by Brian Tomasik
First written: 15 Dec. 2013; last update: 11 Nov. 2017
The animal movement is doing important work to show people the importance of reducing the suffering of dogs, chickens, and lobsters at the hands of humans. However, many animal advocates also strongly defend wildlife, in spite of the immense amounts of animal suffering it contains. Some animal supporters are environmentalists because they think ecological preservation best advances animal welfare, while others hold an additional moral view that nature is intrinsically valuable. It's troubling that spreading the animal movement risks creating more defenders of wildlife who may cause more animal suffering than they prevent. Plausibly the animal movement is still net positive, especially if future wisdom helps to correct its present oversights, but I think it's safest if we push explicitly on the cause of reducing wild-animal suffering -- both among animal activists and others who are open-minded.
- 1 Summary
- 2 Introduction
- 3 Humane moralism or deep ecology?
- 4 How concerning is this association?
- 5 Examples of animal advocates who support wildlife
- 6 Should we worry about animal rights supporting wilderness?
- 7 What about spreading wildlife to space?
- 8 Animal welfare vs. animal rights
- 9 Wanted: A survey on animal rights and environmentalism
- 10 Pro-wilderness outcomes of a movement for wild-animal welfare?
As a longtime wildlife biologist, in my estimation the most important source of wild animal suffering is habitat destruction.
Many people in the animal-rights and animal-welfare movement want to preserve wilderness. Animal activists from Marc Bekoff to Anthony Marr explicitly defend wilderness preservation for the sake of wild animals. Several of the campaigns by Humane Society International center around saving wildlife, and many animal groups include wilderness conservation as one component or other of their work. Veg groups almost always highlight environmental benefits as one strong reason to give up meat.
This comment argues in favor of donating to animal charities, such as "an organization that buys land so that land can never be developed into an industrial, business or residential complex, which in return preserves animal habitat in a world of ever-decreasing habitat".
Humane moralism or deep ecology?
There are two main explanations for why animal advocates may care about wilderness.
- They believe wilderness is most conducive to the wellbeing of animals who live there and that environmental destruction tends to cause net suffering. This rationale falls within what J. Baird Callicott called "humane moralism," i.e., caring about the happiness and suffering of individual animals. Jonathan Balcombe's Pleasurable Kingdom is sometimes cited in defense of this view, even though this argument ignores the massive premature death caused by r-selective reproduction and the fleetingly short adult lifespans of small animals.
- Sometimes the animal advocates are also deep ecologists, i.e., they care intrinsically about non-sentient biotic processes for their own sakes. This is also fairly common, because deep environmentalism and concern for animals are closely linked in a shared memeplex. Demographic attributes like young, female, white, liberal, educated, and middle/upper class come to mind for both.
How concerning is this association?
For some humane moralists who support wilderness, I'm not too worried. I expect that as these people learn more and realize just how much suffering nature contains, they'll come to see that their naive endorsement of flourishing wildlife was misguided. Indeed, this is what happened to me in 2005-2006.
For other humane moralists I'm more concerned, because their perspective may be resilient against caring about welfare per se and has more to do with rights or presumed preferences. For instance, it's sometimes claimed that "Nature is good because animals in nature value their own lives, as we can see by the fact that they struggle to survive." I've discussed elsewhere why this inference is invalid. As a simple example of this point, would we say that the "Hunger Games" are a good thing because the participants clearly value their lives by struggling to survive?
Finally, the deep-ecological motivation is particularly troubling, because it not only supports wilderness preservation but opposes even less destructive interventions in nature to relieve animal suffering.
Examples of animal advocates who support wildlife
In The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan wrote:
[T]he goal of wildlife management should be to defend wild animals in the possession of their rights, providing them with the opportunity to live their own life, by their own lights, as best they can [...]. If, in reply, we are told that respecting the rights of animals in the wild in the way the rights view requires does not guarantee that we will minimize the total amount of suffering wild animals will suffer over time, our reply should be that this cannot be the overarching goal of wildlife management, once we take the rights of animals seriously. The total amount of suffering animals cause one another in the wild is not the concern of morally enlightened wildlife management. Being neither the accountants nor managers of felicity in nature, wildlife managers should be principally concerned with letting animals be, keeping human predators out of their affairs, allowing these "other nations"4 to carve out their own destiny.
