Sacredness and the Environment

Yesterday at Biddeford Pool my daughter found a seal carcass. In order to investigate and appease her curiosity she asked me if she could throw rocks at it. After hesitating to sort out my moral conundrum I gave her permission. Kirsten overheard an older lady nearby question why we would allow them to do such a thing.

Is there anything sacred about an animal carcass? Do we owe our hamburger respect while it’s being ingested? Kirsten and I both agreed that, aside from legal issues and respect for the family, we would NOT allow them to throw rocks at a human carcass. We don’t know why.

During our visit to the sanctuary at Biddeford Pool Kirsten said to me that we shouldn’t disturb nature. What does that mean? If I’m on a nature trail is it okay to pick a wildflower or should it be left for everyone else to enjoy? When a shark kills a seal it certainly is impacting the environment. Beavers harvest surrounding trees to construct their homes. What is acceptable human impact? I think we can all agree that our impact has been excessive but does that mean we shouldn’t pick wildflowers or collect sea shells?

I look forward to reading your comments.

10 Comment

  1. Brent,

    Interesting post. One thing I like about your blog, is that it doesn’t have much of a theme… or is it, “random events of family life with an occasional philosophical conundrum”?

    Anyway, I guess you’re right about the seal carcass. There’s really no logical argument against throwing rocks at it – yet somehow it “seems” a bit “wrong” – as evidenced by the older lady’s remarks. I guess it’s that notion of “respecting the dead”.

    But as you correctly point out, it’s not really the dead you’re supposed to be respecting – it’s the friends and family that are left behind.

    It seems highly unlikely that the family and friends of the deceased seal would take offence at the rock throwing.

    As for our impact on the wilderness – again, my non-expert view is that it is again a question of taste and rules-of-thumb rather than an absolute moral or philosophical question.

    It would be difficult to argue that picking one wildflower does any harm to anyone. I know there’s a name for this argument in philosophy (I just don’t know what it is).

    However if you decided to harvest wildflowers from your local national park on a wholesale basis, the arguments would obviously be more compelling.

    More practical and convenient, then, just to give youself a rule of thumb that it’s wrong to interfere with wilderness as far as is reasonably practical.

    Of course one could go into ridiculous and impractical detail in either direction, but the whole point is – why waste a huge amount of time and mental energy agonising over these types of things, when you can easily have a general rule that is simple, not particularly painful to abide by, and reasonably easy to explain to yourself or others if you need to!

    Case in point: vegetarianism. It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue that it is always wrong to eat the flesh of animals (including humans!).

    But if one has come to the conclusion that it is *usually* (or even “often”?) wrong to eat meat (or preferable not to), then it may be easier to choose always not to, rather than deliberate over each choice that one is given to eat meat.

    Wow… what a rant :-)

    Now, I’m off to pick some wildflowers and eat a hamburger…

  2. Steve,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, The Rhetoric is as you describe. It’s my little piece of the internet where I can write and do whatever I like.

    I suppose I’ll have to scrap the business plan for Brent’s Wildflower Harvesting, Inc. It probably wouldn’t have been successful anyway :(

    I agree with your statements about guidelines and simplicity. Don’t eat that hamburger though! Jen probably wouldn’t want you to develop an American body :)

  3. I posted this picture to a Meetup.com group of which I’m a member. Kerry left the following response. I think it’s excellent and repost with her permission.

    What an interesting question. I thought about this all afternoon. I guess it depends what your values are on many fronts. I often like to think of myself as unshockable, which is silly because this last week alone I have heard about two things that shocked me. The image of kids throwing stones at a dead animal was one of them. So I tried to analyze my feelings and really ask myself what it was that I found so shocking about it. My first instinct is that all animals, human and non-human–indeed, all beings–deserve respect. For me, as a vegan, that means not harming those around me regardless of their species. I think that the reason I feel it’s wrong to allow kids to throw stones at a dead animal is because we should be teaching our kids respect for other species, and in children the moral imperative can be blurred in these situations, so that in future they might not distinguish between a dead animal and a live one. It’s more about that, for me, than it is about the fact that a dead body is being hit by stones (after all, it’s just a carcass, a body – an empty shell, you could say). Also, since I don’t believe in an afterlife, I see burial as a social construct designed to help those who are left behind, more than an occasion to honor the person who’s died.

    I think your decision was probably informed by speciesism – i.e. you accord more value to human beings than to other animals, and consider them (arbitrarily, I would argue) superior, more important, and thus more deserving of respect. This is confirmed by the different treatment you would reserve for a dead human body (i.e.you would not allow your kids to throw rocks at a human carcass). Obviously it would be silly to think about respecting a slab of dead cow before ingesting it – that hamburger is already the result of disrespect. I am not trying to sound sentimental here, I am just stating the obvious – if someone eats a cow they obviously they do not feel that cows deserve respect (unless of course they have never thought about this question in the first place, which is sometimes the case too). Presumably they would not eat a human hamburger.

