We complete this series of posts regarding violence with what is probably activists’ biggest blind spot, violence in nature.
For many animal rights activists nature represents perfection, a romantic and virtuous ideal we should aspire to, something that ought to be reverently preserved and never criticized. But the truth is that nature is where trillions of sentient beings suffer from hunger, thirst, diseases, parasites, injuries, extreme weathers, rape, infanticide, violent dominancy fights, the constant fear of being attacked, actually being attacked, and only rarely from caducity.
Probably the first natural cause of violence that comes to mind is predation.
Predation is literally as old as life itself. It goes back to the most ancient life forms – single cell organisms. As soon as there were living single cell organisms, one of their major functions was to acquire chemicals from their surroundings. As time went by, some organisms, by chance (mutation), started obtaining the organic molecules they require by devouring the cells around them, instead of gathering them from the surroundings. This turned out to be an efficient “strategy”. About 3.5 billion years later there are fangs, claws, talons, venoms, webs, beaks, sonars, infra-red vision, tentacles and etc.
But besides predation, there are many other suffering causes in nature.
Every single second somewhere in the world, defenseless and frightened babies are left alone because their mother has to search for food, a turtle is burned alive as she can’t out run the flames of a fire, a bird’s feet are frozen to a branch since he couldn’t find shelter from the harsh weather, a baboon monkey is in ongoing stress as an higher ranking female takes food out of her mouth and eats it herself, a nestling is thrown off the nest by the other siblings so they can get more food, a coyote is experiencing severe hunger as the rabbit he chased managed to escape instead of being torn apart, a female dolphin is being raped after she couldn’t outswim a male or even a few of them who gang rape her, a badger drags his rotten legs with infectious wounds resulting from constant fights, a zebra is dehydrated but can’t approach the ponds as the lionesses might be on the prowl, a lizard is being slowly devoured by a fungus that spread through the organs, a weak robin chick starves to death because his parents don’t feed him, as it makes more sense energetically to invest in his stronger siblings.
In many activists’ minds humans are the only problem in this world which without them would be perfect. But…
In a humanless world, hyena cubs would still viciously fight each other, tearing off slices of other cubs’ faces including ears and lips, to get more food.
In a humanless world, crabs would still be pulled apart limb by limb by otters.
In a humanless world, fishes would still be digested alive by the stomach acids of a pelicans who gulped them whole.
In a humanless world, wasps would still inject their eggs into a live caterpillar’s body to ensure that when their descendants hatch they will have easy access to food as the larvae eat the caterpillar from the inside out.
A humanless world is definitely not a masculinity-free world. Brutal fights for territory and for the “right” to mate would still occur in immense numbers. Walrus would still fight each other over territory with giant teeth that can reach up to one meter long and more than 5kg weight. And the biggest males with the biggest tusks would still push their way to the center of the iceberg pushing the females and pups to the edges where they are more likely to be attacked by an orca.
In a humanless world, billions of insects would still get chemically liquefied before they are eaten by spiders. And snakes would still swallow whole animals and slowly digest them until hawks hunt them, digging in with their talons into the snakes’ body until they give up fighting back, and then start to cut off pieces of their body and eat them.
Eels would still electrify other fishes to hunt them using up to 600V in a single discharge – this is 5 times the shock one would get from sticking a finger into an electrical socket.
Young offspring would still get murdered by opportunist males who want their own genes to be spread.
And in a humanless world, duck, dolphin, seal and sea lion females would still be gang raped routinely as a way of mating.
Unfortunately these examples are only a tiny glimpse of the horrors happening every single moment in nature.
It is amazing how one magical word – Nature – can purify anything.
Activists shouldn’t consider nature as an ethical model but as an ethical problem.
The following are the main arguments activists commonly use justifying their disregard of suffering in nature, followed by our counter arguments.
Not morally obligated to intervene
Some activists observe nature neither as an ethical model nor as an ethical problem. They are aware of the violence, only they don’t think they are morally obligated to intervene. They think they ought to deal only with the suffering of animals caused by humans.
We find this argument false in the best case, and speciesist in the worst.
Activists should be obligated to preventing suffering no matter to whom, by whom and where it happens.
What makes animals worthy of moral consideration is their subjective ability to experience, not the objective conditions of their lives (such as to what species they belong to, where they live and their relations with other species) or their relations with humans.
The frequently quoted Jeremy Bentham is relevant here as well – “the question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk?”, but it also shouldn’t be by whom they suffer, or where. The question is only can they suffer.
Moral status is non-dependent. Sentient beings don’t lose their moral status when their suffering happens in nature.
Our moral obligation to prevent suffering is driven from the fact that suffering is intrinsically bad for those who experience it. So if suffering is bad when humans cause it, there is no reason to think it is not so when it results from other causes, including the actions of other animals.
Given that the level of a deep wound for example, is the same, animals’ interest in not suffering from it, is the same in the case of falling on a rock, get bitten by another animal, or if was inflicted by a human. The harm’s cause doesn’t affect the individual’s interest in not being harmed. Their interests are independent of other considerations.
