Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Animal Rights: The Predator Problem

The vacation continues, so, with Thanksgiving coming up, I thought I would post this article from my website.

This argument addresses the claim that it is wrong for us to kill animals for food.

Against this claim, some point to lions and tigers and bears and other predatory animals and argue, “It is permissible for them to kill other animals for food; why is it wrong for me to do it?”

The question has two common answers.

First, animals are not considered moral agents. You can hardly blame the lion for killing the antelope; the lion knows nothing about duty and obligation. The lion is simply acting the way biology has made the lion act. So, while we can morally condemn a human who performs a particular act. It is nonsense to argue for morally condemning the lion (or any other predator).

Second, animals do a lot of things that it is not permissible for humans to do. Male lions, for example, kill their stepchildren (because the mother will then go into heat and the male lion can then father and raise his own children). There is no argument to be made that “animals do X; therefore it is morally permissible for humans to do X.”

However, neither of these arguments work.

To see this, let us assume that the lions were hunting and eating human children, rather than antelope. In this case, the fact that the lions are not moral agents would be seen as entirely irrelevant. Our duty to protect our children includes not only a duty to protect them from the intentional or negligent harms inflicted by moral agents, but to protect them from the natural harms as well - from disease, from accident, and from predatory lions. The lion’s lack of moral agency does not imply that we are obligated or even permitted to allow the lion to kill and eat our children.

Some people might argue that it would be wrong to kill the lion simply because he kills and eats children. The lion is, after all, just being a lion. We should trap the lion and move it to where it is no longer a threat to our children. However, let us make the concern more immediate. There you are, in the African wilderness, with the means at hand to kill a lion, and you see the lion charge after a young child. Do you let nature take its’ course? Or do you prevent the lion from doing that which lions do?

The predator problem asks whether we, who are moral agents, are obligated or even permitted to allow lions to kill for food - where we have the power to prevent it. It is not a question about the lion’s moral-agency. It is a question about our moral agency - about what we permit and prohibit. Do we have an obligation to protect antelope from predatory lions?

It is important to note that most of the animal rights arguments are built on a utilitarian foundation. Killing and eating animals for food involves suffering. Utilitarians argue that there is no basis for distinguishing animal suffering from human suffering. The species of the sufferer is morally irrelevant. Therefore, it is wrong to treat an animal in any way that it would be wrong to treat a human with similar capacities. If we are going to prevent lions from eating human infants, then we should be preventing lions from killing antelopes who are more developed than the human infant.

Adding Meat to the Predator Problem

Let us take these arguments seriously for a moment. We can save all of the present and future antelope by simply killing off all of the lions (and other predators). Our obligations to prevent the killing of antelopes has been met.

However, we will then likely be faced with a problem of antelope overpopulation. They will breed, eat up their food supply and starve. Being hunted down and killed by a lion is bad enough. Starvation, at least from a utilitarian perspective, can be seen as significantly worse. So, it is better to allow the lions to hunt the antelope, then to subject the antelope to starvation. The predator problem has now been solved.

Not quite. We have a lot more options available to us. The lions are going to kill the antelope in particularly gruesome ways, involving a great deal of suffering - grievous wounds on the part of some who happen to escape, whole herds of antelope being frightened and terrified and chased over the plains. Clearly, there is a more utilitarian way of controlling the antelope population. We should still kill off all of the lions, but then implement some other method for controlling the antelope population. We can go in ourselves and kill off a few antelope from time to time, enough to keep the population in check. We can certainly do the job in ways that involve a lot less suffering on the part of those we do kill.

Now we have this pile of antelope carcasses. What are we going to do with them? Let them rot?

If we are assuming a utilitarian system of ethics, then it would be difficult to argue for letting rot that which can be put to good use. For example, maybe we do not need to kill off all of the lions. We can put them in a place where they cannot hunt antelope. We then feed them the antelope carcasses.

If it is morally permissible for us to kill the antelope and use them to feed the lions, then I can see no reason to object to taking the carcass and feeding it to humans.

In our utilitarian concern for the welfare of the antelope, we have as much reason to be concerned with the suffering caused by illness and injury as by lions and starvation. We could provide the antelope with inoculations against the worst diseases, protect them from parasites, and fence off areas where they could wander where there is a chance of accidental injury. We could also provide them with clean water (particularly in times of drought) and food (in times of scarcity).

