May 05, 2009

Baby Seals

Seals aren't endangered; they're a menace to fish stocks--Daniel Hannan

This blindsided me, made me realize that I bought into a media hart tugging fantasy that really makes no sense.  Then again, should that matter?

Paraphrased text Follows: What is it about baby seals? Why do they excite our sympathy in a way that seagulls or scorpions or slugs do not? After all, they're hardly an endangered species: on the contrary, there are many millions of them, and they are extremely efficient hooverers up of fish. Canadian seals chomp their way through 1.5 million tons of cod every year. They have played a cameo role in the collapse of the Labrador and Newfoundland trawling industry. So what makes us go all gooey about them?

The answer is obvious. They are mammals. They are anthropomorphic. Their faces have deceptively human characteristics: they seem soulful, innocent, child-like. Evolutionary biologists would explain that the desire to protect babies is so deep in our DNA that it predisposes us to empathy with other species which happen to have baby-like features, such as big eyes, small noses, or a cute way of toddling trustingly towards waiting clubs.

In other words, our objection to Canadian seal-clubbing is aesthetic rather than ethical. I am not talking here to those vegans who object evenly to the slaughter of all animals: their position is consistent. I am addressing those who call for bans on seal products while happily tucking into eggs or veal produced in conditions of unimaginable horror (yes, unimaginable: try holding in your mind the image of a battery farm the next time the yolk spills across your spoon).

Then again, since when did emotion invalidate the democratic process? People have just as much right to object to something on irrational as on rational grounds. To take a recent example, the campaign to admit former Gurkha soldiers to Britain, in plain defiance of what they had clearly understood when they joined up, was not strictly logical. But it represented a sincere and generous national instinct and that, in a democracy, should be the trump argument.

So with the cute baby seals. Who am I to say that the voters are wrong? In a democracy, the voters are never wrong. They may be inconsistent, sentimental, mercurial; but not wrong. If I were to say: "People are being sappy about seals", I would be in the same category as those (politicians) who say "People are being emotional when they vote against the (topic here), and we who understand their true interests should therefore disregard their stated views".  As John Milton argued, when superior authorities make such decisions on an individual's behalf, they rob him of the capacity for virtue. 

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