Wild animal suffering video course – Unit 24

This video discusses areas where welfare biology research could be particularly impactful. Some key areas are vaccination programs, saving animals from extreme weather events, helping animals in urban areas, and helping large herbivores. These are all potentially popular programs that could help animals while advancing the field of welfare biology.

View other related videos in our course about wild animal suffering here
Visit the main page of the wild animal suffering video course here

 


Related pages on the topics covered in this video:

Wild animal suffering matters
Speciesism

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Extended content of the video with references:

Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues

 

Responses to criticisms to the ethics of helping animals

We have already seen the case for promoting work in welfare biology, and some examples of promising lines of research and courses of action that could make a difference in reducing wild animal suffering. We will now cover objections to helping animals in the wild and to research that could inform efforts to help them.[1]

Objections of this kind can be classified into two groups. Some of them focus on moral concerns, and discussing them is a matter of ethics. We will look at those now. Others focus on practical concerns about the feasibility of helping animals. We will examine those in the next section.

Lack of concern for what happens to animals

The main opposition is probably the speciesist view that human interests should be our primary or only concern. Regarding this, you can take a look at the section about ethics and animals, where we saw how this view can be questioned.

Lack of responsibility

People sometimes argue that we are not personally responsible for the suffering of wild animals, so we shouldn’t be very concerned about it.[2] However, the reason to help them is that they need our help, not because we caused their situation. We can see that this argument would also apply to humans in distant places suffering from natural causes, such as earthquakes or hurricanes. If we think we should help humans in those cases and care about their wellbeing as sentient beings, then it follows that we should help animals living in the wild as well.

Demandingness

Another objection is that helping animals in the wild is too demanding of a requirement. Often, those who raise this objection are simply unaware of the many ways it is currently possible to help animals in the wild, and unaware that animals in the wild are already being helped. Large-scale vaccination programs, wild animal hospitals, and rescues of animals in the wild during fires and natural disasters are just a few examples. We saw these and other ways of helping wild animals earlier. Few people object to the effort or cost of these measures, and in fact many people would support increasing and expanding them.

Commitment to a certain ethical view

In some cases, people think that helping animals in the wild is tied to a particular ethical framework.[3] However, many ethical views would agree with helping them, because the idea of helping those in need is widespread among different ethical positions.

Do animals prefer not to be helped?

Another objection is that by helping animals living in the wild, we would interfere with their capacity to live according to their preferences. According to this objection, animals have a certain way of life in the wild, and if we act to help them, we will change that way of life.

This objection only applies to cases where helping animals involves changing certain aspects of ecosystems. It doesn’t apply to providing assistance to a small number of animals. The objection assumes that we should either maintain the way animals live even when it is very negative for them, or that it is not good for animals to be helped generally. Both alternatives seem implausible. Just like other sentient individuals, usually when animals are being harmed, they would prefer to be helped, not left alone.

The objection would seem to make more sense if animals were not in situations in which they needed help. But this is far from true. They face great harms for many different reasons. Animals can’t just deal with these harms and thrive in the face of natural challenges.

Animal freedom

Another objection is that by helping animals, we would infringe upon their freedom. This objection assumes that animals in the wild are free to do whatever they want unless we intervene.[4] But this is not the case. Because most animals who come into existence die when they are very young, they are often unable to live as they would like. They can’t, simply because they aren’t able to live at all. Therefore, if we could help them in ways that remove these natural challenges, they would actually be more free to live as they prefer. If animals living in the wild were able to make an informed decision about this, it is quite likely that they would prefer to be helped to achieve the best possible life.

Should we only help animals who are harmed by humans?

Those of us who are concerned about animals might think that there are more urgent ways to help, considering the harms that humans inflict on them. This objection is correct about how bad the harm by humans is. We should certainly do something about that. But this isn’t a reason to not help animals in the wild. The number of animals living in the wild is extremely large, many orders of magnitude higher than that of the animals humans harm directly. That makes this cause very important.

Objections appealing to environmentalist views

Finally, there is an objection that we should not help animals living in the wild because we should not touch nature. Some people might assume that this follows if we accept an environmentalist viewpoint. We will now see if and to what extent it does.

A point that we have seen before is that humans frequently do intervene in nature, so additional action in the wild is not corrupting an otherwise untouched place. Humans usually intervene in order to promote human interests. We can say it is discriminatory not to act similarly to help animals. Sometimes humans intervene to conserve certain ecosystems, species, or populations for their own sake; or to restore a previously existing ecosystem. These examples show us that environmentalist or conservationist positions do not always oppose intervening in nature.

Still, while these views support intervention in nature for ecosystem or species conservation, they would not support it to help animals as individuals. Consider ecocentrism.[5] If what really matters is just that some ecosystems exist, then transforming existing ecosystems so that they contain less animal suffering shouldn’t really be a problem. After all, ecosystems will still exist. However, ecocentrists don’t think this way. They typically don’t mind that old ecosystems were replaced by current ecosystems, and they don’t like the prospect of current ecosystems being replaced by new ecosystems. Instead, they typically value present ecosystems or sometimes ecosystems of the recent past. At any rate, even from this perspective, intervention in the wild to help animals would only be problematic if it significantly transforms ecosystems.

