Clare Palmer


On her book Animal Ethics in Context

Cover Interview of January 09, 2011

A close-up

I’d like a casual reader to start at the beginning, with the Introduction.  That’s because in the Introduction, using recent media stories, I set up the key debate I pursue in the book.

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 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.  I’m hoping that by encountering these cases in the Introduction, readers will see the pull of both ideas, and so be more sympathetic to the project of the book as a whole.