The animal protection movement as a whole has long drawn an ethical distinction between animals killed by people versus those killed by animal predators.20 Tom Regan is no exception. As he writes, “in claiming that we have a prima facie duty to assist those animals whose rights are violated, therefore, we are not claiming that we have a duty to assist the sheep against the attack of the wolf.”21 [...]
The mere fact that the mouse is harmed by a non-human animal is enough, according to Regan’s philosophy, to make it morally unobjectionable.
From a discussion (2008) of wild-animal suffering at the Vegan Society Austria (translated using Google):
[Heavy Heavy Low Low, p. 1:] I think animals are in the wilderness pretty well. You can provide for themselves or a family, have an enormous amount of space to move and they die at some point. The fact that they are not always made great must simply accept, as people in affluent societies, which have sufficient food and shelter often beyond problems.
[The Andi, p. 1:] but the few animals are still wild eg: on an island, does not need our help, because the suffering or death keeps everything in balance.
[leather, p. 2:] For me, this is just nature and wilderness: The life enjoy, with all its vagaries and dangers [...] I've also someday read a quote from someone: A world without suffering is a dead world! So somehow related to the natural sorrow which is not avoidable has this quote already in my opinion.
[spaghetti, p. 2:] when Veganism is not yet a matter of principle, suffering-free world to create (yes this is absolutely not in the range of our options), but only a question of our behavior to be corrected, so that we are sentient beings do not expect further suffering and cruel treated, just because we are stronger than they are. in their nature but we have already sufficient interfered - I personally think that the wildlife rather want us to leave, instead of us even in their affairs.
From a VeggieBoards thread (2009):
[Semicharmed, p. 1:] I may be in the minority...
But I think any human-driven endeavor (aside from the Butt the Heck Out mindset) that attempted to "fix" suffering in nature (even if some portion of it was a result of us introducing certain foreign species to new habitats, etc.) would be a SHINING example of one thing:
[Eugene, p. 1:] it should be noted that the suffering per animal created in modern animal agriculture far exceeds almost anything in the predator/prey relations in nature. And when you multiply the suffering per animal by the number of animals (billions per year in animal agriculture), I would argue that the total amount of suffering created by factory farming and slaughterhouses far exceeds the total amount of suffering in nature of all wild animals combined. [Brian says: This simply cannot be true due to the numerical contrast between farmed vs. wild animals. In addition, it's not even obvious that wild animals on the whole have vastly better lives per capita than farmed ones.]
From another animal forum (2010):
[Veganomante, in starting the thread:] I realize serious animal right activists do take environmentalism as a logical consequence of their veganism/anti-speciesism. All of us here on the forum do, actually, I think.
[KRITTER:] We need to leev nature to its bizness as much as we can.Its not always prity.But nature knos best.The only species we shood sterlize is our own.
Another thread (2010), from veganforum.com:
[RubyDuby:] Nature does not need our help. Nature balances itself. It seems like you're placing human thinking, feeling and emotions into animals in nature. They have their own point of view.
[patientia:] Humans should just leave other animals alone. Just that.
[Mollfie:] Nature isn't cruel, it's nature, it has no concept of cruel. Cruelty is a man-made concept. Nature is life, and that's just how life is.
[xrodolfox:] What I care about isn't just plain suffering, but rather suffering which I as a human participate in.
Just as with Human Rights, I do not concern myself with situations in which people suffer because they choose crappy situations; I care about when crappy situations are imposed on others. I guess my real concern is freedom, not just happiness.
