Stone the Whales? A Reflection on Fairness in Critical Thinking

Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne, at his blog, gave the following title to one of his recent posts:

Christians want orca stoned to death

In the post, Jerry Coyne breathlessly announced:

The Rightly Concerned website, an arm of the religious, right-wing American Family Organization, has called for not only the execution of the orca, but death by stoning. . . . Right Christian of these folks.  But [t]hey’d need a crane and one big boulder to do the proper Biblical job on Tiliikum!

Tiliikum, the orca being referred to, is the one that recently killed a SeaWorld trainer, and if fundamentalists are literally calling for the whale to be stoned, it is certainly outrageous if true.

But is it?

It turns out that it’s not. Jerry Coyne has set up a straw man. Here’s what the Christian source for Jerry Coyne’s post actually wrote:

Says the ancient civil code of Israel, “When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner shall not be liable.” (Exodus 21:28)

So, your animal kills somebody, your moral responsibility is to put that animal to death.

In other words, the Christian author endorses, not the literal stoning of animals, orcas or otherwise, but the general principle that animals dwelling in a community, on killing a person, should be put to death. I’m no fan of the archaic proscriptive laws of the Pentateuch, but this particular law is grounded in good sense. Jerry Coyne, as seems to be a habit of his, misrepresents what a person actually wrote to score some cheap points with his readership. It’s really a move worthy of Rush Limbaugh, not a Harvard trained evolutionary biologist.

A fairer challenge to the reasoning offered by the Christian writer is to simply note that tanked whales are not properly analogized to domesticated land animals, such as bulldogs, living in a community. Unlike a neighborhood bulldog that is put to death for mauling a person, and is a real threat to others, a whale that kills is more sensibly just released back to the wild, for it is unlikely ever again to come into close, forced, or unwanted contact with human swimmers. And if there are good reasons why releasing the orca into the wild is not feasible, SeaWorld could explore ways of keeping the animal alive without it coming in contact with humans.

In other words, between the callous and hasty generalization of the Christian writer and the straw man parodying of Jerry Coyne, there is a middle way: reason with compassion, clarity, and calm and characterize your opposition fairly. As the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, once wrote:

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Stone the Whales? A Reflection on Fairness in Critical Thinking

  1. ogatoprecambriano says:

    Lets get this straight.
    That christian was exactly putting a captive orca in the same category of an ox, and want the orca dead, in fact it should be dead already since 1991. He don’t explicitly says what would be the method of such killing, if by stone or by bullet (a very improved stone if we stop to think about it) but there is no doubt that he wants the animal dead.
    So, for you, all this is ok, no problem? The problem is that that awful Coyne misrepresents the poor christian, saying that he claim for stonnig when he didn’t…
    Well, what can I possible say? I’m speachless…

  2. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    That whale has killed three human beings over the past two decades. The animal shouldn’t be in the same tank with human swimmers, and it should have been removed from human contact after its first kill. The Christian is making a fair observation, but just doing so in the way a religious person is inclined to: showing that there is wisdom in the Bible (which is certainly, in some instances, true).

    Because of the economics of keeping a large animal, and issues that may make release into the wild inhumane or problematic, a whale that has a history of killing humans may need to be humanely put down. I don’t know.

    There’s lots of things wrong with fundamentalism that do not require straw man appeals to highlight. Be fair to the context in which people speak.

    —Santi

  3. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    In terms of making distinctions, a bullet is not a stone, nor is a surgeon’s knife a mallet. You can humanely put down an animal with a bullet; stoning is likely to be accompanied by suffering. There is nothing in the Christian’s post advocating that the orca be put down by a method that entails suffering or visiting torturous vengence upon the animal. The Christian’s post is rightly outraged that SeaWorld took risks with the lives of human beings, and points to a biblical principle that might have mitigated the subsequent harm.

    The Christian’s post, in some ways, is targeting a real blind spot in some people’s psyche: that animal nature is, at bottom, Rousseauian, free, innocent, good; that aggression is an aberration; that animals have emotional lives and consciousnesses akin to people. Even the higher mammals might very well not. What’s it like to be a bat or whale?

