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The moral conflict between environmentalism and animal welfare

Animal rights supporters and environmentalists are divided: one group prioritises the welfare of the individual animal, the other emphasises the health of the overall ecosystem. 

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“I love animals, that’s why I like to kill 'em,” growls a faux-Australian Graham Chapman in Monty Python’s mosquito hunter sketch. This attitude seems a world away from that of the tender-hearted vegan who abstains from honey out of respect for the property rights of honeybees. But the outlook that leads one person to speak out against the mistreatment of animals has surprising similarities to the outlook that leads another to hunt them in the wild.

To begin with, the hunter and vegan are both mindful of where their food comes from and tend toward a do-it-yourself, locally sourced ethic. They often share a deep respect for animal life and think it distasteful to buy plastic-wrapped cuts of meat from a supermarket. This respect is usually couched within a broader affinity for nature and discomfort with the cold efficiencies of industrial food production. And yet when it comes to putting these principles into practice, hunters and vegans evidently reach diametrically opposed conclusions about the proper treatment of animals.

What explains these differences? Although both view animal life with concern, they look upon it from different perspectives: the vegan with an individualist ethic and the hunter with an ecological ethic. I don’t think these perspectives can be reconciled. I also think neither of them is wrong.

The most influential expression of the individualist perspective is utilitarianism. Utilitarians, and other mainstream advocates of animal welfare and animal rights, focus on the well-being of individual animals. In particular, they argue that many of the considerations we owe to other people are also due to at least some non-human animals.

Jeremy Bentham, the founding figure of utilitarianism, threw down a challenge in the late 18th century to the prevailing view that animals lack moral standing: “The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but, 'Can they suffer?'” The differences between humans and other animals are important and profound, Bentham acknowledged, but those differences aren’t morally significant.

As a more recent utilitarian, Peter Singer, puts it, moral consideration is owed to any being that has interests, which means any being for whom things can be said to go better or worse. If you can suffer, you have an interest in not suffering. And on Singer’s view, to frustrate that interest is wrong.

What’s more, Singer says, it’s wrong to think that it matters whose suffering we’re talking about. In the same way that it’s racist or sexist to give less consideration to the interests of people on the basis of their race or gender, it’s “speciesist” (Singer didn’t coin the term but he made it made famous) to give less consideration to the interests of beings on the basis of their species.

Singer’s reasoning and other allied forms of argument have provided the philosophical ballast for a raft of reforms in the treatment of animals in the past half century. Advocates of animal welfare and animal rights have demanded an end to factory farming and some forms of animal experimentation in laboratories. They’ve called out the cruel hypocrisies of the zoo and pet industries. And they’ve challenged various forms of hunting, which seem to some to be wantonly destructive of animal lives.

This last point is questionable. Trophy hunting is easy to condemn but what about the hunter who eats venison rather than supermarket steak? What if that hunter is an indigenous person struggling to preserve a way of life that has been systematically marginalised by a society of farmers, city dwellers and utilitarian philosophers?

The idea that animals shouldn’t be made to suffer sounds reasonable enough in the context of factory farming. Yet when you widen your perspective, this stance comes into conflict with the inescapable fact that animals do suffer. If your concern is for suffering, the natural world is a place of unspeakable horrors. Prey animals are eaten alive by the predators that hunt them. Predators that fail in the hunt die slowly of starvation. Social animals establish hierarchies through systematic bullying that would make the American president blench. And let’s not even get started on parasites.

If you’re serious about minimising suffering, you have to contemplate a massive intervention across parts of the planet that haven’t already been claimed by human settlement and agriculture. To start, predators would need to be eradicated, confined, or perhaps reprogrammed to prefer vegetable matter. Their absence would lead to an unsustainable boom in the populations of prey species, so you’d also need to check their population growth in a way that causes least harm – perhaps a programme of mass spaying and neutering wild animals. To ensure fair treatment for all, teams of ethicists would have to flatten out dominance hierarchies.

If you push the reasoning far enough, it becomes clear that the abolition of suffering requires the abolition of nature itself. Some thinkers are willing to go that far, but most would agree that the proposed cure is worse than the disease itself. A less bold utilitarian thinker might argue that we only have to prevent human-induced suffering. But if suffering is intrinsically bad, it’s not clear why we should stand by just because the perpetrators aren’t human.

From an ecological perspective, the utilitarian’s concern for the welfare of individual animals seems precious, a sanitised ethic that’s disconnected from the harsh but sublime reality of the natural world. Mother Nature is not an individualist. The health of the ecosystem as a whole demands an unforgiving turnover in the individuals that compose it. Suffering and death are facts of life that we must learn to accept, on the ecological view, not ills we must struggle to prevent.

This hard tutelage was the human reality until agriculture and domestication started to supplant hunting and gathering about 10,000 years ago. Some people still hunt as a form of subsistence. Others do so as a way of reconnecting with the natural world. Others still, admittedly, hunt simply for sport. But thoughtful advocates of hunting attest that taking an active part in the cycle of nature can be a profound experience. Many environmentalists, Aldo Leopold notable among them, have claimed that hunting is an important component of wilderness management.

Still, it’s clearly against a deer’s interests to get a bullet through its heart. No amount of talk about ecological health or euphemisms about the “harvesting” of wild animals can evade the central point of the utilitarian argument: no one, human or animal, wants to suffer and die. The hunter in the woods may open herself up to the majesty of nature but she must also, at the very same time, close herself off from the deer in her cross hairs. An Inuit hunter once put the dilemma starkly: “The greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls.”

Two competing perspectives confront one another here. The individualist perspective of utilitarianism asks us to consider, of any given individual, what interests that individual has, and abstain from violating those interests. Opposing this individualist view is an ecological one that situates all individuals within a sovereign ecosystem that’s indifferent to any particular interest.

So what to do? On one hand, we have the claim that every individual is sacrosanct, and on the other, we have the ecological backdrop against which every individual must shuffle in and out of life like the changing of the seasons. It’s ecologically necessary that individuals suffer and die but it’s bad for each individual to whom this happens.

The point of moral reasoning, it might seem, is to help us settle conundrums like this. Some moral theories serve as a kind of decision procedure: input a given set of circumstances, let the moral theory turn its gears, and out comes the recommended course of action. The idea that moral reflection should result in judgement or action is a powerful one.

But sometimes what moral maturity calls for isn’t a neat answer but the patience and courage to stay with a problem. That all living beings must suffer and die is inevitable. It’s also terrible. The difficulty lies in holding both of these truths in view at once. The Greeks found a way to do this and called it tragedy. The Buddha enshrined it as the first of his Four Noble Truths.

In the terrible fragility of animal life, we see a mirror of our own fragility. No wonder we’re not inclined to linger on this problem. To the extent that there’s something wrong with our tender-hearted vegan or our ecologically minded hunter, it’s that they think they have an answer – an answer that may provide the comfort of moral clarity, but only by missing either the forest or the trees.

David Egan is on the faculty at Outer Coast in Sitka, Alaska. He is the author of The Pursuit of an Authentic Philosophy and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @ajwendland.