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A little moral reasoning

Photo by Wildlife Conservation Unit

As the outrage swelled around the cruel and meaningless death of Cecil the lion, the memes intended to shame people started showing up on Facebook. The Black Lives Matter movement, anti-abortionists, veterans — everybody got in on the memes and op-eds. The theme was always the same: What is wrong with you that you show more concern over one dead lion than [insert cause here].

On Facebook and in letters to editors, I often am shocked by people’s apparent inability to handle even basic moral reasoning and by their inability to detect fallacy.

As for those of us who felt rage over the killing of Cecil, are we so small and limited in the range of our moral concerns that we can be concerned about only one thing at a time? Can we not be concerned about both Cecil and about veterans who are going without medical care? Is it written somewhere that concern for the welfare of animals must somehow be deferred until perfect justice for all human beings is achieved? Who has the right to try to shame us for our lesser concerns while claiming — narcissistically, I would say — that their cause trumps all other causes? Instead, why don’t we divvy up all the deserving causes and each of us choose the causes we’ll focus on according to our own experiences and passions?

I prefer the term moral philosophy, though one can also call it ethics. Moral philosophy has changed a great deal over the centuries as our understanding of justice has changed and evolved to become more inclusive. Probably the most prominent text at present in the field of moral philosophy is John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. The book is a very demanding read, but it’s well worth it.

There is a preacher in this county who constantly writes letters to the editor scolding those of us who don’t share his black and white, Augustinian, hell fire and damnation notions of morality. In a letter just last week in which he raged against marriage equality, he wrote: “If truth can change, it’s lie — it’s false!”

Horse shit. King Solomon had 700 wives. David had eight. “One man one woman” actually was a pagan innovation and did not originate with Abrahamic religions such as Christianity. Christianity picked it up from the pagan Romans. So what changed? If you pointed out to this local preacher these small factoids from the Bible he thumps to assert that he is always right, his authoritarian mind simply would not be able to see a contradiction. Cognitive dissonance would shut him down. He sees moral reasoning as a slippery slope to hell and instead clings to his blacks and whites.

Is the life of one lion worth more when there aren’t many lions left, as opposed to the time when the African jungles were full of lions? Does it matter how and why a lion dies? Are the lives of human beings worth less when there are 7 billion of us rather than 300 million? Does it matter how and why human beings die? Is the life of an obnoxious and cruel dentist from Minnesota worth less than the life of a Princess Diana? Are the lives of any two human beings worth more than the lives of the last two lions on earth? Would the world be a better place if the life of Cecil the lion could be exchanged for that damned dentist?

I’m not necessarily taking a position on any of these things. I’m just saying that they’re worth thinking about. And I refuse to be shamed by those who seem to think that it’s shameful to care about animals before humanity’s problems are all solved. If that were the case, neither our wild animals nor the billions of animals kept on factory farms will have a chance, ever.


  1. Dan wrote:

    Rawls (but it’s John not James) influenced many modern titans of academia with his ‘justice as fairness’ perspective. However, social media has changed the landscape, and no one is safe from judgment. That is both a blessing and a curse. When it comes to the court of public opinion and its view on political correctness, any misstep is considered a breach of the social contract and to be chided by opponents and supported by proponents. Justice should mean someone comes out ahead, and it truly does.

    I saw something about Cecil that made me think about conservation and the ecosystem. Our wildlife management techniques have changed the way we deal with wildlife in general. I see hundreds of deer where I live in the Midwest, and I live near the outskirts of the largest metro in the state. Every year, about 40,000 are killed in the state, and every year another 40,000, and so on and so on. That’s how we manage it. Kill the old, sickly, and let the young grow. Cecil was old. Plenty of people kill lions, giraffes, and other African beasts, but only now, since he was shot in an area where he wasn’t supposed to have been shot, is it even an issue. Without social media connecting everyone and the 24 hour news cycle, it would’ve been gone minutes after it happened. 15 minutes of fame has become 15 weeks of online torture. It’s just like Native American team names. The Washington Redskins still play as that name, and have since the 1930’s, but only now in the era of social media is it an issue, and it comes and goes like the tide.

