Shark's Fin Soup

Occasionally, CBS' "60 Minutes" presents a stimulating subject. Usually they get the answer wrong, but at least the question deserves some thought, which is more than can be said for most things on television. On December 11th, their Bob Simon presented a segment on sharks, and showed that while shark's fin soup is a highly prized delicacy in China , with rapidly rising demand, the way that the fins are obtained is horribly cruel. Even more rarely, Simon touched on part of the right answer: he said, next time we viewers "go Chinese" for soup, choose Won-Ton instead of Shark's Fin. I will.

The cruelty Simon showed is that the most efficient way of obtaining shark fins is to first catch a shark, then haul it on deck, then have a team of crewmen swiftly slice off the fins with razor-sharp machetes, then to toss the rest of the fish, still alive, back in the sea. The stomach-turning result is that the shark sinks to the bottom of the ocean in presumably agonizing pain, and there slowly drowns to death.

How can this repugnant practice be ended? The main, stock answer from CBS was of course to make it illegal, and apparently in US waters the practice is already illegal; but their problem was that it's not illegal in the China Sea , where most of the demand is centered, nor is it feasible to enforce such a law well outside coastal waters anywhere. It's similar perhaps to the old problem of "saving the whales." Whales were saved, you'll recall--from extinction at least--not by any worldwide law against whaling nor by a worldwide smiting of whalers' consciences, but by a decimation of the demand for whale oil caused by the invention of kerosene and other petroleum products thanks to the free-market greed of people like Colonel Drake and John Rockefeller. Their alternative competed effectively not because it was less inhumane but because the end result was cheaper.

And anyway, sharks aren't the cuddly, friendly, frolicking giants of the deep that whales are portrayed to be. Their appetite for swimmers' limbs brings a heavy PR handicap.

All this raised, for me, the wider question: How would a properly free society handle the matter of cruelty to animals?

Go Veggie?

I'm not a vegetarian, though occasionally as I tuck in to a juicy Delmonico I wonder if I should be. Why, I idly consider, do things taste so good that come from animals raised for the purpose of slaughter? Cattle, at least, usually live in open ranges, and enjoy a controlled life more or less naturally until their time is up; but what of chickens, raised in sheds with only so many cubic inches of space available from birth to death? What of fish (never mind, sharks) that are trawled aboard a ship, and there dispatched not swiftly but left to suffocate slowly in a vast heap of other fish, starved of water? What of hunting--not for food even, nor for the elimination of farm pests, but for "sport" in which the unfortunate fox is disemboweled by a pack of dogs trained for the purpose? Is there any limit on man's cruelty to our fellow creatures? What kind of limit might be placed by a free market, where laws must not exist?

In any case, the vegetarian alternative seems contrary to the rest of nature. It's all very well for some theists to warble that Man ought not to eat creatures that God has created, but there are quite a few problems with that worldview.

First, if it were morally reprehensible to eat living things God created, we would not exist; for no adequate diet can be obtained from inorganic materials alone. Perhaps it may be one day, but the human race would never have reached the point of designing laboratories to find out, without eating animals and vegetables for a few hundred thousand years along the way.

Then, we humans with our fine consciences are doing little more than any other animal does, in order to feed and survive; the "food chain" is not just a pair of words. If an omnipotent God designed the canine tooth, for example, why is he also supposed to be omnibenevolent? No watcher of a film of a tiger chasing a gazelle for lunch can suppose that latter are free of terror and are content to be eaten; nor that the former can survive by eating grass and leaves--and anyway, who's to say that grass has no feelings? This contradiction (sometimes called "nature, red in tooth and claw") is one of the most powerful arguments against the view that such a god exists and the usual response--that in some mysterious way the order of Nature was discombobulated by the "Fall of Man" and now "groaneth and travailleth together" in dis-harmony--is plain ludicrous, given that carnivores predate hom sap by many millions of years.

A Market Solution

But I digress. We surely agree that cruelty to animals is somehow horrid; we humans do have a sense of right and wrong, and clubbing baby seals and torturing kittens normally offends it. If there are no laws to prohibit such cruelty, what's to befall our furry and feathered friends?

In a free-market, zero-government society, relationships between human members would virtually eliminate violence, for no action could take place without explicit contracts permitting it. But animals are not good at reading contracts, not even oral ones. They would be property, or else simply wild. Four factors would govern human behavior towards them.

(1) No environment would be "public"--not even the ocean, if and when such a free society extended to all or most of the world, as I believe it would do rather quickly once established in a single major country. So, when the whole of a geographic area is properly owned by an owner with an interest in maximizing the profit he can obtain from that asset, animals as well as trees and plants will be under his control. He will presumably breed and "harvest" them for his own gain as he perceives it--and that "gain" may often mean that he leaves them alone in their natural habitat, so he can enjoy the full beauty of his domain. But if he does collect, corral and breed some for slaughter and market their meat, he will be careful in his own interests to present them to buyers in a form that maximizes his profit. Those forms will, of course, be determined by the buyers; for in a free market, the customer is always king.

(2) Neighbors, noticing any kind of cruelty to animals in their owner's care, will not stand idly by. Torturers will fast gain a bad reputation, which will impact his ability to function in the marketplace'i.e., to earn a living.

(3) Buyers (ultimately, consumers in the literal sense) will want his meat products to be tasty and nourishing and inexpensive, but they will also take account of how he prepared them. Why? Because if the restaurant or supermarket advertises "These steaks come from cows that were skinned alive before being carved up," guess what: Their appetites will evaporate and they will not buy. If on the contrary it can truly advertise "Chickens we sell were all nurtured on a free range," then they will sell more than the rival who cannot; and perhaps a watchdog group will arise that carries out spot checks on farms and fisheries and reports on what it finds; a "Good Husbandry Certificate" would be a prized possession of any competing retailer. And in a free market, all who are concerned with animal welfare will be free to publicize cruelty and urge boycotts of establishments that associate themselves with cruel practice.

Exactly as CBS was doing on 12/11, with respect to sharks. Admittedly I don't fancy fish soups generally, but if presented with a dish of shark's fin soup today, knowing what I saw there, I do not think I could eat it. That's the power of publicity and boycott. There is a link, somewhere in the human wiring system, between conscience and stomach.

Will such publicity eliminate the problem? Probably not; some will harden their digestive tracts to continue eating parts of animals known full well to have been tortured to death. But not many; and what counts in the market is what happens at the margin. Given competitive fishing, the boat that sells the most is the one that will prosper; and if even 10% of its market is taken away by placards that urge buyers to boycott his product, he will change his practices PDQ . Not because he feels sorry for the fish, but because he is greedy for profits.

(4) Fourthly--and this I cannot promise, but think it will take place--maybe whereas violence is endemic in today's government-infested society, with the result that most of us are hardened to it, when that primary source of force is removed, every member of the society will become more benevolent towards his fellow-members and, by extension, to animals as well. No, this is not a utopian dream that human nature will change, for as I perceive it human nature is already good, though with obvious capacity to do evil when handed power over other people (which is what government always does, being the very embodiment of force). Remove that ruinous influence, and I think the gentler side of human nature will blossom.

In Summary, those are four excellent reasons to expect that animal cruelty will drastically reduce when our society rids itself of the primary source of cruelty: government. Will that eliminate it worldwide? Not until government is abolished worldwide. Wherever government persists, so will savagery--to all species.

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