Same with animals. Animals in the wild are wild. My concern is not to project what I feel they would like (freedom from predation, access to sex, etc.) but rather that animals are free from HUMAN exploitation. My concern isn't that all animals get warm beds, but rather that animals aren't HUMAN property.
[rxseeeyse:] I can understand it would be nice for all suffering to stop, but I think it is wrong to interfere even more into nature and wild animals lives.
[VeganLu:] Animals in nature are doing just fine. They are meant to live in the wild. Besides, us humans face danger everyday too. We get diseases, die in car crashes and airplane crashes, get killed by people with guns or knives, get mugged, fall and brake our bones, die in wars, etc.
[Festered:] I won't say I don't think nature is cruel, it is in that a lot of animals suffer. Nature is cruel as life is and I don't like to think about a lot of the stuff that happens naturally in the world. I don't think about it because I am vegan by nature and it upsets me.
However, I don't get angry if animals suffer, unless they suffer due to human actions. If we started interfering with nature on a large scale in order to 'help' animals (we never will in my opinion, no one gives a toss about the animals that do need their care enough, to care for wild ones!) we would cause a humongous problem.
I want nature to win.
[Veg*ism] isn't about preventing all suffering, policing, and foam patting the world, it is about not being the cause of it, unnecessarily.
So, domesticate the whole of the wild, and make sure they all play nice, policing the animal kingdom is the logical conclusion of vegetarianism, and animal rights? Not only do I find that absurd, but wouldn't starting with yourself first, even if this was your desire make the most sense?
[I would not support reducing wild-animal suffering] if it means exhibiting absolute control over their lives, enslaving them all in order to save them all from themselves, and one another. That seems to be a cure that is far far worse than the disease. What would you yourself prefer, the risks, and dangers of living freely, or the protection, and absolute influence over your life of big brother to keep you safe? I advocate not committing harm, and not causing suffering. I do not advocate playing God, and ruling the universe benevolently, attempting to prevent all harm.
In reply to a Quora question, "Why don't animal rights activists care more about wild animal suffering?" (2013):
When a predator hunts for prey, they are hunting for sustenance and often go days without food. It is instinctual and necessary for them to survive. Other species have been observed to cause intentional distress towards another, however they are limited to their environment and curiosity. You will find that activists do in fact care, as I do, however there is nothing we can do about it. It's a fundamental part of nature and we move on.
Whilst humans are still nature, we have exploited other species of animal for either entertainment/companionship and a food source. This is wrong because it upsets the balance of ecosystems and is unnecessary.
Here's from a thread (2013) on an animal-rights Facebook group:
[Person A:] Species such as lions require the flesh of other individuals in order to stay alive. I don't think that depriving an individual of his life (possible starvation) should be classed as a "vegan victory". Lions and other obligate carnivores require the flesh of other animals in order to survive. It is not the responsibility of the human species to alter the biology of those species whose actions make us humans uncomfortable.
I wonder, if we were to be serious about this "obligate carnivores should all be eliminated" theory, how we would deal with the individuals who live in the oceans. Almost all individuals who live in the oceans kill other individuals who live in the oceans in order to survive. Should we kill the oceans in order to make ourselves more comfortable, thereby killing the planet, or is that too difficult to contemplate? [...]
[Brian Tomasik:] [Person A], suppose there were an animal that could only survive by eating humans (obligate human-vore). Would you want to keep it around?
[Person A:] I think that if there were such a species, it would not be my place to eliminate that species. I may not be in favour of humans being eaten (anymore than I'm in favour of other animals being eaten) in order to keep obligate carnivores alive, but I don't feel that my place in the world is to intervene in such a way that would alter the biology of individuals who are simply doing what is required of them in order to survive. [...]
For me the reason I am vegan has nothing to do with the individuals who live on so-called "factory farms". I'm vegan because I'm opposed to violence and I'm opposed to the human supremacy that is inherent in the ways in which we use other animals. I see the notion of altering the biology of other animals because *we* know better, as a further reflection on our need to dominate all others, and to rein supreme. I am very much opposed to that.
