Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Reflections on Wild Animal Suffering

I want to begin some reflections on a problem that seems to be ignored far too often in the Vegan movement, and that is the question of animals in the wild. We vegans tend to be hyper-focused on the plight of animals exploited in factory farms and in vivisection labs (this is surely a result of the exploitative first-world systems that many of us live under), but we must not forget that animals in the wild ought also to be on the agenda as well.

Now we should note a prominent difference between the plight of wild animals versus the plight of domestic animals. In short, the domestic animals in the factory farms and vivisection labs in the industrialized world are directly exploited by humans as part of a massive industry that exists for the sole purpose of their exploitation. Animals in the wild are for the most part not in the same sort of situation (although there is the exception of hunting).

The plight of wild animals enters the picture when we consider such things as predation, starvation, parasitism, etc. In other words, the plight of animals in the wild occurs as a result of the evolutionary struggle to exploit resources in the environment.

This crucial difference that we have noted is key, for the vast majority of wild animals are almost certainly not moral agents. What follows from this is that we cannot hold wild animals morally culpable for their actions, for no matter what flavor of moral epistemology you subscribe to (whether that be rationalism, intuitionism, sentimentalism, emotional presentationism, etc), wild animals cannot successfully attain knowledge of the standards of morality. This fact alone makes the question concerning wild animals much more sensitive than the question concerning human exploitation of animals.

But I think one thing is certainly clear, and that is that we do find ourselves confronted with a moral situation that requires action of some kind. Why should we draw this conclusion? Quite simply because the reasoning behind the Argument from Marginal Cases (AMC) leads us directly to it. For imagine a situation where we had large numbers of marginal humans that were dying with regularity due to such things as predation, starvation, disease, and parasitism.

If we as moral agents came upon this kind of situation and decided that we ought not do anything to alleviate it, then we would exhibit a profound moral failing. It is clear enough that something must be done in this scenario. And since non-human animals are no different from marginal humans in any morally relevant sense, it obviously follows that something must be done to alleviate the horrors of wild animal life in nature.

But what to do about it? Other philosophers have thought about this very same issue and have proposed some plans for action. David Pearce in his essay 'Reprogramming Predators' has laid out 3 possible solutions. It is crucial to note that the solutions all turn upon how we should deal with obligate carnivores. This is sensible enough, for obligate carnivores undoubtedly cause an inordinate amount of death and suffering in nature, so attacking the problem from that perspective would surely be fruitful. The three proposals are as follows:

1. Forced Extinction - This is without a doubt the most extreme proposal on the market. We could also throw in the 'Wildlife Anti-Natalism' proposed by Magnus Vinding in his essay entitled "The Speciesism of Leaving Nature Alone.' This might very well be an effective solution to the problem, but I find it to be problematic when viewed through the lens of a rights-based perspective. Despite the fact that they regularly cause a large amount of pain and suffering, obligate carnivores are still ends-in-themselves and ought to be treated with respect. I do not think it would be wise to rush headlong into such an extreme course of action.

Now the obvious response to this might be to point out that the proposal in question is just an example of extensional self defense. Surely all of the wild animals that are eaten by obligate carnivores are under attack on a daily basis. Is it not then incumbent upon us to do whatever is in our power to put a stop to it?

I do see the force and the reasoning behind this objection. But the crucial point at issue is that obligate carnivores are not moral agents, and this certainly adds a notable level of complexity into the equation. If we came across a marginal human that was just about to kill another marginal human, would we also be obligated to kill the attacker in order to save the victim? Perhaps we would. But when it comes to the problem of suffering among wild animals, I want us to make sure that we have tried every possible alternative before we even consider the prospect of forced extinction.

(As an aside, I am well aware that Pearce and Vinding do not support mass killings of obligate carnivores, but I still harbor the same attitude with regard to enforced contraception and any similar policy).

2. Genetic Reprogramming - Now this is a rather interesting proposal. There are several different ways that we could go about doing this. Pearce suggests that we might be able to create remote controlled obligate carnivores that we can actively prevent from killing other wild animals; although from the perspective of the carnivore this choice is actually under its voluntary control. On the other hand, we could also modify the genetic makeup of obligate carnivores such that they no longer need to eat other animals and no longer have the desire to hunt other animals.

I should note right off the bat that I find the notion of remote-controlled obligate carnivores to be morally problematic from a rights-based perspective, for by doing this we would be treating obligate carnivores as a means to an end by not allowing them to exercise their free will. Granted, one might respond to this by saying that free will is an illusion and wild animals are already slaves to their biology, but I am an incompatibilist libertarian when it comes to this issue, so I do not regard this objection as being of any value. But I will not get into any of this right now, lest it lead us off track.

