Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
Few moral “absolutes” ever strike me as such. Is it wrong to steal? Usually. But not if the theft of a key could procure the freedom of one wrongly incarcerated.
Is it wrong to covet thy neighbour’s wife? Well, yes. But if the coveting thou experiences remains a personal matter, undisclosed to any other human? Or if thy neighbour’s husband is plainly an abuser of his woman?
Thou shalt not kill. That one is pretty absolute. Unless a casus belli is universally held to apply? Let’s not kill Hitler?
Those of us who admit to pacific inclination while leaning tribally to the Right are used to derision. Like Anglicans who admit to doubt, and unlike political leaders who claim a “personal” relationship with Jesus, doubt makes us hesitate over almost every decision.
The uncertainty can be debilitating. I take refuge in the persona of a hippy, because my refusal to judge is a form of cowardice. It’s easier to make deflective jokes about my sandals and lentils than face up to my failure.
Which is why, I think, the Universe sometimes “pokes through”, slicing apart the miasmic curtain of “but is this the right thing to do?”
One such “poke through” happened this week. This is Cecil the lion‘s message to the planet. The barbaric slaughter of a wild and savage animal is so breathtakingly immoral that I believe one would require the empathy of a saint in order to feel pity for the dentist at the centre of the resulting Twitter-storm. Walter Palmer did wrong. An unequivocal wrong, and he deserves our judgement.
But the Universe doesn’t let any such certainty come for free. There’s a cost to the judgement. It’s quite simple, but it’s one we prefer not to pay. Here is the cost of judging the lion-killer.
How do we measure our disgust at the slaughter of a single sentient mammal, in degrading and unnecessary circumstances, against our indifference to the slaughter of billions of sentient mammals, in degrading and unnecessary circumstances?
“Ah,” say defenders of meat consumption – because you got the allusion, right? – “You provide your own answer with your choice of adverb. It was unnecessary to kill the lion…” (and here some irrelevant guff about the nobility of wild mammals is usually inserted) “…because its death serves no purpose beyond the gratification of one man’s inadequate ego.”
Cecil wasn’t eaten, in other words. This is the excuse meat eaters give to defend their rapacious appetites.
But it won’t do. There are billions of human beings who live healthy lives and who do not consume meat. Uncomfortably – for I mean what I say about disliking judgements – uncomfortably, I am one of them. My discomfort doesn’t affect the deductive logic of the following assertions, however:
Since, by observation, it is possible to live without meat, it follows that it cannot be necessary to eat meat.
Since it cannot be necessary to eat meat, it follows that its consumption is a choice.
Since everyone knows that mammals feel pain, and knows, too, what happens in battery farms and industrial slaughterhouses, it follows that the choice is: “I like the taste of flesh so much that I don’t care about the slaughter.” Your ego’s gratification trumps your empathy for sentient life.
This is a Tory argument. Cold and clinical and without a single mention of “rights.” Do what you will unto the beasts shall be (almost) the whole of the law: but own your appetite, and its consequence on sentient life.
And before you fire off a tweet of fury about that ghastly dentist, be sure that your anger isn’t partly driven by the need for loud disturbance, to drown out the voice inside your head.
Meat might not be “murder.” But it is a choice that you make, one that leads ineluctably to the slaughter of sentient mammals. That they die from a bolt to the head in order to satisfy an unnecessary desire makes their experience morally different to Cecil’s fate… how, exactly?