We mustn’t accept suffering just because it happens in what we refer to as nature, and to nonhuman animals by other nonhuman animals. To the sufferers, suffering is bad when it is considered natural just as much as when it is considered unnatural. And the victims are not consoled by the fact that it is nonhumans that hurt them and not humans. If labeling a violent scene as ’natural’ doesn’t affect the suffering of the victims, then it doesn’t have a moral effect.
Is rape o.k because it is done to nonhuman animals by other nonhuman animals? Does the raped animal care who or why she is being raped? Does she care that humans call it natural? She doesn’t. And if she doesn’t you shouldn’t either.
“In suffering we are all equal ” – the argument so many activists use so often is true about all animals just as much.
All suffering should be stopped no matter how we define it, where it happens and by whom.
Morally obligated in cases of relations only
Some argue that since humans haven’t put animals in nature in the position they are in, in the first place, they are not obligated to help them out of it. Humans have moral obligations only to animals they have or had relations with (relations refers not only to animals which are currently exploited by humans, but any species which is or was affected by humans in any given time).
However moral consideration is not supposed to be conditioned by the location of the sufferers, or by the relations of the victims with their victimizers.
We are not denying that the sense of responsibility is conditioned to some extent by the level of the involvement in a given situation. We are opposing the negation of any moral obligation towards animals which (allegedly) have no relations with humans.
Moral status mustn’t be based on the relations of animals from specific species with humans, but focus on the morally relevant capacities of the animals. We are morally obligated to help sentients in need because of their inherent ability to suffer, not our contingent involvement.
Moral consideration is supposed to be a product of internal abilities, not external relations.
While it is understandable that the history of the relations between individuals from different species may affect the sense of urgency and duties, it is not at all relevant in determining the moral consideration of an individual.
The well-being of sentient individuals, and not how we relate to them, is what establishes the obligation to help them.
Our moral obligation not to cause animals suffering is not depended upon our relations with them, but solely on their ability to suffer. By the same token, our moral obligation to prevent animals suffering is not depended upon our relations with them, but on their ability to suffer.
It makes sense that activists feel responsible for the wrongs committed by them personally, but if to follow the logic of the claim, it is difficult to see how they are responsible for wrongs committed by others who simply happen to be a member of their own species.
Activists are not directly and personally responsible for animals’ suffering in factory farms if they are not consuming anything from them. The reason why they have such a sense of responsibility on the suffering that other humans cause is because it is so enormous and because they feel they can prevent it. It is not because they are personally responsible for it.
So there is no reason to argue that we are morally obligated only for suffering we are directly involved with. As it appears, fortunately, activists who argue that, are not applying this logic on suffering caused in factory farms.
Our goal is to end suffering no matter where it happens or who is causing it. Suffering is intrinsically bad for the sufferer no matter who cause it. So the suffering caused by humans is not more important to prevent than suffering caused by nonhumans. It might be easier to influence, but it doesn’t prove it is not humans’ problem, but that there are problems humans can address more effectively. Therefore that is not a case against intervening in nature, it is a case for intervening where you can be most effective, and that is a different kind of argument we’ll address further in this text. Here we are dealing not with practical arguments against interfering in nature but with moral ones. And we argue that activists have no justified reasons to think that suffering in nature is off limits.
Activists by definition are not satisfied with ‘not contributing more’ to an existing problem by their personal actions, but are acting to solve it. They feel responsible for solving a problem despite that they are not the ones causing it. It is enough to know that the suffering is there. The same logic must be applied to suffering in nature.
If some activists want to seriously argue that what counts is a causal link between suffering and human activity, than there is no moral obligation to help in the case of a natural disaster that cannot be bound with human activity, for example an earthquake.
Some human atrocities are not caused by the direct responsibility of other humans and most if not all still think they are obligated to help these humans in need. It is not because they feel directly accountable, but partly responsible. And that is so since they are aware of the only relevant criterions regarding the situation – these humans are moral patients, they are suffering, and they can be helped.
No reason why the same logic won’t be applied on animals in nature. Arguing that we are morally obligated to help humans in natural disasters but not animals in nature, is speciesism.
But most importantly, activists’ moral aim is to strive for the end of suffering in general or at least reduction of suffering, not solely the suffering they are responsible for, either individually or collectively as a species.
Suffering caused to animals by other animals should be on the same moral level as suffering caused to animals by humans. Activists didn’t put nonhuman animals in the position of suffering under humans just as much as they didn’t put nonhuman animals in the position of suffering in nature. They are morally obligated to end the suffering in both circumstances, not because they are the ones who put them in these situations, but because they are the only ones who care enough to put them out.
If the activists arguing that they have no moral obligations towards animals in nature were presented with 3 hypothetical options:
- Pressing a yellow button which would eliminate the ability to experience suffering among all animals
- Pressing a purple button which would eliminate the ability to experience suffering only among those who humans have put in the position of suffering
3. Not pressing anything
To be consistent, they must argue that we are morally required to press the purple one, and are morally entitled not to press the yellow one. According to the logic of the argument that we are not morally obligated to help animals in nature, the only ethically wrong scenario is not pressing anything, not the option of letting the chance to stop all the suffering slip away.
