January 2007 Ethics Dunces
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)If you put "ethical" in your organization's name, you'd better be able to live up to it. PETA recently flunked a rather straightforward ethics test, though admittedly one that was calculated to expose the group's political biases and peculiar definition of "ethical treatment."
The third blizzard to hit Colorado this winter (#4 was arriving as this was being written) stranded an estimated 340,000 cows and steers in the southeastern part of the state. As National Guard units worked to help ranchers save as many of the animals from freezing as possible, local KRFX disc jockeys Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax got the idea of calling PETA to ask whether the group would assist in the efforts to rescue the imperiled stock. PETA spokeswoman Reannon Peterson took the call, and her on-air reply was this: "You're going to save them, and then in six months they're going to be killed and end up on someone's plate. So I don't know that it's really the most noble cause." But it wasn't just rescuing beef that Peterson distained. When the KRFX morning hosts asked her about wild animals such as deer, the hunting of which PETA argues is unethical, she was similarly unsympathetic. "It's an act of God," she said. "There's really nothing to be done."
All of Peterson's comments were captured on tape. Colorado's Governor Bill Owens immediately declared that the group was a fraud.
Well, not exactly. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the group has ethics tunnel vision. It is so focused on its main objective---changing human attitudes about animal treatment to eliminate such sources of animal suffering as hunting, meat consumption, laboratory testing and fur use in fashion---that it doesn't recognize important opportunities to prevent animal suffering on the way to its mission. That is the best possible interpretation of Peterson's callous remarks (which PETA has not disavowed), for they are clearly inconsistent with "ethical treatment." This is a group which regularly compares the rights and sensibilities of animals to those of humans, yet it is difficult to imagine a human rights group making similar arguments, as in "Let the migrant workers freeze; the big agri-business concerns are just going to work them to death anyway." Her "act of God" dodge is even worse: what if the Red Cross ignored human suffering caused by "acts of God"?
It seems likely, unfortunately, that PETA's spokesperson's remarks betray a mean and unethical mindset: it is more important to PETA that its ideological foes, the meat producers, suffer financially than it is to prevent the suffering of their stock. Animals should freeze to smite PETA's foes. This is not an ethical objective.
It is fair to acknowledge that just because PETA has the resources to help drop hay bales for snowbound cattle doesn't mean it has an ethical obligation to do so. It would be reasonable for the group to decline to assist the state on the grounds that it has a specific mission and must be disciplined in how it uses its funds. But the sentiments voiced by Peterson appeared to show a lack of sensitivity and concern for PETA's supposed clients while confirming the anti-business agenda attributed to the group by its critics. PETA cannot argue that "let 'em freeze" shows proper concern for "the ethical treatment of animals," or that "let 'em freeze so ranchers go broke" is any more ennobling.
Lewis and Floorwax were fishing for a "gotcha!" and hooked one. If the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals want to be taken seriously, they need to get serious about ethics.