Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Predator Problem Revisited

I have an email question from a member ofthe studio audience.

I have been reading you blog for over a year now but and maybe I have missed it. But do you have any writings about vegetarianism and the moral implications of both or either side?

One thing that I have written is an article called The Predator Problem.

It concerns a question that animal rights advocates need to answer about the legitimacy of a predator - such as a lion - killing and eating a prey animal. If it is wrong for a human to kill another animal, then it is also wrong for one animal to kill another animal - and for humans to sit back and do nothing while this wrong is committed.

The standard animal rights response to this objection is to say that predators such as lions are not moral agents. As such, they cannot be blamed for what they do. They lack the capacity to know or to act based on their knowledge of right and wrong.

However, this response does not work.

First, the fact that the predator is not a moral agent does not imply that we should do nothing if an animal should try to kill and eat a human being. Our moral obligations still compell us to go to the rescue of any human being attacked by an animal.

If we add to this obligation the proposition that animals have rights, then we have the same duty to prevent an attack on another animal as we do to prevent an attack on another human being. The assertion that the attacker is not a moral agent turns out to be irrelevant. The assertion that the attacker is not a moral agent does not imply that we should do nothing while non-moral agents inflict pain and suffering on others.

Second, I am not talking about the morality of the animal's actions. I am talking about the morality of our actions insofar as we act to prevent or to allw the predatory acts of predatory animals. I am writing about our acts, as moral agents, to interfere or to permit this behavior on the part of non-moral arguments. The question does not concern the moral legitimacy of the animal's actions as non-moral agents. The question concrs the moral legitimacy of our behavior with respect to allowing or or preventing predator attacks on other animals, particularly in light of the death and suffering that prey animal.

So, we could take the predators of the universe and kill them all to keep them from killing the prey. However, this fundamentally goes against the proposition that animals have a basic right to stay alive. We could keep the predators alive, but the killing of the prey animals contradicts the proposition that animals have a right to stay alive as well.

The article mentioned above goes into more detail. Ultimately, I argue that animals do not have an aversion to death (a being can have an aversion only to those things one can comprehend), and that animals do not have the capacity to comprehend death. Therefore, the can have no aversion to death.

They can (and do) have an aversion to pain, but not to death.

So, killing them cannot (at least directly) thwart the desires of an animal by killing it. The desire utilitarian needs to come up with a different reason not to kill animals - if there is another reason to be had.


Chris said...

I'm a long-time lurker and read your blog every time it's updated, so I'm overdue in thanking you for all of the effort you put into it.

As an atheist and an animal rights advocate, I can provide something of a response, although hardly a comprehensive one.

The phrase "animal rights" gets bandied about a lot, just like the term "atheist," but in truth, because of various cultural and media biases, most people do not understand either very well.

An animal rights advocate is really only an advocate of one idea, namely the right of non-human animals to live free from the interference of and exploitation by human animals. You, however, state that an animal rights advocate believes that all animals have a right to live, period. This is not the same thing.

The problem I see with the way you've framed the discussion is the conceit you've probably subconsciously made of humans being the lords of this planet. This is usually a religious assumption, that humans have some special powers or privileges granted by the holy deity to command the other elements of nature; the Bible speaks of our "dominion" over the earth, for instance. Your idea that human moral agents would be required to step in and interfere with the machinations of non-human animals not so slightly resembles this religious egocentrism.

As an advocate, like you, that humans should be moral agents, I am not, however, an advocate of extending our moral standards beyond ourselves through force. Just like it was never the job of western white people to "civilize" the "primitive" cultures of the planet, it would never be our job or our place to regulate how non-human animals treat each other.