Morally obligated not to intervene
Other activists are not only arguing that we are not morally obligated to help animals in nature, but that we are morally obligated not to. Most of which since they romantically observe nature as perfection we mustn’t touch.
The argument that what is natural is morally right is very popular, unfortunately even in the animal liberation movement. That is despite that there is no conceptual connection between what is natural and what is moral. A natural behavior is the one that is probably the most successful in terms of survival and reproduction, not the one who successfully promotes moral ideals. Therefore many actions are perfectly natural but morally horrible.
Just a few examples:
Tamarin monkeys for example need to eat all the time since they are constantly in motion. That is especially the case with the Tamarin mothers who need to eat as well as bring food to their young, which are therefore left alone for a long time, many times, each day. That is just one example out of many proving how imperfect nature really is. The defenseless young are in many cases being hunted, however we are not talking about the obvious but rather about the pain of being left alone again and again and again. Frightened, hungry and generally confused and helpless, all of the young are affected by this natural necessity. The psychological damage shouldn’t be ridiculed especially not by animal rights activists. It just can’t be that they are not harmed by it, and this is just one species out of many with the same situation.
Another example that would probably be ignored or indifferently disavow regards the Right Whale courtship which includes a series of jumping to impress the females. The flaps of 100 tons in the water are horrible to the seabed animals. The vibrations in the water affect the whole surrounding. We doubt that the other inhabitants feel it is o.k. or find comfort in the fact that the most alienated from nature species that ever existed, calls it a natural phenomenon.
And if the female whale is not interested another natural phenomenon happens – she is being raped.
The whale female doesn’t have a choice but to surrender to the males’ courtships because several of them surround her and attack her until she gives up and dives with one of them. Because they can wash each other’s sperm out, the female is forced to mate with many and only the last one will impregnate her.
And from violent mating to violent pregnancy…
The African cichlid fish mother collects her eggs young inside her mouth when she spots a sign of danger. The catfish are parasitic beings who ruthlessly exploit this phenomenon. The mother catfish mix her eggs with the cichlid’s eggs forcing the cichlid fish mother to collect them into her mouth with her own, manipulating her to become their surrogate mother. The catfish eggs hatch first and eat all the cichlid eggs inside their mother’s body, and get out to the sea when ready.
And to violence inside the family…
While mother egret is looking for food for her chicks, the stronger ones viciously peck their weakest brother or sister to gain more food for themselves. It gets worse when a crocodile is trying to reach their nest. The stronger chicks beat the weakest until s/he falls to the water. The crocodile eats the weakest and leaves the stronger ones alone.
How heat can turn one of the most violent places in nature, even more violent…
The plains of Africa are living hell all year long. The climate is rough and the notorious battles between hyenas, lioness, vultures, jackals and cheetahs happen all year round. But everything intensifies in the hot summer. The rivers become small pools and the savannah becomes dry land so everybody comes to drink in the same thin rivers. The predators fight over the poor impalas, buffalo, wildebeest, darters and etc. that fear every time they come to drink.
Some inhabitants are extremely territorial, especially the lions, the hippos and the crocodiles, so when the water levels drop and temperatures increase they are all forced together in such a small space and with so little water to drink and to cool in, that the violence is constant. The summer’s extreme conditions push them to their limits, so except fighting over the same animals, lioness and crocodiles even hunt each other, and both try to hunt hippos as well, but usually without much of a success. They can only hunt unsupervised baby hippos, and since hippos are herd animals it doesn’t happen very often. In fact the baby hippos’ greatest fear is other hippos.
The adults often kill each other during their fights over territories and “mating rights”. In the summer it is exaggerated as the extreme density forces them to invade each other’s territory and so constant violence takes place in the herd. The baby hippos are victims of this behavior. And if it is not direct violence, when a crocodile tries to hunt one of them the whole herd tries to escape in panic crushing each other over. That’s when the shrinking pools become death traps. Small and weak hippos are crushed to death by the crowded herd. Many are injured, and slowly die from their wounds.
And the cold doesn’t treat animals in the wild any better…
Birds unable to find a sheltered perch during harsh weathers may have their feet frozen to a branch or their wings covered in ice making them unable to fly and slowly starve to death.
In many cases what was once considered a symbiosis, was found out to be a violent case of opportunism. One of them is the oxpecker birds of Africa which were considered to maintain mutualistic lives by picking parasites off large mammals like hippopotamus, rhinoceros and buffalos. However, it was recently realized that they, like many other species of birds, also keep wounds on the animals’ skin open to feed on the exuding blood.
And opportunism’s evil cousin is parasitism…
Perhaps one of the most horrific examples of a parasite being is the lamprey eel, a jawless parasitic marine animal with a toothed, funnel-like sucking mouth which they use to bore into the flesh of other fishes and suck their blood. The oral apparatus of the adult lamprey is a sucking disk lined with whorls of over 100 of these teeth. They swim with the fishes and literally feed on them until they die. Sometimes the fishes manage to detach from the eel’s suck, usually to slowly die from the wounds or a later infection. And as if it is not cruel enough they also secrete two substances into the victim fish, one to prevent coagulation and the other to breakdown muscle tissues that are then sucked in as fluids.
