Wearing Hand-Me-Down Fur
I am pleased to post this from Beirut, the city of my birth and one of my two homes (Chicago being the other, of course).
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a dinner party in Chicago. I met a very interesting woman, with whom I chatted quite a bit about politics and psychology. At the end of the evening, when everyone was getting their coats to leave, I noticed that hers was genuine fur (I didn’t ask from which kind of animal the fur came). Given my occasional obnoxious nature, having taken an oath to speak up against animal cruelty, and having taken myself to have some “cred” with her by that point in the evening, I asked her, in the most morally outraged tone I could muster while also sounding amicable, “Is that real fur?” She immediately assured me that even though it was real fur, it was also a hand-me-down, and that she would never actually buy real fur.
That was somewhat reassuring. But I also decided to think more about the question, “Is it okay to wear hand-me-down fur?” I had always thought that the answer was yes, but this answer sat very uneasily with me. It nagged at me. And after my encounter with Ms. Fur at the party I decided to try to think through it more (it really did not need a lot more thinking through, as you’ll see).
Let’s first ask: What reasons might people offer for thinking that it is okay to wear hand-me-down fur even though they would never buy new fur? One reason is that they are proud or happy to wear something that is a family heirloom, that was given to them by a grandmother or a great-aunt.
Another reason, which I suspect is more prominent, is that by not buying the fur, they are not perpetuating or supporting a bad industry. This is true. But is not supporting a bad industry the only morally relevant aspect?
One other aspect is not sending the wrong message: (some) people who see the fur, not knowing that it is a hand-me-down, might think, “Oh, it’s not so bad buying fur. Maybe I’ll buy one next time I have a few extra dollars around.” Since, however, many people don’t really care about fur or animals, such thoughts probably do not occur to them. And even those people to whom such thoughts do occur, they might not act on them (that is, such thoughts might be fleeting or non-motivating). This is why I wish to focus on a third aspect: What it means to be a person who wears fur, hand-me-down, bought, found in a dark alleyway, or whatever.
How to explore this? One good way is through conducting a thought experiment. Suppose that in the recent past we used to breed a group of human beings (let’s call them the “brilliantly-skinned people”) whose skin had an extra shine or glimmer to it. After killing them, we harvested their skin and made bags, jackets, shoes, etc. out of it.
Now we know better. We no longer breed such brilliantly-skinned people, let alone harvest and use their skin. But their skin-products are still around, and many people have such products because their grandfather or grandmother handed them a jacket or a bag made from such human skin.
Would you wear it? Of course not. Why not? Not because it “perpetuates” the industry, especially since by hypothesis this industry no longer exists. You would not wear it because to do so would be to demonstrate a kind of disregard and callousness to a past practice that we would do best to not show off (which is not the same as not discussing it, writing about it, etc.). To wear or carry such products is to exhibit yourself as an inconsiderate, thoughtless, and morally immature person. You would be, in short, vicious, and no one wants to be that.
Moreover, even if it has some sentimental value (“It was my grandfather’s!”), you would recognize that your grandfather, kind man as he was, bought it during a time when people had a moral blind spot about the treatment and dignity of the brilliantly-skinned people. Perhaps you can keep it tucked somewhere, or maybe donate it to a museum. But wear it? Absolutely not.
Well, don’t the same reasons apply to fur? Harvesting fur is done under the most atrocious circumstances and by ending the lives of some of the most majestic and beautiful animals in the world. Your attitude to wearing it should be, if not the same as your attitude to wearing or carrying the products of the brilliantly-skinned people, pretty close.
Someone will object with ire: “You dare to compare our treatment to human beings and to non-human animals? They are vastly different, so the comparison does not support your point.” I reply: “There is no reason to not compare our treatment of human beings to that of non-human animals. But in this case I happen to be making no such comparison. The point is really about the moral justification of wearing or displaying something that was made through unnecessary cruelty. And to make this point, I need not believe that human beings and non-human animals are comparable with each other, let alone have equal moral status. After all, even if people have a higher moral status than non-human animals, the latter can still be treated terribly and with indignity.
So to wear and use their products as if none of the above were true is to show disregard and callousness towards their treatment. It is to be vicious. And no one wants to be that.
(P.S. 1: The same reasoning applies to showing or exhibiting objects that are not worn, such as statuettes made of ivory.)
(P.S. 2: The same reasoning applies to wearing or displaying products made out of more “humdrum” animals, such as shoes and belts made out of calfskin and cowhide rugs. Does the reasoning take us all the way to veganism? Not necessarily, because there is a principled difference between using animal products that do not necessitate the death of the animal or its cruel treatment and those that do.)