Human Exceptionalism

Geese Are Not “Noble”

Nicolas Kristof argues in favor of treating chickens and geese more humanely in his column today. I certainly support humane treatment of geese and chickens–but also recognize that the exact nature of that human duty is open to reasonable debate.

However, I do object to the anthropomorphizing of fowl as somehow “noble,” which means to exhibit “high moral principles or ideals.” True nobility is a distinctly human concept.

Kristof discusses his boyhood experience on a family farm when a goose was slaughtered–not “executed”–for the family table. From, “Are Chicks Brighter Than Babies?”

The nobility of geese was most on display at execution time. My job as an 11-year-old when we beheaded the geese was to capture a bird and take it to the chopping block as my dad wielded the ax. So I would rush at the terrified flock and randomly grab an unlucky goose.

The bird in my arms would honk in terror and try to escape, and the other geese would cower in the corner of the barn. Then one goose would emerge from the flock and walk tremulously toward me, terrified but unwilling to abandon its mate. It would waddle after me toward the chopping block, trying to honk comfort to its mate.

Even as a child, I was awed. This was raw courage and fidelity — and maybe conjugal love, although it sounds hokey to say so — that made me wonder if these animals were actually our moral superiors.

That’s not morality. It’s biology. And for that reason, geese are not capable of nobility.

Geese are not moral beings. They don’t determine right and wrong behavior. They don’t make or keep promises. They can’t choose between fidelity and infidelity. They mate for life because of a raw biological imperative. 

That isn’t to “scorn” them, as Kristof warns against. It’s to describe things as they are–which these days can get one in a lot of trouble.

We don’t extol goose behavior because of what they do–but of who who we are–and to help promote behaviors in ourselves that we most admire. That’s because we are capable of cowardice, of making vows, and of choosing between fidelity and infidelity.

It is called free will and it is one of attributes that make us exceptional. 

 

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