To say that something is natural doesn’t add any moral value to it. It only says that it evolved spontaneously through time and improved or didn’t interrupt the reproduction of its beholder.
Nature is indifferent to the suffering of its residents.
Something can be good or bad regardless of it being natural (the notorious naturalistic fallacy).
Some things are bad despite that they are natural, like reproduction, and some things are good despite that they are not natural, like contraceptives.
Natural processes are not moral entities, sentient beings are. If intervening in a natural process can help sentient beings who are affected by this natural process, we are morally obligated to intervene, not to abstain.
Refusing to do so is placing non-moral entities above moral entities. And it makes no moral sense.
Thinking of nature as impeccable is not only ignorant of the scope of suffering in the wild but it is also, maybe unintentionally, confusing abstract terms such as species, with moral entities which are the individual members of the species. A species is just a convenient term to define individuals of similar biological traits, with no ethical relevancy.
Stating that nature can fix itself as long as humans don’t interfere is overlooking individuals and focusing on species and ecosystems. Species may manage in the wild as long as humans don’t interfere, but that is “thanks” to the mass reproduction mechanism that makes many individuals in each breed, of which only one on average will reach adulthood. Under this cruel natural mechanism individuals are sacrificed. The species might get stronger but the individuals live brutal, strugglefull, stressful and violent lives. For the species to flourish all it takes is that a sufficient number of its members reach reproduction age, no matter out of how many born each period, and what kind of lives they endure.
In a way morality and the naturalistic perspective are in contradiction. Morality strives for making the world a better place, while the naturalistic view strives to leave it as it is.
In addition, even the ones who think that nature always knows best are in favor of interventions in many cases. Just to name a few: medications, vaccinations, pre-birth genetic tests (hopefully they are against births but probably not against the pretests), abortions (for every possible reason), glasses, wheel chairs, hearing aids, sun screens, sun glasses and etc.
Arguing that it is morally acceptable to interfere with nature only when it comes to humans is speciesist. Surly all the other species would be happy to receive the various benefits of human medicine and technological aids.
Since the treatment of nonhuman interests in a similar situation must be the same as it is in the case of humans, interventions in nature for nonhumans must be morally obliged just as they are when it comes to humans. Either we can argue that any intervention in favor of any species is immoral, or that any intervention is moral. Otherwise it is speciesism.
Arguments against intervention in nature are absurd when coming from activists, which their main activity is promoting a mass scale intervention in nature as a moral solution. They can justly argue that it is morally justified given the cruel alternative, but they can’t argue that intervention in nature is morally wrong, while promoting the symbol of intervention in nature – agriculture.
So, activists approve many interventions in nature, and therefore they can’t principally argue against it.
Moreover, it is very hard to define what is a natural phenomenon in this world. If a crow attacks a nightingale in an activists’ garden we assume they will not stand by.
If these activists would see a wild boar attacking “their” dog we are sure they would interfere for the sake of the dog. Probably so would most if during a trek they encounter a wolf attacking a rabbit. They would do it because they see sentient beings in need and they feel they can help them. That’s all it takes. Someone who suffers and someone who can help. In our world there are trillions of someones who suffer, and only a few who are willing to help. That’s why the few who do, must act in order to help them all, and make sure that no one else would be in need in the future.
More suffering, bigger potential
The more practical activists among the ones arguing against intervention in nature are doing so not because they idealize it, but since most of the suffering is inflicted by humans in factory farms, not by nonhumans in nature, and since humans are far more likely to influence the actions of other humans. Therefore they claim the most effective thing they can do is try and change the behavior of their species and not of others.
As opposed to the rest of the arguments specified up to this point, this argument is at least logical and not totally biased. However, its first part is based on at least some level of ignorance regarding nature, and the second is definitely based on ignorance regarding humans’ nature.
We’ll start with the second. Of course there is a stronger case for moral intervention in situations in which we have a better chance to help the victims, and/or where the victims’ suffering is greater. However for the argument for efficiency to be valid and relevant against the argument for intervention in nature, activists have to hold a substantial case for arguing that they can change the way humans are treating nonhumans. Unfortunately there isn’t one. There isn’t yet even a substantial case for arguing that humans can change the way humans are treating other humans as extensively shown in the former posts of this series, mainly the ones about Steven Pinker’s book the better angels of our nature, which argues for a decline in violence.
The way humans treat members of their own species is the strongest indication of how hopeless the chances are to create a moral change in society based on humans’ compassion. Please take the time and read our FAQ’s Don’t you think that the slavery abolition proves that animals can be liberated someday too? And The human race perspective on itself and on the world has changed through time and will keep on changing, all we need is to be patient. As well as our articles and posts about how humans systematically exploit the poorest of their own kind, how they treat half of their own species and their own posterity. (Of course it shouldn’t matter to which species someone belongs, but it does matter to humans, and still, this is how they treat each other).
It is even hard to imagine a war free, non-racist, non-male chauvinist and slavery free world, so a non-speciesist one?