    As for the wildflowers… excellent question. For me, at the end of the day it comes down to the fact that as humans, the most evolved species on the planet, the animal with the largest and most complex brain, we bear a responsibility towards other creatures and to the planet itself – not just because our survival depends on it, but because it it is the right thing – the moral thing – to do. Why not leave the wildflower in the forest? It should not be left simply for others to enjoy (I don’t see it as something that was "specifically designed for human enjoyment", as dominion theologians would argue), but because the wildflower belongs in the forest. We have used our big brains unwisely on this planet… instead of treading lightly we have stampeded through, up, down, and across. This is the reason hundreds of species become extinct every day, the reason 97% of the old growth redwoods in Oregon has disappeared, the reason we are choking ourselves and our children. It is not enough for us to be in nature – we have to possess it.

    Original post.

  4. This is from my comment on your picture, Brent, that you posted of the seal carcass on Flickr:

    All children are curious. And I personally think it does them a disservice by keeping them from exploring, learning, and discovering the world.

    I remember seeing dead dogs and things along the side of the road on my childhood school bus route. Every day they’d look more bloated. (Sorry…don’t mean to gross anyone out!) But every day we looked forward to seeing the changes that took place. Yes, it seems a bit morbid, but it was fascinating. I think we tend to have a fascination with death, and there’s nothing wrong with investigating it. Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in forensics. ;-)

    I think intent is the big issue here. I believe anything that is done with the malicious intent to harm is unacceptable. I saw no “harm” in our daughters throwing rocks at a carcass, as they were simply just inquisitive. If I weren’t afraid they would be contaminated by it, I would have encouraged them to investigate the insides to learn more about it.

    I don’t believe the dead need to be “respected.” I think as Steven pointed out that it’s more about respecting the family and friends of the dead. This leads me to consider the difference between an animal carcass and a human carcass. Kerry’s mention of speciesism is right on. We have slaughtered animals for food from the beginning. Although a human carcass is “dead,” somehow it is still more personal to us.

    As far as nature is concerned, I like Steven’s point about rules of thumb…although it’s hard to know where to draw the line. We as humans have been destroying and raping our natural environment and atmosphere on a large scale. We’ve certainly had a bigger impact than any other animal species. I like the quote from native American Chief Seattle: “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.”

  5. Perhaps I was ambiguous in my opinion about speciesism. Yes, I do believe we as humans tend to see ourselves as a superior species, or at least we see other human lives as more valuable than the lives of any other animals. But I think all animal species stick together. Every species, humans included, has a natural instinct to survive and keep their particular species going. Therefore, we have much more of a connection to the human carcass than we would to a seal, dog, fish, bird, snake, or beetle carcass.

    I think our tendency to “respect” the dead stems from the fact that somehow our psyche cannot quite separate the previous life of the deceased from the corpse. Why do people have open casket funerals? I personally find it disturbing. I’d rather remember my friend or family member as they were when they were…well, full of life.

  6. I find Kerry’s response interesting and thought-provoking.

    I’m not convinced that speciesism is at play here. The decision not to throw rocks at human corpses is not borne out of arbitrary speciesism. Doing so is quite likely to cause some sort of harm.

    In my previous post I suggested that stoning the dead seal was unlikely to cause any harm – but maybe this isn’t quite true, as the passerby and therefore probably many other people, seem to find it disturbing.

    OK, it might be a bit silly to say that we should always avoid behaviours that disturb other people, even if the behaviours don’t directly harm them… but going back to rules of thumb; all things being equal, I would generally choose the ‘inoffensive’ behaviour. That is, unless there were some concievably greater benefit to the ‘offensive’ behaviour, why do it?

    (I guess protestors of various sorts face this decision)

    …And here we are back at making complex philosphical decisions about the minutae of life – some (many?) behaviours that I would consider trivial or benign, others would consider offensive. And vice versa, no doubt.

    So ultimately I guess my policy is largely to use (subjective) common sense and not bother about it all too much! In short… just get on with it.

    …yet here I am engaging in a lengthy discussion about the treatment of dead seals :-/

  7. I would generally choose the ‘inoffensive’ behaviour. – This is something I need to work on. I get a thrill out of shocking. Maybe I just need to grow up :)

  8. I get a thrill out of shocking

    Oh, don’t get me wrong – I like to be provocative, too :-) …you know I do.

    I guess it depends on the context.

  9. Buried in King says: Reply

    Maine seems like such a beautiful place…especially compared to Bitchita. : )

    I feel we should respect all living things, and extend that respect to those things that were living. Hence, while a dead seal is just a mass of gross smelling matter that becomes food for other animals, it is probably good to emphasize that it had a purpose and a being. I tend to want to underemphasize the cruelty of nature, though it is a fact of life. I remember reading that at one time Benjamin Franklin was a vegetarian until he was on a sailing vessel and noticed larger fish eating smaller fish. That led to his greater understanding of the workings of nature and he backed off on the vegetarian ideas.

    It really bothers me that man is the only animal that will completely modify his environment to suit his wants, instead of modifying his behavior to fit the environment that he is given. The making of the world to fit our wants instead of making our wants to fit our world will eventually be our downfall.

  10. Buried,

    Yes, Maine is very nice. There’s no place I’d rather be.

    Do you suggest a living animal and an animal carcass deserve equal respect? There are a lot of vegans who would agree with you (I’m not one of them).

    I reject the idea that any animal has a purpose. I’m not sure what you mean by “it had … a being“.

    Man is the only animal capable of appreciably altering his environment. We humans have historically been lacking in any foresight, especially when it comes to the degree to which we can effect the environment. The world, for so long, was so big and we were so small. We have managed in only a few decades to completely reverse the equation.

    Thanks for the post.

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