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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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An incomplete "sentience"

Nov 25, 2008
By Steve Cornett
This animal rights thing has been on my mind since Proposition 2 passed in California. I’m not sure you can go to the bank with the thoughts of Peter Seeger (http://www.newsweek.com/id/169881), who is a longtime animal rights icon.
            However, he was awful pleased to see so many Californiacs vote his way on confinement. It is not insignificant that, in that same election, the same voters passed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriages. So this was not a particularly liberal electorate on social matters.
            Proposition 2 does not directly affect the beef business. The initial impact is on pigs and poultry, so our more myopic peers in the cattle industry might be pleased to see roadblocks thrown in the path of efficient production practices employed by the competition.
            But if you read Mr. Seeger’s thoughts, you’ll notice he sees these no-crate laws as the first few steps in the long journey toward a future in which animals are no longer “property.”
            He and his fellow thinkers see animal agriculture as the moral equivalent of slavery.
            Those of us with a more traditional view of things, disagree strongly, of course. Certainly we have the bible on our sides, but one doubts Mr. Seeger looks to the bible for his moral guidance.
            These folks have developed, from whole cloth, a new ethic that attempts to create some sort of moral equivalency with anything they regard as “sentient.”
            They define “sentient” as the ability to feel pain. But sentience without sapience—the ability to reason at least a bit—is an incomplete “sentience.” A cow walking up the slaughter line is no more stressed than she would be loading into a trailer to be hauled to greener pastures.
            Because she has a human—a sapient human smart enough to outwit wolves and set hay aside for the winter--the cow has lived a darned pleasant life, given her level of sentience. She has plenty to eat. She and her calves are protected from predators. It’s a good life; and then, with a thump, it ends.
Much more painlessly, it must be noted, than nature ends the lives of prey species in its care. Take the cow out of the pasture and replace her with a wild creature which will starve or die with his belly ripped out by a pack of predators and how have you improved the world? How have you lessened the suffering of the beasts of the field?
I would measure sentience the same way the joke says to measure true love: Lock your dog and your wife in the barn for a day and see which one is really happy to see you when you return. See which one holds a grudge. That is sapience and it is what allows humans to know there is no free lunch. Cows don’t know that. They don’t know we’re seeing to their every whim because we want to eat their children. They just know life is good.
            Seems to me that the whole business of morals and ethics—religion aside—is based on a mutual compact between equals. I agree not to take human life and covet your ass because you agree not to take human life and covet my ass. There’s not, if you don’t count religion, much other reason for me not to thump you atop the head and take your stuff and your wife, if she’s a good one. And make your kids slaves that I can send out to feed cattle on cold days.
            But we’ve got a set of ethics that says we won’t do that stuff. It holds because it is mutually beneficial.
            I don’t see how you carry that over to animals. They can’t make any such contract beyond what we—we humans—teach them..
            Let’s say, for instance, that I take my gun and tell you, “Come here. I want to give you a cookie and shoot you in the head.” You’ll say, “Well, gosh, no thanks.” That’s because you are not only sentient but sapient.
            But offer my dog the same deal and here he comes, all happy and stuff. Don’t tell me he’s sentient. He’s dumb as a dog. He doesn’t know not to chase trucks on the highway. He’s got no sapience, and we shouldn’t treat him as if he does. Not for our sake nor his.
            The argument made, the fact is that Mr. Seeger is right. His side is winning, and the boundaries of what constitutes “animal cruelty” in the modern ethic are constantly expanding. I can’t, personally, find any moral bedrock for those changes to build upon.
            But that doesn’t seem to matter to the many urbanites who no longer have a dog in the fight over animal welfare and who seem to believe dogs shouldn’t fight to begin with.
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