Most humans haven’t even made much more socially acceptable ethical decisions than going vegan. It is impossible to educate most humans not to use one another, not to objectify each other, not to turn to violence in conflicts and crisis so easily, not to discriminate each other on the basis of race, gender, ethnical orientation, class, weight, height, looks and etc.
The homo-consumericus knowingly and systematically oppresses members of its own species for the most trivial material goods. The dynamic of psychologically repressing and soothing any uncomfortable thoughts about the numerous faceless human victims half way around the world that pay a huge price so that consumers wouldn’t have to make the slightest compromise on their lifestyle is very much characteristic of the human race. The ease in which humans conduct horrendous acts towards one another is proven again and again by both social-science and in particularly psychology studies and by history and daily affairs. And ironically, slavery, activists’ most popular example of how animal liberation is possible, is one of the strongest examples proving the opposite.
Not that we agree with the comparison many activists often like to make between human slavery and animal exploitation, but at least in the sense of the mindset of the exploiters, there are some crucial similarities (mainly the need to extremely devalue the “other”). However, currently humanity is even getting further and further from ending human slavery, so what are the chances of convincing all humans to become vegans?
And even if there was a chance to utterly revolutionize humans’ moral perceptions regarding nonhumans, then the case of factory farms is stronger, not exclusive. Suffering is still suffering, and it needs to be stopped or prevented no matter where is occurs, to whom and by whom. The small chances to affect suffering in nature mustn’t be an excuse to let it go on. On the contrary. The smaller the chances for us activists to affect suffering in the world, the greater the moral incentive for us to destroy it.
And that goes for ignorance regarding human nature.
Back to the first part of the argument, that most of the suffering is caused in factory farms by humans and not in nature by nonhumans, many argue that the exact opposite is true. In recent years, more and more thinkers and activists argue that most of the suffering by no doubt occurs in nature and by nonhumans. We are not yet convinced by their arguments that it is so, we think most of the suffering is caused by humans and in factory farms, however while it is very hard to determine where most of the suffering occurs, there is no doubt that there are more victims in nature than there are in factory farms. And there is no doubt that most of them suffer greatly. That should be sufficient for any activist to take suffering in nature extremely seriously.
Only ignorance regarding nature’s true nature, can make the most caring humans in the world overlook the infinite suffering inflicted in nature. And that is the topic of the next section.
The Blind Spot’s Blind Spot
An idealized and a very partial view of nature, causes activists not only to ignore most of the horrible parts of the lives of animals in nature, it also causes them to ignore most of the animals.
Usually the idealized image of nature is consisted of adult individuals of large herbivore mammals pasture in a green field. However, there is nothing ideal in the lives of adult herbivores considering the constant social stress of many, the constant fear of predation of most, the harsh weather, the hunger, the thirst, the diseases, the frequent injuries from successful escapes from predation, and the excruciating pain of unsuccessful escapes from predation. And more importantly, herbivore mammals dying in adulthood are by no doubt extraordinarily exceptional and utterly unrepresentative of life in nature.
Most of the sentient beings on earth never reach adulthood, but live for a short and extremely brutal period, in most cases, lives of nothing but suffering.
This fact is particularly relevant for the case against nature as an ideal moral model since this mass scale horror is mainly driven by one of nature’s most fundamental elements – the reproductive strategy.
The two main reproductive strategies are called K-selection and r-selection. To put it simply, K-selection is putting all the energy on maximally preparing individuals to survive the environmental conditions, while r-selection is putting all the energy on the maximum number of individuals and minimum investment (in many cases none) in each individual.
Of course these strategies are combined in some way or another among different species, but generally that is the main framework.
Basically, the higher the value of r, the lower the value of K. So every single case of reproduction of r-selected species ends up with numerous individuals who will die shortly after.
Since the population of these species is more or less the same from generation to generation, then on average only one offspring will survive to replace each parent.
Of course not all the individuals of each reproduction will live long enough to become sentient (consumed while still in the egg at a very early stage for example) and there are those who argue that some never become sentient, no matter their age, because they are simply non-sentient. However, given that most animals practice r-selection, including invertebrates of course (by far most of the animals on Earth) and many vertebrates such as fishes, amphibians and reptiles, and given the enormous number of reproductions and the enormous number reproduced beings, nature is not only far from being ideal, it is full of suffering on every level.
The philosopher Oscar Horta thinks that the existence of r-selection leads to the inevitable conclusion that there is far more suffering than happiness in nature. He gives an example to prove his point:
“Consider just one example regarding a certain species of animals, the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). These animals can lay from a few thousand to several million eggs. Let us suppose that they lay 2 million each time. It is estimated that in 2007 there were around 33,700 tons of Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine bank alone. An adult cod can weigh up to 25-35 kg. Assuming they have an average weight of 33.7 kg, there would be around a million of these animals (the average weight I have proposed is too high, though on the other hand I am assuming, for the sake of simplicity, that these animals are all adult animals). Assuming the cod population remains stable, on average only two of the eggs that a female cod lays in her life end up developing into adults. Thus, a total of 2 trillion eggs laid will fail to become adults. Assume each egg has a 0.1 probability of developing into a young, immature fish, a codling, and that there is a 0.1 probability that codlings are sentient. Finally, assume that on average they suffer for just ten seconds before they die.
