April 24, 2024 | By:

The Ethics of Wildlife Conservation: Part 2

This second essay in a planned series (read part one here) addresses three topics as they pertain to the ethics of wildlife conservation and preservation:

  • The is-ought fallacy
  • Intrinsic value
  • Utilitarianism

What I have to say on these topics is in some respects controversial. I’d be disappointed if it were not.

1. Introduction

Most of us in the rewilding community believe we ought to treat animals with compassion, so you might wonder why I am bothering to write about ethics. Am I just preaching to the choir?

My intent is not to preach, but to help us all (me included) better understand the basis of our shared moral intuitions about how we should treat wild nature generally and wild animals in particular.

I know a state agency biologist who believes that so long as the jaws of foothold traps have spacers and sets are checked within 48 hours it is ethically permissible to trap wild animals as a hobby. I disagree, but what makes me right and him wrong?

I have no illusions about trying to convert contrariants to my point of view, but I don’t think we should be satisfied with simply declaring them wrong. We know that people who agree on the facts can reasonably disagree on what to do in view of those facts. The disagreement will turn on differing values, driven by emotions, passions, sentiments, interests, and the like. (Hereafter I will sometimes use “sentiment” as a cover term.) So, again, what makes me right and the state wildlife biologist wrong? Is there anything that can unerringly point the way to a receptive mind, something that we can use to discern right from wrong?

I think we must take No for an answer, since nothing of the kind has ever been devised. What we can hope for instead is to articulate a view that provides a unifying rational justification for our moral judgments as informed by relevant facts. This beats just having opinions, however firm.

2. The is-ought fallacy

In what follows I will present and critique two different ethical theories, with a particular concern for how we ought to treat other animals. But first, it will be helpful if we take notice of the fact, observed by 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, that we cannot derive moral truths from statements of empirical fact. In other words, Is does not imply Ought. To reason directly from Is to Ought is to commit what is known as the is-ought fallacy.

Consider this example. Suppose Bill is drunk at the bar and insists that he can safely drive home even though he can barely stand up. Statement of fact: “Bill is too drunk to drive safely.” Moral statement: “Bill ought not to drive.” The important point to note is that the first statement does not entail the second statement. This means you can affirm the factual statement and deny the moral statement without contradiction. Now, you might think, “So what, why is this important?” It is important because it highlights the apparent lack of foundation for the moral statement. If the facts don’t make it true, what does? Allow yourself to be struck by this! While we are not obligated to answer this question before calling a cab for Bill, the apparent baselessness of our moral judgments is (or should be) intellectually disconcerting.

2.1  Conscience

The challenge for an ethical theory is to either bridge the gap between is and ought or ground moral obligation in something other than empirical facts. The candidate commonly nominated for this second role is conscience—our conscience is supposed to tell us right from wrong, though we don’t always heed it. But this demands too much of conscience, evident from the fact that the dictates of conscience can be different for different people, and even for the same person at different times. ‘Conscience’ is just a term for a feeling of approbation or disapprobation. It is a sentiment. Having a conscience is better than not having one, but as an arbiter of moral truth it is unreliable.

Petroglyph © Kirk Robinson

Big Horn Sheep Petroglyph, Mount Irish, Nevada © Kirk Robinson

3. Intrinsic value

This is not so much a theory as it is a commonly accepted dogma that animals and perhaps other things have value independently of us and our interests. It is tempting to claim that we are sensitive to the intrinsic value of wild animals, and wild nature generally, as a justification for how we believe they should be treated. But if so, what is wrong with the contrariants? Do their brains lack intrinsic value detectors or are their hearts just lacking in compassion? In my opinion, excepting those who enjoy killing for the sheer fun of it, no. They just see things differently.

