Many people have a romanticized view of wild animals; they think wild animals are like Spartan warriors who do not feel pain, or, at least, do not feel it to the extent that humans and domesticated animals do. This is simply untrue. All the reasons to believe that humans are conscious also apply to animals. This happens in the case of wild animals just as it happens in the case of domesticated ones.
Wild animals have nervous systems that are not substantially different from ours. In fact, many of these animals are very similar to, or just like, animals that humans usually consider to be conscious. Consider wolves versus dogs, wild cats versus domesticated cats, wild birds versus chickens, and boars versus pigs. It seems hard to believe that only some of them could be sentient or could suffer less than the others.
Some people might think that the continuous threats of injury, hunger, pain, and fear in the life of wild animals makes them more insensitive to it; however there is no evidence for this. Wild animals do suffer, just as we or domesticated animals would suffer in such situations. The fact that such difficult situations are constant and familiar to wild animals does not mean that they do not suffer. It just means that their lives may be full of pain, both physically and psychologically. They endure it not because it’s easy for them but because they have no choice.
Nonhuman animals living in the wild have to be continuously aware of all possible risks to their survival, which makes their short lives deeply stressful. Social animals also have to cope with sorrow and grief associated with the harm and threat of harm to their relatives. While not all animals in the wild experience such psychological suffering, living in the wild makes them vulnerable to physical suffering, which alone can still be awful.1
In addition to the harms of physical pain and psychological suffering, nonhuman animals who survive infancy still often die at a very young age due to injury, illness, hunger, or predation. Death is a harm as well, since it deprives a beings of future life experiences they might have had.
All of these points lead to the conclusion that we need to consider the similarities of suffering among all types of animals in our moral decisions. The claim that wild animals can’t be harmed to the degree humans and domesticated animals are is wrong and terribly misleading.
It is sometimes assumed that animals in the wild live great lives simply because they are free, as if freedom automatically entails a good life. This is not necessarily true.
Theorists of liberty commonly point out that freedom does not simply mean that a being is not forced to do something. Beings need to be able to do what they want to do or what will be good for them. Most nonhuman animals do not have this level of freedom.
Consider the case of a poor young child who, rather than playing and going to school, must work in terrible conditions and for a miserable salary in order not to starve. This child may not be a slave and may have the option to choose not to work for their survival, but we can’t really claim that they are free in any meaningful sense. They can’t really choose what to do or they will not survive, much like wild animals who must undergo continuous threats and have to suffer extreme situations that they have no choice over. This cannot be considered freedom. Animals who die shortly after being born can’t be said to be living free, because they have such little chance to live at all in the first place, and because they have almost no chance to exercise freedom at all in that short life.2 Yet this is the fate of most animals who are ever born. Some animals lay hundreds, thousands, or even millions of eggs at a time. For populations to remain stable, most of their offspring will die shortly after coming into existence, victims of either starvation or predation.
Freedom is not all that matters in human terms. For some, being free is good because it means that personal fulfillment can be achieved or that a person won’t be harmed by oppression. But what matters ultimately is that your preferences are not thwarted and that you don’t suffer because you are oppressed. Being free is good because it can help you to achieve that. However, if there is no way in which you can live a life free from harm, being free can’t help you. If your freedom only allows you to die in pain, as is often the case for wild animals, then it is not going to help you much.3
It is sometimes argued that living in the wild allows nonhuman animals to express and fulfill their true natures, or to develop their capacities, but this doesn’t really seem to be the case, either. One has to be alive in order to live according to one’s nature. Most animals who are born die shortly after coming into existence. Setting aside the fact that their deaths are often terrible and painful, if we just focus on whether they can develop their capacities and fulfill their natures, it seems clear that they can’t in such a short life. When we consider human infants who die shortly after birth, we don’t talk about how much they benefited from the freedom to develop their capacities or fulfill their natures.
It may be countered that there is little we can do about this fact of nature that most animals don’t survive past infancy, and that we can only concern ourselves with those who do survive, but then we have to ask if simply realizing one’s potential or capacities is good for individuals. Is it something good in and of itself, regardless of the consequences? Or is the possession and fulfillment of these capacities relevant only to the extent that it allows us to satisfy our wishes and to have good experiences, rather than frustration and suffering, in our lives?
There is a speciesist view according to which humans using animals as resources is justifiable because nonhuman animals harm each other in nature. This argument cannot be accepted. The fact that an individual (whether a human or a nonhuman animal) harms others does not justify humans adding to the harm that already exists. We don’t try to justify human violence against other humans by pointing out the already widespread existence of war, rape, and murder.
When thinking about preventable harms, it makes little sense to oppose only some harms that come to certain animals. Yet this is done, even by some who reject the idea that it’s okay to cause harm to some animals because others suffer naturally in the wild.
Some theorists with environmentalist views have argued that the way humans think about domesticated animals should be different from the way we think about wild animals.4 This view must be rejected for moral reasons because if all animals with central nervous system can feel suffering and joy, they should be respected5 regardless of where they live.
Basically, suffering is suffering, and deprivation of happiness is deprivation of happiness regardless of the being who is suffering. This is the main antispeciesist claim, and it can be applied not only when we consider the interests of humans and nonhumans, but equally when we consider the interests of different nonhuman animals. The opposition to speciesism means rejecting favoring some nonhuman animals over others.
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1 Rachels, J. (2009) “Vegetarianism”, Philosopher James Rachels (1941-2003).
2 See in particular Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two concepts of liberty”, in Berlin, I. (1969) Four essays on liberty, London: Oxford University Press. See also: Gray, T. (1991) Freedom, London: Macmillan; Miller, D. (ed.), Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3 This is different from the claim that freedom matters when it has to do with autonomy, which theorists such as Alasdair Cochrane claim only some animals, but not others, have. See Cochrane, A. (2011) Animal rights without liberation, New York: Columbia University Press.
4 See Callicott, J. B. (1989) In defense of the land ethic: Essays in environmental philosophy, Albany: State University of New York Press. Hargrove, E. C. (ed.) (1992) The animal rights/environmental ethics debate: The environmental perspective, Albany: State University of New York Press.
5 See for instance Bernstein, M. H. (1998) On moral considerability: An essay on who morally matters, Oxford: Oxford University Press.