I am a morally-confused, inconsistent hypocrite. I consider myself a steadfast animal-lover as well as a lover of meat, equally likely to go out of my way to pet strangers’ dogs on the street as to seek out New York’s best hamburger. And when you drill down into the details, the contradictions multiply. I’ll eat fish, poultry, pork, and lamb, but–owing to a traumatic childhood incident involving a neighbor’s hutch of what I assumed were pet bunnies–cannot bring myself to eat rabbit. (Nor would I ever eat dog; in Vietnam, I steadfastly waited outside a restaurant while my traveling companions dined on canine.) And while I’ll eat a pig or a lamb, I could never kill one myself–though I’m pretty sure I could dispatch a chicken or a trout without losing a minute of sleep. As you can see, I’m a moral mess.
But when it comes to animals, being a morally-confused, inconsistent hypocrite puts me in good company. Most of us are exactly that. That is the fundamental thesis of Hal Herzog‘s fabulous new book: Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. Herzog, a psychologist at Western Carolina University, is a scholar in the relatively new field of anthrozoology, which concerns itself with the complex and often fraught relationships between humans and other animals.
Just a few pages into the book, Herzog discusses a frantic phone call he received from a friend. This friend had heard, through the grapevine, that Herzog was adopting kittens from animal shelters and feeding them to his son’s pet boa constrictor. Herzog was appalled–he would never do any such thing, he told his friend, an avowed animal rights advocate.
But then, he started thinking about it. “Is having a pet that gets its daily ration of meat from a can morally preferable to living with a snake? And are there circumstances in which feeding kittens to boa constrictors might actually be morally acceptable?”
Among the factors he considered:
- Cats eat meat. According to Herzog’s calculations, America’s kitties eat some 12 million pounds of flesh every day.
- Beyond the meat that they eat, cats are also “recreational killers,” attacking birds and rodents that have the misfortune of living near households with furry felines.
- A pet snake requires (again, according to Herzog’s own calculations) just five pounds of meat per year, compared to an average cat’s fifty. (“Objectively,” he writes, “the moral burden of enjoying the company of a cat is ten times higher than living with a pet snake.”)
- There are far fewer pet snakes in the U.S. than pet cats.
- Two million cats a year are put down in American animal shelters.
It all prompts Herzog to wonder:
Wouldn’t it make more sense to make the carcasses available to snake fanciers? After all, these cats are going to die anyway and fewer mice and rats would be sacrificed to satisfy the dietary needs of the pythons and king snakes living in American homes. Seems like a win-win right?
Yikes . . . I had inadvertently painted myself into a logical corner in which feeding the bodies of kittens to the boa constrictors was not only permissible but morally preferable to feeding them rodents. But while the logical part of my brain may have concluded that there was not much difference between raising snakes on a diet of rats or a diet of kittens, the emotional part of me was not buying the argument at all. I found the idea of feeding the bodies of cats to snakes revolting, and had no intention of hitting up the animal shelter for kitten carcasses.
Of course researchers of morality already know that, in essence, we’re all hypocrites, behaving according to an ever-changing set of principles–and abandoning principles altogether when something pulls at our heartstrings. That’s not necessarily a problem–I don’t think I’d want to live my life according to strict moral absolutes that leave no room for emotion. But the particulars of our inconsistent attitudes toward the animal world are fascinating and reveal a lot about human nature. For more, I urge you to pick up Herzog’s book.