Killing Cecil the Lion; to be outraged or not to be outraged: that is the question

Dear Sam,

Thank you for this instructive discussion with Paul Bloom, which I listened to with great interest and found worthy of sharing amongst friends. The thoughts that came up in this conversation, such as the difficulties in having a rational, considered argument in politics, resonated well with the concerns surrounding the ongoing political discourse in Sri Lanka, where I’m domiciled. I feel you are doing a fantastic job in bringing up for debate the ethical underpinnings of happenings in contemporary society. If nothing else, these discussions would teach the world how to grapple rationally with the morality of our age, without relying entirely on prevalent dogma and precedent. You guys simply rock!

I’d like to contribute with what I hope is a meaningful rejoinder to the thoughts expressed regarding the killing of Cecil the Lion. It appeared to me that the two of you were generally in agreement that there was a gross overreaction in social media to the killing of this magnificent creature, for sport. You were also concerned that this social media buzz spawned physical attacks on the hunter (or at least his lodgings back home in the US), which you saw as immoral.

Whilst I decidedly agree with the latter concern, I equally strongly disagree with the former. There are many reasons why a mass outrage in social media, to the killing of Cecil, was both ethical and timely.

Let us first level the playing field between the human animal and others. Animals have varying degrees of “sentience” (or “consciousness” or “subjective experience”, call it what you like) akin to us humans: a position that many reputed scientists and philosophers of mind seem to be gradually gyrating towards. Even those intellectuals who used to be known for their hardline materialistic views such as Dan Dennett have in the recent past professed that consciousness is some sort of epiphenomenon that “comes in the baggage” of complex, evolved creatures that exhibit purposeful behavior [Ref: 1, 2]. According to Dennett, a cat may not reflect much on his experiences, yet it very likely experiences a world moment-to-moment (note the word “a”; it may not be identical to our world, it may be diminutive or different). The more primitive aspects of experience would likely be very similar in different animals, such as pain. I’m sure Thomas Metzinger, Christof Koch or any other such astute thinker who has reflected enough to comprehend the relationship between evolution, behavior and consciousness would agree: animals are (varyingly) sentient [Ref: 3, 4].

This brings us to the first point in my argument. Leaving everything else aside, it was unethical to kill Cecil because he was a conscious creature who experienced a world, its pains and pleasures, like we do. One could argue that since Cecil’s nervous system and behavior was less sophisticated than ours, it was somewhat less unethical to kill Cecil than if we were to kill Paul, for example. 🙂 It would perhaps have been less of a painful experience than that would have taken place if Paul were the victim instead. Granted. But it would still be a bad business, ethically.

Lets us come to the second point. It is one thing to kill for sustenance, and another to kill for sport. Killing for sport not merely ignores the suffering of the animal; it also glorifies the act as a pleasurable activity for humans. The joy of sport seems to me to be an acquired taste or thrill that one enjoys after conquering the initial empathetic revulsion produced by the mirror neurons in our nervous system. Sport also brings about the latent pleasure of basking in the glory of one’s success, as the idol of fellow-minded hunters.

Moreover, killing for sport is symbolic of man having the moral right to dominate over other species on this planet, and destroy them not just for food, but also for the sheer joy of the experience. After all, who cares about “dumb animals”? This is a notion prevalent in Judeo-Christian cultures. To us “cultural” Buddhists however, it seems natural that we have no more moral right to be thrilled in killing an unwilling Lion, than to thrilled in having sex with an unwilling woman.

This brings us to my third point. As you yourself seem to suggest, there is a difference between a natural revulsion to killing, like the revulsion to an unpleasant odor, and a considered moral objection to causing pain or ending the lives of other conscious creatures, however “less sophisticated” their inner experiences may be. I agree that we are fighting against a strong, inherited taste for consuming meat, and that some of us conscientious omnivores would readily do the “more ethical thing”: engage in the consumption of seemingly less-sentient creatures like shellfish, and stop the consumption of beef or pork until such time as we could culture the muscle tissue of these tasty animals. Or at the very least, consume the meat of these large, sentient creatures sparingly. So if I’ve understood you right, we both agree that we should care about the fate of animals with complex nervous systems, and avoid eating them as much as our cravings will allow.

Let us now come to the heart of the matter. There are just about between 16,000 ~ 47,000 African Lions at present [Ref: 5], in an entire continent of 30 million square kilometers. To the best of our understanding, this is a pitifully low number, and in spite of the various professed “advantages” in allowing hunting for sport, such as local culling or as an enticement for tourism, I believe that the evidence points towards hunting/poaching as a significant contributory factor in the extinction of this species. Controlled hunting of a few lions may not be the main reason (some folks might argue that it is), but loss of habitat to humans most certainly is. The question is, in this context of an impending extinction due to human callousness (or carelessness), what moral right do we humans have to take pleasure in wiping out this magnificent species from our planet? We have none, and this is my fourth point.

Of course, the infamous dentist (and his fellow hunters) could claim ignorance of these facts. Here is where social media comes in. The Dentist, or the indeed any other (more civilized) human being will have no trouble in accepting that the murder of humans for sport is taboo. There is no need for social media to go buzzing when one Zimbabwean human murders another, with a bow and arrow. Why? Because almost all of civilization would immediately agree it’s a moral travesty, and (presumably) the local officials would duly restrain the perpetrator until he is rehabilitated (or restrained for life, if he proves to be incorrigible). If the culprit was an American, there would be not be much fuss in extradition for judgment, as long as there was agreement that the terms of trial would be fair and civilized (e.g. no capital punishment, torture etc.) Or at the very least, there would be an equivalent trial conducted in the United States on behalf of the country where the offense was committed.

It is the audacity and misplaced ethics of the “sportsman” hunter that must be challenged. Remember, this is not some starving tribesman who shot a lion with his bow and arrow for meat. Neither is this a remote villager fending for his livestock and shooting a marauding lion. This is a Dentist operating from a plush office in America, eagerly paying money to illegally commit a moral travesty. If not for the chatter on social media, this would be just one more such travesty gone unnoticed, and conceptually unchallenged. Our friend would be warming his bottom (or pulling out teeth) back in his clinic, gazing admiringly at his brand-new trophy.

The fuss on social media would at least make American hunters think twice about rushing to Africa to kill lions and destroy that continent’s biodiversity. It is an effective and practical deterrent, and more importantly, the best possible “raising of consciousness” (as Dawkins might put it) that happened in recent times with respect to the conservation of wildlife, and the banning of hunting for sport.

I stick by the concern that the Dentist should not be physically harmed. But I would be appalled if he were not A) appropriately reprimanded (I don’t like to use the word “punished” as I strongly believe there is no place for punitive justice today) and B) The pleasure-loving hunters of the world were not appraised on the ethical concerns stemming from their violent hobby. It would be quite appropriate for our dear Dr. to have to look abashed and say, “Yes its me, the naughty chap who shot Cecil. I’m sorry.” to everyone who recognizes him, for years to come. It’s a small price for him to pay; in return for a better world that has a place for other rare, sentient and beautiful species in it.

PS: In Sri Lanka, our biggest wild cat, Panthera kotiya (“Kotiya” or Sri Lankan Leopard) used to roam in the hundreds of thousands throughout the island back in the days of the colonial British. They were hunted and poached into extinction, first by the colonials and then by the locals, until we now have around 25 numbers in Willpattu National Park and perhaps 250 at Yala. Arguments in favor of hunting were heard over the years; long after hunting was strictly banned in the 1970s. There is almost no hunting now, but there are almost no leopards either.



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