13 October 2008

J. Baird Callicott on Domesticity

One of the more distressing aspects of the animal liberation movement is the failure of almost all its exponents to draw a sharp distinction between the very different plights (and rights) of wild and domestic animals. But this distinction lies at the very center of the land ethic. Domestic animals are creations of man. They are living artifacts, but artifacts nevertheless, and they constitute yet another mode of extension of the works of man into the ecosystem. From the perspective of the land ethic a herd of cattle, sheep, or pigs is as much or more a ruinous blight on the landscape as a fleet of four-wheel drive off-road vehicles. There is thus something profoundly incoherent (and insensitive as well) in the complaint of some animal liberationists that the "natural behavior" of chickens and bobby calves is cruelly frustrated on factory farms. It would make almost as much sense to speak of the natural behavior of tables and chairs.

Here a serious disanalogy (which no one to my knowledge has yet pointed out) becomes clearly evident between the liberation of blacks from slavery (and more recently, from civil inequality) and the liberation of animals from a similar sort of subordination and servitude. Black slaves remained, as it were, metaphysically autonomous: they were by nature if not by convention free beings quite capable of living on their own. They could not be enslaved for more than a historical interlude, for the strength of the force of their freedom was too great. They could, in other words, be retained only by a continuous counterforce, and only temporarily. This is equally true of caged wild animals. African cheetas [sic] in American and European zoos are captive, not indentured, beings. But this is not true of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. They have been bred to docility, tractability, stupidity, and dependency. It is literally meaningless to suggest that they be liberated. It is, to speak in hyperbole, a logical impossibility.

(J. Baird Callicott, "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," Environmental Ethics 2 [winter 1980]: 311-38, at 329-30 [footnote omitted])

Note from KBJ: The word "liberation" is ambiguous in this context. Callicott thinks so-called animal liberationists such as Peter Singer (author of Animal Liberation [1975]) want to release cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens into the wild. This, he says, is absurd, since these are not wild animals. They have no wild or natural state to which to return. But that's not what animal liberationists want. They want to abolish the institution of confinement, which inflicts horrible suffering on animals. The best way to do this is to take the profit out of it, and the best way to do that is to persuade people, rationally, to stop purchasing animal products. Animals are being "liberated" not in the sense that they are being released from confinement, but in the sense that they are being kept from confinement in the first place.