If a cow could speak we would not understand her

September 4, 2017 - 12:43am -- Nick Young

Cows, what have we done to them?  (Apart from stealing their milk and eating their babies.)  One is standing here now, staring at me.  For all the stuff I’ve read and heard, and the weight of human argument that these animals don’t have that grand ‘consciousness’ thing, it is irresistible to speculate on what she might be thinking. Perhaps she wants me to turn the radio on, as I usually do while working in the garden I am making next to her pasture. (It seems to me that the cows enjoy taking a break from the day-long work of eating, to lie for a while, companionably close to the fence, listening to human voices and music.) Perhaps she is hoping I will pass her over some grass clippings, like I did yesterday. Perhaps she is wondering why I spend so much time doing things so devoid of bovine value or meaning. Mostly, though, as I look into her slow, steady eyes, it strikes me that she is struggling to think, to arrive at a thought—which makes her rather like me—and that we have done her kind an injustice by breeding stupidity into them, in the quest for more milk and docility.

Human affection for animals is rather surprising. (As Wittgenstein said somewhere, we should learn to be surprised by things that are ordinary.) There is no easy way to account for me thinking this cow is cute. Yes, you could tell an ‘evolutionary’ story about respect for the wider animal kingdom as an element of environmental stewardship, thus contributing to my own genes’ survival.  (And a compelling story about us finding young things cute—calves, kittens and human kids: for, if we did not, their survival and usefulness for us would be precarious. Youth, besides, surely attracts in part because death repels.) But none of this is adequate to explain my wish to stroke and pat a cow, or my anxiety for her welfare, the cloud of flies that bother her on hot days, the lack of shelter in our frequently incessant rain.

You can of course point to Aesop, Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney as popularising the sentimental, anthropomorphic impulse (in increasingly saccharine ways). You can fairly add that people like me, members of the world’s billion-strong post-scarcity class, stand at the apex of the hierarchy of needs and can comfortably indulge the luxury of feeling soppy about animals.  But not so fast.  Even if Aesop, Disney and all those in between were proselytising for animal welfare (which in most cases is a dubious proposition), there must have been some original sentiment or affinity within the human beast on which to build the case.  And my experience suggests that even meat famers, many of them, feel affection for their living stock. I remember Nicaragua, 30 years ago. Every household in Boaco kept a pig, and come slaughter time they would swap it for a pig raised on the other side of town, because it hurt too much to kill your own. That tells us a lot about ourselves. 

So, it seems to me that there is some irreducible thing left over after evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology and cultural studies have had their say.

What of philosophy? David Hume rooted moral sentiment in “propinquity”—closeness, starting with our kin, moving outwards to embrace clan, tribe, nation and, eventually, if in a somewhat diluted form, the whole of humankind. That strikes me as mainly right. As a description, at any rate. (But it doesn’t capture everything; Kant thought morality could not derive from mere sentiment: he, more a prescriber than a describer, wanted the glue of rationality to hold it all together. Which also strikes me as partly right.)

Propinquity explains a lot. I don’t worry about cows on the other side of the mountain; only the ones I can see from my door. And, unlike William Blake, I don’t worry—not much, anyway—about the welfare of flies, whose summer’s play I brush away without compunction. Flies, they are too distant from us mammals, you can’t feel their fear. Compassion in such cases is too metaphysical, too exalted a plane for mere me.

Drumming hooves disturb my reverie. Some sister of my cow pal has wandered over to the trough in the far corner of the pasture.  Her comrades have suddenly decided to follow. Fast. Is it synchronous awareness of unbearable thirst, or fear of being left behind, or just heifer joy at exercising the limbs before they are too weighed down by calves and udders, that impels them to do so at a brisk canter?  I hope it’s joy. Either way, it’s herd behaviour. Just like us.

What a fine thing it is to have time to stand and stare, on a green hill, and philosophise with cows.

And I hope that when my garden’s finished, and the orchard matures, the trees will bring birds—descendants of dinosaurs, we now hear—with whom I have very little in common, to eat the fruit and fornicate.



Postscript. If in our random age you’ve happened on this page, are not a vegan, but care a little bit about cows and/or wish to make a modest contribution to ‘saving the planet’ and/or (foolishly) wish to live until you are 120, probably the best thing you can do is to switch to daily consumption of ‘organic’ milk products.  From my (limited) understanding: organic milk production requires substantial areas of land to be freed of chemicals; the cows on that land are probably as happy as they can be in the prevailing system of animal exploitation and, if you insist on clasping fast to the fraying threads of life, the health benefits from a daily intake of organic milk almost certainly outweigh those that can be derived from occasionally pigging out on organic, sundried tomatoes, walnuts or whatever. In short, organic milk may reasonably be regarded as a small, civilizational advance on the market madness and cruelty of factory milk that costs hardly any more than pointlessly bottled water.