on Mill and mice

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) has a remarkable statement in his famous essay, “Nature.”

In analyzing the common understandings and definitions of “Nature,” he remarks that there are “two senses of the word.”  “In the first meaning, Nature is a collective name for everything which is.  In the second, it is a name for everything which is of itself, without voluntary human intervention.”  He continues, “but the employment of the word Nature as a term of ethics seems to disclose a third meaning, in which Nature does not stand for what is, but for what ought to be; or for the rule or standard of what ought to be.”

Mill goes on to challenge this third definition.  Near the end of his essay, he writes, “In sober truth, nearly all the things for which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature’s every day performances.”  He then lists some of nature’s “every day performances”–murder, burning, starving, torture, “all this, nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice…”

Of note, at this point in the text, Mill shifts from gender-neutral discussions of “Nature” to explicitly personifying her as “she.”  Hmm.

Mill’s list calls up the most brutal moments on PBS nature shows: male lions killing their cubs, tigers digging into bloody prey, sharks chomping on fish…

His list probably doesn’t conjure up a chicken.

Last Tuesday evening, our three chickens were running around their enclosure, excited about something.  At first we couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Then we realized that Caroline was carrying something in her mouth, but we couldn’t tell what it was.  It was too big for a blade of grass or leaf.  We hadn’t fed them corn on the cob.  What was it?

Ron got out the binoculars: “it’s a mouse! a baby mouse!”

Sure enough, we went outside and saw a baby mouse hanging from Caroline’s mouth with Ella and Daisy in hot pursuit.  It was admittedly comical–although not for the mouse.  Caroline would run from one corner of the enclosure to another, drop the mouse, and begin pecking at it.  But Ella and Daisy were not far behind, so Caroline would pick up the mouse again, do a combo peep/squawk that sounded an awful lot like chicken-speak for “my mouse! my mouse!”, run to another corner of the paddock, and start the routine all over again.

Finally, after a few dashes around the chicken run, Ron saw her flip the mouse into the air and swallow it whole–almost.  A few seconds later, she pecked at the ground, picked up something that looked like a tiny mouse head, carried it a few feet, and then ate it, too.

Which brings me back to Mill.

I teach Mill in my class on environmental ethics.  Some of my students, those I’ve come to call naive environmentalists (yes, that’s a crass shorthand), hate this part of Mill’s essay.  After all, they want to believe precisely what Mill is criticizing: nature good, people bad (yes, that too is a crass shorthand).

But what lessons might come from watching three chickens devour (or want to devour) a cute baby mouse, probably a native Peromyscus?  

1. Life’s short.  Eat first.

2. Don’t share, even with your chicken brethren.

As I watched this unfold in just a few minutes, ever the geek, I thought of Mill.  I also thought of Wendall Berry and an oft-cited quotation of his: “The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.”

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