Vague attribution in the “how dare you care about Cecil the Lion call-outs”

I’m noticing a lot of vague attribution, like this piece from Bryony Gordon from the Telegraph: Cecil the lion’s killing tells us a lot about the wrongs of animal rights activists. Supposedly, there are all these animal rights people out there outraged over Cecil the Lion but not outraged about meat-eating or ecosystem destruction. Or aborted fetuses.

I call horse shit. You know why? Because I read in the animal ethics literature all the time, and most people who condemn hunting for sport also condemn the torture-industrial complex of factory farming, too. The controversies in that literature are almost all about cultural differences in animals’ moral standing, and whether it’s legitimate to use animals for culturally situated rituals and/or subsistence. Those are the big questions. No credible animal rights ethicist that I can think of, even the ones I think are wrong about just about everything (Holmes Ralston III) has been silent about meat-eating and then suddenly, out of the blue, became outraged by Cecil the Lion’s death at the hands of Dr. Palmer, aka the man currently regretting his vacation activities. (But, if the pictures are any indicator, he does have good teeth.) Animal ethicists, particularly feminists, have turned themselves inside out over the abortion and animal suffering duality.

Plenty of people in the mainstream have not; people hold inconsistent moral views all the time. I do, and probably you do. I do, generally, until I’ve really really worked out what I think. How can people on the right fly into a fury over abortion but just as vehemently support the death penalty? How can people on the left support abortion but oppose the death penalty? People hold ostensibly conflicting views all the time, and these positions make sense to the people that hold them. If you ask, they’ll say “Well, but a killer deserves to be killed!” or “A fetus is not a baby!” Or something that demonstrates they have prior assumptions about weighting the different moral concerns in play. How can you reconcile “Thou shalt not kill” with hunting or the death penalty? (Plenty of ethicists have taken a whack at these questions; the answers aren’t as easy as intuition might suggest.)

What IS easy is to write columns saying “A lot of people believe this, and here is how they are wrong to believe that” when, in fact, “This” doesn’t represent a carefully developed position at all and very few people actually believe “this.” People hold positions, some of them are fully consistent with some principle or another, but others are much more ad hoc, and this internet scolding strikes me as an industry for people looking for something to write about and a means to air various grievances about perceived dumb, hypocritical positions of their dumb, hypocritical political opponents.

And there’s the simple inaccuracy of it: what about the vegans who HAVE been outraged about police homicides AND systematic ecosystem destruction? Do they get a break? Or do they just get in the way of the straw man we need to construct our column this week? Or are we mad at them for not choosing which one of those outrages they should be most outraged about?

Sure, there are activists who only care about particular species, and while we can criticize them in the same way we could criticize people interested in curing cancer instead of curing obesity or being interested in “overall health.” Consequentist arguments can almost always appeal to the bigger tent of concern or utility. But that line of thinking is its own trap: yes, I murdered that kid, but hey, murder is so rare that the rest of you should stop worrying about what I did, get some perspective and go back to worrying about climate change, a much bigger issue, than delivering justice for this kid. Hey, you know African Americans are more likely to die of diabetes than being shot by the police, why not focus on that. (Because it’s not ok to shoot people, even if the world has other pressing issues. We aren’t talking about hangnails here.)

To go full circle, why do you care if I care about Cecil the Lion? If caring about him is an inconsequential thing to do in a world with Much Bigger Problems, isn’t policing that concern a similar waste of energy, attention, and focus when you, too, should be worried about Much Bigger Problems than what I am caring about right now?