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Wronging the Ignorant and the Dumb
Tony Skillen on the mistreatment of animals and humans.
Aunt Elizabeth has given your stepfather £40 to take your stepsister and you to London for a meal and a show. Unbeknown to you, he conspires with your stepsister to keep the thing secret from you and to take your stepsister’s classmate instead. You never find out.
Now I’ve blown the secret and contradicted myself by telling you, but suppose you never had found out. You didn’t miss what you missed out on; you had a reasonably pleasant day, in fact, even enjoying the thought that your stepsister had to go on a dreary school outing.
What you don’t know won’t hurt you, they say. And no hurt was inflicted in the sense of distress or resentment. So, you might say, since no harm is done, no wrong is done…. As long as you don’t find out.
But suppose you do find out. Well, you have, because I’ve told you at the start. You are upset. In that, you are now harmed.
But hang on. ‘You are upset’. What by? Surely by the knowledge that you missed out on the trip. You have now, you might say, become harmed in the way you were when you had to watch your stepsister open her lovely Christmas present that year when yours was but a meagre thing. Awareness of another’s bounty is a misery to one who hoped for as much – to know what you’ve missed is a pain.
Hang on again. This wasn’t like missing out on the nice weather your stepsister happened to enjoy that time you went to the seaside and it poured there, while the sun shone back in your home town. You are now upset, not only in envy, but in the knowledge that your stepfather wronged you – he acted with wicked unfairness and in this regard the cowardly conspiracy of secrecy, far from nullifying it, compounded the crime. You will never respect him any more; your sense of your childhood has been devastated.
These, you might say, are present pains nonetheless. Now you might say that, and it’s true. But you did miss out on that trip to London – you were denied that pleasure; and that denial was an act of injustice. It would be funny to say that the only thing your stepfather did wrong was to make it more or less probable that you would one day find out. His act would then have been only ‘potentially’ wrong. But what upsets you is what he did.
Similarly, the wrong in sexual or other sorts of cheating is in the cheating.
When animals are brought up in cramped and unnatural conditions, deprived of space and of habitat to explore and make themselves at home in, it would be sentimental to say they ‘miss’ their natural environment. They know nothing of what they are missing, so they cannot wish or desire to have those things. Their ignorance may not be blissful, it may or may not be marked by distress, lethargy or listlessness.
But like you, these creatures have been wronged. Not only are they missing out on something good and in that negative sense suffering, they have been cruelly and unjustly denied what they miss out on. And this is true even though these animals, like human babies, lack a sense of justice and could not, unlike you towards your stepfather, feel resentment at their oppressors.
When a person dies, especially when they die young, we grieve over the things they will miss out on. We rightly feel this way, even though we do not think that they are ‘missing them’ – how could they, being dead? We do not have to imagine the dead as ghostly excluded observers peering through the window of life’s party in order to be sad for them that they aren’t there. In this respect they resemble the living person, ignorantly missing out on something they would have loved. Murder, of course, wrongs child victims through denying them what they would otherwise have done and experienced. Think again of your wicked stepfather.
Killing animals for sport or food wrongs them through denying them their lives. And this denial is proportional to the richness such animals would have been capable of – and to the deprivations imposed on their lives in preparing them for our tables (battery, factory farms, etc.). We can say this, surely, without postulating ghostly lambs or calves that ‘miss’ the life denied. Or even postulating some anthropomorphic consciousness in animals of what death is, or what their life might hold. In animals, as in humans, ignorance in the victim is no excuse.
Animals, like humans, can only be denied or deprived of what they might have had. To repeat, the evil done to animals is, to repeat, proportional to the richness of life they would have been capable of. This goes both for the denial entailed by killing them and for the denial entailed by rearing them in constricting or cruel ways.
Yes, animals are a whole lot like mistreated stepchildren… And don’t you listen to that J.M. Goodenough (in ‘Big Ears Bites Back!’ Philosophy Now No.11, pages 12-15) when he tells you that it is all right to kill animals as long as you do it painlessly!
© Tony Skillen 1995
Tony Skillen is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is eating much less meat now, and claims to treat his stepdaughter and his free-range bantams well.