Why Do We Pardon Turkeys? Lessons in Human Morality

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As we approach Thanksgiving, we Americans can anticipate the President pardoning one or two turkeys in advance of the festivities. The implicit premise behind the pardon is that all of the turkeys who will be slaughtered for Thanksgiving meals around the country have committed some crime for which their slaughter is a deserved punishment. What makes the ritual a lighthearted joke (rather than a true and serious extension of clemency) is that neither the turkey to be pardoned nor the approximately 45 million turkeys whose throats will be cut for this holiday are guilty of any wrongdoing. Ironically, many people justify the animals’ eligibility for slaughter on this very innocence, an innocence that reflects the incapacity of turkeys and other animals exploited and killed to make moral choices such as the decision to commit a wrong. In this column, I will explore the argument that nonhuman animals’ lack of moral agency justifies our denying them the right to live free of our violence.

Abortion, Animal Rights, and Reciprocity

Last week, fellow Verdict columnist Michael C. Dorf and I participated in a panel discussion of our book, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, at Princeton University, hosted by Professor Peter Singer, with Professors Charles Camosy and Karen Swallow Prior providing critical commentary. In her comments, Professor Swallow Prior asserted that humans (including human zygotes and embryos) have human rights while nonhuman animals lack such rights. The reason for this distinction, she explained, is that humans have moral agency: they are capable of making decisions on the basis of moral principles. This capacity places humans in a moral community, where moral rules (such as the prohibition against slaughter) apply, while nonhuman animals—who lack this capacity for morally driven decision-making—fall outside of the moral community and accordingly lack moral rights. Like the Thanksgiving turkeys whose corpses will grace the tables of most American homes, nonhuman animals generally decide what they will and will not do without consulting a set of moral rules. Because human zygotes are part of the human (moral) community, they, according to Professor Swallow Prior, are entitled to the benefits of such membership, including the right not to be killed in an abortion.

One answer to this argument is to point out that the zygote whose protection Professor Swallow Prior seeks is no more capable of moral decision-making than is a blade of grass. Indeed, a turkey is far more advanced, in terms of his or her decision-making capacities, than a human zygote. Although Swallow Prior invoked moral agency in the context of opposing abortion, many others—including pro-choice thinkers—have made the same argument in order to exclude animals from the moral community. Readers who agree that a zygote is not entitled to protection may therefore still find persuasive the argument that people generally have moral agency and are therefore, for that reason, both bound by moral rules and beneficiaries of moral rights (such as the right not to be slaughtered). Your human neighbor can decide how to conduct his day with moral principles in mind, while a turkey cannot. Therefore, you are free to consume the slaughtered remains of the previously-sentient-and-living turkey, while you are not free to consume the flesh of your neighbor (or use him in experiments or farm him for his skin, etc.).

If this argument sounds convincing, it is because we tend to value reciprocity in human relations. If you do something nice for me, then I feel impelled to do something nice for you in return. Humans sign contracts with one another to engage in mutually beneficial activities, and quite a few philosophers subscribe to the notion that humans participate in a social contract, according to which each person respects the property and physical integrity of other people in exchange for other people extending similar respect to him. Nonhuman animals, however, cannot participate in a social contract. If we agree not to harm them, they are generally incapable of agreeing not to harm us in return. As an ethical vegan, I can no more demand that a snake or a mountain lion refrain from killing me because I respect her life than can an omnivore. As a result, some believe, since we cannot ask for anything from the animals, it follows that they cannot ask anything of us either.

Impoverished Morality

The notion that we owe duties only to those who can repay us (or, more pointedly, to those who can retaliate against us for violating our duties) reflects an impoverished morality. We can see this most clearly if we think about some of the many beings who cannot repay us for either the good or the ill that we do to them: future generations who will inherit the planet from us and human beings who live in developing countries. Under a pure reciprocity approach, we could pollute the planet to our heart’s content, so long as it affected only future generations, since they necessarily cannot do anything to us or for us in exchange for our consideration or lack thereof. And we could plunder the goods of people who live in developing countries, because they could never hope to retaliate against us for doing so (and they perhaps could not give us anything valuable in exchange for our restraint). To the extent that moral behavior is that which can be reciprocated, we could feel free to harm anyone less powerful than ourselves without worrying about having done wrong.

This picture of morality, however, does not match up well with most people’s views of right and wrong. If anything, we owe a greater duty to avoid causing harm to the defenseless, precisely because they are vulnerable and incapable of protecting themselves. People understand this when they condemn bullying, this despite the fact that the bully is often able to inflict suffering without anyone’s holding him or her accountable. If we took seriously the idea that only those who can harm us or benefit us in return have claims on the rectitude of our conduct, then we would be endorsing what is really an amoral view: rather than doing unto others as we would have them to do unto us, we would do unto others whatever we could get away with doing. That is the mark of a pragmatic bad person, not a moral person.

