Peggy didn’t at first see the little mammal step in front of our van, its mouth full of sword fern. As we examined its corpse, we realized that she (for it was a she) had been a rare animal known as a mountain beaver, a member of the oldest rodent species on earth, one whose humble ancestors witnessed the end of the mighty dinosaurs. In an instant, her bowels had been ripped from her body, her blood splattered on the ferns she had dropped in a final moment of panic. The excrement that lay atop her viscera suggested that she would have needed a bowel movement soon, and this plus the evidence of her nest-building, reminded me that she was more like us than not. Peggy was inconsolable, and I could but stand with my hand on her shoulder as she petted its broken body and apologized though her sobs.
We camped at 4,600 feet in a field of daisies from which the land fell away steeply on three sides. A snow-capped Cascade peak stood to our east, an unnamed mountain a mile to our south, and the Coast Range on the western horizon. Darkness found us enjoying stars, planets, and the faraway lights of Eugene. The next day, we walked through meadows filled with bear grass (see photo below), but thoughts of the mountain beaver were ever with us. Peggy spoke of it as a tragic accident; I as evidence that most of our choices are, at best, of doubtful morality. But what are we to do? I can easily argue that it’s unconscionable to kill animals for their fur, but to argue in favor of staying home so that I might avoid causing death on the road...
When our schnauzer, Wendy, came out of the woods one day looking enormously pleased with herself, we soon realized that she had the still warm corpse of a baby rabbit in her mouth. It was a case of innocence killing innocence. I was eight when I killed my first animal—a robin—and I felt guilt rather than joy, so much so that I had my Granny cook the tiny bird for my supper so that its death wouldn’t have been in vain. When I was a teenager, my girlfriend and I often bought boxes of KFC and ate them under the post oaks at Brookhaven, Mississippi’s Exchange Club Park. By then, I had become almost as amoral as my schnauzer, a state that allowed me to enjoy that chicken with unblemished joy.
I’ve swung back, but what am I to do? Even vegans must kill, but the harm they cause goes well beyond that. Truly, our species paints the earth with blood, and there is no way out. Someone said that if I care so much about saving the lives of “animals,” I had best kill myself. No, I thought, I had best kill you and a hundred others like you who don’t give a shit about anyone’s misery but their own. Better yet, I should kill the CEOs of companies that profit from death. (I would not have you take this as a serious proposal because to murder in the name of a reverence for life would be no less absurd than to murder in the name of a loving God.)
This same critic complained that people like myself think we’re better than everyone else, but my thoughts are more complicated than that. First, while a great many people bring more misery into the world, they still manage to live in greater consistence with their values, while I regularly act in opposition to mine. Second, while I consider my values in this regard to be more rational and compassionate than his, I don’t assume that they make me an all-around better person. Third, I renounce the arrogance of exalting our species—or our group within our species—as being at the forefront of virtue, so I try to avoid it. Do I succeed every time and in every way? No, but I’m aware that to fail is to alienate, and to alienate is to harden people, and to harden people is to make the problem worse.
What I can’t do is the one thing that my critic demanded, which was to agree that the killing of animals is morally acceptable for him because he can do it with a good conscience. This honor diversity approach to ethics removes ethics from a foundation of bedrock and places it upon a foundation of wind. Could there be anything more absurd than an ethic toward other creatures that doesn’t take their welfare into account no matter how inconvenient doing so might be for us? Such a human-centric value system sees other creatures as little better than inanimate objects.
The honor diversity approach to ethics rests upon how a given person feels about a behavior, rather than upon the impact of the behavior upon nonhuman (and oftentimes human) lives. It’s so heavily focused upon an individual's feelings and desires, that my critic didn’t even think to refer to the feelings and desires of the animals he kills. And why should he? If non-human animals have few if any inalienable rights, they might as well be inanimate, and why should anyone mourn for what amounts to a furry toaster on legs, except—as their detractors portray them—for those perennially angry women whose shrill voices beg for kindness to animals while caring not a wit for the problems of human children; and for their equally squeamish, tearful, bookish, and anemic male counterparts, whose failure to shed unnecessary blood proves that they’re not real men, for a real man isn’t content to simply shoot a deer, he must bathe in its blood, while snorting Jack Daniel’s, the "real man’s whiskey" from the Tennessee wilds, no less. It is the only initiation ceremony that most American boys will ever receive.