All of these are extremely conservative assumptions. Yet they entail that each time these animals reproduce we can expect that 200 billion seconds of suffering is experienced (and these are only the cods in the Gulf of Maine). Since there are 31,556,926 seconds in a year, this amounts to 6337.7529 years of suffering. If this continues over an average human lifespan (that is, six decades), the number of years of suffering generated would be 380,265.174. All this for a very specific species in a very specific area.”
Oscar Horta’s terrifying illustration is extremely important for several reasons:
Even non-negative utilitarians must infer that nature can’t be morally justified.
It further refutes the idealistic view of nature.
It further induces the moral need to act against it.
It further refutes the idealistic view of a vegan world which is many activists’ moral ideal.
The kinds of lives that the absolute majority of sentient beings on earth are forced to live, are of nothing but suffering. And that is a much more accurate view of nature’s true nature.
To positively view nature one must wear extraordinarily optimistic lenses when looking at individuals from K-selected species, and simply cover the eyes when looking at individuals from r-selected species.
Not moral agents
Some, including Tom Regan for example, argue that since animals are not moral agents they have no moral obligations towards other animals, which is a totally reasonable claim to make, but they also argue that only when moral agents are involved, actions have moral significance.
First of all the question of intervening in nature, is not whether nonhuman animals (who are considered not to be moral agents) must stop hurting nonhuman animals, but whether humans (who are considered to be moral agents) should stop nonhumans from hurting nonhumans. So the argument that nonhumans are not moral agents is not even relevant in this case.
But since it is often brought up in that context and since it is an important issue in itself, we’ll shortly address it.
Moral agency is relevant only to determine whether someone must be held accountable for hurtful actions, not to determine whether hurtful actions are of moral significance. Moral agency is meaningful only for the hurting side. For the hurt side it is meaningless.
Our moral view is not about judgments, justice or punishments. It’s about viewing the cruel situation for what it is, recognizing that someone is a victim, acknowledging that suffering is suffering.
The argument that animals as opposed to humans aren’t be cruel because they don’t inflict pain on purpose and since they don’t have other choices, may be true but it doesn’t make the situation less cruel for the victims. There are no painkillers in lack of intention or in the lack of other options.
Predation is immoral despite that predators are not acting immorally.
Intentional or not, necessary or not, there are still victims to their actions. A hurtful action is bad even when not a bad actor does it.
Our natural tendency when it comes to suffering is to seek the accountable, but there aren’t always ones. It is not always good vs. bad. It is more convenient and serviceable to think so since it makes a sense of order in our world view. But it is not so in most cases. Most of the evils in the world are not a consequence of evil. Even the evils humans are doing are mostly not a consequence of evil, but of convenience, habitualness, conformism, selfishness and mostly indifference.
Thinking in terms of good and bad, absolute victims and absolute victimizers, is much easier than the thought that the world is so inherently cruel that if the victimizers won’t hurt the victims they would victimize themselves, for instance in case of predation. And these are just the top predators which would stay hungry. Many other predators are being preyed by other predators (very common among fishes and insects), then the victims and victimizers swap places all the time, it depends at what point you are looking.
Actions, and surely situations, can be horrible even if no moral agents were performing them. One unequivocal example for that are the earlier mentioned, natural disasters. Earthquakes are not moral agents yet we think they are bad. We can’t hold anyone responsible for their harms, but surly we consider harms made by earthquakes bad. And not only that we consider them bad, it is unlikely that anyone would argue that we shouldn’t interfere in favor of the ones hurt by an earthquake because it is a natural disaster, in fact most argue that it is our moral obligation to do so.
Many parts of reality are cruel without anyone guilty of them. The fact that earthquakes are not moral agents doesn’t prevent us from thinking we should help its victims. So it’s not moral agency which is relevant here. The lack of moral agents makes the situation injudicable but we can certainly judge the situation as horrible.
When an earthquake happens we define it as a tragedy and bad luck for the ones hurt. If it happens in a certain place once a day, we would say that this is a very bad place to live in.
That is despite that no one is doing it on purpose or can be held accountable. No moral agents, and still – a bad place. The same can be said about nature. Only that in nature the bad thing doesn’t happen once a day but every single moment. We can say that nature is bad without anyone bad living in it. Just as we can say that natural disasters are bad without anyone bad causing them.
Are we responsible for earthquakes? No. But if we have the option to prevent the next earthquake and choose not to do anything about it, are we not responsible for its harms?
Given that innumerous harms are inflicted everywhere, all the time, our movement is a call to take responsibility and do something to prevent all of it.
Suffering is inevitable
But of course moral agency is not the only reason for the difference in the feelings towards suffering caused by humans, and suffering caused by nonhumans. Most of the suffering humans cause to nonhumans is since they want to. Most of the suffering nonhumans cause to other nonhumans is caused since they have to.
A stronger version of the argument that animals are not moral agents is that animals have no other options. The argument is not that they can’t distinguish right from wrong, but that they have no other options but to hurt.
However, the fact that suffering is always bad for the victim, makes an action that caused suffering bad whether there were alternatives or not.
