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Cecil the Lion's Killer Violated His Own Exceptional Obligations as a Human Being


The killing of Cecil the lion was a very bad thing. As I understand it, a sanctuary lion -- and tourist attraction -- was lured out of his safe zone at Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park and shot with an arrow, taking many hours to die.

I know that many have been making sharp contrasts comparing the outpouring of empathy for Cecil with the far lesser demonstration of concern about Planned Parenthood's dismembered fetuses. As cogent as those contrasts are, however, we should not allow them to distract us from recognizing the wrong actions that took Cecil's life.

Readers familiar with my work know that I vehemently oppose animal rights. That has led some to embrace the canard that I am indifferent to the suffering of animals. Drivel.

Animal rights is an ideology that promotes a false moral equation between humans and animals, based on their and our capacities to feel pain and suffer. In such a perspective, Cecil's killing would be the same as the murder of a human being. That is a pernicious, morally relativistic view that undermines human exceptionalism and transforms us, in essence, into just another animal in the forest.

We are more than that. Human exceptionalism includes duties -- which only human beings are capable of possessing. One of those important duties we alone can have is the obligation because we are human beings to treat animals humanely and with respect, and to abstain from causing them suffering unless that is required by an overriding human need.

And when there is a human need, we must continue to work to improve methods of animal husbandry. That is why Temple Grandin's laudable work with cattle slaughtering methods is so important.

This approach is known as "animal welfare." It is why whaling was justifiable in the 18th and 19th centuries when whale oil was essential to lighting our cities and to driving the rudimentary stages of the industrial revolution, while satisfying other important human needs as well. Today, it is no longer justifiable on a mass scale because we don't need the whale products and the method of killing by harpoon -- even if for food -- causes the animal so much pain.

Under an animal welfare analysis, there is simply no excuse for killing Cecil.

  • No genuine human benefit was involved. The act was akin to dog fighting, merely serving to satisfy a blood lust or give the animal killer an adrenaline rush.
  • Trophy hunting, in my opinion, is killing for ego. That said, sometimes there can be significant animal and human benefits derived from such hunts. For example, African countries charge very high prices for hunting licenses for the purpose of culling herds of elephants that would otherwise destroy the environment. Those kills benefit park ecosystems by keeping them in balance, the money is necessary in many cases to keep the parks open, and the animals that are killed are used for food. No such justification exists in this case.
  • The method of Cecil's killing caused significant suffering for no reason other than to put a thrill up the hunter's spine.
  • Poaching is wrong. Period. Unless you are starving, I can think of no excuse for it.

Under an animal rights analysis, Cecil had a right to live because his moral value was equal to that of humans. Such attitudes must be rejected.

Under an animal welfare analysis, the great white hunter violated his own human duty to treat animals properly, and to obey the laws of Zimbabwe regarding hunts. (He says he was unaware that Cecil was in a protected area.)

Beyond that, Cecil was a sanctuary lion accustomed to the presence of humans. Thus, a lion's usual wariness was probably not a factor when he was lured and killed. Talk about unsporting!

So, yes, there is too much excuse-making for Planned Parenthood. But that is not a reason to fail to express our repugnance over this sorry episode.

Image: Hwange National Park, by Laura (cardamom) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted at Human Exceptionalism.