An appeal to intrinsic value as a justification for how we believe we ought to treat wild animals and wild nature generally is ambiguous and can be construed in one of two ways:

x We value wild animals and wild nature just as we might enjoy watching a sunset or dancing, not as something to be used or exploited. (A person might also dance because it is good for her health, but this would be an additional reason and would not negate the fact that she just enjoys dancing. Similarly for bird watching, etc.)

z Our respect for wild nature and wild animals is a response to the property of intrinsic value they possess independently of us—a value just as real as physical properties such as the specific gravity and boiling point of water, but which is not itself a physical property.

3.1  Explication and critique of x & z

x is not really an example of intrinsic value. Rather, a thing gets whatever value it has from humans valuing it: we enjoy sunsets and dancing, etc., so we value them. And similarly for wild animals that we enjoy observing.

z posits a mysterious non-natural but real property *intrinsic value* possessed by wild animals and wild nature, and that can only be known via an equally mysterious special faculty of the mind called intuition. We value a thing because we intuitively know that it has the property of intrinsic value, much as we can see that a tree is flexible in the wind or smell that meat is rotten, except that, because it is a non-natural property, intrinsic value cannot be perceived by the senses, or detected or measured by an instrument. This is attractive because it goes beyond anthropocentrism by positing value in nature independent of human valuing.

x and z are mutually exclusive. If something has value, either the value must be extrinsic to it (x) or intrinsic to it (z); but it is easy to conflate them—to assume that because we value something for its own sake it must possess (the property of) intrinsic value. We project value onto it. Is this what is going on with Dave Foreman’s proclamation “Wild things for their own sake!”? In my opinion, no. I see this as a rally cry like the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!”—not as a declarative sentence freighted with metaphysical baggage. I am all in too, but one can still ask why we should value a badger or a raven for its own sake. And what about invasive feral hogs and horses?

Unfortunately, z is problematic. The sentiment is laudatory, but the problem with z is that we have now posited something that is, by its nature, beyond the reach of empirical science. There is no way to test the hypothesis and therefore no way to distinguish z from x. How can we be so sure that we aren’t just emotionally attached to the things we believe have intrinsic value? Not that there’s anything wrong with being emotionally attached to them, but wouldn’t it be more honest to just say so? And in that case, isn’t our disagreement with the contrariants nothing more than a shouting match?

A possible rejoinder to this is that we shouldn’t assume that all of reality must be capturable in the net of science. I agree, but a mere logical possibility has no epistemic import, so I don’t see how this helps with the problem. Consider that it is also logically possible that a flying spaghetti monster rules the universe.

Surely, rather than inventing a metaphysical property that only serves to conceal our ignorance from others and from ourselves, a better option, if we can have it, would be a naturalized ethics that is consistent with what we know about the physio-biological world and that accommodates our sense that much of nature has intrinsic value, as we are tempted to put it.

Please do not take this as an argument against speaking of intrinsic value, but as a caution that we need to have a better understanding of what it amounts to. I will have more to say on this in the next essay, where I will present a naturalized ethics in which all value is dependent upon valuing, but in a way that construes what we want to call intrinsic value as an objective property of sentient beings.

To naturalize ethics is to 1, elucidate the nature of our moral obligations without positing metaphysical properties; and 2, without committing the is-ought fallacy. In addition, an adequate moral theory will provide a unifying logically consistent justification for our moral judgments. This might be achieved in part by the theory exerting a kind of top-down “correction” onto some of our prior judgments. Does utilitarianism pass the test?

4. Utilitarianism

Englishmen Jeremy Bentham introduced utilitarianism in the late 18th century. His protégé, John Stuart Mill, elaborated and refined the theory in the early 19th century. Bentham and Mill were primarily concerned with using utilitarianism to bring about legal and social reforms to improve the lives of people, but they were also concerned with the welfare of other animals. The basic idea of utilitarianism is that the consequences of an action determine whether it is moral or not. What sorts of consequences are at issue? Happiness, construed as pleasure minus pain. Pleasure is inherently good, is wanted, and pain is inherently bad, is aversive (except to those masochists who perversely derive pleasure from pain).

