23 June 2006


Several months ago, during one of my walks with Shelbie, she brought a turtle from the stream along which we had passed. It was a box turtle, about the size of a softball. Shelbie must have known (or sensed, if “known” is too strong) that it was alive, because she rarely carries rocks or other objects (although she did when she was a puppy). To her, it was a toy—something to play with. I removed the turtle from her mouth and carried it back to the stream. The same thing happened a week or so ago. Whether it was the same turtle, I don’t know; but it was the same size and type.

Fast forward to yesterday evening. As I came around the school in the dark, I saw an object in the grass. I walked over to inspect. It was the turtle, lying on its back. I hoped it was living, but it was dead. There were ants on its head and legs. Putting two and two together, I concluded that Shelbie had carried the turtle from the stream again (perhaps the night before) and deposited it—on its back—on the grass. The turtle was apparently unable to right itself and died of exposure. It’s been very hot lately.

I spontaneously said, “You killed that turtle, Shelbie; you murderer.” I didn’t mean this, obviously. Shelbie is not a moral agent, like you and me, and hence not a murderer. She harmed the turtle, in the sense of setting back its interests, but is not responsible for it. It would be silly to blame her or punish her for something over which she had no control. Imagine saying, “Shelbie, dammit, you should have known that taking that turtle out of the stream might result in its death.” While she can be conditioned to act one way rather than another (like human children), she can’t reason, act on principle, or respect others. She lives in an amoral world. Human children become moral agents after a time, but animals such as Shelbie never do.

This is why it’s fallacious to infer from the fact that animals kill each other (via predation) that it’s morally permissible for humans to kill and eat animals. There’s a morally relevant difference between the cases, namely, that humans are moral agents and animals are not. Humans are responsible for their conduct; animals are not. Humans can control their behavior; animals cannot. Humans can survive, even flourish, without meat; carnivorous animals cannot. It may be permissible to eat meat, but not because animals do it.

Addendum: I said that Shelbie is not responsible for the turtle’s death, even if she caused it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not responsible. Just as a parent is responsible for his or her child’s behavior, I’m responsible for Shelbie’s behavior. Of course, one can’t be blamed for something unless one was at least negligent. Was I negligent? I knew that Shelbie had a tendency to carry turtles away from the stream, so perhaps I should have watched her more carefully. (I’m assuming for the sake of argument that it was Shelbie who carried this turtle.) From now on, I will. By the way, what evolutionary value is there in a turtle’s having a shell so tall that it can’t right itself when it gets turned over? This seems like bad engineering, and natural selection is not a bad engineer. The advantage of such a shell must outweigh the obvious disadvantage.

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