I feel that the whole idea of humans being in control of who suffers and how much, and who doesn't, is a frightening position to aspire to. To assume that we know what's best for all other species and that we would actually aim to implement methods of controlling the reproduction of those species who make us uncomfortable, seems like the ultimate in human supremacy to me. [...]
[Person B:] Why should we think that the human species gets to dictate to all life forms that which is acceptable and that which must be eliminated? As if the values that some humans hold are the values that must be held by all. I'll have none of the totalitarian program that seeks to remake the world into something more appealing to sentimentalists. [...]
We can say that for the one who suffers, her suffering is bad for her, but that's not at all the same thing as saying that suffering is bad, full stop.
While probably not written by a vegan, the following comment on the debate "Morality, Cruelty and Freedom: Attitudes towards animal suffering" (2014) expresses similar sentiments:
I don't think I've ever heard anyone postulate that we should try to end all suffering (in a prioritised order but that's just a detail). We should really save antelopes from lions? And fit injured animals with prosthetic limbs? I can understand the desire to right wrongs that humans have cause[d] on the world, but to actually step into the food chain on some kind of moral crusade and engineer to[f]u gazelles? That's just kind of... mad.
A 2014 comment on the article "Yellowstone Wolves Reintroduce 'Ecology of Fear'":
I am a vegan && I regularly research many animals. I support animal agriculture. I am happy that wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone. This article && a couple more show a significant amount of evidence that the wolves are helping far more than hurting. Wolves tend to kill of the sick or slow animals. Even with the wolves in Yellowstone elk population is still more than it was in the 1960's (stated above && a few other articles online). I am a nature liver && the fact that Aspen trees are now able to grow 7ft instead of eaten is wonderful. It proves the "fear of ecology" is helpful not harmful. The whole thing is a win win. Wolves eat the sick && slow animals. The foxes, eagles etc eat the remainder of the carcass. The preyed on such as the elk, moose etc now move/ migrate more && eat the plantation but do not wipe it out of existence. Lastly, the Aspen trees are able to grow to new heights (for this time period) && as stated above willows && cottonwood are also flourishing. All thanks to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone.
Thank you for this wonderful article. It was very informational && an all around great read. As a vegan && a huge supporter of animal agriculture this "fear of ecology" seems to really benefit all walks of life!! :)
This Facebook post (2015) contains over a hundred vitriolic reactions by vegans against reducing predation.
Gary Yourofsky suggests (2015) that
Veganism can resurrect Eden and create heaven on Earth. [...] It’s time to reconnect to the natural world for the sake of the animals, and our collective conscience.
One vegetarian writes (2016):
The issue is intervening with Mother Nature, we try to help all animals reduce suffering and to do some form of 'human selection' of which animals suffer less in wildlife is absurd. Of course I would love all animals to quit suffering however we cannot intervene with Mother Nature natural selection, it's sad to see these animals suffer but it's survival of the fittest out there. As humans, we should be worried about the animals lives that we are causing suffrage too, not wildlife.
Another person writes (2016):
I think being jammed in a cage for a short time on a massive scale (isn't the number in the billions?) because of human greed is a little different than something like sea turtles having a very high mortality rate on hatchlings or something (for example).
One is natural, one is certainly not. Everyone deserves a chance, and that's what wild animals have. A chance at life. A broiler hen does not.
Joel Marks (2016) writes:
Interestingly, it is not even clear that animal liberationists are motivated by ultimate concern about welfare. Consider animals in the wild, as Ng also mentions. Theirs may not be happy lives. Certainly Darwin was sufficiently persuaded by his conception of evolution that no good God could have created the scheme of things he, Darwin, discerned in nature. Perhaps animals much prefer living in domestic conditions. But this seems beside the point to hard-core animal liberationists (like myself). This really isn’t about animal welfare … although, to be sure, there is the strong hunch that any effort by humans to ameliorate the condition of animals in the wild would just make things worse, for them and/or the ecology as a whole. It is hard to see which considerations are behind the strong intuition that it is best just to let them alone (albeit making strenuous efforts to preserve habitats). But whatever the source of the intuition, animal liberationists like myself who are at odds with welfarists like Ng would have no truck with, say, the speculative proposal (McMahan 2010) to eliminate predators from the wild in order to make life there more pleasant overall.
