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Hunting for the Humane Path
The seal hunt debate is such a flashpoint because it touches on humans' complex feelings about animals, power, religion, and life and death.

The Canadian seal hunt will be starting again soon and once again it's back in the news. Columnist Peter Zimonjic's recent article in the Ottawa Citizen, "Animal lovers gone wild" (February 18, 2006), argues that people's reactions against the hunt are vastly overblown, inconsistent with their behaviour toward animals in other contexts (that's true, but that does not make any of the behaviour ethical) and that those who oppose the seal hunt belong in the animal-rights extremists' camp (read, they're "crazies").

Harp seal pup

That "take" can be compared with Matthew Scully's recent article on the same topic in the National Post, "An ivory trade to call our own," (February 13, 2006). It is always absolutely essential and extraordinarily difficult to read what Matthew Scully writes on behalf of animals. That's true of his landmark book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, and of this article.

But the letters published in response to Mr. Scully's article, like Mr.Zimonjic's arguments, were all very critical and dismissive of his call for increased ethical concern about our treatment of animals in general, and in the context of seal hunting in particular.

Why is the seal hunt such a divisive issue and flashpoint? What lessons, especially ethical ones, might we learn from examining the great divide between the two sides in this case?

The audience that Mr. Scully is trying to convert is card-carrying Christians who see animals as "manufacturing plants" that can be used in whatever ways will generate maximum income and despite great suffering for the animals. To them that is of no moral, ethical or, indeed, religious concern. On the contrary, they believe God has given them "dominion over the animals."

People with fundamentalist religious beliefs often adopt a "pure mystery" worldview. The strength of this is that they are open to accepting human ways of knowing other than just reason—indeed, they may reject the latter. For instance, they accept moral intuition, a sense of awe and wonder at creation, and spiritual-emotional experience as valid ways of knowing.

And yet, as Mr. Scully has extensively documented, often they are not concerned for animal welfare. Their stance flows from a belief in the total superiority of humans and in humans' complete difference from other animals.

Being seen as like other animals threatens them and their beliefs.

In contrast, people such as Princeton philosopher and "animal rights" founder, Peter Singer, whose worldview is based entirely on reason—it's a "pure science" worldview—base their case for respect for animals on their being like us in relevant respects, in particular, that they can experience pain and suffering. They see discrimination between humans and other animals as speciesism and wrongful.

It is here that they cross swords with the religious people described: In equating animals with humans, as Dr. Singer and his followers do, these religious people see them as denying there is a God, that He created humans, and that what differentiates humans and animals is that humans have a soul.

Mr. Scully's approach is important because it seeks to straddle these polar opposite stances. It reflects what I call a "science-human spirit" worldview. That view recognizes that animals are both like us in certain respects (they can suffer) and unlike us in others (for instance, as far as we know, none of them is capable of believing in God). It is based on a theory of an integrated cosmos: That all living beings are part of a complex whole; that whole consists of both physical and non-material realities; and that we can't damage part of that whole without damaging all of it. Consequently, we must have respect for all life, if we are to maintain respect for human life.

That doesn't tell us what we may and must not do to baby seals, but it does tell us that what we do and don't do matters far beyond the seals.

So let's look at why the seal hunt has been such a flashpoint for cultural clashes focused on our treatment of animals. Baby seals are white, the colour of purity. (Interestingly, one defender of the seal hunt challenged Mr. Scully's position against it on the grounds that "white seal poster pups haven't been harvested for years." That implies that "harvesting"—note the desensitizing language—non-white ones would be ethically acceptable.) They are often described as "innocent life"—language is not neutral in eliciting ethical responses based on intuition and emotion.

In contrast, the case for killing them, as seen in letters in response to Mr. Scully's article, is purely rationally based. This represents an interesting crossover—pure rationalists such as Peter Singer would oppose the hunt; non-rationalist religious people may support it.

Killing the newly born is an overt and shocking transgression of respect for life—they never had a chance at life. (It's no accident one letter-writer linked the seal hunt to abortion.) They are completely defenceless against their aggressors—adult men—who are in a position of immense power in comparison to them. They are killed in the presence of their mothers, whom we can assume also suffer greatly as a result.

The killing is an organized venture supported by state funds. It would be truly shocking if that combination of features did not raise powerful moral intuitions that the ethics of what we are doing need very careful scrutiny.

And all of that is done in the name of "doing good"—it's necessary to preserve the fish stocks and, sometimes, reduce the seal population to avoid them starving to death. It brings to mind an old saying in human-rights law that could be applied equally to animals by substituting the word animal for human: "Nowhere are human rights more threatened than when we act purporting to do only good."

Acting ethically towards animals requires deep understanding of a complex reality.

It's said we can best test the "ethical tone" of a society by how it treats its weakest, most in need, most vulnerable members. That membership must be extended to include animals, not just for their sakes—important as that is—but for our sake. Acting ethically towards animals (which does not mean treating them the same way as humans) matters greatly in setting the general ethical tone of society. It could also matter in protecting individuals—cruelty to animals is associated with violent and sociopathic behaviour.

Acting ethically towards animals requires deep understanding of a complex reality. For instance, Mr. Scully describes the men who participate in the seal hunt as "traips(ing) about as if their only business in the world is to allocate death." That is a clue to why they engage in such a barbaric and abhorrent ritual. Men—especially men reared in a rural tradition—can experience inflicting death as affirming their power over death and thereby reducing their natural fear of it, and as affirming their masculinity. Doing so was also necessary for survival. (Women may do the equivalent in all respects by giving birth.)

But not all men react that way and even closely related men can act very differently. When my younger brother was dying, he explained to me how important it was to him to take his 25-year-old son rabbit shooting for the first time. When my father was dying he told me that he had only one regret in his life, that he had killed a kangaroo.

Perhaps we could promote ethical treatment of animals by learning from others. The World Health Organization reduced female genital mutilation in Africa by training the "wise women," who did it as their only source of income, to become paid educators against it.

So, let's give the tax dollars that currently subsidize the seal hunt to the hunters who desist. Let's all put our money where our ethics are by buying only meat products that come from animals that have been humanely treated.

Let's stop all killing of animals for "fun" or so-called "sport," unless the slaughter is humane and they will be eaten.

And, finally, difficult as it is to face, let's increase our sensitivity to the suffering of so many animals, rather than glossing over it and anaesthetizing our moral intuitions with witty commentary such as Mr. Zimonjic's.

Margaret Somerville is founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, Thursday, March 2, 2006.




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