A scientist found a rare bird. Then he killed it.

Let’s talk about this article from the WaPo:

For Christopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History, there is nothing like the thrill of finding a mysterious species. Such animals live at the intersection of myth and biology — tantalizing researchers with the prospect that they may be real, but eluding trustworthy documentation and closer study. Indeed, last month, Filardi waxed poetic on the hunt for the invisible beasts that nonetheless walk among us.

“We search for them in earnest but they are seemingly beyond detection except by proxy and story,” he wrote. “They are ghosts, until they reveal themselves in a thrilling moment of clarity and then they are gone again. Maybe for another day, maybe a year, maybe a century.”

Filardi was moved because, trolling what he called “the remote highlands” of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he had found a bird he had searched more than two decades for: the moustached kingfisher.

“Described by a single female specimen in the 1920s, two more females brought to collectors by local hunters in the early 1950s, and only glimpsed in the wild once,” he wrote. “Scientists have never observed a male. Its voice and habits are poorly known. Given its history of eluding detection, realistic hopes of finding the bird were slim.”

Yet, defying the odds, Filardi did just that.

After setting mist nets across the forest, he and his team secured a male specimen with a “magnificent all-blue back” and a bright orange face. The discovery brought quite the declaration — “Oh my god, the kingfisher” — and led Filardi to liken it to “a creature of myth come to life.”And then, Filardi killed it — or, in the parlance of scientists, “collected” it.

This was not trophy hunting — but outrage ensued.

This is an interesting test case given our recent conversation about animals on Mere Fidelity. There are a number of moral questions related to animals where the morality of the act isn’t really in question—factory farming is a good example. I don’t know anyone who says it is a good thing that we treat animals in such deplorable ways. The question is how that treatment relates to broader economic realities—should we tolerate the treatment if it means cheaper food for the world? Are there ways of providing affordable food without resorting to such treatment of animals?

This article, however, raises very different questions. We’re not dealing with trophy hunting or the wanton abuse of animals. There isn’t a clear case of thoughtless cruelty in this story. Rather, we’re dealing with a scientist who has chosen to kill a single bird so that scientists can study the bird, learn about it, and preserve a specimen of it for the future. He felt comfortable killing this individual bird because all the evidence we have suggests that there is a large population and the loss of one male bird will not hurt them.

The question here is not, in other words, about widescale abuse of a large population of animals. We’re not dealing with a case where the action being discussed is obviously wrong but the economics related to that action create a number of challenges.

Rather, it is a much harder question that concerns the necessity of certain types of human knowledge and the justice of sacrificing one individual creature for the greater good of scientific advancement. (And yes, there are a number of phrases in that last sentence that are worth debating in themselves—we can start with “the greater good” and “scientific advancement.”)

I want us to discuss this because this is going to force us to ask a different kind of question then we typically ask in talking about animal welfare issues. But I think these questions may, in some ways, actually be far more important. Is “scientific knowledge” authoritative, for example? If something that is authoritative is anything which in itself calls us to a certain sort of action (this is how O’Donovan defines authority in, I believe, Resurrection and Moral Order) then is scientific knowledge authoritative? And, if it is, what are the limits of that authority?

We must also set those claims next to the claims of the individual bird being killed. In what way is respect for individual lives authoritative?

Finally, there is a further question that stands behind all the rest: How should future concerns factor into our thinking on these questions? A large part of the argument for “collecting” the bird was preserving a specimen for posterity, but that assumes that posterity needs to have knowledge of this particular bird and that their need for knowledge of it is more important than that individual bird’s life.