Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Zoos and Moral Responsibility

An interesting question from Lee:

I posted a link to a diary on DailyKos asking people to petition Mayor Bloomberg to maintain funding to the Bronx Zoo. I included a link where one could donate to the zoo itself. A friend replied, somewhat facetiously, asking why one should give money to a charity to help animals when there are countless humans that need help?

A corollary to this would be people who question donating to a charity to end hunger in Africa and not in Appalachia?

This seems like a false choice and questionable logic but I am not quite able to evince why.
There are three separate, but all very interesting questions here.

First, How do we divide up our charitable help? Do we do it serial or parallel? Do we triage the needs of the planet, focus solely on the worst with all of our resources and work our way through a prioritized list? Do we weight causes based on urgency or need and divide up resources accordingly? Do we seek out those which we may have the greatest effect upon or those which are the most grave? Do we have more obligation to those like ourselves or who live in the same community or country, or of the same species?

Second, do we have special obligations to zoos? We created them. We have placed animals in them that cannot be returned to their native habitats. Do we not then have special obligations to maintain them and create environments that are maximally satisfying for those trapped in them? Do these obligations override others that , all other things being equal, we might place ahead of them? Is there a sort of social contract that we have entered into with the animals by removing them from their natural state for our own amusement? Does the fact that they are "mere animals" limit our obligations?

Third, suppose we have moral problems with zoos. This is an open an interesting question, but let us assume for the sake of argument that we find zoos ethically problematic, do we still need to elevate their status in distributing resources? Can we inherit moral obligations with which we have moral concern, yet still inherit the obligation?