Sunday, April 23, 2023

Marginal Cases and Wild Animals

Most pleasingly, the movement to bring wild animals into the sphere of moral consideration has been gaining much traction within the vegan movement. But needless to say, the central concern among vegans remains that of domesticated animals (or otherwise animals that are very directly involved with humans in some capacity). In this post, I would like to provide some philosophical ammunition to those vegans who are concerned with the plight of wild animals.

I would like us to avoid approaching this topic from any sort of environmentalist perspective (as I've noted before, I'm quite skeptical of the environmentalist movement to put it mildly). Instead, I propose that we think of this issue from the perspective of defending the interest of individual wild animals. In particular, I want us to think about this topic from the perspective of the Argument from Marginal Cases (AMC).

To briefly recap, the AMC goes something like this:

PREMISE 1: Assume that some property F that nonhuman animals lack (such as complex intelligence, moral agency, the ability to appreciate art, the ability to feel romantic attachment) is the sole determiner of moral status.

PREMISE 2: Some humans as a matter of fact do not possess F.

CONCLUSION 1: Some humans (i.e. marginal cases) do not have moral status.

PREMISE 3: But, the aforementioned marginal humans actually do have moral status.

PREMISE 4: If the aforementioned marginal humans do have moral status, then nonhuman animals also have moral status.

CONCLUSION 2: Nonhuman animals have moral status.

This much is well-known. One of the upshots of the argument is that it affords us a sort "test" which can help us in determining how we ought to act towards nonhuman animals in a given scenario. More particularly, when we find ourselves in a moral conundrum regarding nonhuman animals we can ask ourselves how we should behave in a similar situation with the nonhuman animals replaced by marginal humans. Our answer to the latter question will determine our answer to the former.

But note that this test can easily go the other way around: we can appeal to our moral obligations to marginal humans in a given scenario to determine our moral obligations to nonhuman animals in a similar scenario. To see how this works, let us consider one hypothetical case.

Suppose that we have some planet called "Urth" which is similar to ours except for one notable difference: marginal humans on Urth are abandoned to live in the wild once they reach a certain age. Marginal humans on Urth face all the same problems that wild nonhuman animals face on Earth: predation, disease, natural disasters, etc.

Now let us suppose that there is a growing human rights movement on Urth which at first was solely concerned with the plight of "domesticated" humans, but which overtime had a growing contingent of people who expressed concern over the plight of wild marginal humans. But as this growing movement becomes more vocal, they face a harsh backlash from the mainstream sectors of the human rights movement. They are told that we should only be concerned with the rights of domesticated humans and that the appropriate course of action with respect to marginal humans is to "do nothing".

We might imagine that they offer the same sorts of justifications that current mainstream vegans offer for why we should ignore the plight of wild animals: nature in itself is good, this is the way of life that is best suited to wild marginal humans, to try and do something about it might lead to disastrous consequences for the planet, etc.

What would we think about such people? Surely they are displaying at best some moral deficiency, and at worst they are literally committing evil acts by trying to stop any efforts to address the plight of these wild marginal humans? If that's the case, then it is the moral duty of humans on Urth to do what they can to reduce (or even eliminate) the suffering of wild marginal humans.

But if it is morally obligatory to do this in our hypothetical example, then by the AMC it is morally obligatory for us to do what we can to reduce and hopefully eliminate the suffering of wild nonhuman animals. To suggest otherwise will ultimately come down to rank speciesism.

So as I hope to have made clear, the duty to address the plight of wild animals falls directly out of the AMC. Thus, vegans needn't worry about sullying their hands with any of the untoward elements of environmentalism: for the imperative to reduce wild animal suffering is a natural consequence of the concern for individual sentient animals that is a hallmark of vegan philosophy.

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