could a human persuade a peckish alien taxonomist not to classify all humanity as a resource to be tapped for nutrition and enjoyment?
I suppose we might still carry out the hope that empathy – as a phenomenon – can extend across species and types of mind and can be entertained even on an empty stomach. Our treatment of other animals on earth is an opportunity to affirm or destroy that hope, no matter whether the aliens here discussed are mere figments of a thought experiment.
[Author’s Note: This post is an exploration the reasoning people often use to condone the slaughter of animals. What if that same reasoning were applied to people?]