April 29th, 2014


All creatures great and small

While walking down the street today I spotted a beautiful butterfly sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. It seemed like an odd place to find such a creature. I bent down close, and it did not fly away. I feared it must be injured. I extended my hand, and it climbed up onto my finger. I held it aloft and admired it for a minute or so. Then I gently placed it on a nearby flowering bush, and went on my way.

I thought about this natural impulse to protect and admire such an animal, a lowly insect. Most people would be alarmed at an adult who would intentionally tear off a butterfly's wings, and reprimand a child for doing so. But most of these same people would eat the wings of a chicken with no qualms whatsoever.

What is the difference between a butterfly and a chicken, from a moral perspective? A butterfly is certainly not more intelligent than a chicken; some doubt that insects are even sentient. Is it beauty? Some butterflies are quite homely, and some chickens quite beautiful.

Is it that there is no good reason to tear off a butterfly's wings? What if a person gets pleasure from doing so? Is that sufficient justification? If not, why is it sufficient justification for eating a chicken? Or eggs, given that virtually all egg-laying chickens in this country are ultimately killed for low-quality meat?

When it comes to my diet, I find it most morally consistent to draw a bright line at the animal kingdom. I don't spend time trying to decide whether an animal, or its milk or eggs, is worth consuming based on its intelligence, beauty, or what quality of life it might have had. I do not know if a butterfly feels pain in the same way that I would, or a chicken would, if I pull off her wings. But I know I have the moral sense that it is the wrong thing to do, and that it is not necessary to do so. I extend this same level of courtesy to all creatures, great and small.