Michael W. Fox
In the wake of the massacre of twenty children and six teachers by an emotionally disturbed young man in Newtown, Connecticut, I received the following letter to my nationally syndicated newspaper “Animal Doctor” column. It is relevant to this tragedy because it reflects how, as a culture, we have yet to find non-violent ways of living and of treating all creatures with compassion and respect.
Letter to Dr. Fox From H.L., St. Louis MO:
I know that this is not a pet question but would like an answer because to is indirectly related to how we treat animals in society today. You write about ‘ethics’ and what you call ‘bioethics,’ and as one who supports animal rights I would like your definition of these terms to see how they fit in with animals’ rights to humane treatment and proper veterinary care when they need it. Is there any hope for animals in these violent times and in a society that condones animal exploitation and suffering?
Everyone should support animals’ rights if we are to make any social progress and can claim that our society is civilized. My E-book “Inhumane Society: The American Way of Exploiting Animals” digs deeply into this issue and sets out an agenda that needs to be addressed if we are indeed to see any progress as a civil society.
To answer the specific of your question: Ethics is the science of impartially examining moral choices and the consequences of beliefs and actions in order to insure the greater good and protect the rights of others. Bioethics, as I have written in my book “Bringing Life to Ethics”, broadens the scope of moral concern and human responsibility by considering how our beliefs, attitudes and actions affect all living beings and the environment. Bioethics corrects the inherent limitations of anthropocentrism, and brings ethics to life. It should be part of the curriculum from grade school on. When I opened my local newspaper here in Minnesota (the Star Tribune 11/14/12) and saw a photo lauding an 11-year-old girl beside the deer she killed with her third shot at a group of running deer 300 yards away, I felt the schizoid nature of our culture and species and mourned the loss of empathy, ethics and compassion in these times, as well as the slaughter of innocence, human and non-human.
The nation and the world were shocked by the Dec. 14, 2012 mass killing in the school at Newtown CT, but I was not; only profoundly saddened because it is a symptom of a violent society: A cultural dystopia that fosters alienation, hopelessness, hatefulness, fear and rage, some children being given no boundaries and an inflated sense of self rather than an appreciation and love of all things beyond oneself; all creatures great and small.
Negative, nihlistic emotional reactions can be sparked by mental illness, by bullying in school, shaming and ridicule; by the specter of unemployment and believing one’s life has no future and a multitude of other factors. The complex nature of human violence and its control was the subject of a graduate seminar I gave during my tenure as a professor of psychology at Washington University, St. Louis. One of the basic readings was the book “On Aggression” by my friend and Nobel laureate the late Konrad Lorenz, MD, who cautioned that this aspect of human nature is innate, calling for mindful, preventive nurture. Since 1982 there have been 61 mass killings with firearms in the U.S. according to Mother Jones magazine---and they are happening more frequently.
It is not simply an issue of better gun control but of self-control, of children developing their empathy and respect for each other and for all living beings and the natural environment, in stead of becoming disconnected, lost, deluded and sick souls deprived of appropriate care. Feeling connected to the wonder and beauty of this living world can engender a sense of security in being part of one stupendous whole, and a deeper understanding and appreciation of selfhood and of the uniqueness and preciousness of life. It is a challenge to parents and teachers to instill these formative experiences and values when children grow up in a world ravaged by poverty, corruption, overpopulation, wars and terrorism, and in a society where violent, nihilistic video games and other forms of entertainment are promoted, and where animal cruelty and killing is accepted as the norm ---they are trapped, shot, experimented on, confined on factory farms-- and the natural environment is desecrated and polluted. A “non-violent” vegetarian- based, pesticide free diet may be both remedial and preventive of health and behavioral problems.
Many sociopaths and psychopaths have a childhood history of animal cruelty and destructive behaviors and manifest a lack of empathy. So long as we deny the violent, dark side inherent in our species we will see neither understanding nor self-control, and will continue to bring suffering into the world. In my opinion we are at a crossroads in our evolution as a species, and as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist observed, “We have one final choice, and that is between suicide or adoration.” Caring only for ourselves, or family, community, nation, race or species will not suffice. We must facilitate the blossoming of our greatest power---compassion, loving kindness---through helping every generation develop panempathy, a feeling for all living beings that contribute to the life-sustaining diversity of healthy ecosystems, aquatic and terrestrial, on this small planet Earth, our home we have yet to learn to share, respect and restore. The state of the Earth and our treatment of non-human life are reflected in the quality of our own lives and communities, mentally, spiritually and economically, and as I conclude in my recent book “Healing Animals & the Vision of One Health”, we can chose to evolve and respect the sanctity of all life, or suffer the perishing consequences.
Dr. Michael W. Fox is a well-known veterinarian, former vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, former vice president of Humane Society International and the author of more than 40 adult and children’s books on animal care, animal behavior and bioethics. He is also a graduate veterinarian from the Royal Veterinary College, London, whose research lead to a PhD (Medicine) and a DSc (ethology/animal behavior) from the University of London, England.