How is it of any difference to the victims if there were other options available for the victimizers? No animal would stop running away in panic if the chasing animal would explain that there are no other options but starvation.
When we watch animals running away from animals chasing them we are in favor of the chased ones. That is despite that we know the chasers are not moral agents and that they have no other options. We don’t think the chasers are evil or wrong for chasing other animals, yet we have a strong inclination towards the chased.
More importantly, to be consistent we must be in favor of the chased ones every single time. But we know that when the chasers fail to hunt they suffer from hunger. That means we are in favor of starving the chasers.
So how are we supposed to solve this moral entanglement? Should we be in favor of the chased only every second time? Should we equally divide our sympathy? Should we try and figure out what causes more suffering, being hunted or starve to death?
Could choosing between predation and starvation even be a moral solution?
Inevitableness might ease our sense of responsibility but it doesn’t ease the inevitable suffering of the inevitable victims.
What would the supporters of the inevitable argument do if humans were truly carnivores? Would they accept the suffering of billions of animals if humans really needed to eat flesh to survive?
We think they most certainly wouldn’t. They would rightfully look for any possible option to reduce the suffering of animals regardless of humans’ needs. We would probably see many more activists who are in favor of a serious population reduction, in favor of in-vitro meat, in favor of VHEMT, and even in favor of genetic interventions aiming to ease animals natural sensitivity to physical and mental pain (an issue which is discussed as a future option among some supporters of intervening in nature) fewer would be in favor of organ donations and of the artificial prolongation of life of old and sick humans, and many other positions they must already hold but somehow too many don’t.
Anyway the point is that the relation towards the issue of inevitableness would change dramatically if humans were naturally carnivores. If this short list of standpoints sounds reasonable to you in the hypothetical case of humans really being carnivores, then it should also be reasonable in the case of real carnivores.
When watching suffering of wild animals on the screen, many humans and certainly every animal activist, are dramatically emotionally moved by these horrific scenes. Some rationalize their way out of it by calling it natural and others by claiming it is inventible, failing to infer the moral conclusion out of the situation – when something that horrible is such a natural and inventible part of life, life is horrible. Activists mustn’t rationalize their way out of horrible situations but act to change them.
The ones raising the inevitableness claim are doing so to explain why we can’t do anything about the suffering in nature, however that it is probably one of the strongest cases for doing anything we can to eliminate it. The fact that suffering is inevitable is not a reason to ignore it, but the primal reason why this world must end.
Humans will make things worse
And last but not least as it probably the strongest if not the only truly valid argument against interventions in nature, is that humans will only make things worse.
While in many cases it is probably no more than another excuse not to take responsibility over suffering in nature, we believe that in many other cases it is coming from a sincere concern that humans would cause more harm than they would help.
Basically we agree with that argument and not only because of humans’ nature, but mainly because of nature’s nature. Much of the suffering is too inherent, too entwined with the system to be tackled, even after much more study. Animals in nature have no other options but hurt others to survive. There is no way to avoid it. It can be reduced by several means and some are already suggested, but suffering is inevitable. Animals in nature fight each other over the same resources and in many cases they are each other’s resources, intervening in favor of one species would most probably hurt another or even the very same species, in the case of causing the extinction of a predator species to help another species for example, which would probably end up in overpopulation and hence starvation, dehydration, disease spread and etc. The fear of a Malthusian crisis among the animals that predators kill is genuine, not necessarily an excuse. However, while it may hold as an argument against the extinction of predators, it cannot hold as an argument against the extinction of predators and “prey”. In other words, the fear of a Malthusian Dystopia is a valid argument against the extinction of one species, but not at all against the extinction of all of them.
We are not suggesting looking for ways to interfere in specific cases to reduce some of the suffering. We are suggesting looking for ways to interfere in the over-all case to end all the suffering. It is much more complex and difficult in many aspects, but on the contrary on others. For example we mustn’t look for ways to somehow settle the so basic conflict of interests between different individuals in an eco-system. The fear of bad consequences from that perspective is not relevant in a global solution such as we suggest. If it works, there is no reason to fear unexpected consequences in terms of species dynamics, since there wouldn’t be one.
The spotters’ blind spot
In relation to the former argument, that humans would cause more harm, the supporters of intervention in nature argue that indeed so far humans interventions in nature caused much more harm than good, but almost each and every case of human intervention in nature was made for the sake of their interests, not for the sake of animals, so it is hard to infer from past events.
Moreover, many openly argue that it is too soon for extensive intervention in nature nowadays, as much more information is required in order to succeed in suffering reducing and not harming.
The very fact that suggestions to intervene in nature for the sake of sentients are even made is a great progress in moral thinking. Discussing the issue broadens the borders of morality and the suffering scope which we must consider, and probably most importantly, it seems that the thinkers who lead the discussion take as absolute granted that suffering is intrinsically bad and therefore must be stopped (it is not at all self-evident especially considering the idealization of nature, the popularity of the ecological thought, and the recent emphasis on lifestyle in the animal movement).
When we started our writing about suffering in nature back in 2006, we could only dream of such a serious and profound discussion regarding it a decade later.
