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“As flies to wanton boys”

Dilemmas and dodging in the field of nonhuman animal ethics

By Michael A. Ashby and Leigh E. Rich

On a daily basis, one of us (MA) drives around the Australian state of Tasmania where the “roadkill” bodies of native animals can be found everywhere, adding up to hundreds of thousands every year. Clearly, if these were humans, there would be an outcry! Initially, one may be saddened and even outraged to witness such public and unnatural deaths, but this tends to subside, becoming accepted as “unavoidable” and so invisible in plain sight, only to be revisited by anger, sorrow, and powerlessness again from time to time.

On the other side of the world, one of us (LER) dreams regularly of her childhood dog. Rather than buoyed by happy memories, she often awakens dismayed, not merely because the family pet has long since departed this world but because she regrets selfish decisions made in youth that today seem inexplicable. She’s not sure why she relocated the dog’s bed to the hallway after years of sharing a room or where she was when the dog was sprayed by a skunk and had to endure a traumatic tomato juice “shower” to mitigate the stench or how she could be absent when it was time to put the family friend “to sleep.” There were, of course, many years of walks and tug-o’-war with toys and other ways of taking responsibility and showing care, but the dreams are a haunting reminder of the moral duty to “be better,” to live a more virtuous and contemplative life even with regard to nonhumans.

Many of us live uneasily with animal suffering and death. Some of us are vegetarians and vegans, some advocate for research and products not tested on animals, some join environmental and animal rescue organizations. But for others this is just “collateral damage” on what is seen as the “dominant” human journey—a callous, hierarchical relationship akin to what Shakespeare wrote in King Lear to remind us of our own insignificant place: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods./They kill us for their sport” (IV.i.36–37). [continued …]

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Ashby, Michael A., and Leigh E. Rich. 2013. “As flies to wanton boys”: Dilemmas and dodging in the field of nonhuman animal ethics. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 10(4): 429–433.

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