One person wrote on Facebook (2016):
It's not at all obvious that a vegan animal kingdom would be better. That only follows from some very shaky premises about what is good, about how goods aggregate, and about how goods should be weighed. [...] the thought that [the typical life of a wild animal that dies young] constitutes a moral tragedy I think is quite ridiculous. Scientists' intervening to improve the wild is to my mind a hideous vision. Suffering is not all that matters. It is not even necessarily bad. It does not even necessarily detract from the welfare of individual beings. I see all of this as an industrial ideology adopted by people who have little interest in the natural world: they look at a bioregion from an urban setting and see it as something like a zoo -- a mere container of sentient life in which lots of nasty things are happening that we really ought stop. But nature -- wild life -- the earth & its diversity of species -- have value that is beyond this & is impossible to appreciate from the outside. I think it is important for people to understand that one can be vegan -- which is certainly a good thing to be -- but not think that animal suffering ought always to be reduced.
This comment (2016) says
Humans are directly responsible for the welfare of farmed animals; they exist because we breed them and raise them, hence we have a duty to care for them. The same cannot be said for animals in the wild so therefore we have no moral responsibility to reduce their suffering due to natural causes.
We do of course have a duty to reduce their suffering due to man-made causes, for which we are responsible, e.g. destruction of wilderness, pollution, etc.
Another comment on the same thread suggests that
if prodded I think you'll find that most [veg*ans] differentiate between the suffering of farm animals (caused by actively buying meat and supporting the industry) versus the suffering of wild animals (passively caused by inaction).
And another person on that thread adds:
The force of the vegetarian argument is in reducing moral culpability for unnecessary suffering, not simply in reducing certain specific forms of suffering with no mind to any other ethical concepts.
Quotes from a discussion on r/vegan (2017):
vegan_dyke: The safe way to stop unnecessary suffering of wild animals is to de-industrialize, to curb development, to decrease human intervention, not increase it. For example, allowing natural predators to return is much safer than introducing chemical contraceptives into the ecosystem. Interfering with natural processes is not necessarily good just because it decreases suffering.
shittytyedye: If humans have already caused a great deal of harm in nature as you've described, why should we continue to interfere in matters that cannot and should not be interfered with?
ragamuffingunner: Surely at some point we need to focus on areas where there are actual problems instead of getting in a figurative drum circle to divine whether or not prairie dogs like living in the ground or whatever. Surely at some point we have to accept that there's more to life than being happy, particuarly for wildlife that does not concern humanity. There is such precious little of life that isn't directly impacted by humans, that in and of itself is more worth protecting than any naive whiteknighting humans do on behalf of other animals.
smallbreezybee: The wild animal suffering that needs to stop is that caused by humans. We destroy their habitats. Anything that people can do to reverse the damage to the earth that humans have created, I'm all for. Meddling in nature where we don't belong - nope.
This discussion on r/vegan (2017) asks: "What am I if I don't care at all about the suffering or well-being of animals, just preventing them from being used by humans? [...] For instance, I don't give a fuck if a lion brutally kills a zebra. Suffering in itself is not a bad thing." The top-voted reply (as of 13 Feb. 2017) says regarding brutal predation by lions:
You won't find many vegans who give a fuck about that. I give 0 fucks.
This is what omni's wrongly describe as the citcle of life/food chain or whatever. The differences between that and hunans is that those animals are interlinked in a complex ecosystem and this is how nature intended it.
Thankfully, someone replies: "I mean I kind of care." But s/he adds: "I will never prevent it, or become involved, but I feel for the poor zebra."
