I’ve got a webpage for the animal rights course I’m teaching this semeter, with a corner for news stories. How’s this for an interesting juxtaposition? A student sent me a story about a camp in southern Sudan, where young boys spend time herding cattle. Watch the video (click on the picture) and you get the impression of a relationship between people and animals that’s mutualistic and respectful.
Another student sent me a major news story about the recall of 143 million pounds of beef in the US, spurred by an undercover video taken by the Humane Society. Watch this video (click on the picture) and you’ll see “downer” cattle–that’s the technical term for animals so sick they can’t stand up–being prodded and abused. The story attracted extra attention because the meat was being sold in school lunches.
I find the second scenario revolting. It’s because of this sort of gruesome animal abuse that I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years. But the first scenario stops me from being a true blue animal rights advocate. I find it extremely hard to believe that what’s going on at the cattle camp is morally wrong. On the abolitionist end of the animal rights spectrum (occupied by folks like Tom Regan and Gary Francione), they say that it is.
Maybe a factor is that I know scenes like the one in Sudan have been part of human existence everywhere for thousands of years. Finding such a huge swath of life unethical is a tall order for me. But more seriously, there’s a survival factor in the Sudanese scene.
What difference does that make? That’s a tricky matter. I take it I can’t kill my neighbor to survive, so why can I kill cattle? The abolitionist crowd says I can’t, no matter what, even if my life depends on it…which is certainly a hard road to hoe.
If I could go along with Peter Singer’s Utilitarian approach to animals, it would be pretty straightforward. More total good comes from the Sudanese herding culture than would come from abandoning it—you get both happy cows and happier, healthier, more prosperous people. And you don’t, by the way, get the environmental damage that results from western farming. (What happens when western animal agriculture is imported to Africa? There’s a good article about that here.)
But I have problems with Utilitarianism. I can’t see how using people to maximize the total good can be morally right. Animals aren’t just like people, but they’re sufficiently like people that there’s also a problem with using them to maximize the total good.
It seems to take two ideas to defend the Sudanese, if you’re not going to buy into plain Utilitarian thinking. One, you’ve got to think using living things isn’t the only terrible thing you can do; it’s also terrible to neglect the survival of your family, friends, and self. Then I think you’ve got to think it’s especially important whether human beings survive.
But wait, the people of southern Sudan wouldn’t immediately die if they gave up their herds. They aren’t literally in a life-or-death struggle, like an explorer starving in the Arctic. Still, keeping livestock really is a vital matter for people all over the developing world. It can make the difference between living in extreme poverty, always hovering close to death, and having at least a minimally decent standard of living.
Of course if you’re happy to enjoy a hamburger for the taste and without regard for the animal it’s made out of, you’ll think the morality of Sudanese cattle herders it patently obvious. But I’m not, and I do have regard for the animal. So for me it’s all very puzzling.
Bottom line: they exploit animals in the right way, for good reasons, so while exploiting isn’t lily white and perfect, it’s the best they can do. We exploit animals in the wrong way, for bad reasons, so we should stop.