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Banning the sale of ivory in the USA: A Moral Dilemma

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A moral dilemma has emerged following an online debate to an article in Forbes Magazine discussing the US ban on all trade in ivory. The main article by Doug Bandow is palpably against the ban of legal trade, and, somewhat inadequately, the author provides various aesthetic and sentimental reasons for his stance. The article garnered some immediate comments from those, this writer included, who know elephants a little better. We challenged Bandow’s views by arguing that the ban would go a long way to stemming the rampant slaughter of illegal trade and consequently lauded the US government for its bold and decisive act.

Then there was a comment by Jenny. She is not a talented Forbes correspondent nor an expert on elephants or conservation but simply someone whose parents had bought ‘as an investment’ around US$ 200,000 of carved ivory pieces in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Her father has since passed away and the ailing mother, now suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and ‘declining fast’, is struggling to pay her medical bills. Selling the family heirlooms, says Jenny, will alleviate most of the pressure and provide urgent treatment. That is no longer possible. Because she can’t sell it, the ivory she owns is as valuable as the cheap plastic trinkets found in Chinese 1-dollar stores.

What makes Jenny’s predicament morally compelling is that she has unwittingly provided a far stronger case against the US government’s ban than the precocious Bandow. Her quandary is a particularly powerful one in that she is essentially asking us to make a basic choice – the life of a human over the lives of other animals. This resonates deeply with most human beings. The vast majority of our species would agree that when it comes to the life of a human versus the life of an animal, human value must take precedence. It’s the morally correct choice. The US government ought to lift the ban on compassionate grounds to allow Jenny’s mother to sell her ivory, which these days would be considerably more than what her and her husband originally paid for them.

But what about our compassion for the elephants? There are some that question the validity of humans having more value than other animals – and logically they are correct. What makes humans ethically more superior than other animals? Sure, we can reason, drive motorcars and write clever pieces in Forbes but we are also guilty of genocide, torturing and kidnapping children and have dropped nuclear bombs on innocent civilians. Even if that logic doesn’t wash with the obedient citizens of the world, what is the value of an ailing old lady compared to the continued existence of an entire species?

Jenny may argue that a once off sale of her mother’s ivory will do little to fuel elephant poaching. After all what are a few family heirlooms in the big scheme? But then one could argue for a once-off sale of a big stash of cocaine to pay the medical bills of an ailing relative. In the big scheme it’s not going to make a difference to the global drug trade, but somehow most of us would think it wrong. Again, the human-animal disparity crops ups, and again it makes no logical sense why most of us baulk at selling drugs but not ivory.

It begs the question, are all sentient animals – including humans – morally equal? In the general sense, they are. Each individual life has an intrinsic worth in that they are valuable to themselves; and if one deploys this logic, no individual can be morally more superior than another.

However, ethics is not a science, it doesn’t necessarily follow logic. While intrinsic worth of individuals may be accepted, its when placed in relation to others or in different contexts that the equality of sentient beings becomes confused. Animal rights lawyer Gary Francione posed this interesting question: if your beloved pet dog and your child were in a burning house and you could only save one, which would you choose? For most of us it’s a no brainer – your child, of course. Not because it’s a human versus an animal but because it’s an individual sentimentally or compassionately closer. Similarly if I had to choose between my beloved pet dog and a convicted serial child murderer, I would choose my dog. Jenny is choosing her mother over the elephants. She is exercising an accepted moral choice.

Is the US government, therefore, wrong in denying Jenny her moral right to save her mother? Unfortunately for Jenny, societies have different moral codes to individuals. Morality in the collective realm is far more complex. In many cases governments need to sacrifice the moral requirements of an individual to safeguard the general good of the population. An individual might find it necessary to steal in order to pay for their medical bills, but the general will would counter this by asking ‘what if we were all allowed to steal to pay for our medical bills?’ There would be widespread chaos and consequently, stealing in any form is illegal by universal law. Morally, the government cannot make exceptions because if you allow one, you must allow all.

Adam Cruise a published travel writer, photographer, adventurer and student in philosophy specialising in environmental ethics. He specialises, and is passionate about, the environment and the impact humans are currently having on the natural resources throughout the sub-continent. 

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