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Fur and the No-Need Argument

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Animal rights activists and so-called animal protectionists regularly argue that the public shouldn’t buy or wear fur because it is no longer needed. Fur may have been necessary in the olden days, they concede, but for modern, civilized, and presumably technologically advanced humans, fur is a cruel and gratuitous clothing choice. The puritanical nature of the argument can be seen easily by reading sample letters created by The Humane Society of the United States, a prominent animal-rights lobbying group.

At first glance, the “no need” argument feels compelling. What is wrong with eliminating a perceived luxury in order to reduce suffering in another creature? Well, in one sense, nothing. But the principle raises some interesting questions and conundrums that aren’t always considered, if we are to use this principle in any sort of consistent way.

For example, to what extent does one’s life situation determine what is “needful”? A farmer may feel the need to eliminate some flooding on his land by trapping beaver. Should he throw the pelts away because they are not needed? Or should he sell them to the fur buyer because they can be used to create beautiful coats?

If the goal of opposing fur coats is to “help the animals,” then shouldn’t we have some assurances that alternative methods of producing coats don’t harm animals or at least as many animals as fur trapping is alleged to cause? Consider that many jackets are made from crude oil. Is oil production, transport, refinement, conversion to fabric, etc. animal friendly? If you say, “Yes”, do you believe in human-caused global warming? Isn’t oil production condemned as a significant contributor to global warming? What about global pollution? Does that harm animals? Does anyone remember the Deep Water Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico?

Perhaps this sort of moral mathematics is difficult and abstract. Some would suggest that the simplest moral behavior is the best, and thus questions about global warming or oil pollution are too complex when considered against the simple truths of saving Mr. Beaver. Yet fur harvesting is a renewable resource that obtains money from the environment without destroying either the underlying habitat or the fur-bearing animals themselves. Those fur checks help pay bills for those living in rural communities, as well as helping producers mitigate damage caused by wildlife (See Michael R. Conover. Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts [2001] for discussion on the economic costs of wildlife damage in the U.S.). Is extracting wealth from the environment without destroying it a need that justifies using beaver?

These conundrums occur only when you have a faulty moral premise in the first place: that the status of animals is elevated beyond where God, or (for atheists) nature, intended. Interestingly, only those with a proper Biblical world view have an appropriate perspective to understand and decide the moral complexities of humanity’s use of nature. A Biblical world view understands that use of nature, including animals, is not equivalent to abuse of nature.

In fact, when we raise animals to an unjust pedestal we actually harm the natural environment and demean human dignity. But that is the topic for another time.