The Morality of Cockfighting

Should eaters of chicken decry cockfighting?

Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-07-14

Human relations with animals are complex and laden with cultural significance. Americans dote upon our pets. We also like to eat meat. Many of us enjoy hunting. But public opinion has turned against animal blood sports, which were once forms of popular entertainment.

The most obvious case of our changing view of animals is the crackdown on cockfighting. Last week, for example, in Tulare County, police arrested the people who sell the sharp knives that are attached to the fighting roosters. Later that week, the police busted five people at a cockfight — again in Tulare County. At the beginning of July, the state Assembly unanimously agreed to double the fine for cockfighting and other animal fighting. The U.S. Senate has included an anti-animal fighting provision as part of this year’s national Farm Bill. Even Michael Vick, the former dogfighter, has called for stiffer cockfighting penalties.

So what’s so bad about cockfighting? Well, it can be dangerous to humans. A Bakersfield man bled to death last year after he was cut by a rooster’s knife. Cockfighting is also linked to other illicit activities: gambling, gangs, and drugs.

But defenders of cockfighting argue that the cockfight is an important part of some cultures. Cockfighting is a popular in Asia, some Pacific islands, and in parts of Latin America. On one interpretation, the sport is a celebration of masculine values: courage, fierceness, strength, and pride.

The ancient Greeks trained fighting birds. American Presidents — Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — were supposedly involved in the sport. Lincoln is supposed to have defended cockfighting by saying, “As long as the Almighty has permitted intelligent men, created in his likeness to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it’s not for me to deprive the chickens of the same privilege.”

This apocryphal quote makes you wonder whether there is much difference between watching a cockfight and a human fight. It is socially acceptable to cheer at human boxing matches and cage fights. But why then is it not acceptable to cheer on fighting roosters?

Perhaps the problem with cockfighting is that, unlike human fighting, the roosters fight to the death. But chicken killing does not bother most of us. According to the National Chicken Council, Americans consume 9 billion chickens per year — 83 pounds of chicken per capita every year. Hundreds of birds are killed every second to feed our appetite for chicken. So why should we worry about cockfighting?

I talked about these points with Andrew Fenton, an expert on animal ethics who is also my colleague in the Philosophy Department at Fresno State. Professor Fenton reminded me of the need to be sensitive to the values of the communities involved in the sport. Cockfighting is associated with minority and immigrant subcultures living in rural communities. Fenton suggested that there may be ways to help those in animal fighting subcultures see — on their own terms — that animal cruelty is wrong. But at the end of the day, cultural sensitivity is no excuse for cruelty.

Fenton is critical of both cockfighting and intensive animal agriculture. Both practices involve manipulating animals in unnatural ways for human enjoyment. He claims that a more “agrarian ethic” would care for the natural needs of animals.

Fenton pointed out similarities between the way that cockfighters breed and train ferocious roosters and the way that the poultry industry breeds delicious and fast-growing broilers. Fenton concluded, “Intensive animal farming is not any less cruel than cockfighting.”

Fenton further pointed out that while it is appropriate to be outraged by the visible cruelty of the cockfight, there is quite a bit of cruelty that remains invisible to us. Those who will suffer most from the crackdown on cockfighting will be the invisible among us: immigrants and others for whom animal blood sports are culturally significant.

Humans are thrilled by fighting sports and spilled blood. We also like to eat meat. Our food choices and sporting preferences have deep cultural significance for us. Perhaps eliminating cockfighting is a step in the right direction. But we still need more critical insight into our appetite for meat, our fascination with blood sports, and the cultural traditions that influence our thinking about these things.