Following are some more comments from various r/vegan threads:
- A wild animal "may suffer at the hands of, say, a natural predator, but that suffering is the joy and survival of another animal--the circle of life." (source)
- "I'm not about to completely reject nature by campaigning to end things like starvation and predation in the wild, even if we had the resources to do so. The only practical option there is to annhilate natural ecosystems which is unacceptable. And it's not because I'm 'forgetting about them'. I value the natural ecosystems we have on this planet, and I think they're beautiful and deserving of protection. Call me speciesist if you want, I'm not overly concerned about deer burning to death in a wildfire." (source)
- "I love nature: I love all the violence that comes with it. [...] I love watching predators hunt and take down their prey, I love watching the death-defying migrations of birds over everest, I love the horrific breeding habits of sea mice. Nature is incredible, and I have the utmost respect for it. If anything, nature is perfect, and I'm the one who's not good enough because so much of what I do contributes to its destruction." (source)
- "Nature is about balance and predators like wolves and lions and such are a part of that. We aren't the masters of the earth and we shouldn't act like it." (source)
- "IMO, Wild animals should be left alone, they are an imporant part of life. And life is an experience after all, death will always be a part of it." (source)
Fraser (2012) notes (p. 726) that "concern about animals is often an integral element in people’s desire to protect ecological systems (Caro and O’Doherty 1999)."
Fraser proposes a few "mid-level principles" for animal ethics, the fourth of which is "To protect the Life-Sustaining Processes and Balances of Nature" (p. 737). Fraser argues (p. 737):
the principle of protecting life-sustaining processes and balances of nature, although seen by some philosophers as an element of environmental ethics rather than animal ethics, needs to be seen as fundamental to a practical ethic for animals.
In my interpretation, Fraser seems to treat all human disturbance of nature as bad, without acknowledging ways in which disruptions to ecosystems might improve the situation of animals. In my experience, this one-sided approach to environmental issues is almost universal among philosophers and the general public.
Fraser also suggests that a virtue of his approach is that it avoids absurd conclusions, like the need to intervene to help the victims of natural predation (p. 739):
The second and third [of the proposed principles] do not call for specific outcomes -- they do not call for the elimination of all suffering and all unseen harms -- but rather identify virtues of compassion and mindfulness that should be applied in relevant contexts. Hence, they do not call for impractical actions such as removing predators from natural systems so as to prevent the suffering they cause (discussed by Everett 2001, and Aaltola 2010). Rather, people who act with compassion and mindfulness should be motivated to avoid and mitigate suffering and unseen harms where they can, while recognizing that some such harms will still exist.
Should we worry about animal rights supporting wilderness?
Views of the sort described above are troubling and may set back relief of wild-animal suffering. Should we fear that the animal-rights movement may cause net harm by holding these perspectives?
One thing to remember is that correlation is not causation. Many existing animal-rights defenders also happen to care about the environment because the two causes are part of a bigger set of traditionally liberal values. Perhaps the marginal animal activist, coming from a different background, would not share the other baggage that most current animal activists have. On the other hand, this new activist is likely to become more entangled with memes in the vicinity of animal rights, including environmentalism, even if s/he is not already so involved.
Many arguments for veg*ism are environmentalist, so people may embrace environmentalism as a confirmation of their diets and an argument with which to convince others. And veg*ans, realizing that the wellbeing of farm animals matters, typically extend their sights to ways in which humans harm wildlife, such as by burning the rainforests. A naive analysis that focuses only on the immediate harm caused by humans would conclude that rainforest destruction is net bad for animals. Most veg*ans stop there and don't look further to realize that rainforest loss also prevents probably much more animal suffering that would have occurred due to natural causes.
Perhaps one could argue for a sort of Kuznets curve for antispeciesism, where naive animal-rights activists support habitat preservation and thereby increase wild-animal suffering in the short run, but as they become more rational and realize the extent of suffering in nature, they change their minds in the long run. I don't have a lot of hope for this, because I think many animal-rights views would argue for leaving wild animals alone even if animals' lives were net miserable on balance.
