One could easily get the impression that ethics is about what is right, but that depends on how people justify their choices. Moral is concerned with the values that have been accepted in a specific milieu, while ethics is a deliberate reflection on the issues or values. In other words, we need to be able to explain why we defend or attack the content of someone’s moral.
I think ethics has a lot going for it, but these reflections sometimes lead to bizarre conclusions. We have a black slug in Norway. They have never been a problem, but after the brown slug turned up in the late 1980’s they are everywhere. It’s quite strange that we didn’t get them sooner because they are common in the countries we import flowers and vegetables from, and it is believed that they came from the Netherlands. I think they are also common in Denmark, a country we have had close ties with for at least 500 years. As a consequence of what media likes to refer to as “the snail invasion” the papers write a lot about the most effective ways of killing them. The slugs are especially fond of gardens, so they do tend to be a problem for many people.
One of the newspapers recently ran a story about the ethics of killing slugs and they had talked to the Australian moral philospher Peter Singer. He suggested we should kill all animals, including slugs, in the most humane way. He gave this advice because we don’t know how much pain animals feel. We can still kill the slugs, but there are no simple solutions, and boiling them or putting them in the freezer is probably more humane than salt or ammonia. It sounds like a sensible general advice, but how far should we take this?
Commercial fishing is a violation of the slaughter methods recommended by animal rigths organizations, but if we followed these guidelines fishing on the scale we have today would probably be impossible. We would probably have to accept higher prices and less fish.
Whales are in a category of their own. Many people say it’s wrong to kill whales, no matter what method you use, because they are intelligent. This argument doesn’t seem to apply to everyone, though. The so-called international community is eager to protest when countries like Iceland and Norway support modest quotas, but allow it among indigenous people, such as inuits. The rationale is nutritional and cultural needs. In other words, if you have a long enough history of whaling, it doesn’t matter how intelligent the whales are. Another thing is whether we ascribe animals properties they don’t have.
Some may see killer whales as malevolent for example. These toothed whales can kill seals seemingly for fun, or chase a newborn whale and its mother for hours until one of them is too tired to continue. This intelligence may be more governed by instinct and reward than ours, although we also have more of that than we are probably willing to admit. It might be best to leave the whale alone as long as we don’t know how intelligent it is, but we shouldn’t construct an ethics where a long history makes it acceptible.
Most Norwegians don’t have a problem with the fact that wolves, bears and lynx may go completely extinct in Norway. We think it’s alright when farmers send their sheep to remote mountain areas to graze alone all summer, and we buy the argument that the farmer loves each individual sheep. Statistics from the Environment Agencey shows that the threat is a little more nuanced than the farmers are saying. According to the figures from 2015, 20 percent of the sheep the government paid compensation for were killed by an unspecified hunter, while wolverines and lynx killed 55 percent combined. Everyone wants to exterminate bears and wolves even though other animals kill 80 percent of the sheep.
No one is talking about a humane massacre, and what about the sheep? The farmers are bothered when they find dead sheep, but they didn’t mind sending this unprotected meal far away from the farm where wolves, bears, wolverines and lynx just follow their instincts. Why is that? Anything else would be costly and make the meat expensive. Are we willing to pay for ethics? We frequently talk about predators as vicious killers that constantly plan heinous acts against the sheep we have made defenseless, but they are actually just following the laws of nature.
I know a great deal about how people treat each other, and then we may talk about calculated, deliberate malice. If we follow the principle that it is wrong to inflict pain, and even more wrong if the animal is intelligent, shouldn’t this have some consequences in our own society?