When it broke a couple of weeks ago, it was hard not to be affected by the story of Marius, the graceful, gentle, beautiful, healthy, young giraffe shot and publicly dismembered at Copenhagen Zoo. In our reactions, many of us experienced moral sentiment, a distaste, or even revulsion, in relation to an apparently brutal act. The ethical question that follows is what to make of this feeling.
The justification of the killing offered by the Zoo aimed to overcome sentiment by appealing to the desirability of their goal of maintaining a healthy captive breeding population of giraffes. If the Zoo is right, our moral sentiment is leading us astray here and should be discredited once we appreciate the wider issues at stake. In asking readers of The Guardian the day after Marius’ death ‘Why the fuss?’, Mary Warnock also argued that our initial moral sentiment needs to be rejected. She points to the inconsistency of our moral sentiment concerning animals: how we respond differently to Marius, or our pets, than we do to wild boars, cobras, or mice. In Warnock’s view, we should discard our sentiment about Marius because we cannot rationally align it with our sentiments about other animals. Both the Zoo and Warnock, therefore, ask us to distrust this particular moral sentiment in relation to a larger moral picture.
However, once we have appreciated that our moral sentiment about Marius does not fit with the project of captive breeding, or how we think and act in relation to other animals, another option presents itself: to trust our sentiment in this case, and question both the captive breeding project and our thought and practice towards other animals. If the Zoo’s project as currently conceived requires the regular killing of young healthy animals, perhaps it should be re-conceived. If it is argued that we routinely kill huge numbers of young healthy animals, kept in much worse conditions than those of Copenhagen Zoo, so that we may eat their meat, or gain experimental knowledge from their lives and bodies, then perhaps it is our thoughtlessness in relation to this other killing that we need to interrogate.
In E. B. White’s unashamedly sentimental Charlotte’s Web, the prospect of the beautiful and characterful pig Wilbur being slaughtered for meat is a horrific prospect, and the author succeeds in extending the reader’s moral sentiment to include the spider Charlotte and her offspring. It seems to me that we are much more likely to be thinking in the right direction when we are open to extending our moral sympathies in this way than when we are seeking reasons to close down, disarm, and ignore our sensitivity to the fate of fellow creatures. Rather than finding reasons to set aside the way that the killing of Marius made us feel, why don’t we try trusting that sentiment, and asking what follows?
David Clough is Professor of Theological Ethics and Head of TRS at Chester