Utilitarian bioethicist Peter Singer is in the news annoying both the animal rights activists who aren’t hardcore enough for him and the charities who don’t deliver enough programme impact. He has a new book out, but what got me thinking was hunting — the predatory manoeuvers of man on man and man on beast.
Elsewhere Singer has advocated that all children are equal — that it should not (must not) matter whether that child is near or far. His moral conundrum is a kid drowning in a pool in a park. Do you jump in and save her and ruin your shoes or walk on by ’cause, damn, those shoes cost 400 bucks. If you’d jump in and save her, why not just mail 400 clams to a worthy cause helping drowning kids in poor countries? This thought flows to the outrage over the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe because it demonstrates the cognitive dissonance of many people’s thinking. One dead lion in an African country brings a flood of global condemnation, but the wholesale industrialised slaughter of pigs and chickens or the four million and counting miserable Syrian migrants causes barely a ripple of tut-tutting in the chattering classes.
Ultimately Singer’s dilemma asks whether it is better to save the child near you (i.e. in your own backyard) rather than the one far away (i.e. in some country you’ve barely heard of). But perhaps there are a number of moral issues tangled up here. The first is selective compassion (ultimately Singer’s accusation). The second is our misguided activism (Cecil was famous and beautiful; battery hens are neither). The third issue centres on antipathy and the fact that too many care more about whether or not an immigrant family moves in next door than they do about those preying on highly vulnerable refugees or children drowning trying to cross the sea.
The writer David Barash makes a connection between Buddhist metaphysics and ethics, and the natural world and ecology. He quotes the eighth-century poet Shantideva: ‘May I be the doctor and the medicine/And may I be the nurse/For all sick beings in the world/Until everyone is healed’. What the Buddhist monk meant was our (hostile) insistence on separateness (i.e. that superiority over other people or animals or nature) is backwards. We are all connected — interdependent, if you will.
So, on one hand, the argument is who gets to make all these decisions about which people (or animals or ecology) are worthy or valuable enough to be afforded dignity in life and death? On the other hand is another of Singer’s accusations that indeed ‘Western thinking emphasises the gulf between humans and nature’. It would seem to me that if people want to ‘make a difference’ then let’s try less of a fixation on the single elements (Cecil’s been murdered!) of activism and practice our do no harm both near and far.
Noisy dramatics over a single death — when the reality is of staggering numbers — is grotesque.
Dana McNairn is the CEO of KOTO, a nonprofit social enterprise and vocational training programme for at-risk youth