Yet Another Example of Moral Schizophrenia

Dear Colleagues:

For many years now, I have been using the expression “moral schizophrenia” to describe the confused and deluded way in which we humans think about the moral status of nonhuman animals.

This morning, I saw an example of moral schizophrenia that even I found quite remarkable.

The Associated Press is carrying a story: Great white sharks hunt just like Hannibal Lecter. According to the story, people who are apparently considered as scientists claim:

Great white sharks have some things in common with human serial killers, a new study says: They don’t attack at random, but stalk specific victims, lurking out of sight.

The sharks hang back and observe from a not-too-close, not-too-far base, hunt strategically, and learn from previous attempts, according to a study being published online Monday in the Journal of Zoology. Researchers used a serial killer profiling method to figure out just how the fearsome ocean predator hunts, something that’s been hard to observe beneath the surface.

Now let’s think about this for a second. Nonhuman animals are like serial killers because they hunt strategically and because they make deliberate decisions about what they are going to eat.

Is this some sort of joke?

Don’t human hunters do the same thing? Of course they do.

Interesting, the article states:

There’s a big difference between great white sharks and serial killers and it comes down to that old gumshoe standard: motive. The great whites attack to eat and survive, not for thrills. And great whites are majestic creatures that should be saved, Hammerschlag said.

But most human hunters are not hunting in order to survive; they hunt because they enjoy stalking and killing. Does that not make them more like serial killers given the article’s own definition of that term? It certainly seems to me that this is the inescapable logic of the article.

The fact that nonhuman animals act strategically to get food does not distinguish them from the human hunter—or, for that matter, from the human shopper who makes food decisions as he or she goes down the aisles of the supermarket.

Moreover, the stalking behavior of the sharks (and other nonhumans) is pretty powerful evidence that nonhumans are cognitively sophisticated and able to think rationally. As you know, my theory of animal rights requires only that nonhumans be sentient to be full members of the moral community. No further cognitive attribute is necessary. That is, as long as animals are perceptually aware and can feel pain, we have a moral obligation not to treat such animals as human resources. But these stalking behaviors certainly do indicate that western philosophy, which has traditionally denied rational thought to animals, is just plain wrong. Indeed, the analysis of this stalking behavior by these researchers is compelling evidence that some humans lack the ability to think rationally.

In order for us to feel “superior” and to perpetuate the fantasy of the nonhuman as the “other,” we claim that an activity that characterizes our own behavior (and in the case of human hunters the analogy is much more appropriate) is similar to serial murder. This is a perfect example of confused and deluded thinking; this is what I mean when I talk about moral schizophrenia.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione