Everyone knows about it. I needn’t really explain the story, but I will.
Dentist from Minnesota pays loads of money to go shoot a lion with a bow in Zimbabwe, after it is lured illegally outside of the national park with bait. Lion gets hit, wanders around in pain, life ebbing, for 40 hours until dentist finds it again, and shoots it in the head with a gun. Lion dies. Man thinks it’s all legal, apparently. The lion was left skinned and beheaded after the hunters trying to destroy the tagged collar Cecil the lion had. Man also faced prison in 2008 after lying to a federal agent about killing a bear.
Now I have probably psychologically biased you with these pictures to hate this guy and his actions. From my own point of view, I find this morally abhorrent from an instinctive and intuitive position. However, as a (hopefully) good skeptical philosopher, I should question this.
Let’s park how the lion was killed and not let that taint our view of whether the idea of killing a lion is bad (as in, the rule-based illegality and inhumane death associated with this case will not be relevant for this post). Here are the questions which I think are raised:
- Is this seen as bad because it is an apex predator?
- Is this seen as bad because it was done for game? Is it made worse because he has loads of money and is using that as power over others (people, laws and animals)?
- Is this seen as bad because there are not many lions about?
- Is this seen as bad because it is feline and there is a reminder of it being a cat and domesticated and perhaps more human?
- Why is it any worse than killing a shark or a cow?
- Had it not been collared and famous (as a lion), and had it been “legal”, would it have been so bad or reported so much?
Most of this is philosophical mixed with the psychological. I want to see if we are special pleading the place of lions over and above every other animal.
1. Is this seen as bad because Cecil was an apex predator?
Is there a notion that the killing of this animal is seen as bad because it happens to be at the top of the food chain? Would people feel this is so bad if someone had gone out into the oceans and killed a shark? This latter example happens every day. Sharks are killed in their thousands for their fins. Yet relatively little is said given the media coverage for this one incident. So just being an apex predator does not quite explain it.
Being an apex predator, or the place in the food chain, seems to rather arbitrarily separate animals into categories which determine the anger with which we treat their killing. For example, would we have reacted so badly if he had killed an antelope? Almost certainly not, since this happens probably very frequently. In fact, African tribesmen will catch and eat antelope on a daily basis. We eat venison (deer) and cows. Evolution has determined where these animals sit in the food chain, and this causes us to react vociferously if one at the top is murdered for game.
A philosophical tool which I use very often is called the Sorites Paradox. There is, in evolution for example, the “problem of species” which even Darwin was cognisant of. In reality, there is no such thing as a species, since all animals exist on a continuum of development over time. Species are a useful labelling tool to enable humans to understand a taxonomy of life; however, they do not have real ontology outside of the human conceptual mind. It is the same mechanism we use in laws. We allow people to vote when they are 18, to have consensual sex when they are 16, to drive… The reality is, there is no discernible difference between the girl who is 17 and 364 days, 23 hrs and 59 minutes 59 seconds, and that same girl a second later. However, one second she can’t vote, the next she can. We draw arbitrary lines in time continuums for pragmatic reasons. This is what the idea of species does. However, if you found a fossil of an early Homo, you could rightly argue that it is actually a late Austrolapithecus (and this is what has happened with the famous fossil, Twiggy). Fossils which sit closer to that arbitrary line are harder to argue. That is because that line is arbitrary. It is not as if an Austrolapithecus gave birth to a homo. This gradual move took thousands and thousands of years. We, now, look back and whack a line somewhere to differentiate the two. However, at that line, there would be no discernible difference.
What, then, differentiates animals that exist on some sort of continuum? I am not a vegetarian, though I would like to be. This is because vegetarianism is more morally right than eating meat and I am morally imperfect, falling short of my own expecations. I try to have two days a week not eating meat. The problem for meat-eaters is arguing that one animal, such as a cow, can be eaten, but not another, such as a cat / dog / eagle / dolphin etc. What differentiates these organisms which appear to exist on a continuum in matters of degrees?
Lions are apex, but does this position entitle it to more compassion than any other animal? Why?
I will return to this idea of complexity and personhood later.
2. Is this seen as bad because it was done for game? Is it made worse because he has loads of money and is using that as power over others (people, laws and animals)?
I think this is a powerful psychological driver of the responses which have been witnessed, and perhaps the biggest causal reason why the reaction was so vehement. Most people who reacted badly on the internet and all over the media-saturated world would be meat-eaters. This means that they are essentially morally fine or ambivalent or apathetic with the notion of animals being killed (in mass, intensive ways) for their own sustenance. Cecil was one animal being killed, but not for sustenance. this appears to be one man’s crusade to boost his own ego, and to navigate the shady world of poaching and conservation and African politics with a wad of cash.
This is an example of money doing the walking and talking, and a man defying legal, moral regulation in order to get what he wants with money. This is man exerting power over nature and beast with a pocketful of cash. This was someone gaining status and a sense of power at the expense of a beautiful animal which we usually watch on nature programmes. This was game. And people don’t like that.
Ostensibly, however, this is one animal being killed against the thousands that most people implicitly accept and require in order to be sustained on a yearly basis on their high-meat diets, so there is no small dollop of hypocrisy in some manner (though there is a food vs game paradigm at play here).
3. Is this seen as bad because there are not many lions about?
Market forces find their way into many things; the rarer something is, the more value it obtains. Supply and demand. As such, lions, whose numbers have seriously decreased, are a more valuable commodity. Tigers, for example, are perhaps even more valuable. All other things remaining equal, however, the number of an animal would have no effect on the intrinsic value of that life. The life of Cecil is in no way more valuable, intrinsically, than a lion 50 years ago. With a decrease in number, though, we humans value the rarer animals more as we get closer to endangered labelling. If we could think of an apex predator (some kind of like for like comparison) that was abundant, then the death of one of them would no doubt be less damaging to our psyche than the death of a rarer species (in this case a lion).