This, of course, would cost money. However, we have the carcasses from our annual harvest to keep the herd at an optimum size, and there are people willing to pay money for them.

Overall Consequences

I am not going to try to argue that this line of reasoning can be used to defend all of the practices that are used in a modern ranch. It is unlikely that we can continue this story to the point that we are defending the practices found in factory farming or in many instances of animal testing. However, we also do not end up condemning the personal ranch. It is not automatically and obviously the case that the cattle kept on a range ranch are less well off, from a utilitarian perspective, than they would be if the gates were opened and they were released into the wild.

When faced with the predator problem, it appears that the animal-rights utilitarian is clutching at straws rather than following his premises to their logical conclusion. Wanting to eliminate the use of animals for food by humans, while not wanting to interfere with the hunting of animals for food by other animals, they are drawn to arguments that seem to bring these two conflicting attitudes into agreement.

However, they are being deceived by mere appearances. The predator problem — allowing predators killing for food — does have implications for the prohibition against humans killing for food. The predator may not be a moral agent, but we are — and preventing the predator from hunting for food is within our power. If we are obligated to allow the predator to kill for food, then why are we not obligated to allow humans to kill for food? The prey animals can be made to suffer less at the hands of humans than they do by the tooth and the claw of natural predators, so we cannot defend these policies by saying that it is in the prey animal’s best interest.


Anonymous said...

You make a interesting point. However not all animal rights people are utilitarians...

Anonymous said...

Humans are moral agents and animals are not? I was told we were animals.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting article and I enjoy your posts but I think you kind of lost control of your argument in this post. People who respond to the predator argument by pointing out the differences between human beings and lions are quite right in doing so. This is how one attacks an argument by analogy. The analogy is weak and defenders of the argument are right to point it out. This is a perfectly valid defense to the absurd argument that since P commits act Q and we are similar in some ways to P, it is okay for us to commit act Q. It is an absurd argument. Counter examples abound!

You go on to point out that if a lion were to attack human children that we would feel obliged to protect the children but this says nothing whatever about our thoughts on the moral responsibility of lions or our similarity to lions, but, rather, merely suggests that we feel that we are right to protect our children from hungry lions, whether we find them morally responsible or not.

You go further but in going further you change the definition of the problem. The predator problem now becomes one of whether humans are morally required to protect antelope from lions. This seems to me to be quite a distance from where we started – with the simple claim that there are significant differences between lions and humans which make it morally neutral for them to kill other animals for food but morally problematic for us to do so.

I think that it is perfectly reasonable to protect one’s loved ones from hungry lions. I don’t think that we need to go around saving other animals from being preyed upon by lions though. I think it is unfortunate that antelope have to die at the hands of the lion but it would likewise be unfortunate if lions starved because we intervened to save the antelope. But this is the way that it goes. I think that what vegetarians argue is that, while we don’t necessarily need to be running around intervening in the lives of lions and antelopes, we can at least refrain from contributing to the problem by choosing food that does not require the production of and considerable harm to non-human animals, particularly given the particularly cruel state of modern factory farming.

Finally, you make the claim that utilitarians don’t distinguish between animal suffering and human suffering. This is not completely true. Perhaps they don’t distinguish strictly on the basis of the species in question but many distinguish between the capacities for suffering between the parties involved and argue that human beings have a greater capacity for suffering and that an adult human being will suffer far more as a result of witnessing his child being mauled by a lion than the lion would by being thwarted from eating the child.

Despite my criticism of this post, I do enjoy your blog and agree with most of your posts.

ng2000 said...

Another resource for you: http://www.ng2000.com/fw.php?tp=animal-rights

Anonymous said...

This is some of the worst writing I've ever read. Not only the original post, but the over written attempt at a counter argument by "Yves..." I can understand the idea of agree/disagree; I don't understand why a person would go to such great lengths over analyzing an outlandish theoretical "What if?" point of view. I personally thought this blog was a waste of writing and reading time. If indifference existed before this was posted, it surely exist there after.

