Monday, October 04, 2010

Tigers Are Not Vicious

So, I led a little discussion about McMahan's notorious article about the desirability of the controlled extinction (or genetic modification) of carnivores last Friday. One of the more interesting suggestions--that I've seen bandied about elsewhere--was the possibility of genetically engineering herbivores with a strong desire to be eaten, and who took pleasure in their own being eaten. That would solve the hedonic problem just about as well. So, sci-fi is a double-edged sword. Touché. Some people from the student newspaper were there, so we'll see whether they can misquote my impassioned claim that I don't give a rat's ass about the precise theory of value at work, so long as a certain psychologist in the room would grant me that some things have aesthetic value.

Which brings me to the title of this post. This psychologist at one point described the predatory acts of a tiger (or some other carnivore) as "vicious." I questioned whether it made sense to describe a tiger as vicious in, say, the way we would describe Ted Bundy as vicious. As soon as I said that, I knew this wouldn't work with a psychologist (of a certain sort). And the point fell apart. But Tigers aren't vicious in the way Ted Bundy--or the good-looking maniac to the left--was. This has nothing to do with whether Bundy believed that he was vicious. The point is that Bundy is a person, and persons can be vicious. They can also act in soulless, and savage ways (just to throw a couple similar ideas out there). But Tigers aren't savages. They are tigers. It does not make obvious sense to take a term of human evaluation and then apply it to the life of a tiger.

I suppose a hard determinist might say that if there's any sense to be made of the concept "vicious," it can't be a matter of human choice, because on their view, the human will is just as determined by nature as the tiger's will (if a tiger has a will). Here, I might just grant that for the sake of discussion, but point out that nevertheless, the way we talk about human lives as having this shape or that, this character or some other, involve a range of concepts which, as soon as we start applying them to animals, will tend to look anthropomorphic. Now, I agree with thinkers like Vicki Hearne who point out that some of our categories of character and evaluation can be applied to some human-animal relationships. So, it's not that I'm charging that psychologist with anthropomorphism. Rather, I'm charging him with being uncritically anthropomorphic. Does the tiger desire the suffering of its prey? Does it relish it? If it doesn't do those things, I'm not quite ready to call it vicious, or to pretend as if tigers are vicious in just the same way a human serial killer is.

I would also suggest that the way in which a tiger needs prey is different from the way in which Ted needed prey. But that's a different story, and I'm not in the mood to justify today, only to mark out differences. You get the idea.


  1. I think of 'vicious' as having two meanings. In the sort of technical sense it means the opposite of virtuous. A vicious tiger would be one that isn't good at being a tiger, perhaps because it was vegetarian. In the popular sense it is a sort of cross between violent and spiteful, suggesting the kind of person who might cut you with a razor blade. Tigers aren't really like that. The word 'savage' fits them better, or 'brutal' perhaps. But you can't judge a tiger morally for doing the things that tigers characteristically do.

  2. I only know of one vicious tiger, and that was the one from the movie Kung Fu Panda. But as far as real tigers go, I know of none having the sort of reasoning abilities to be properly pronounced as Vicious.

  3. you could go further here and pick up on cora diamond's remarks about the places that various animals have in our concept of the human being—which, to my ear, touch on similar points as in emerson's 'nature' (the book, not the essay). i take it that the point is rarely to make actual, serious moral characterizations of animals in terms transferred over from human moral psychology. maybe 'tiger' will get used as a way of eliciting certain judgments about an animal unconcern with violence that plays an important role in our moral evaluations of human action (and e.g. crackpot moral schemes for 'human action' like re-breeding all the violent animals or re-breeding their prey to enjoy being prey).

    diamond rings the 'intermediate cases' changes on this kind of point, too. try substituting talk of vicious tigers with talk of vicious lions, vicious panthers, vicious bears, vicious wolves, vicious dogs (but rarely vicious cats), vicious vermin, etc.