    —Santi

  4. I’ll not give you the benefit to pretend that you didn’t understand the bullet/stone comparison. You seem stupid but you are not.

    The animal shouldn’t be in the same tank with human swimmers, and it should have been removed from human contact after its first kill.

    Fine. So you do largelly agreed with Coyne, that “asshole” afterall.

    The Christian is making a fair observation, but just doing so in the way a religious person is inclined to:

    Yeah, stupidly.

    showing that there is wisdom in the Bible (which is certainly, in some instances, true)

    Occurs that that IS NOT one of those instances.
    So what?
    The animal is an animal, a dangerous and unpredictable one, and should not be kept captive for humans entertainment in the first place, it should not be kept in contact with humans in secound place. Period.
    If somebody should be held responsible are the humans who run SeaWorld not the whale.
    AS the Holy Scripture says nothing against the human abuse of other animals (well it in fact endorses human abuse on humans, so…) it’s a bad place to look for advice. Of course the religious have the right to think otherwise, as well as I have(and Jerry too FTM) to think he is just plain stupid. And mock him a little, why not? But you seem to think the religious should have a free pass beyond that that free speech gives, he should be free of criticism as well. Why? Because he is religious.
    Well…f…have a nice day.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Gato,

    You and Jerry Coyne can mock religious people and distort their positions in such a way that you set up straw men. You are free to do so. I choose a different path—the path of Spinoza.

    I’m not trying to be self righteous in declining to pile on with regard to this whale stoning story. I think that fundamentalism is a real danger and requires vigorous push back. I push back at fundamentalism on this blog all the time. But at some point we’ve got to figure out how to practice the politics of humanity over the politics of disgust (that’s a formulation from Martha Nussbaum). If you want a rational world, and not one governed by aggressive passions, its got to start with your own practices. I came down on Coyne in the above post because he needn’t generate straw men when fundamentalism offers so many real—not ethereal—targets for concern. People promoting science, calm critical thinking, and doubt in a world with a lot of fundamentalist faith, pseudoscience, and anti-rational passions in it have an obligation to practice what they preach. What sort of world do you want? I would say, “Try to start living it now, however imperfectly you might do so, and however often you might fail in your own ideals.”

    We live in a culture that tries to attract eyeballs by shock—and to shock people you’ve got to attract them to absolute certainty, confidence men, freakishness, anger, and passion. But that’s not the kind of world conducive to what people of doubt are trying to create, is it?

    —Santi

  6. What strawmen?
    The guy want the whale killed. This is the right, rational, fair thing to do, or it is not. I, and Jerry, think it is not. I think it’s barbaric.
    This is what matters. Or not?
    The guy, as a coherent fundamentalist christian, used to justify his view an Old Testament prescription that explicitly claims that an animal should be stoned to death. So I don’t think Jerry misrepresent anything to

    score some cheap points with his readership

    more than you misrepresent Jerry to score some cheap points with your readership.

    A fairer challenge to the reasoning offered by the Christian writer is to simply note that tanked whales are not properly analogized to domesticated land animals, such as bulldogs, living in a community. Unlike a neighborhood bulldog that is put to death for mauling a person, and is a real threat to others, a whale that kills is more sensibly just released back to the wild, for it is unlikely ever again to come into close, forced, or unwanted contact with human swimmers. And if there are good reasons why releasing the orca into the wild is not feasible, SeaWorld could explore ways of keeping the animal alive without it coming in contact with humans

    As if we were talking to a child? Fair enough I guess. But Jerry had already sort of done that in an earlier post that you fail to mention. Talking about fairness…

  7. santitafarella says:

    Gato:

    I don’t think that the Christian writer, to be fair to him, advocates cruelty to the animal (which is what stoning would entail). And you’ve softened Coyne’s claim (that the Christian writer advocated the literal stoning of the whale). It’s the National Inquirer headline that draws you to the Coyne post, not the humdrum advocacy of euthenizing the whale (which may be a defensible position given its history and the economic factors involved for the SeaWorld corporation).

