Small Eyes and Big Claims: Kristof on Animal Empathy
April 12, 2012 5 Comments
“Like many readers,” writes Nicholas Kristof in today’s Times, “I don’t particularly empathize with chickens.” His reason? “It’s their misfortune that they lack big eyes.”
So let me get this straight. Kristof’s ability to empathize with an animal hinges on the animal’s ability to make eye-contact? Yes, Nick Kristof appears to rely on the categorical determining power of eye diameter to do something rather morally acrobatic: justify the decision to exploit chickens while denoting concern for their ultimate welfare. Eye size. Earlier this week I spoke at the University of Texas and a student based his choice to eat animals on the Book of Genesis. I’d give this student the edge over the Times columnist.
Kristof recalls growing up on a farm in Oregon. “I found our pigs to be razor smart, while our geese mated for life and our sheep and cattle had distinct personalities. The chickens were the least individualistic of the animals we raised.” Hmm. So, add mating for life and “razor sharp” intelligence to the vexing list of Kristof’s prerequisites for the right to moral consideration. (As for how he determined whether sheep and cattle had personalities, I’m going to assume it had to do with, well, their big eyes.)
Kristof’s comments are, at best, thoughtless toss-off lines that in no way reflect the deeper qualities of Kristof’s intelligence. We just happen to live in a culture so inured to behaving unconsciously toward non-human animals that one of the nation’s most respected columnists can, with a smirk and a wink, make comments that are, upon even the sketchiest examination, patently inane.
After all, if we took Kristof’s remarks literally, and examined them reflectively, we would have to conclude that he believes anyone with multiple sexual partners, lukewarm SAT scores, or congenital eye impairment is rightfully subject to arbitrary exploitation. Needless to say, he doesn’t believe this. In fact, his column goes on to express genuine concern for the chickens who refuse to meet his gaze. He writes, for example, “I flinch at a system in which hens are reduced to widgets.” He even mentions the “arc of empathy,” noting how “our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused.” Wow.
Without intending to, Kristof’s column not only causes whiplash, but it drives home an important message: as a culture that claims to value peace and the reduction of suffering, we’re illiterate when it comes to animal ethics. I’m not letting Kristof off the hook here. I’m simply observing the reality that the court of intelligent public opinion–the kind embodied in the Times–tolerates Kristof’s inconsistency regarding the moral consideration of animals because the court of public opinion has never really thought about it.
Obscured by Kristof’s insouciance are questions that cut to the core of what it means to be a human being. Can we justifiably cause unnecessary suffering? Can we claim to value the life of an animal and declare its premature death morally acceptable? I’d love to hear a writer with the moral depth and intellectual acumen of Kristof give these questions a column or two.