Monday, April 15, 2013

Squirrels, Accidents, and Human Exceptionalism [SK]

I spoke to 1,500 Catholic high school students in Ontario (Canada) today. I get another 1,300 tomorrow. 

Catholic schools in Canada are funded by the government and are overwhelmingly secular. The dominant worldview is not much different than your average class at U.C. Berkeley. By far the most common objection I get from Canadian “Catholic” students goes like this. “You say you oppose all killing. So, are you a vegetarian?”

Today was no exception, as a female student made it very clear her beef with me was one of consistency: How could I be pro-life and enjoy a good Alberta steak whenever I visit Calgary? (Alberta has the best beef around—period!) Obviously, the student was channeling her inner Peter Singer. Indeed, the question stems from her belief that human life is morally equivalent to all other sentient beings.

Of course, her reply was flawed on several levels. For starters, my argument today wasn't that all killing is wrong. My argument was that it’s always wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. Elective abortion does just that, thus, I oppose it. Moreover, the sword cuts both ways: The student supported abortion, but not killing animals. Didn’t that make her inconsistent as well?

But I didn’t stay there. She was friendly and willing to engage, so I zeroed in on her God-given moral intuitions by relating two events from yesterday.

Me: During my drive from Albany (NY) to Guelph (Ontario), the car in front of me unintentionally flattened a squirrel who didn’t look before crossing. I didn’t stop to lend a hand. Was I wrong?

Student: No, that happens. As long as you didn’t try to hit him yourself, you didn’t do anything wrong.

Me. Agreed. Now how about this. Three hours later, just after crossing into Canada, I witnessed a horrific accident. A car behind me and to my left collided with the center rail and flipped end-over-end multiple times before finally coming to a stop (on its side) into a ditch. I immediately summoned 911 and stopped to lend assistance. (Miraculously, two women crawled out of the wreckage, but I’m doubtful the driver—trapped inside—made it.) I ended up staying on scene for two hours until the police finished clearing the crash site and interviewing me.

Student: That would freak me out.

Me. Ya, it didn’t make for easy sleep last night. But let’s change the story.

Student: Okay

Me: Suppose instead of stopping to help, I just drove on—like I did with the squirrel. Would that have been wrong?

Student: Ah, ya…

Me: But not wrong with the squirrel?

Student: Um, no.

Me: Why is that?

She had to leave for class, but hopefully that gave her something to chew on.

1 comment:

  1. Many would maintain that killing a fetus before it becomes sentient is, morally, not different from using contraception to prevent a sentient human from existing.

    But if one can come up with a plausible argument for rejecting that position, and if we grant, for the sake of argument, that the life of any fetus is worth more than the life of a squirrel, that doesn't settle the question of whether it is ever justifiable to deliberately kill a squirrel -- or a cow -- when one has no need to. Anyone who would be able to flourish on a vegetarian diet (and that's most people) would do well to think of these words by the ancient philosopher and essayist Plutarch: "But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh, we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that portion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy."


All comments are moderated. We reject all comments containing obscenity. We reserve the right to reject any and all comments that are considered inappropriate or off-topic without explanation.