A Philosopher's Blog

Screw PETA

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 18, 2012
Cover of a comic book created by PETA as part ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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Obama & the Fly

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 18, 2009
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Image via Wikipedia

While people contrast Bush and Obama, they do have some things in common. Both men were elected President. Both men have ninja-like reflexes. Bush demostrated his skill by deftly dodging shoes hurled at him. Obama showed his lightning reflexes by smacking a fly. Perhaps this is a good sign for him-after all, a hero once got his start by killing flies.

While some folks think the death of the fly was cool, PETA folks are not amused. While not strongly condeming this murderous act, PETA did decide to send the President a device for capturing bugs without harming them. Rumor has it that he already tried it on Joe Biden during one of Joe’s notable off topic adventures.

Now, it might seem silly to be upset by the death of a fly. Mainly because it…well…is silly. That said, I somewhat agree with PETA. As a general moral rule, I try to avoid harming living things and damaging non-living things. My principle is that it is right to avoid doing harm.  This is based on the notion that destroying and harming things creates negative worth and that seems both immoral and irrational. I’ll even take effort to help out other living things. To use a serious example, I have two rescued cats (Zax and Ash) and an adopted dog (Isis). To use a silly example, I rescued a bee from the pool this morning. Though bees probably do not think much, I’m sure they do not enjoy drowning. I know I would not, so I rescued it out of sympathy.

Of course, I don’t cross over into the realm of madness when it comes to this. I fully accept that I can harm others to protect myself or others in legitimate circumstances. Since my principle is based on a notion of value/worth, I set the bar lower for creatures of lower worth. So, it would take a great deal for me to be justified in killing a human being. A person would, for example, have to be trying to serious harm me or some innocent person. In the case of flies, I believe I am justified in killing them when they try to bite me or seriously annoy me. Interesting, shortly after I rescued the bee, another bug landed on me and stung me. That little bastard got a quick trip to bug hell.

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PETA & Vick’s Pits

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on December 24, 2008

The other day I saw a brief bit on CNN about Michael Vick’s rescued pit bulls. As most people know, Vick got into considerable trouble for his horrible treatment of dogs. He and some associates trained and fought them. The dogs that lacked the desire to fight were killed, often in rather brutal ways.

When the dogs were rescued from Vick, PETA and the Human Society took the position that the dogs were beyond rehabilitation and that it would be a poor use of resources to try to do so. The bit I saw yesterday showed a PETA spokeswoman restating that view: although the rehabilitation worked in some cases, the dogs should have been euthanized and the money should have been spent to help other animals.

While this view struck me as heartless, a case can be made for her position. She is, of course, presenting a standard utilitarian approach: the action that should be taken is the one that generates the most good. So, if the resources spent to help Vick’s pit bulls could have helped many more animals, then the money should have been spent on the other animals.

This approach does match the commonly accepted principle of triage. Put a bit simply, it is the principle that medical resources are to be spent saving the most lives. This can mean allowing some people to die, but this is justified because saving more lives is better than saving fewer lives. The situation with the dogs can be looked at as a form a triage: while it would be best to help all animals, if all cannot be saved, then we should save more animals even if these means that some are not saved. On this view, PETA is correct.

Of course, there are ways to take issue with PETA in this matter.

First, there is the fact that the PETA view is that the dogs should have been euthanized. As such, it is not a case of letting the dogs die in order to save more dogs. It would be a situation in which the dogs would be killed. In this sort of case, our moral intuitions tend to change. For example, consider a (possibly) similar situation: suppose you have five patients who need organ transplants immediately or they will die. You could kill a sixth person to save them, but most people would regard that as morally wrong. Perhaps the same is true in the case of the dogs.

Of course, it could be replied that the dog situation is a bit unusual. Unlike the organ case, the dogs would not being killed to take their organs to save other dogs. They would be killed because that would be regarded as more merciful than keeping them locked away. But, it could be replied that the two cases are alike. The pit bulls would be killed to take something from them that others need: the money and resources. As such, the cases seem alike in the relevant way. Intuitively, such killing seems wrong.

Second, there is the concern that acting in this way (euthanizing the dogs to free up resources) would have serious negative consequences. For example, to do so would (as Kant argued) tend to harden people’s hearts and make them more inclined to cruelty. Then again, perhaps it would not.

Third, there is the moral concern that the dogs are owed restitution for the wrong done to them. While the resources could have been used to help more dogs, Vick and his fellows wronged those dogs. As such, there is a debt that must be paid to those dogs and the evil done to them should be countered.

To use an analogy, imagine that a defect in a product maims dozens of people and that a law suit awards a large sum of money in damages. The money could probably do more good if it were spent to help other people. It could, perhaps, be used to fund preventative medicine. After all, it is far cheaper to help people avoid illness than it is to treat people who have been seriously maimed. By PETA’s principle, the money should not be wasted on the maimed people but spent so as to do the most good. This, however, seems wrong.

As such, to kill the dogs would have been one last crime against them. It would be analogous to murdering rescued survivors simply because it would be expensive to help them. That would be monstrous.

It might be replied that dogs lack moral status and hence cannot be wronged and cannot be owed a moral debt. Of course, this view would undercut the whole notion of treating animals ethically by making them morally irrelevant.  As such, it would not seem to be a viable option for PETA.

From a practical standpoint, it seemed unwise of PETA to issue a statement saying that the dogs should have been euthanized. When I heard the PETA spokeswoman, my intellectual reaction was to consider the ethics of the matter. But, when I saw the photos of the rescued dogs with their families, my emotional reaction was to think “what a horrible thing she said” and I thought much less of PETA at that moment. Naturally, the news segment was calculated to do just that. I am sure other people felt as I did and that certainly does not help PETA.

Yes, the money could have probably done more good if it had been spent elsewhere. But here is some practical advice for PETA: never tell dog owners that it would have been better to kill a good dog. That does not go over well. Not well at all.