According to the World Wildlife Fund, the West Africa black rhino (D. b. longipes) is classified as Probably Extinct. Although, in 2011 the subspecies was declared officially extinct. The black rhino used to live across most of the Savannahs of West Africa, but threats such as hunting, poaching and habitat loss contributed to its demise. These are the same threats affecting the remaining rhino subspecies. Over the last few years hundreds of rhinos have been poached for their horns, which some cultures believe have medicinal properties. Then there’s the rhino-horn art trade, a trade in which artisans create ornate sculptures out of rhino horns; this also happens with elephant tusks (ivory trade).
In July of 2011, Lark Mason appraised a set of five Chinese cups carved from rhinoceros horn, circa 1700, valued at $1 to $1.5 million, setting a ROADSHOW record. The 300-year-old objects were undoubtedly the work of master artisans, and were made in a time when rhinoceros were more plentiful than they are today: Currently, there are only five surviving species of rhinoceros, and every one of them is threatened, some critically so, because of desire for their horns. The result is that many people find the trade in rhinoceros-horn antiques grossly unethical, even when it is legal. -Ben Phelan (Antiques Roadshow)
I’ll not addressing the issues related to poaching animals for medicinal reasons today, but I will discuss the moral considerations related to using animal parts for art. What I find remarkable about the above quote is that it implies that killing animals for art is fine as long as the animals are plentiful. Not many people in the western world feel guilty about leather because cows are plentiful and leather is just a byproduct of the meat industry. And perhaps if rabbits, foxes and seals were factory farmed for meat maybe people wouldn’t feel bad about the fur trade. Does this mean that if it were very easy to breed rhinos, easy as it is to breed cows, we have no qualms about killing them for their horns?
Many of us don’t question the argument that it’s morally acceptable to use animal parts for art if the animal is abundant and the animal part is simply a byproduct of a larger process. My question is why is it acceptable in general to use their parts for art? Before you considered the supply, before you considered the byproduct, you had a fundamental belief of acceptability. For instance, in modern times we find it acceptable to kill thousands of people (i.e. the enemy) in war times, but unacceptable to desecrate their bodies. In the past it was acceptable in certain cultures to use the remains of war enemies for artistic purposes. Now it’s taboo. Why is unacceptable if the person is already dead? His or her deceased body is just a byproduct of war and there are still billions of people remaining on the planet. The fundamental reason may simply be that we empathize with our species, so regardless of supply (human population) or if the death is an acceptable byproduct (as in the case of war) we are fundamentally morally opposed to supplying human parts for art. (Unless the body is being used for science, then we pay to see it. See “The Bodies Revealed Exhibit.”)
It’s silly that I have to point this out, but I don’t condone using human remains for art. I’m simply trying to understand the premises of an argument. It seems to me the issue of having a steady supply and byproduct, are not what we should be focusing on. If these rationalizations remain the focus, we will always be dealing with different species going extinct. I think perhaps it’s time for us to reevaluate the fundamental belief underlying these rationalizations. Although art enriches our lives, a leather boot, a fur coat, an ivory statue is not essential to our survival.
***I’ve owned leather products whole life and it’s only recently I’ve made a conscious decision to stop buying them. I was no longer convinced by my “abundance” and “byproduct” rationalizations.***
By the way, I’m very open to respectable debate 🙂