Sunday, July 5, 2009

Why Not Swat That Fly?

It seems that very few actions of President Obama escape the notice of the media these days. The cameras were even on hand when the president slapped a fly that had made the bad choice to interrupt a presidential interview. See the U-Tube video. The president’s heavy hand produced a SWAT heard ‘round the world. The reaction of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was immediate and predictable.

According to Fox News, a PETA spokesperson, Bruce Friedrich, stated: "We support compassion even for the most curious, smallest and least sympathetic animals. We believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals."

Although PETA is often maligned or ridiculed for its defense of animal rights, there is reason for pausing before looking at the swatted fly on the carpet with scorn and then disregarding PETA’s plea for the rights of flies and other invertebrates. In today’s world of instant access to information and commentary on current issues, there is no lack of opinions. However, there is great need for the discipline of hearing, reflecting, and understanding. So, let’s not be too hasty in condemning PETA for speaking for the flies.

To their credit, members of the “animal liberation movement” have drawn our attention to the possibility that animals have a right to be treated respectfully and humanely. In the 1950's and 1960's, the civil rights movement successfully challenged us to recognize that ethnic minorities have the right to share in the circle of moral standing as human beings. Where moral obligation toward them had been denied by many fellow humans, human rights were now widely recognized and implemented through institutional changes. (That work is still in progress even though the US has elected a member of an ethnic minority to the presidency.)

Then, in the 1970's, Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and others called for an extension of moral responsibility from humankind to non-human species. Singer called for an extension of moral standing to sentient animals– animals that can suffer or experience enjoyment; whereas, Regan called us to consider that animals also have interests and inherent value by virtue of their being alive. Both Singer and Regan emphasized moral standing to the individual animal but not the animal species.

Although the animal rights movement challenged us to consider the rights and inherent value of animals, to this day, it has not provided a robust ethic as a foundation for practical arbitration of the rights of animals in relation to humans. Thus, when PETA calls for humans to exercise “compassion even for the most curious, smallest and least sympathetic animals” what exactly does that mean? Does this mean no fly-swatting anywhere; and instead, trapping and release of flies to the out-of-doors? How about flies at picnics? Or ants, roaches, and other less popular species? Is it wrong to develop water-gardens or wetlands that encourage dragonflies and frogs which actually eat flies?

Clearly, both “human rights” and “animal rights” are moral issues that require an objective basis for deciding proper behavior. So far as we can tell, only humankind has the rational capacity to develop and live by a moral standard. It is unfortunate that so much of history is the record of our species denying the clear moral teaching of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The Bible teaches that the Creator God has given to mankind the responsibility of dominion over the rest of creation. Instead of exercising this dominion as selfish, unfeeling tyrants, we are called to be submissive stewards according to the example of the Creator Himself Who took on the very form of a man, Jesus Christ, through His virgin birth and lived among mankind as a servant. Jesus showed us how to love ethic minorities, how to respect women who had no rights in His day, how to care for the poor and the rejected, and how to regard with compassion an ox in a ditch or a sparrow that falls. And now, Jesus calls us to find our satisfaction in serving Him and not through ill-gotten gain which destroys other human beings and His creation.

Should you swat that fly or squash that bug? Think about it first before swatting next time. What part do you play in the grand economy of creation; and what responsibility do you have as a steward of your home and as a citizen of the community of humankind as well as the biotic community of animals and plants upon which we depend. To deny that we have dominion over the Earth and to deny that we are capable of exercising it seems to deny reality. To relinquish dominion and blend into the natural world as just one more species, even if it were possible, would usher in unimaginable outcomes. Can you imagine? See “Not Dominion But Rebellion – and Restoration.” Comments are welcome as always.


Anonymous said...

I've swatted many flies in my lifetime. They carry germs and they land on exposed food on the dinner table. I have a barn, with manure on the ground, and I don't want manure transferred to my food by flies. So, if they invade my "inside the house" territory, they get swatted. Occasionally I have mercy and used a cup and captured them and let them go outside.

Paul York said...

"Although the animal rights movement challenged us to consider the rights and inherent value of animals, to this day, it has not provided a robust ethic as a foundation for practical arbitration of the rights of animals in relation to humans."

I would disagree. Regan, in his writings, has provided a thorough-going ethic for answering these questions that you ask. Its application simply requires us to radically change our behavior, so it is easier to pretend the ethic does not exist or that it is not robust.