In a fascinating essay published in Rorotoko, Clare Palmer recently wrote about the aims and arguments of her new book Animal Ethics in Context . As the title of her book suggests, Palmer is interested in exploring the argument that our responsibility toward animals depends on context. Thus, our responsibility toward animals in the wild are quite different than those we have domesticated or whose environment we have altered. Palmer hopes her book will open up a series of new questions about when it is appropriate to help animals as well as when it’s permissible to harm them. Her focus, therefore, is not only theoretical debates in animal ethics but also on practical concerns about the treatment of animals.
In the following excerpt from the essay, Palmer zeroes in on how a contextual approach to animal ethics might reveal itself:
I suggest that we have conflicting views about the kinds of responsibilities we have to animals. So, for instance, every year more than a million wildebeest migrate across Kenya’s Mara River. In the process, a number of them—sometimes thousands of them—drown. This mass migration, and the deaths that follow, has become a tourist spectacle. But no one argues that the tourists or media pundits standing by should intervene to help the drowning wildebeest, even if their suffering is intense or long lasting. We don’t say, in this case, that there’s a moral problem of “animal neglect.”
On the other hand, if domesticated animals are left to suffer—I cite a well-known case in the UK where a herd of domestic horses developed dehydration and untreated infections—there’s a moral outcry. We react differently to animal suffering in different contexts: the idea that we can have different responsibilities towards animals with whom we have different relationships is already widely accepted.
But we can also make sense of a competing idea: that beings who have similar capacities should be treated the same. The UK Vegetarian Society, for instance, has been running a campaign called The Butcher’s Cat, which has as its slogan “Why do we make pets out of some animals and mincemeat out of others?” (You can see the graphics for this at http://www.butcherscat.com/). The underlying idea here is that if we wouldn’t butcher Kitty the cat for Sunday lunch, then we shouldn’t butcher Daisy the cow either. Whatever you think about this particular case, it’s hard to resist the argument from consistency: if something’s owed to one animal, it’s owed to all animals that are relevantly the same. Yet this appears to run directly counter to the idea of contextual responsibility.
These conflicting ideas set up the debate in Animal Ethics in Context.