Another thing to note is that supporters of ecocentrism are not concerned about ecosystems where there is already a large human presence, such as urban, industrial, suburban, and agricultural settings. These ecosystems have already been radically changed. This is important because these ecosystems cover a very large total area, and an immense number of animals live in these areas.

The objection that we should not help animals living in the wild on the grounds that we should not touch nature is also held by environmentalists who have a naturocentric focus on the maintenance of wilderness.[6] These views value not ecosystems as such, but the existence of what has resulted from natural processes. According to this view, it might be immoral to help animals in the wild, because doing so is not “natural,” in the sense that it would mean not letting the natural course of things continue. However, this does not apply to urban, industrial, and agricultural ecosystems. There are also ecosystems like forests, grazing areas, and other areas that have been created by human action rather than being the result of untouched nature evolving there. Restored ecosystems are similar in this regard. Compared to the ecocentric view, a naturocentric position could consider it permissible to intervene in an even larger number of ecosystems. As for views supporting the preservation of species or biodiversity, they would oppose only interventions that lead to species extinctions, but not necessarily any other kind.

Finally, let’s consider the views from biocentrism. Biocentrism claims we should give moral consideration to all living things. This view implies supporting helping individual animals, because it regards them as deserving of moral consideration.[7] So biocentrism would support intervening for some broadly similar reasons to the sentience-focused position. The difference is that this view would defend intervention to protect individual non-sentient biological organisms such as plants or fungi. It could have negative consequences for animals if non-sentient living things are protected at the expense of sentient animals.

Given all this, we can see that at least some of the most representative objections are much more permissive towards helping wild animals than it may seem at first. We don’t have conclusive reasons to not help them. There are, however, strong reasons to do it, given how important the harms suffered by wild animals are.


Notes

[1] For general responses to arguments against helping wild animals, see Torres, M. (2015) “The case for intervention in nature on behalf of animals: A critical review of the main arguments against intervention”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 33-49, https://www.ledonline.it/index.php/Relations/article/view/824 [accessed on 16 December 2019] and Faria, C. (2016) Animal ethics goes wild: The problem of wild animal suffering and intervention in nature, PhD thesis, Barcelona: Pompeu Fabra University; Ryf, P. (2016) Environmental ethics: The case of wild animals, Basel: University of Basel; Horta, O. (2017b) “Animal suffering in nature: The case for intervention”, Environmental Ethics, 39, pp. 261-279;

[2] A moderate version of this view can be found in Palmer, C. A. (2010) Animal ethics in context, New York: Columbia University Press.

[3] This and the previous claim are made in Hills, A. (2010) “Utilitarianism, contractualism and demandingness”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 60, pp. 225-242, for an opposite view see Paez, E. (2020) “A Kantian ethics of paradise engineering”, Analysis, 80, 283-293.

[4] See Donaldson, S. & Kymlicka, W. (2011) Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press. For responses, see Horta, O. (2013) “Zoopolis, intervention, and the state or nature”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 113-125, https://www.raco.cat/index.php/LEAP/article/download/294784/383317 [accessed on 30 August 2019]; Cochrane, A. (2013) “Cosmozoopolis: The case against group-differentiated animal rights”, Law, Ethics and Philosophy, 1, pp. 127-141, https://www.raco.cat/index.php/LEAP/article/view/294785/383318 [accessed on 30 August 2019]; Ladwig, B. (2015) “Against wild animal sovereignty: An interest‐based critique of Zoopolis”, Journal of Political Philosophy, 23, pp. 282-301; Mannino, A. (2015) “Humanitarian intervention in nature: Crucial questions and probable answers”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 109-120, https://www.ledonline.it/index.php/Relations/article/view/821 [accessed on 15 October 2019].

[5] Sagoff, M. (1984) “Animal liberation and environmental ethics: Bad marriage, quick divorce”, Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 22, pp. 297-307; Mikkelson, G. (2018) “Convergence and divergence between ecocentrism and sentientism concerning net value”, Les ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum, 13, pp. 101-114, https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/ ateliers/2018-v13-n1-ateliers04192/1055120ar.pdf [accessed on 2 September 2019]. The claim that these positions would not necessarily imply opposition to helping wild animals is defended in Cunha, L. C. (2015) “If natural entities have intrinsic value, should we then abstain from helping animals who are victims of natural processes?”, Relations: Beyond Anthropocentrism, 3, pp. 51-63, https://www.ledonline.it/index.php/Relations/  article/view/823 [accessed on 13 August 2019]. The points in this paper would apply to other environmentalist objections as well.

[6] Rolston, H., III (1992) “Disvalues in nature”, The Monist, 75, pp. 250-278; Hettinger, N. (2018) “Naturalness, wild-animal suffering, and Palmer on laissez-faire”, Les ateliers de l’éthique/The Ethics Forum, 13, pp. 65-84, https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/ateliers/2018-v13-n1-ateliers04192/1055118ar.pdf [accessed on 23 September 2019].

[7] This point has been made previously in Horta, O, (2018b) “Concern for wild animal suffering and environmental ethics: What are the limits of the disagreement?”, Les Ateliers de l’Éthique/The Ethical Forum, pp. 85-100, 13, https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/ateliers/2018-v13-n1-ateliers04192/1055119ar [accessed on 12 November 2019]. See also Palmer, C. (2016) “Living individuals: Biocentrism in environmental ethics”, In Gardiner, S. M. & Thompson, A. (eds.) The Oxford handbook of environmental ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 101-112.

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