Another consideration is that many of those opposed to wild-animal suffering are also from the animal movement, and these are the people most likely to spread concern about the harms that animals endure in nature. In order to be persuasive among other animal advocates, it helps for these people to themselves be supporters of the animal movement in general. Still, it's not clear how many pro-nature supporters we create for every person we inspire to care about wild-animal suffering. Maybe environmentalism is such a general sentiment that our influence on that variable is rather small even if we do generic veg or other antispeciesist outreach?
It's worth pointing out that other thought circles can make the leap to reducing wild-animal suffering without the intermediate phase of conventional animal advocacy. In particular I'm thinking of transhumanists and other philosophically minded people who tend to care about the welfare of sentience in general without particular attachment to conventional animal causes.
The upshot is not obvious, but at the very least, the tendency of animal-rights supporters to incline toward environmentalism is troubling and seems to diminish the value of spreading general concern for animals without specifically explaining the severity of wild-animal suffering. I would prefer to focus on the wild-animal cause specifically, both because it has less risk of collateral damage and because it probably has higher leverage anyway.
If we do support other animal-rights campaigns, they should focus on reducing animal suffering rather than, say, environmental arguments to eat vegan.
What about spreading wildlife to space?
It may turn out that the most extensive wild-animal suffering in the future will not be due to habitats on Earth but instead the spread of wildlife into the cosmos -- through terraforming, directed panspermia, or sentient simulations. If so, then humane moralism and deep ecology take on different tones here.
It seems that deep ecology would probably oppose spreading wildlife, especially to new planets, because this would represent "interference" with the natural (lack of) ecosystem on those other worlds. For example, a self-described deep ecologist on r/vegan believes that we should "let nature take it's course" on Earth, but we also shouldn't terraform other planets because "it's a violation of the Prime Directive !"
It's less clear that deep ecologists would oppose sentient simulations, but some Luddite adherents might. Moreover, deep ecologists generally favor a Small Is Beautiful attitude and thus seem generally less likely to push for space colonization and maximizing the amount of computing power in the galaxy.
Sparrow (2017) argues against terraforming Mars, at least in ways that are hubristic and insensitive to beauty. For example: "Only someone insensitive to beauty would not recognize the destruction of the Martian landscape as a tragedy." While Sparrow (2017) doesn't discuss sentient simulations, my reading of his position is that he would also oppose them in many cases, in part because creating them would reveal hubris in ourselves.
In contrast, it may be that some humane moralists who think wild animals are net happy would support the dissemination of wilderness to other worlds. If so, then the general principle from before that humane moralism is safer than deep ecology would be turned on its head.
Of course, the ideology most likely to cause harm to wild animals would be a life-maximizing view, according to which humanity's destiny is to propagate organic biology far and wide. I find this stance troubling, though I recognize that rather than demonizing it, we should strive to compromise with those who feel this way and explore whether rational argument can elicit humane sympathies from such people. In addition, there may be win-win solutions, such as if our descendants invent ecosystems in which the animals are motivated by gradients of bliss.
If environmentalist values hold sufficient sway in determining the goals of artificial general intelligence, then perhaps the suffering of biological creatures on Earth would be deliberately preserved rather than eliminated over the coming centuries. That said, converting Earth into a computational factory could also create significant amounts of suffering in the form of digital subprocesses, so it's not obvious which outcome is worse. I would guess that digital subprocesses would generally contain a lower density of suffering per unit of computation than biological life, given that biological life involves more aggression, predation, hunger, etc. than is contained in the "lives" of artificial computers. However, the total amount of digital computation that could be created with Earth's resources (including minerals deep underground) would be orders of magnitude higher than the amount of biological computation that currently exists.