Regarding non-human animals, Bentham famously said in his book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, “The question is not, can they reason?, nor can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Thus, Bentham identified the capacity for suffering as the most ethically significant factor when it comes to how we ought to treat other creatures.

In his book Utilitarianism, Mill states the Greatest Happiness Principle, also known as the Utility Principle: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” Mill contributed to the theory by distinguishing between two kinds of pleasure: higher and lower. He averred that the lower pleasures have to do primarily with sensation and feeling and that the higher and better pleasures, enjoyed exclusively by humans—such things as art, philosophy, and science—involve reason. He famously said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Arguably, utilitarianism passes the test for a naturalized ethic. Pain and pleasure are not metaphysical entities. And while a pain—a toothache, for example—is not a thing of the same kind as a tooth, which is a physical object, it is still real. And the second requirement—avoiding the is-ought fallacy—also seems to be met because the pain is essentially bad, negative, unwanted. No one ever said, “Gee, what a delightfully pleasant toothache I have,” except possibly in irony. Similarly for other pains and for pleasures, which would seem to warrant reasoning such as this:

1. Premise: Pain is bad.
Conclusion: One ought not cause pain.

2. Premise: Kicking a dog causes pain.
Conclusion: You ought not kick your dog.

The crucial step is taken in argument 1. It depends on the tacit premise that we ought not do bad. While this is not a logically necessary truth, it is hard to think of cases where we ought to do bad, with one caveat: If the pain or pleasure in question can be expected to cause a greater amount of its opposite, then it would be morally justified.

Bobcat © Wanderlust Images

Bobcat © Wanderlust Images

4.1  Critique of utilitarianism

To understand utilitarianism, it is tempting to imagine pleasures and pains of varying intensity and duration as consisting of positive or negative hedonic units. Suppose there are two alternative actions you might take that will affect other people and/or animals. Action A can be expected to produce 10 units of pleasure and 3 units of pain, for a net happiness of 7. Action B, by contrast, can be expected to produce 13 units of pleasure at the cost of 7 units of pain, for a net happiness of 6. Thus, of the two, action A is the morally better action even though B can be expected to produce a greater amount of pleasure.

Admittedly, this only makes sense if all pleasures and pains, of whatever duration, intensity, or kind, can be compared quantitatively, but it is hard to see how this can be done where both lower and higher pleasures are in the mix. How can a qualitative difference be cashed out as a quantitative difference? Aside from this, the supposition that pains and pleasures of various kinds are susceptible to quantitative assessment is dubious in the first place.

The distinction between higher and lower pleasures also invites what most of us will regard as ethically preposterous proposals. For example, if the highest and best pleasures possible are of a kind that only human beings can experience, then presumably the more human beings experiencing higher pleasures, the better, even at the cost of fewer non-human creatures. This would seem to warrant unrestrained growth in the human population at the expense of other creatures, which in the best-case scenario will be accomplished without directly inflicting harm on them, but simply by outcompeting them for resources.

In this connection, here are some hard facts about where we are presently at:

  • 60 million tonnes of wild animal biomass
  • 390 million tonnes of human being biomass
  • 630 million tonnes of domestic animal biomass
    (Source: “Cry Wolf Project” video, minute 41)

Only six percent of Earth’s mammal biomass today consists of wild mammals. 94% consists of us humans and our domesticated animals. A mere 20,000 years in the past the situation was the polar opposite. I am not suggesting that the cause of this alarming situation is utilitarianism, only that it is not obviously a bad thing on utilitarian grounds.

Utilitarian ethics also invites conjectures along the line of genetic engineering or controlled breeding to get rid of predators that prey on sentient animals, thereby reducing the amount of suffering in the world. If we could somehow do this without causing a lot of pain, it would seem to be a good thing to do on utilitarian grounds. Maybe AI will be used to crank out a strategy for pursuing this goal, but many of us think it would be a terrible thing to do even if we could.