4. Is this seen as bad because it is feline and there is a reminder of it being a cat and domesticated and perhaps more human?
People love cats. Cecil was a cat. People love Cecil. Cecil was also quite a famous cat. Cats are often talked about, when domesticated, in human terms. We project personhood and agency onto cats (and dogs) in ways which we do not for other animals. Thus with human personhood to some degree, the loss of such an animal has hallmarks of the loss of a human. Whether personhood exists in itself is a thoroughly contentious issue amongst philosophers, so this is a problematic notion.
5. Why is it any worse than killing a shark or a cow?
I have sort of covered this in a previous point, as far as apex predators and vegetarianism go. The Sorites Paradox, as mentioned earlier, is sometimes called the theory of the heap / dune / beard / moustache. The actual paradox goes like this:
The word “sorites” derives from the Greek word for heap. The paradox is so named because of its original characterization, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. The paradox goes as follows: consider a heap of sand from which grains are individually removed. One might construct the argument, using premises, as follows:
- 1000000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1)
- A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2)
Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grain) eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand (and consequently, if one grain of sand is still a heap, then removing that one grain of sand to leave no grains at all still leaves a heap of sand; indeed a negative number of grains must also form a heap). Read (1995) observes that “the argument is itself a heap, or sorites, of steps of modus ponens“:
- 1000000 grains is a heap.
- If 1000000 grains is a heap then 999999 grains is a heap.
- So 999999 grains is a heap.
- If 999999 grains is a heap then 999998 grains is a heap.
- So 999998 grains is a heap.
- If …
- … So 1 grain is a heap.
Obviously one grain is not a heap, and so we have a paradox. Now let’s apply this to animals on the continuum of complexity, and when does it become acceptable to kill and animal? Jains, a religious sect form India, (in their most strict form) sweep the road in front of them to avoid stepping on and killing ants unnecessarily. Most other people in the world do not consider the death of such creatures (hitting their windscreens etc.) as remotely problematic. But the death of elephants and lions is. Where is this arbitrary cut off point along the continuum?
Does this paradox, however, suggest that there is no difference between an ant and a lion? This does not necessarily follow. We often need to accept fuzzy logic, or our own abstract delineations and categories as not really existing (ontic existence) outside our minds. We event them for logistical ease.
There is something about a lion and its complexity which is markedly different to an ant or a chicken such that we get upset when a lion is killed in a way which we do not for an ant or chicken. How and why, though, is perhaps more mysterious. The complexity of the animal allows for greater senses of consciousness and self-awareness, and with this comes a greater similarity to us humans. It is more like killing a sentient human being-like creature than when a chicken or tuna is killed.
Are we thinking about all of these ideas and rationalisations when we are reacting to Cecil’s death? In this way, perhaps, it can be argued that the reaction to Cecil’s death is irrational; intuition takes the place of rational consideration.
6. Had it not been collared and famous (as a lion), and had it been “legal”, would it have been so bad or reported so much?
I hinted in a previous piece that being a famous cat means that people have more affinity with its loss takes a greater toll on our disposition. Of course, the intrinsic value of Cecil and A.N.Other lion is no different. Look at the outpouring for Whitney Houston or Princess Di and you will understand how human hysteria together with fame and the media can manipulate or heighten our emotional reactions. Again, this is a psychological state of affairs, and our reactions are not rationally considered. Does this invalidate the reactions in any way? Again, not necessarily, but it does mean that they are not rational; they are irrational or a-rational.
What we can gather from these points is that the reaction to Cecil’s death appears to be largely an intuitive, less rational event dependent on a cumulative case as detailed here. We create categories, in which we place “Cecil” and “lion”, which are perhaps arbitrary, or which we have not rationally considered, and this affords Cecil the lion a reaction to which he perhaps is not (rationally) entitled.
We rely on our intuitions an awful lot. This is the System 1 / System 2 thinking of, for example, Daniel Kahneman. Perhaps we are having intuitive reactions which we post hoc rationalise. Such after-the-fact scrabbling for reason then sits on shaky ground. That doesn’t necessarily mean that our intuitions are “wrong” per se, but we should be aware that our reactions are often intuitive and need to be examined to see if they withstand critical examination.
There is a very real potential here for special pleading the lion and this particular Cecil and remaining a meat-eater who does not so vehemently protest the wide-scale destruction of all other animals around the world.
There is great moment in Season 2 Episode 2 of Orange is the New Black where the imprisoned criminals are talking about the “real criminals” – Monsanto, BP, Halliburton, Rio Tinto and the like – in discussing cigarette giant Philip Morris:
“Nah they aint so bad. The people can decide for themselves if they wanna smoke. The real evil is them companies killing us without our consent. Monsanto. Rio Tinto. Big Pharma. BP. Halliburton. I’ve been reading there’s some dark shit goin’ down. Not that those motherfuckers are ever gonna hire us! The real criminals? They don’t bother with small timers.”
These criminals are declaring that the real criminals are these massive corporations that are insidiously getting away with such massive heinous crimes that no one has the ability to know about or choose to stop through buying power.
In the same way, this one death at the hands of a dentist is nothing against what whole swathes of population are doing to wildlife, say in Madagascar, or loggers in Indonesia or Brazil. Or those building the Belo Monte dam in Brazil. Or any number of things that properly warrant such reactions. However, we seem to have become immune to crimes on a mass scale, to huge moral atrocities, that we jump onto single moral atrocities in a hysterical manner.
Perhaps such a reaction is warranted. But then what do we have left for “the real criminals”?