We highly recommend reading the materials of these thinkers (you can find many in the References). They are thought provoking, compassionate towards all sentients without prejudice, biases, speciesism and other conceptual hindrances such as nature idealizing.
However, we have two major disagreements with what seems as the main premises of the discussion.
The first problem is that although what is required is technological developments, the ideas of intervention in nature are still social ones. Meaning, society must be convinced that it should commit itself for the sake of animals in nature. It would take a whole web of institutions, on the political, academic and economic levels, to revolutionize the way humans see practically everything in this world. That is when they haven’t yet even made the much more basic step which is stop observing nature as their resource but as other beings’ home.
Even if you believe that a species which is still so far from eradicating poverty, hunger and war not to mention racism, misogyny and ageism, a species that haven’t even ended slavery yet, and even expends it, and of course a species that invented and constantly intensifies factory farms, will someday seriously address the suffering of animals in nature, it will take a lot of time and we all know what time means in this world.
Placing humans as supervisors is a horrible idea not only because when they did intervene in nature, the results were horrible, but since we refuse to keep entrusting the fate of trillions of nonhumans in the unreliable hands of humanity.
What part of the history of the human race makes anyone believe that this species is capable of making moral decisions?
Currently not only that humans are not even willing to take responsibility over animals’ suffering that they are directly causing, but the number of the victims is constantly increasing.
What makes the expectation, that humans would someday care for animals’ suffering in nature despite that currently they don’t even feel morally obligated to care for the animals which are tortured directly for them, even more ridiculous, is how they deal with climate change – what is supposed to be in their eyes the biggest problem their species ever faced. Gladly, so far humans are far from dealing with the issue in a proportional way. They are willing to worsen the state of the planet even if it hurts their children, so they can maintain their lifestyle. So expecting that they would recruit to help animals in the wild is absurd.
Don’t confuse the last argument with the infamous claim that there are more burning issues at stake. Except for factory farming, we don’t think that there are more urgent issues then suffering in nature. It is humans who think that there are many issues (factory farms are not an issue for them at all) which are more important but don’t bother dealing with them either. We have no reason to think that societies that have invested billions to precede other societies in the race to the moon (a project with very low scientific aspects and zero ethical aspects) instead of dealing with malaria for example, would ever seriously deal with helping animals in nature.
How can we seriously expect a society which hasn’t even made the first crucial ethical step, to make the last one? And all the more so when even most of the activists are against making it?
The idea of intervention in nature is all in all, a social one. It is immoral to wait for society to change, definitely not when it is certain that even if these ideas would be implemented, it would be far from helping all the sentient begins on earth. And that brings us to the second fundamental problem.
The second problem is that despite the profound understating of nature’s true nature by the intervention supporters, their conclusion is that we have a moral obligation to thoroughly study ecosystems so we can help some animals in some of them. The suggesters understand perfectly well that in this world suffering is inevitable. Such an understanding must establish a moral obligation to thoroughly study not specific ecosystems, so we can affect them and hopefully reduce some of the suffering of some of the animals, but the whole globe so we can affect it and hopefully end all the suffering of the all the animals.
The intervention supporters argue that we are morally obligated to help in every case we are sure we can help more than harm. It sounds reasonable, but that also means that we must accept the suffering in all the cases which we can’t be sure we can help. Suffering is so inherent in this world that even the ones who truly care about every suffering being, accept much of the suffering as obvious. Accepting suffering mustn’t be reasonable.
The only reason we need more information regarding the complexity of ecosystems is so we’ll know how to destroy them, not so we’ll know how to slightly make some of them slightly less horrible. From an ethical perspective, all that is needed is to know that suffering is intrinsically bad and is inevitable in these systems. That is sufficient to morally infer that we mustn’t study these systems so we can make them slightly less horrible, but so we can permanently stop them.
Helping the ones that we are sure that we can, is the moral thing to do only after giving up the option of helping all of them.
If two buttons were placed in front of activists from both sides of the discussion (one group who are sure there is more suffering in factory farms and the other that there is more suffering in the wild), one button stops all the anthropogenic caused suffering and the other stops all the suffering in nature, we assume that activists from the first camp would push the first button and activists from the second camp, the second button. We want to believe that if a third button would be suggested, one that stops all the suffering, both camps would push it in double speed. Yet, despite that the situation is getting worse all the time – the suffering in factory farms increases every year, and the suffering in nature keeps being totally ignored, the few people who care about it, are not looking for neither of the buttons.
In both cases, ours and theirs (the ‘intervention supporters’), the solution leans on technology.
In their case the call is to study the issue and lay hopes on that future humans would be more caring and ethical and so would act to promote technological solutions for reducing suffering.
In our case the call is for present activists to realize that there is no substantial reason to lay hopes on future humans and there is no moral reason to let trillions of sentient beings suffer until the good humans from the future would show up, and therefore we all must look now for technological solutions to stop all the suffering.
The human society is not and will not be nonhumans‘ salvation but their oppression. On the other hand, individual humans can be nonhumans’ saviors, but only if they stop laying their hopes on their species and realize that it is up to them only. Up to you.
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