I admit it is a fine line, and no moral system is perfect or without its own hypocrisy. Yes, I think the other animals should be accorded some moral consideration by us, but then I have no desire to interfere in their predator/prey relationships with each other. As a long-time vegan, I simply try and live my life in such a way as to interfere with the other animals as little as possible. I don't think they are my property, I don't believe them to be nothing more than expendable resources, and as far as what they do on their own, most of the time that's really none of my business.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Actually I would not say that it is immoral for the lion to kill it's prey. Quite the contrary, it would be immoral (if you want to speak in these terms) for the lion to not work to support it's pride and feed it's members and cubs. Unlike humans, lions can not survive on a vegetarian diet due to their physiology.

I think when it comes to food choices, and predation, it really comes down to a matter of choice. Lions in the wild really have no choice--they have to take whatever food they can get or they will starve. Humans, assuming they have an abundant variety of foods to choose from, can survive on a vegetarian diet. They have that choice.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mikayla Starstuff

Can you explain to me why a lion's not starving to death has a higher moral value than an antelope's not being eaten?

Also, could you explain the relevance of the fact that it takes several antelope to keep a single lion alive over the course of its lifetime. So, if the lion starves to death, one animal dies. If the lion does not starve to death, several antelope are killed and eaten (per lion).

The lion might not have a choice - and certainly are not moral agents in the relevant sense.

However, we have a choice.

We could kill all the lions.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Kill the lions and disrupt the entire ecosystem? Have the antelope population go so out of control they destroy the landscape and die of starvation? Don't think that would be a moral action.

The lions hunt and the antelope run. I did express a hesitation with speaking of this in moral terms after all. There is only a moral choice where there is a choice. I say the same in cases of humans whose only significant source of food is meat as well. But then, I'm assuming it's better to kill than to starve--that may be up for some debate. I don't have it totally nailed down myself.

Anonymous said...

As a animal rights advocate and utilitarian, I think Mikayla's on the mark with "Kill the lions and disrupt the entire ecosystem?" If it were possible for humans to alter lions' diets so that they didn't eat other animals, or to alter the ecosystem to create a stable and productive system that eliminated predation completely, I think it would be a moral imperative. So I disagree with Chris in the theoretical realm in that active interventions by humans are necessary where all their consequences would be positive.

However, in practice I agree with Chris: it's incredibly unlikely that humans can intervene in the natural world and actually create an overall positive outcome. It's like feeding the birds in a backyard: any change you make instills reliance on the animals it affects, which reliance is misplaced because humans can't keep up their own behavioral change (bird feeding) indefinitely, and there end up being too many birds with too little food when the feeding goes away.

Likewise, it would be incredibly difficult to find a good substitute for the lion in the lion's ecosystem, and if we killed off the lions but then stopped intervening, we would have created a temporary moderate good for some antelopes but a long-term harm for the antelopes and everything else which is part of the lion's ecosystem.

Anonymous said...

This entire argument is totally like whatever. "Ethics" is not a discipline; it's a scam.

Colin Stewart said...

[quote]First, the fact that the predator is not a moral agent does not imply that we should do nothing if an animal should try to kill and eat a human being. Our moral obligations still compell us to go to the rescue of any human being attacked by an animal.

You're right, if an animal is being harmed or potentially going to be killed, even in the wild we ought to consider the well being of the animal. If natural or human caused disasters happen, common sense tells us to intervene.

However, in the wild, even if the well being of animals is important, we have to consider the well being of other animals, as well as other considerations. Interfering in the habits of wild animals can lead to disastrous consequences. There are good reasons for allowing predators to hunt other animals. Keystone species are an important consideration. Obviously, interfering with the behaviors of keystone species can have detremental effects, and there is a plethora of scientific evidence out there to support such an outcome.

So while I don't think we necessarily ignore our obligations to animals when we allow predation because other important considerations are at hand.

As for self consciousness and death, don't you think you are being a bit presumptious? Considerable research is being done in regards to animal minds, and I assure you some of the findings blow past assumptions regarding the congnition and self awareness of animals out of the water. While I conservatively agree with you that most animals might not have strong beliefs about death like we do, I wouldn't extend this reasoning to all animals necessarily, given what we know (and probably do not know) about animal minds.