Cute monkeys and moral sense

I’m doing another run of BBC Radio Bristol Thought for The Days. The challenge here is to make people think at 7.40 a.m., using no more than 300 uncomplicated words. Here’s the latest:

Britain is famous for being a nation of animal lovers. Whether it’s a Sunday roast, chicken tikka masala or a full English Breakfast, we just can’t eat enough of the blighters.
Odd then that we also find ourselves getting sentimental about our cute little furry friends. Earlier this week, for example, we heard the heart-warming tale of a baby rhesus macaque monkey which mysteriously turned up in a Dorset garden. Fortunately for the scared simian, home-owner Marty Wright didn’t get out his shotgun, but tempted the frightened animal down from the tree with a banana, and called the RSPCA.
Before you say “ahhhh”, however, remember that the animal had probably escaped from a vivisection laboratory. We live in a contradictory country, where last year, £100,000 was spent trying to save one northern bottlenose whale stranded in the Thames, but millions of other mammals reared in factory conditions are devoured without a second thought.
So is it simply misplaced sentimentality which makes us care more about some animals than others? I don’t think so. When we see a frightened, vulnerable animal, like the Dorset monkey, our emotional response isn’t just a silly reaction. It’s an expression of our moral capacity to recognise suffering in a fellow creature and be moved to do something to alleviate it. This ability to empathise with the plight of other conscious beings is not an indulgent add-on to morality; it is an important part of what motivates us to relieve or avoid human suffering too.
That’s why our warm feelings towards animals reveal more than mere sentimentality. Whether we go as far as to be vegetarians or not, we should remember that the animals we eat can also suffer, and we should not be indifferent to their pain.

  1. Keith McGuinness

    JB: “It’s an expression of our moral capacity to recognise suffering in a fellow creature and be moved to do something to alleviate it.”

    But is it?

    Natural selection makes us responsive to the plight of our children, relatives and, to some extent, other people. Monkeys are like little people, so perhaps this is just evidence of generalisation of a biologically determined disposition (rather than evidence any great moral capacity on our part).

    It is noticeable that we are appear to be more compassionate the more “human like” an animal is.

  2. I think that’s far too simplistic Keith. Julian mentioned in his post about the attempts to save the bottlenose whale. That kind of thing has happened quite a few times in recent memory, and who could object to it?I think we feel compassion for far more than just our immediate family and our own species. Maybe that was once the case when humankind was its infancy, but we’ve come along a bit since then.

  3. Keith McGuinness

    John Doole: “I think we feel compassion for far more than just our immediate family and our own species.”

    You are objecting to something I did not say.

    I said that the compassion for other species could be a generalisation of our compassion for relatives. That compassion could be a result of natural selection (favouring preservation of those with our genes) and NOT due to any moral reasoning.

    In other words, I wasn’t debating the existence of compassion, only its cause.

  4. I think we are far too detached from our food and how it is produced. Anyone who has grown up on a farm or has been to an abattoir will feel differently about food than an average person who simply picks up a piece of meat at the local supermarket without any thought as to how the animal was treated along the way.
    Human beings certainly do have the capacity to recognize suffering in fellow creatures and perhaps if more people saw the conditions in which most factory farmed animals are bred, then they would become veggies, or at least seek free-range or organically farmed meat products were ever they could.
    Friends of mine show genuine love and care for their pets and would express just the same sentimentality Julian refers to when hearing of a rescued animal, yet they do not show the same regard for the animals that provide their evening meal. It’s all to do with our detachment from the process that gives us the readily available supply of meat, i.e. the killing of fellow creatures. Anyone who enjoys a good steak should realize this.

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