During an interview with Rolling Stone, actress Jennifer Lawrence discussed her squirrel skinning scene in Winter’s Bone and said ”I should say it wasn’t real, for PETA. But screw PETA.” Predictably, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk replied by saying that Lawrence “is young and the plight of animals somehow hasn’t yet touched her heart. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘The squirrel you kill in jest, dies in earnest.’ We are told that this squirrel was hit by a car, but when people kill animals, it is the animals who are ‘screwed,’ not PETA, and one day I hope she will try to make up for any pain she might have caused any animal who did nothing but try to eke out a humble existence in nature.”
While it might seem somewhat odd, I find myself in agreement and disagreement with the views expressed by Lawrence and Newkirk. This is both in terms of substance and style.
While I do hold that hunting and eating animals can be morally acceptable, I do agree with Newkirk and Thoreau that killing animals “in jest” creates pain that makes such actions morally wrong. This is, obviously enough, something that can easily be argued for on utilitarian grounds. Even Kant would agree-after all, he notes that cruelty to animals for sport cannot be morally justified. As such, I am in agreement with Newkirk on this point. That said, I also agree with Lawrence-or at least I am sympathetic to her statement.
While PETA often has laudable goals, their approach often has unfortunate tendencies. First, they often do things that are rather silly or questionable (such as the infamous holocaust and slavery analogies). PETA folks are, of course, aware of this and have argued that such methods are necessary in order to get media attention. While this does have a certain appeal (after all, PETA is famous), there is the concern that PETA undercuts its own effectiveness by such tactics. After all, while they do get media attention, their actions often seem to create the impression that PETA is silly and out of touch. This makes it easier for people to (fallaciously) dismiss PETA and the issues it raises as silly, which actually does harm to the causes they purport to serve. While I do get the need to put on a show for the media, I tend to think PETA is perhaps more about the show than about the causes. But perhaps I am just jealous of the attention that they get and I do not.
Second, PETA often holds what seem to be absurd positions, perhaps also calculated to get attention. For example, PETA condemns the “pastime” of owning pets. Since many PETA folks have pets, it is not surprising that their substantial criticism of pet ownership focuses on the abuse of pets rather than on simply having a pet. After all, while pet ownership does enable the abuse of pets, condemning it because some people are bad to pets is on par with condemning relationships because some people are bad to their partners (or condemning parenthood because some parents are bad to their kids). In the case of relationships, it is true that without relationships, there would be no domestic violence. However, it is absurd to claim that relationships thus cause domestic violence. Likewise for pets. After all, while it is true that there would be no abuse of pets if there were no pets, this does not show that the abuse of animals is caused by the “pastime” of having pets. As Aristotle might say, it is not all pet ownership that is to be condemned, but only the bad sort. While I do agree with their view that abusing pets is wrong, I do not find their apparent bashing of the “pastime” of having pets to be very appealing or well supported. Of course, I have a husky-so perhaps I am blinded by being a part of this “peculiar institution.”
Once again, I do get the need to take seemingly startling positions in order to attract the attention of the media. After all, while PETA gets into the news, philosophical essays on animal issues rarely garners attention (with the exception of Peter Singer, who is also skilled in self-promotion). However, I am inclined to think that such tactics can do more harm than good in that they provide significant rhetorical ammunition to people who oppose the moral positions taken by PETA. However, I am open to the very real possibility that a PETA stunt does more good than a reasoned essay on the ethical treatment of animals. If this is the case, then I would have to accept that PETA is in the right and that my criticism is off the mark.
Third, the attitude expressed by Newkirk and other PETA folks inclines me to take some pleasure in Lawrence’s remark. While the moral points are reasonable, the tone of this approach strikes me as both patronizing and self-righteous. Of course, folks have said the same about me (sometimes correctly). While I do agree with many of the ethical views held by PETA folks, the approach PETA takes does sometimes incline me to say “screw PETA.” While rejecting a statement because of one’s attitude towards the tone of the speaker is a fallacy, a patronizing and self-righteous approach is not very polite nor does it seem conducive to persuading people. Of course, Newkirk did get considerable attention for her response while this posting will no doubt not even be the smallest speck on the media radar.