    People are so easily persuaded by the collective consciousness. It’s not that they’re part of it; they’re indirectly convinced to go along with the crowd. Some even do it consciously out of keeping their social circle together out of fear of losing friends. Part of it is humanity’s morality, but it’s also a self-serving act.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Dan… I can’t believe I typed Rawls’ name wrong, even though the book was lying right in front of me.

    I think that what shocks many people, including me, is that it can be legal to shoot lions at all, whether they’re in a stronghold area or not. It was reported last year that, at the current rate of decline, African lions will be extinct by 2050. Whereas, of course, with whitetail deer, we have an overpopulation problem.

    Cecil is a symbol, and that of course is why his death matters so much to so many people. That dentist from Minnesota also is symbol, and that’s why so many people hate him.

    Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  3. Dan wrote:

    I agree with you. I’m not shocked to see it happen, though, as many are. This dentist is merely one man, among many, who do this for pay where the money may go to fund the families living in the area. There are plenty of those living in Africa who did take large game for skins, ivory, and meat without paying the community back.

    Of course, I’m against taking endangered game, but this happens here in America, too. Cougars are rare but are shot on sight in many areas due to the fear of them killing pets or children. I would only kill a timber rattler if I saw it on my property, but I think they’re a beautiful and necessary animal.

    Thursday, August 6, 2015 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  4. Rob wrote:

    I can’t speak for the internet, and the internet certainly doesn’t speak for everyone, nor should we all be categorically placed into one group or another… therefore, i would like to put forth a few clarifications.

    I don’t assume you can’t be concerned for more than one moral wrong at a time. However, since you mentioned morality, I would argue that the life (or value) of any individual is infinitely greater than that of an animal (however beautiful or ugly).

    So, the outrage in my mind is one of scale. It pains me to see the unnecessary killing of animals, yet it has no place in comparison to the grief and despair I feel over the killing of the unborn. This is not a trumpeting of one thing and not another, but simply a trumpeting of the more important thing.

    Also, to clarify a position- as a representative of clear headedness (hopefully)- no consistent Bible believer would assert that Solomon, nor David, was morally right in the taking of many wives. It was still wrong then, as I believe it is now.

    Lastly (thank you for your patience), could you cite a source for the “one man, one woman” origination being a “pagan innovation”? I am genuinely curious, I have not heard this before.

    Regards, sir.


    Monday, August 17, 2015 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  5. daltoni wrote:

    Since I can’t think of any ordinary circumstances in which we are required to choose between the life of an animal and the life of a human, I don’t feel any pressing need to go there. However, I will say that animals do have a claim on their right to life (and a good life) and a very strong claim on the continued existence of their species. Whereas I cannot see how human beings, with a population standing at 7 billion, have any moral claim for plowing on toward 11 billion, at great expense to animal life, including animals eaten as food and animals displaced from their natural habitat.

    As for abortion, I and many other people would point out that moral objections having to do with abortion are often not applied consistently. Often the most strident opponents of abortion show little concern for the health and wellbeing of children after they are born, and, as the Washington Post op-ed below points out, the arbitrary political targeting of organizations that destroy embryos is skewed in a way that would lead us to suspect (though we suspected it already) that the real animus is anti-sex, not “pro-life.”

    As for the pagan origin of legally enforced monogamy, there are many sources, and some quick Googling should suffice. I’m attaching one quick, non-academic example, though the author has good credentials. As for the moral rightness (or not) of Solomon and David, have you checked the Old Testament (or the New Testament, for that matter) for a scriptural condemnation of polygamy? I am not aware of any such. That ties into the strong objections that I and many others have toward systems of “Christian morality.” Such systems are always arbitrary, picking and choosing what to ignore and what to emphasize. There also tends to be a complete lack of awareness that much of what is taken as given did not originate in the Bible but actually has sources that are entirely cultural — for example, the writings of Augustine of Hippo, or decisions made by early church councils that decided (by voting) what was heresy and what was doctrine.