    I will concede to you, however, that the Old Testament passage is indifferent to animal suffering. The author might just as well advocate killing the animal with a knife to the aorta. I don’t, however, think it’s barbaric to kill a dangerous animal in a human community. I’m not a Jain. The Exodus passage, in my view, is cruel beyond the sensible advice it otherwise contains.

    I’d also add that the Hebrew Bible is not consistent in its position on animal treatment. The last verse of the book of Jonah, for example, could have been written by an environmentalist: part of the reason God doesn’t destroy Nineveh is because he’s worried about the destruction of not just humans, but animals. God, in the Jonah passage, has compassion on the critters. They are not invisible to him.

    —Santi

  8. Gunlord says:

    How long is a whale kept in captivity for that amount of time going to survive in the wild? Seems to me that just offing it would be more merciful than just setting it free. Keeping it around where it can’t interact with humans? Sounds like a sizable expense not likely to pay off, especially since people aren’t going to be willing to visit a whale known to be a mankiller. Once again, just offing it seems to be both the most humane and most economic solution.

    This isn’t to say I disagree with Coyne about Christianity or agree with whoever that fundy was, just that it’s a bit strange for Dr. Coyne and Gato Precambriano to start wailing about those ~*nasty Christians*~ before considering whether or not releasing Mr. Orca back into the wild is actually the nicest thing to do, necessarily.

    Also, Santi, I haven’t been here long, but so far as I can tell you’ve never curtailed anyone’s free speech. Considering you’re still trying to reason with Mr. Gato rather than merely banning him for ranting, I’m inclined to think your dedication to free speech is a good deal more sincere than that of very many people all across the religious spectrum.

  9. santitafarella says:

    Gunlord:

    I’m with Socrates: one way to arrive at truth is by dialectic (dialogue). And everybody has their hand on a different part of the elephant. Gato has his hand up the elephant’s ass half the time, but he’s alright. I like to talk to him.

    —Santi

  10. Ranting maybe, but definitelly not trolling, I guess.
    I just disagree with Santi’s interpretation of that christian’s view. I think he is too generous with him, and disproportionaly harsh with Coyne.
    I thought the discussion was about Coyne supposedly misrepresenting that christian’s view (“fairness in critial thinking” remember?). A view from a guy who believes the Bible should be taken literally, and who quotes a specific passage he thinks gives a good advice for what to do. Coyne critisizes that, taking his words literally, but, if I understand it correctly, Santi thinks Coyne wifully misrepresents the guy as he thinks his (the christian) words should not be taken literally. So for Santi, we have this guy who take literally the words of an antient book, but whose own words should not be taken as literally as. Maybe Santi is right, but I think, modestly, that it is a liiiiittle confusing.

    I don’t, however, think it’s barbaric to kill a dangerous animal in a human community.

    Maybe we can discuss what is more merciful to that particular animal in those particular circunstances, taking all those circunstances into account. However I don’t think a Bronze Age book have anything useful to say about this that we couldn’t figure it out ourselves. A book as Santi kindly remember that is anythink but consistent (and not only in what concerns animals).
    BTW, I’ll not say what part of the elephant Santi keeps his hands most of the time on, it would be a trollesque atitude, just use your imagination. But he is alright, he dislikes the right (:-)) guys in politics, we would agree in many things, and I like been here, I have learnt a lot.

  11. santitafarella says:

    Gato,

    I agree with you when you say this: “I don’t think a Bronze Age book have anything useful to say about this that we couldn’t figure it out ourselves.”

    My quarrel with Coyne is that if a fundamentalist stops his reductio ad absurdum short of its full implication, we should not be attempting to egg that fundamentalist to the full reductio ad absurdum. In other words, the fundamentalist who interpreted the biblical passage treated it as a wise principle, not a command to be obeyed to the letter. He advocated neither formal stoning (nor, therefore, the animal’s suffering), and he did not promote the stoning of the whale’s owners for a repeat offense. He translated the passage into very American terms, saying that he would, were he a relative, sue the pants off of Sea World!

    It’s important to let fundamentalists—for, like the poor, they will always be with us—exercise self-restraint and their own common sense in deciding where to stop. When they do stop, we should be relieved and at least notice where they stopped (and not pretend that they didn’t stop).

    —Santi

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