By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge
Philosophical conversations about animals really only focus on those animals we have domesticated. Discussions about vegetarianism, animal testing and the ethics of keeping pets systematically leave out our ethical duties to animals in the wild. Our instinctive reaction is likely that, given the harms inflicted on wild animals by the human caused climate crisis, the best thing for us is to simply leave them be as much as possible. However, this idea has been challenged as people have looked more deeply into these realities of what life is like for a wild animal. In the remainder of this article, I present an argument for why intervention is ethically required and what this might look like in practice.
Firstly, we should begin by asking what life is like in the wild for the average animal. Kyle Johannsen argues that many of us imagine nature as an idyllic place where animals live flourishing ‘natural’ lives free from human meddling. This is understandable since most of the media we consume tends to portray nature in this way. Where suffering is featured it is typically focused on large adult mammals suffering from human causes – think starving polar bears on melting ice. It is dangerous to equate ‘natural’ with valuable or good – consider that polio cancer, earthquakes and tsunamis are all natural.
In reality, the majority of sentient life is full of suffering, largely due to the reproductive strategy that most animals employ. Unlike humans and other large animals who produce a few offspring that they care for and protect (k-strategists), most animals are r-strategists meaning they protect their genes by having hundreds or thousands of offspring in the hope that a few will survive into adulthood. In other words, the vast majority of their offspring will die before adulthood in ways that are typically quick and painful, such as being eaten by a predator, or slow and painful, like dying from starvation, disease of exposure.
Once we accept that most wild animal lives are full of suffering and that animals are worthy of our moral consideration, it is natural to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better if things were different. If we could reduce animal suffering with minimal cost to ourselves, wouldn’t it be good if we did so? Indeed, wouldn’t it be bad if we didn’t? Many philosophers accept similar styles of reasoning when it comes to humans, such as Peter Singer’s argument that we are obliged to help those suffering from poverty around the world even though we have no personal relationships with them. Wild animals can clearly suffer just as humans can. To exclude them from our moral consideration is just an expression of an unjustified prejudice on the basis of species.
What can be done to reduce wild animal suffering? Options range in how radically they require nature to be restructured. On the lesser end, some philosophers defend vaccinating animals to alleviate harms from preventable disease or removing parasitic species like screw flies that tend to cause very painful deaths. By contrast, more radical proposals include using gene editing techniques (notably CRISPR) to lessen wild animal’s ability to suffer or alter their reproductive habits to reduce juvenile mortality. At this point it is unclear whether any of these more radical options could be achieved without upsetting the delicate balance of ecosystems and inadvertently causing more harm than good.
As a result of these pragmatic concerns, most people who defend intervention are only calling for research rather than radical action. However, if we had the capacity and knowledge to intervene with confidence, the question remains whether it would be required of us. Given the rate of technological development, it is a practical certainty that we will have to engage with these issues as a species so we cannot afford to demur. After all, failure to choose is itself still an ethically significant choice.
Wild animal ethics: The moral and political problem of wild animal suffering – Kyle Johannsen
Concern for wild animal suffering and environmental ethics: What are the limits of disagreement – Oscar Horta
Various articles about wild animal suffering on the website www.animal-ethics.org