Kristopher said...

you can make a distinction between lions & humans, humans are omnivorous. What we should do is constrained but what we can do. Morality is constrained by practicality. You can’t tell someone he should do what he can't do so you can't tell a lion she should not hunt for meat. However humans do not need to hunt & kill antelope. Either way we can find nutrients

If you’re trying to prevent suffering adding 6 billion more predators to the equation is not helpful.

Should a starving tribe kill & eat a goat? Sure. In the same way that 5 ppl lost at sea could draw straws to see who would then be eaten. But 5 normal ppl should not draw straws to see who should be eaten.

Your argument that utility implies we should prevent accidental harm to antelope & prevent disease & separate them from lions, (& while we’re at it chemically castrate some to counteract population growth & feed the lions some sort of meat substitute). We should foster a desire to accomplish this; but it is currently impractical to accomplish with our resources & the unwillingness of others to assist. So we leave this on the back burner for future generations but it needs to be addressed to maximize the desire utility of our system

In your argument you said we should take into account the desires of the antelope but when you said we should have an aversion to harming those animals it was because it would help to reinforce an aversion in humans to harm other humans in human society, which is only taking human desires into account. perhaps that is one of the reasons we should not want to harm antelope but there is also the fact that the antelope have a desire not to be harmed if we humans held a desire not to harm them that would maximize desire efficiency in its own right without needing to affect human society

You say that an antelope does not have the desire to not die because it does not understand death. But I don’t understand why you make this distinction. Do you mean that: if something does not desire not death then killing it is not bad? if it has desires to continue eating & copulating those would surely be thwarted by death.

you argue that in protecting the antelope we would logically arrive roughly at free range meat farming. but this argument hinged on the fact that either way the antelope would need to be killed by us or by predators. Why do you draw this conclusion? Is it not the case farmers can keep their animals from over procreation if they desire without killing them? (Horse breeders or dog breeders for example)

You say that it is okay to use killing to control population growth in antelope but I think you would not advocate that policy for china. Why do you advocate it for antelope? Since we agree there is no intrinsic value difference I don’t see how you can imply that a desire to use killing to control population growth in things, is a policy worthy of praise.

It would seem that your argument implies that if there were a group of people regularly preyed upon by lions it would be permissible for us to treat them as cattle & harvest their meat because they would be better off than they were under the previous system. This is the only time I have seen you argue for something being permissible because it is the lesser of two evils. Every other time you have argued for nurturing the best desires not just better desires. While killing them humanely is better than clawing them to death, doing neither is the best option. If a woman would have been raped by two men but you save her & then rape her yourself but only once. This is not the optimal desire you want to instill in men saving women from rape.

Your attempt to show that caring for antelope would lead to free range farming is a little tongue & cheek but not a well thought out argument. I would like to see what you conclude when taking this issue more seriously

Unknown said...

Kristopher, that is an absurd job of reasoning. What he is saying is quite simple - you cannot refute humans in their desire to kill and eat animals, and then accept it is okay for those same animals to be killed by other nonhuman animals. It is inconsistent, and saying that the nonhuman animals are not moral agents (as Regan does) is not helpful, but their morality is irrelevant, it is OUR morality that is the concern. I can see you are an antispeciesist, so we can simplify it further by replacing the lion with a psychopathic human and the antelope with, well, an antelope. Just because the psycopathic killer is not morally accountable for his actions it does not mean you should allow him to continue his serial antelope killing. Hypothetically, if we were able to, preserve ecosystems then by following an animal right philosophy to its logical conclusion, you cannot refute in drastically re-altering the predator-prey relationship. I'm not sure how you can refute this; most consistent animal rightist (who have my respect) accept this and talk of nature being the is in the is/ought scenerio and hence there is nothing inherently special about psycopathic animals (such as lions) that merit our duty to preserve their species. It is an absurb reality and is a reason why I don't follow the animal rights agenda, though I sympathise with it.

Unknown said...

@Ajay Chandra:

Don't you think that rather than focusing on the moral capabilities of different animals, it would be more useful to think of the different possible actions each species has??
For example, the psychopathic human is able to survive without killing antelopes(he is acting on a false belief that killing antelopes is necessary), but the same cannot be said about the lion, since it's either kill or perish.