I am firmly in the camp of the critics. To repeat: our relationship to other animals is almost universally premised upon the belief that other animals have no significant rights, which means that the morality behind killing them hinges upon how a given person feels about killing them, and that no consideration need be given to the creatures that are being killed. My view is that some behaviors are always and everywhere shamefully and abominably wrong no matter how many people approve of them. For example, rape, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, the use of steel-jaw traps, female genital mutilation, the individual accumulation of unlimited wealth, killing in the name of God, over-breeding animals and destroying the excess, permitting the poor to die for a lack of healthcare, and the wearing of fur coats as a fashion statement. These things are all wrong all the time without exception.
While I don’t doubt that many people do many things with a perfectly good conscience, having a good conscience doesn’t make it okay to oppose dignity, freedom, and the right to live life as one thinks best. For a meat-eater to demand that a vegetarian say that killing animals is okay for those who think it’s okay is no different than for a Moslem to insist that, while mutilating the genitals of young women might be wrong in my culture, it’s okay in his, and he wants me to respect that. In the case of my meat-eating critic, I doubt that the cows he kills are interested in whether he kills them with a good conscience, and I’ve yet to hear of a young girl who joyfully had her genitals mutilated so that her husband wouldn't have to worry about her having an affair.
Would I not be happier, though, if I was an up-with-people kind of guy and could go back to my KFC-in-the-park days? Yes, but what kind of person would wish to believe things that he honestly considers wrong? Here is how I see my species:
We are a singular species in that, except for those microorganisms that might evolve to the point that they threaten our existence, we rule the earth. So far, we have been able to survive all that nature has thrown at us. I think that our degradation of the environment might change this, but it has been true so far.
We interpret dominance to imply superiority. Our attitude as a species is similar to the attitude of the U.S. as a country. In short, we could kill all of you foreigners. Sure, our culture and education is dropping ever deeper into the toilet, but, by god, we have more bombs than the rest of you put together. Hell, we could wipe the Middle East off the globe today if we wanted. Hence, we feel superior even though we keep losing wars. As we see it, we are God’s chosen nation, which is similar to how the human species regards non-human life. Because we have creative minds and opposable thumbs, we imagine that we are superior to every other life-form on earth. By exalting our gifts—both real and imagined—and deprecating the gifts of other species, we become as arrogant as a species as the U.S. is as a country.
Once we regard a species, a race, a gender, or an ethnic group as inferior, we can trample over their rights with a good conscience. I have a racist book—that I bought from a black preacher no less—entitled The Negro, a Beast or in the Image of God? The author’s answer could be found by looking at the many drawings of stooped, tuxedo-clad, ape-like black men with lechery in their eyes who were marrying refined, straight-standing, Aryan-looking white women. We take the same track with other species. We alone are in the image of God, therefore we can dispose of everything else without compassion. Too many unwanted dogs? Kill the mongrels even while breeding genetically inferior pedigrees. Bears and mountain lions forced to the outskirts of ever-expanding suburbs? Track them down and shoot them, or else tranquilize them and move them to the backside of the wilderness (which is pretty close to what white Americans once did to Indian Americans).
By dismissing the worth of other people and species, we can bring untold misery into their lives with a clean conscience. March for civil rights in the morning and eat steak in the afternoon. Hear about justice and compassion in church, and go clothes-shopping for products made in sweatshops by yellow-skinned foreigners whom we regard as inferior to ourselves because they are yellow-skinned and work in sweatshops.
How is it that so few people make the connection between our unfair treatment of other species and our unfairness toward other humans? Life is life, and to imagine that our species, or our group within our species, is more worthy of life than all others is to ignore facts that don’t serve our purpose. What I wish for us is that our eyes would open so we could see ourselves for what we are. What are we? We are the only species that can—or needs to—rationalize, and this enables us to live in a bubble of illusion that has grown so big as to threaten our existence.
A major period of mass extinction is in progress, and the fact that we are to blame makes our imagined superiority absurd. We live by an un-falsifiable premise, namely that we are superior to all other species, no matter what we do. Just as Christians attribute goodness to God despite cancer, mosquitoes, malaria, Alzheimer’s, and the rape of children by clergymen; we attribute goodness to ourselves despite slavery, poverty, sex-trafficking, endless wars, denial of medical care, and preventable starvation. We imagine ourselves to be in the image of God, not because we are good, but because we want to surpass the criminally insane God of the Bible in terms of power, knowledge, and immortality. After we reach "his" exalted state, we can relegate him to the sort of second-rate comic book superhero that prepubescents discard at adolescence.
As for those strange-looking people who work in sweatshops, what is their dream but to come to America where they can be as exploitative as we are? We are not a good species; we are a species that has a largely unmet capacity to do good things. If we were a little more evolved, perhaps we could be a blessing to the earth, but as it is, we are a curse.