Are some lives more important than others?


e moved from Manchester to our smallholding last year, and, as I wrote about in my last post, we are now keeping livestock for food - both in terms of eggs and meat. This has been a massive change, and whilst we knew that this was what we wanted to do, the feelings surrounding these new experiences of small-scale farming are all new. In particular, rearing an animal and then killing it for food. We now witness more death than we ever have in the past. I have witnessed a kestrel take a young blackbird chick from its nest while its parents', helplessly, try to rescue it. Chickens eating live worms and snails. Cats killing young rabbits. Our own chickens being killed by unknown diseases. A dog killing a young pheasant. My own killing of accidental killing of snails, or intentional killing of midges. All this death makes me consider death more, and consider my own mortality. Some existentialists would say that death is the crucial theme to our lives, and that what is important is how we, as conscious mammals, come to terms with it.

Death is pervasive (possibly an understatement?). It affects all living beings. It is there in black and white: you are either dead or not. There is no middle ground. However, our consciousness brings in an added dimension: the ethics of death. Whether another living being should live or die, and whether it is right or wrong. I doubt, but do not know, that when a cat kills a mouse, it debates the ethical stance that it should take on that death: "Mmmm, I do feel a bit guilty about killing that mouse, maybe it was wrong of me to kill it!" But we, as humans, do do this. There are many people who choose not to eat meat based on the principle that taking another life so that one can eat meat is not a good enough reason. I can definitely understand this point of view. In fact, it is the one point that shakes the foundations of my carnivorous inclinations. On the other hand, there are others who believe that we have a divine right to kill animals for our own nutrition.

To look at this in a little more depth, I wonder if we humans weigh-up the deaths of different living organisms as being more or less important? So, I might feel nothing at pulling up and killing a nettle plant, but feel guilt at killing a chicken for meat. Where does a nettle plant stand on the scale of a right to life. I can say for certain that the vast majority of people (in the west?) think that the death of a snail is not nearly as important as the death of a human. But why? Is it because we are human, and since we do not want to die, we think that that person will not have wanted to die too? And a snail is so small, there are so many of them, and they do not have conscious thought, so it doesn't really matter if they die. Really?

What I struggle with is that we seem to judge the death of different species as acceptable, and not others. So, talking to a friend about killing mosquitos which are trying to bite me is acceptable, whilst speaking of killing mammals for food is seen as less acceptable. But why the distinction? A life is surely a life, regardless of size. Non-human animals kill, such as the kestrel with the blackbird chick or the chicken with a large worm, and it does not appear that they are considering the ethical implications of their act of killing. I wonder if survival is the motivation, and that often comes before ethics.

But are we any different? It could be argued that since we seem to have the capability for conscious thought (whatever that is!), we are able to make ethical decisions. So where a kestrel kills from an inability to make a choice, it is simply surviving, we do have the ability to make a choice: we do not have to kill. Is this what makes us different? I daydream about how: (1) we evolved from a state of not being able to make a choice (like the kestrel) and killing for survival; (2) to being able to make a choice about killing, but still needing to survive; (3) to modern times when we have both the ability to make a choice, and day-to-day survival is not such as pressing issue as we have a supermarket round the corner which never seems to run out of food. Is this what has changed?