Poaching has been in the press quite a lot recently. Prince William potentially sparked a diplomatic row when he voiced his opposition to the illegal trade of ivory in China. An article in the Daily Mail displayed an upsetting image of a rhino killed in cold blood for its ivory by poachers. It seems that with each passing day, the issue of poaching becomes increasingly prominent. But whilst we are tempted to hold our hands to our mouths and sigh in disbelief and shock, we should really confront the issue rationally and logically. That means asking questions such as whether there is a fundamental distinction between meat-eating and poaching?
In truth, there isn’t. The end game for the animal is the same: Death. Unless one is a vegetarian/vegan, in which case he/she opposes killing animals for food, we can’t really consistently oppose poaching. It would be hypocritical to do so. Some may argue that it is more “noble” to kill an animal for food than for, say, fur. But this argument seems unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. Presumably by “killing for food” what is really meant is “killing for survival”. But do people in this day of age really need to eat meat to “survive” (in the narrowest sense that term is used), given the plethora of supplements that are available? Secondly, it presupposes that the killing of animals is itself an intrinsic evil but nevertheless a “lesser evil” than killing for fur or ivory. This may be a decent enough answer for atheists and those who subscribe to a normative ethical system known as “preference utilitarianism” but for the Christian it is problematic: “Why not say–as some slanderously claim that we say–“Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!” (Romans 3:8) [To wit, that we should not do evil that good may come out of it\. It’s also problematic because there are people in some parts of the world where animals really do need to be killed for fur or something else to survive.
The issue of animal rights – if they even have rights at all – is a difficult issue in philosophy and to a certain extent theology. Within the Church, you have great Catholic theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas who are virtually silent on the issue of animal rights. On the other hand, you have individuals such as St. Kevin of Glendalough whose lives exhibit an intimate empathy with the animals they encountered. The Church itself does not really have a detailed exposition on animal rights. Christ Himself makes no reference to the issue either; at most, He merely says that human beings are “worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31).
Animal rights is not an issue that only the Church has found problematic. Immanuel Kant, the influential German philosopher, conjectured whether animals had rights at all given that they could not neatly fit into his “Kingdom of Ends”. He arrived at the conclusion that we should treat animals properly, not because the animals themselves have intrinsic rights, but because it reflects on the person handling the animal. A person who kicks a dog has not abused the dog per se but has behaved in a way that reflects badly on him as a human being. This seems like a half-decent answer but it doesn’t actually address the issue of whether animals have intrinsic rights. Indeed, the subsequent German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer found Kant’s views troubling and “worthy of pariahs” because it suggests that animals are only good for what they can do for us.
Is there an intrinsic difference between meat-eating and poaching? I don’t think so, or at least I can’t see it. It would be great to get beyond this ethical impasse between the Church and the Kantians on one side and the Schopenhauerites and preference utilitarians on the other.