4.2  Fundamental inadequacy of utilitarianism

Even if we grant that traditional utilitarianism passes the two-part test for a naturalized ethical theory, I think it is clearly inadequate. Perhaps the most fundamental problem with it is that it treats creatures as little more than receptacles for pleasures and pains. By way of analogy: a creature is to her pleasures and pains what a paper sack is to a McDonald’s Happy (or not-so-Happy) Meal.

Consider a pet dog, Luna, and suppose she has terminal cancer that is disabling and painful in a way that cannot be palliated. Her life is one of misery. In that case, the greatest happiness in utilitarian terms would presumably be attained by euthanizing Luna, which probably accords with most people’s moral intuition.

But suppose Luna is just old and is no longer able to run and explore and play as she once did but is otherwise comfortable and seems to enjoy life. Luna’s master, on the other hand, prefers a younger dog that she can take on long hikes, from which both she and the dog will derive a great amount of pleasure, so she arranges with a breeder to replace Luna with a new “designer” puppy. Once the puppy is available, she then euthanizes Luna. It is hard to see how one can object to this on utilitarian grounds, since the balance of pleasure over pain is increased. Yet the result seems to leave something important out of the picture: Luna. What about her life and its importance to her? Even though Luna lacks the capacity to plan for the future and has no projects to complete or goals to achieve, doesn’t she have an interest in having her life continue, at least so long as she is enjoying it? And therefore, don’t we humans have a duty not to capriciously end her life or harm her? And if so, wouldn’t the same duty apply to wild animals? The third essay will address these questions.

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Jeff Hoffman
2 months ago

In The Tao of Physics, author Dr. Fritjof Capra shows that eastern mystics and modern physicists come to the same basic conclusions about the fundamental properties of life. The former do so with intuitive knowledge, and the latter do so with intellectual knowledge. However, intuitive knowledge is much deeper and therefore of much more value. If one obsesses on the intellect, and its fruits like science, one misses a large portion of reality.

Obsession with the intellect leads to death and destruction of the natural world and the native life there, because among other things it causes a mechanistic (Cartesian) view of life. Life does not consist of a bunch of machines; it consists of evolved beings who are much more than that. Understanding this is well beyond science and the intellect. While the modern physics that Dr. Capra describes has come to realize this fact, it is nevertheless stuck in the mechanistic view of life.

Kirk Robinson shows disdain for intuitive knowledge, calling it a “mysterious special faculty of the mind,” while obsessing on whether we can intellectually prove which attitude toward the natural world and nonhumans is “better.” To the contrary, one of the main things wrong with humans is their obsession with their intellect and their disregard for their natural intuition. This explains a lot of how we got from a fecund planet with abundant wildlife before humans started using agriculture and overpopulating, to one that appears to be dying in comparison.

One does not at all need the intellect and its resultant empirical science to know right from wrong; simply use Aldo Leopold’s definition: if something is good for the Earth, its native ecosystems & habitats, and/or the native life there, then it’s good. If something is harmful to those forms of life, then it’s bad or evil. The intellect will never lead to that conclusion, because the intellect is more like an unfeeling computer. Moreover, just knowing this intellectually is not sufficient, because people rarely act based on intellectual knowledge, and George Lakoff (University of California at Berkeley) has clearly shown. People act based on how they feel, which is a function of their intuition. Therefore, we should focus on our intuition for things like how to treat nonhumans. Of course the intellect has its legitimate uses, but humans have gone well past that point to the exclusion of intuition, and thus don’t see anything wrong with living unnaturally or overpopulating the planet.

The intellect left unchecked gives us a dead planet. As I said, humans should use both their intellect and their intuition, but intuition needs to take the lead here, and intellect should only be used when adequately guided by intuition. The human mind, now controlled by intellect, is like a runaway car with no brakes or steering. Human intellect needs to be reined in and made subservient to intuition. Doing this will necessarily change human actions and behaviors in a very positive manner. Of course the human supremacist (anthropocentric) attitudes must also be abolished in favor of biocentric and ecocentric attitudes, but reining in the intellect and getting back in touch with our natural intuition would be a great start.

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