Beyond the fact that we must, in any plausible system of morality, owe duties of nonviolence even or especially to those who cannot fight back, there is another problem with the argument that humans, as uniquely moral agents, are the exclusive cast of characters owed moral duties and thus possessing rights. Not all humans are moral agents. Sometimes called the “argument from marginal cases,” we need to take note of the fact that infants, the mentally disabled, and demented elderly people are not moral agents—because of their age or disability, they are incapable of conforming their decision-making to moral rules. Yet few would suggest that we owe no moral duties to these populations of humans. We can neither slaughter nor utilize the young or infirm members of our species in medical experiments, despite their lack of moral agency. Because of their incapacities, they cannot even consent to be used to meet someone else’s needs, and our legal and moral systems take that vulnerability into account.

Professor Swallow Prior’s zygote is obviously not a moral agent either, but she offers a response to the argument from marginal cases that in theory would cover not only zygotes but incapacitated humans as well. Her response is that the human species has the capacity for moral agency, and these various humans (including zygotes and embryos) belong to the human species and therefore are entitled to have their interests taken into account as a matter of right. Again, many other people make the same argument without necessarily applying it to unborn humans.

This response, however, is really no answer at all. It posits that in order to have rights, one has to have moral agency and then, when confronted with humans who lack moral agency but have rights, asserts that because other humans have moral agency, these humans have rights. But why grant rights to a group if only a subset of the group has the quality that makes someone eligible for rights? Doing so suggests that moral agency is not actually a necessary quality for having rights. To insist that moral agency is necessary to rights but then to grant rights to humans without moral agency is to imply that moral patients (that is, members of our community who lack the capacity for moral agency) are lesser human beings and are being granted rights as an act of beneficence. But the reality is that, as mentioned earlier, the right against violence seems to inhere most in the highly vulnerable among us, rather than that group being merely “honorary” rights-holders in virtue of their membership in our species.

When people purport to defend the lines they draw between members of our species and members of other species, they cannot invoke a quality that inheres in only some members of our species and then sweep in the rest of our species on the grounds that they are in the same species. Doing so is not a defense of the species line but simply an assertion of that line. In other words, moral agency does not distinguish between humans and nonhuman animals. It distinguishes between some humans and other humans as well as nonhuman animals. As a defense of species bias, then, it simply does not work.

Final Thoughts

In truth, there is nothing about the capacity to make moral choices that self-evidently entitles a being to rights against violence. Much more relevant, in defining the boundaries of a right against violence, is the capacity to experience the harm of violence, the ability to suffer pain and distress if it is inflicted. Because rocks and plants do not, so far as we know, have any capacity to experience distress, they lack any right against our violence (though people and animals may have a right against our inflicting damage on them). But nonhuman animals, including turkeys, are capable of experiencing pain, fear, and distress when we inflict violence on them, as we do on Thanksgiving and throughout the year. It is for that reason that we owe it to them to refrain from inflicting our violence and to feed ourselves on a vegan diet so that animals need not endure terror and pain for our palate pleasure. It is because we are moral agents that we have a moral obligation to take the suffering of the vulnerable into account and to act accordingly. Rather than endowing us with special rights, then, our moral agency endows us with responsibilities to the sentient beings who live among us, whether moral agents or moral patients, and whether human or nonhuman.

  • JOHN IN VIRGINIA

    Abortion was not the right for a woman to abort her baby but Roe v Wade was to deny the US Constitutional rights to the Unborn or essentially “killing” a turkey. However, the Natural Law from the smallest of bacteria to the largest animal, Whales, live by devouring other animals. you can’t change the Natural Law.

  • Grasshopper14

    I always thought human embryos had rights because they had souls. Only humans have souls. Since other animals share most of our genes, there must be a “soul gene.”

  • Karen Phinney Kirkpatrick

    Interesting theory put forth in a plethora of word speak. However, I do not believe consumers of said turkeys should be concerned about their morals with regard to this article. I am more concerned about those that promote the death penalty and so-called gun rights but seem to also be against pro-choice. Expand upon this as this is a moral quagmire and an oxymoron if ever one existed.

  • Victor Grunden

    Never have I seen such a convoluted argument. The predator-prey relationship is clearly established across the whole animal kingdom. And for vegans, yes plants do respond to external stimuli like voices, fires and cutting. How abortion got involved in this discussion is beyond me but as any farm kid can tell you, if you have eaten fresh eggs where the roosters are allowed to run with the hens there is a good chance you’ve eaten a fertilized ovum.

  • Grasshopper14

    I thought abortion of human embryos was wrong because they have souls. Animals don’t have souls. (I am being cynical.)