    Tuesday, August 18, 2015 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    Another quick comment on the lack of moral consistency in the “pro-life” movement, which I believe supports the proposition that most pro-lifers are not so much “pro-life” as anti-sex and anti-poor. A meme I came across on Facebook today says that, while 104,000 children are waiting for adoption in the United State, 157 million Americans say that they are “pro-life.” I have not checked these numbers, but they sound plausible. In the extremely conservative and “pro-life” county that I live in, there is a constant struggle to find enough foster homes, and children must be farmed out to other counties, further dividing families and making it more difficult to put families back together.

    Most humans, I suppose, have a tendency toward hypocrisy, and no doubt many people who got upset about Cecil the lion eat many pounds of factory-farm animals each year.

    Each of us has to start somewhere, and absolute purity is not going to happen. If even half of us ate half as much meat, the benefits to the planet would be far greater than a few of us being strictly vegan. But what truly terrifies me is rapid population growth on the poorer continents. When (and if) the lives of the poor improve, one of the first things they clamor for is more meat. This is a rapidly growing problem in China.

    Though it is an ugly calculus, all forms of birth control must be considered in the context of a rapidly growing and unsustainable global population. The Christian solution of just telling people not to have sex will not only not work, it is a form of cruelty in itself. If overpopulation eventually leads to the deaths of millions and billions — and it will — how would that effect the moral calculus and our views of religious doctrine?

    Tuesday, August 18, 2015 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  7. Rob wrote:

    First, THANK YOU for your time and thoughtfulness. I appreciate your willingness to discuss these matters at length.

    You are entirely correct on many of these issues. I am for life at every stage. I am a strong proponent for adoption and the care of the weak, sick, helpless, and infirm. To my shame, I could be more so. But ideologically, I do not value the life of the unborn more than the life of the orphaned teenager or the incontinent 80 year old.

    I’m definitely not anti-sex. I’m very pro-sex. But like everything, it too, should be governed by a code of moral responsibility. Sex does not get a pass on these things because it’s an act of (so called) “love”. Do I believe people should have sex whenever they please? Do you?

    If we put forth a list of things (ills) we despise regarding the ways of man, I think we may agree on a good many of them.

    However, I don’t believe we can changes the hearts of men by pleading, any more than we can effectively change their behavior by law-making. They will simply find a more crafty way around these laws in order to get what they want and then practically lie to your face about it. (If this sounds at all like politics, it is entirely coincidental.) While these efforts have some minimal effect, they ultimately create a society, not of genuine affection and humanity towards others, but one of forced manipulation and cajolery. Which, by the way, describes every society, everywhere.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should not plead with them, nor effect laws. I think we should restrain immoral behavior when possible. But the only effectual solution for man’s ills (many of which you have mentioned) remains in the changing of men’s hearts by God’s power alone.

    Regarding polygamy – I’ll be the first to admit that the biblical position is not one of absolute certainty without difficulty, perhaps- yet it is an argument of plausibility and strong inference. You cannot discount these things, either way.

    1. Origin of marriage is in the singular (a helper, his wife- both singular)- stated in the created act of man and marriage.
    2. Multiple wife-taking (or husband-taking) is never advocated.
    3. Polygamy is not promoted, addressed, condoned or viewed (at all) in a positive way
    3. Many consequences of polygamy are negative (see Hagar, Leah, Rachel, Bathsheba, Solomon’s Harem, etc.)
    4. Jesus addresses the issue while quoting from Genesis by reinforcing the singular.
    5. The kings of Israel were warned not to “multiply wives unto themselves”.
    6. The highest office in the Christian church requires a man be the husband of “one wife”.

    Regarding, Christian hypocrisy (a troubling thing isn’t it?), I affirm that every man must follow all the ways of God (properly understood). I also assert that a Christian should be able to defend his positions rightly and clearly.

    Lastly, in my understanding, it is God who creates and orders all things (culture included), therefore any aspect of one thing or another that influences another thing… can ultimately be said to have it’s origin from God’s purposes. Simply to say that men agreed on or rejected a thing, cannot deny it’s origin in God’s effect or purposes. (a discussion on that alone would open a very large can of worms, my friend)

    You are a wonderful writer, and I’m grateful for the dialog. These issues are not easily discussed or solved. I do enjoy this blog and hope you will continue to post.

    Humbly yours,

    Wednesday, August 19, 2015 at 9:04 am | Permalink

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