Shooting an elephant: the inequality of moral equivalence

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting
of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and
could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad
elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control
it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was
right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for
killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn
Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been
killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient
pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the
others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

-George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”


Orwell’s ‘elephant’ is really a metaphor for the decaying British empire, even if he did actually kill an elephant when he was stationed in Burma. More recently, another actual elephant killing is taking on additional symbolic dimensions. The recent fracas over GoDaddy CEO Bob Parson’s elephant-killing video highlights a fault line in animal advocacy. On one side, you have Francione and co., repeating his ‘we are all Michael Vick’ line that a single elephant and a single chicken have equal moral value. On the other, you have 12 of this year’s Top Chef All Stars partnering with HSUS to boycott Canadian seafood to protest the seal hunt. Both of these positions are problematic.

To start with moral equivalence: a chicken is not an elephant. Yes, they are both sentient, feeling beings that experience pleasure and pain, satisfaction and (at least a certain kind of) loss. And yes, I see what Francione is doing, tactically, by attempting to point out what he perceives to be yet another case of hypocritical moral schizophrenia. A passage from Doris Lin highlights a key issue:

…as Parsons correctly points out, “Those elephants are not on the brink of extinction.” But extinction is not the issue. While some are offended because African elephants are theatened, some people are angry because they believe that elephants are special. Words like, “noble,” “sensitive,” “intelligent” or “majestic” are frequently used to describe them. But from an animal rights perspective, it doesn’t matter how noble, intelligent or special people think they are. The issue is that they sentient and they suffer, and neither an elephant nor a cow wants to become somebody’s dinner or trophy.

I think this is one of the key problems I have with rights approaches generally, whether we’re talking about animals or humans. Taking this view seriously might oblige us to initiate staggered large-scale carnivore elimination, as Jeff McMahan suggested in last year’s NYT. Ecologically, this would be a nightmare, and I think this is a good example of where Rorty’s ironist can step in and keep us from taking the final vocabularies of competing doctrines to their dystopian extremes. Big game hunting permits do pay for a lot of useful conservation work, and it would be disingenuous to say that they don’t, just as people often claim that ecotourism can solve all of the world’s development-and-conservation conundrums, when this is an overstatement at best.

My next post will be an ‘animal ethics 101‘ summary, introducing deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics and the capabilities approach, contractarian ethics, and feminist ethics as they relate to nonhuman animals. In the meantime, I’ll just say that I’m mostly in the utilitarian camp, with some concessions to each of the other ‘final vocabularies’ on an as-needed basis. As such, the life of an elephant is, cognitively, quite different from the life of a chicken, even from an anti-speciesist perspective. This is not to denigrate chickens–indeed, I would still mostly stand by ‘drawing the line’ at vertebrates and cephalopods when it comes to serious moral consideration–but just to say that total equivalence is not really a useful policy perspective, in my view.

On the seal hunt…I’ll have to come back to this later, as I need to go apply for some jobs. Suffice it to say that I think the seal issue is used strategically as a fundraising machine for groups like the HSUS in ways that are all out of proportion to the activity in question, when it’s compared to meat sourced from intensive agriculture, which pretty much all of the chefs in question end up using regularly. (And I say this as a reluctant but devoted fan of the show–reluctant because of its problematic food ethics. It’s pretty much the only ‘reality show’ I watch.) I’m not really pleased with some of the content in this post–I don’t think I structured my arguments very well–but I guess that’s blogging for you.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting
of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and
could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad
elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control
it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was
right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for
killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn
Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been
killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient
pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the
others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

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