Ethics@work: Are fur boycotts worth the effort?

This week the Castro fashion chain bowed to customer demands to discontinue selling fur products.

fur 88 (photo credit: )
fur 88
(photo credit: )
This week the Castro fashion chain bowed to customer demands (backed by demonstrations and boycotts) to discontinue selling fur products. The anti-fur lobby has become very influential, and its ethical claims are worthy of study. Of course the root of the demand is the concern for animal suffering. This concern is very widespread in human history, and has been given two ethical justifications. The most widespread justification is the belief that animals too have feelings and a capacity for pleasure or pain, thus their well being is an a priori ethical concern. This is the position of many utilitarian ethicists. In Judaism, this approach to animal welfare is expressed in the prohibition on tza'ar baalei chaim, or animal suffering, though only gratuitous suffering is actually forbidden. Kant believed that the basis of ethical rights was rationality, and could not accept that animals had inherent rights; he considered cruelty to animals unethical because of its tendency to encourage cruel characteristics in people. This approach is also mentioned in Jewish tradition; Nachmanides states that slaughterers of large animals often have a tendency toward cruelty. The riddle that has always occupied me is not why there is an anti-fur lobby, but rather why activists are focused on this tiny industry (about $2 billion annual US sales) and not for instance on the leather industry (about $10 b.) or the meat industry (over $100 b.). What's the difference? Is it only the political strength of the industry, or are there substantive ethical distinctions? IT TURNS OUT that there are a lot of reasons. I'm going to play armchair ethicist and rate them. The most logical reason is that almost all animals killed for meat and leather are slaughtered, whereas a large number of animals killed for their fur are killed in ways which involve prolonged suffering, such as trapping or clubbing. This reason follows logically from the concern for suffering. However, a considerable number of furs come from fur farms, and these also incur the wrath of the anti-fur lobby. They publicize the horrible conditions of animals raised in these ranches, but as Israelis generally know from the poultry farms here, fowl raised for meat are hardly better treated. But there are two claims applying uniquely to fur: furs are damaged by slaughter, so fur merchants use killing methods which involve more prolonged suffering. In addition, the claim is made that the species raised in these farms are not domesticated but rather wild animals raised in captivity, which means that the ranch conditions themselves involve more suffering than is endured by livestock. This approach has support from Jewish sources. The Talmud tells us that we should feed our animals before we feed ourselves. Rabbi Yaakov Emden explains that the reason is not to add insult to injury. Feeding our animals, he writes, is not a favor we do them; animals are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. By domesticating and captivating them we take away this ability; the least we can do is to feed them in a prompt manner. We see that taking away the independence of wild creatures creates certain ethical obligations toward them which would not apply to the same extent to a domestic animal. I'm convinced that much of the opposition to fur comes from the fact that furry animals just seem so cute (baby seals) or noble (foxes). This motivation wouldn't have much legitimacy from a utilitarian point of view, but Kant would probably love it. The more we feel a sense of empathy with animals, the more abusing them will dull our sense of ethical sensitivity toward people. Last, and ethically least, furs are viewed as a luxury item and some people are naturally resentful of any kind of conspicuous consumption. This consideration is not completely lacking in support; after all, to the extent that furs are a luxury the killing is closer to being gratuitous, and if wearing furs is truly conspicuous consumption, a way to lord it over others, then perhaps it would be better to do away with them even if they don't involve animal suffering. The problem with this approach is that I don't think furs in general are more conspicuously luxurious than jewelry or nice houses or many other luxury items that a few people have and lots of people want. Above all, Castro is not stopping the sale of $10,000 mink stoles, but of ordinary coats with a bit of fur trim. The Talmud tells a story about Rabbi Judah the Prince, the pious and learned leader of Israeli Jewry almost 2,000 years ago. A calf on the way to slaughter sought refuge in Rabbi Judah's garment; he sent it away stating: "For this you were created." The Talmud relates that this response was frowned upon "on high"; such an exalted figure should have displayed more sensitivity. Now Jewish law doesn't frown on slaughtering animals for food, and Rabbi Judah wasn't called on to actually rescue the calf. Still, a measure of understanding and thoughtfulness is appropriate. In the end, I think that anti-fur arguments are valid but limited. I certainly don't see any justification for a total boycott of fur products, or the sellers of fur products. But I do see the basis for judicious consideration of the source of fur and the real benefit of wearing it. Likewise, just as Rabbi Judah was held to a higher standard of ethical sensitivity toward animals because of his high standing, I can agree that furs are a poor choice as a status symbol. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in The Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.