It’s the climax of Sergei Prokofiev’s famous Peter and the Wolf. I just happen to be listening to a recording of it conducted by (and narrated by) Leonard Bernstein—it is part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Lennie’s birth, later this month. I also happen to be re-reading a wonderful biography of C S Lewis, and where I am in the book’s narrative is his respect for animals—especially (but not only) described in his series of Narnia stories. There is a connection.
Peter stops the hunters from killing the wolf; just help take it to the zoo—why? Might it be that he recognizes that the wolf, on its own terms, might have a dignity worth respecting (we’ll come back to the fate of the duck later)? This idea was simply not accepted in the first half of the 20th century. Liberal intellectuals embraced ideas like eugenics, compulsory sterilization of the “unfit,” and vivisection as major paths for the advancement of humanity. They fully bought into the “superman” ideology of Friedrich Nietzsche and were happy to regard Jews especially as some of those who needed to be seen as “unfit,” and therefore expendable. Lewis saw it differently:
For Lewis, the practice of vivisection exposed an inner contradiction within Darwinian naturalism. At one and the same time, it emphasized the biological proximity of humans and animals, while asserting the ultimate authority of human beings to do what they please with animals…. But where, Lewis wonders, does this dangerous idea take us? ‘Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned, then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men.’
Sadly, this “popular” view led to the attempts of Nazi Germany to experiment on and eliminate what they regarded as “inferior peoples”—Jews, Gypsies, Catholics (especially Poles), homosexuals… Are you different? And are you a minority? Then I/we can declare you “inferior” and do whatever we wish with you…
The horrors of the Shoah finally eliminated the popularity of this viewpoint, but it lingers today in the horrors of abortion. It declares that whatever happens to be “inconvenient” can be labeled as “inferior.” Its basis for judgment is that the baby is too small to matter and offers too great an “inconvenience” for the parents. It is the ultimate expression of “Might Makes Right.” In his self-defense of his abuse of the lives and rights of his Pennsylvania coal miners, George Baer shouted out (in court), “They don’t suffer; why, they can’t even speak English!” Is this where we want to be, in our self-centered defense of our treatment of the unborn?
What do we owe to those who cannot defend themselves? Is our moral credo really to be “Because I can, therefore I will”? Where can words like “should” or “ought” be inserted into our collective moral thinking and practice?
Reflecting on animals and humans, Lewis wrote that the true mark of the primacy of humans over animals is “acknowledging duties to them which they do not [or cannot] acknowledge to us.” If we owe this much to animals (and I think we do), how much more should we owe to babies? If a wolf could be taken to a zoo, couldn’t a child at least be taken to an adoption agency?