Changing the genetic code of obligate carnivores does seem to be rather different. Here we are not directly enslaving the will of the carnivore. but I would want to be cautious about this course of action due to the potential issue of unforeseen consequences. It is quite conceivable that an attempted genetic manipulation of an obligate carnivore could lead to massive problems for the animal. If we are going to go down this route, then we will need to make sure that we have a sufficient understanding of genetics and sufficient computational power at our disposal.

3 Feeding In-Vitro Meat to Obligate Carnivores - I find this option to be quite attractive, primarily because it does not involve any sort of mass genocide or mental slavery. Using this method, we can allow obligate carnivores to remain intact quite as they are, without the large numbers of deaths that are currently necessitated by their dietary habits. Indeed, it is even possible that over a certain number of generations the evolutionary process might get rid of the instinctive drive to kill and eat other animals.

Of course there are some challenges associated with this approach, the primary one being that of assuring access to the in vitro meat. We can lay out all the in vitro meat that we want, but if obligate carnivores do not partake of it and instead elect to continue hunting and eating animals as normal, it is all for nought. So what we need to do is ensure that in vitro meat can be produced both quickly and cheaply, and also we need to ensure that we have sufficient computing power. If the living habitats of obligate carnivores are computationally accessible, then we would be able to apply machine learning algorithms to their behaviors so that we can determine the most desirable locations to place the in vitro meat.

Those are the concrete proposals, but quite apart from all that I would like to lay out some constraints that I think we are morally obligated to adhere to. The first such constraint is that of respecting the natural world and intruding upon it to the least degree possible. Now this might sound strange in the context of wild animal suffering, but there are numerous strands of argument that recommend this as a sensible constraint. For one thing, it is quite possible that some intervention intended to eliminate predation might have unforeseen environmental consequences that could lead to a global catastrophe. More fundamentally, perhaps we have moral duties directly to the environment itself.

But if that is too much to swallow, then suffice it to say that I think a sufficient reason for taking the environment into account is the fact that the natural world is the common home for all animals, whether human or nonhuman. This being the case, it is only sensible that we duly take its condition into account.

The other constraint I have in mind is that of making the least possible amount of changes. In other words, the ideal outcome is to have the animal kingdom remain exactly as it currently is, with the sole exception being that all current obligate carnivores are now obligate herbivores.

A far less ideal outcome in my mind would be to so radically alter the phenotypes of the various obligate carnivores that they come out looking more or less like our current herbivores. The vast degree of phenotypic variation in the animal kingdom is in my mind a wonderful thing and, barring some sort of argument to the contrary, I see no reason why we should reduce it to any degree if such is not needed.

All in all, I am proposing that we follow a Principle of Least Interference when it comes to the natural environment. By this I mean that we should leave the environment (including all of the animals that inhabit it) quite as it currently is as far as possible, intervening only when doing so is a moral issue. Though the issue is beyond the scope of the current essay, this might very well entail intervening in the natural world to provide immortality to all of the other animals, insofar as we might be morally obligated to do so. But I think it certainly means that something must be done to counteract the massive amount of death and suffering in the wild at this time.

Now there is an obvious counter-argument to these observations that I have already alluded to, and that is the idea that we should not pursue any of these proposals because there might be truly catastrophic unforeseen consequences.

To this I have two rejoinders. Firstly, I do not think that we should even begin an honest attempt at a solution to these problems until we have inculcated a universal vegan ethic in humanity. Doing this will give us the vision and moral courage needed to tackle the problem. In addition, we must make sure that we have the requisite computational power at our disposal in order that we may spot any potential consequences beforehand and avoid them accordingly.

Secondly, I think this objection really only holds weight if we are utilitarians. Due to the defective ethico-logical structure of utilitarian theory, the problem of unforeseen consequences is always ever-present and leads to a general stultification of our moral activities. A duly constituted ethical theory that is not consequentialist in nature can avoid the problem of unforeseen consequences.

What I mean here can best be demonstrated by appealing to a favored analogy of the utilitarian camp. Imagine that we come across a drowning child. We might prima facie feel that we have a moral obligation to rescue this child, but imagine someone pointing out the fact that our doing so might lead to a chain of unforeseen consequences that would lead to wholesale destruction of all life on earth. If we are utilitarians, we might then conclude that we ought not save the child, because to do so at the expense of the extinction of all life would create a massive imbalance in the utilitarian calculus. In fact, exotic possible outcomes of the kind in question could very easily lead to a total nullification of ethical activity.  However, a rigorously formulated ethical theory with the requisite underlying logic would not allow us to make this inference. By duly accounting for such notions as intention and character, we can overcome any sort of moral nullification that these scenarios might create and get on with the business of trying to live the good life.

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