Biological terraforming would probably take at least thousands of years, while the rise of digital superintelligence seems likely to take only hundreds of years, so maybe terraforming is not a big concern, since by the time it's possible, it'll be obsolete. But nature simulations, both for science and intrinsic value, might occur at large scale indefinitely. It's not obvious if environmentalism is good or bad on the issue of simulations; it depends a lot on what kind of environmentalism we're talking about. Generic "nature lovers" who get backyard birdfeeders and walk through national parks might be bad, since they might want to create rich virtual realities in which to view nature. In contrast, hard-core "technology should cease" adherents would probably oppose simulations.
Animal welfare vs. animal rights
Veganism is more closely associated with animal rights, while welfare reforms (e.g., humane slaughter, bigger cages, and so on) are associated with animal welfare. Typically animal-rights activists support veganism because they see welfare reforms as not addressing the fundamental issue of animals' rights being violated. Rather than looking at aggregate suffering reduced per dollar, animal-rights activists seek ideological purity.
We might expect that animal-welfare supporters would be at least somewhat more on board with concerns about immense amounts of suffering in nature, because a utilitarian rather than deontological perspective on animal suffering is more attuned to the realities of what animals experience rather than abstract principles about not having rights violated. That said, I fear that most animal-welfare advocates would still harbor the false assumption that animals are mostly happy in the wild, and would therefore still support habitat preservation.
Wanted: A survey on animal rights and environmentalism
The very real possibility that the animal-rights movement increases wild-animal suffering through support of pristine nature is disturbing, and for the time being, it causes me to question whether most animal charities cause net good or net harm. Fortunately, this question is amenable to research. It's crucial to get this question right before further promoting generic animal rights. (Promoting concern for wild-animal suffering specifically is, of course, safer from the worries expressed in this piece.)
In 2013, some friends of mine began a survey to tackle the question of whether veg*ism plays a causal role in support for wilderness conservation. The study had methodology problems and so wasn't published. I would really like someone else to take a stab at this research project. In particular, we would survey veg*ans vs. non-veg*ans (or generic animal-rights supporters vs. regular people) and ask questions like
- How has going veg*an (or, caring about animal rights) changed your views on habitat preservation?
- Do you think it's important to preserve wild-animal habitats?
- Has going veg*an (or, caring about animal rights) made you more or less environmentally conscious?
- Since going veg*an (or, caring about animal rights), are you more or less favorable toward changing ecosystems to reduce the animal suffering they contain?
- A developer has proposed building a shopping mall in your area. The mall would generate $5 million per year in school-tax revenues, but its construction would require paving over a region that's currently wetland. How do you feel about the mall proposal?
- Much of the world's palm oil is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia. This crop provides income and employment to local people. However, its cultivation sometimes leads to burning of rainforests to make way for palm plantations. How do you feel about buying palm oil?
- How do you feel about government policies to preserve wilderness from being used for economic development?
- Terraforming is a hypothetical process in which a planet like Mars would be modified in order to make it habitable by plants and eventually animals. Assuming it could be done cheaply, what would you think of terraforming Mars?
- "Directed panspermia" is a hypothetical process in which microbial life would be seeded on other planets in our galaxy, with the hope that this life would take root and eventually give rise to animal-like organisms. If this could be done cheaply, what would you think of it?
- An advanced civilization is interested in studying the evolution of life on Earth. It intends to do so by running an immense computer simulation of the kinds of lifeforms that existed in Earth's past, to the level of detail of modeling all the individual cells in each animal's body. What would you think of this undertaking?
Of course, many of these comparisons will show correlation but not causation. Did animal rights cause environmentalism, environmentalism cause animal rights, or a latent factor cause both? We should also collect lots of demographic variables, which could serve as controls in multiple regression (age, gender, years of education, annual income, whether vegan or not, degree of support for animal rights, degree of environmentalism, degree of left-wing political identification, etc.). In addition, it would be extremely valuable to include a free-response section so that people can tell us the story of how they came to their views rather than trying to piece those stories together imperfectly from abstract, impersonal statistical analysis.
This post has some pointers on doing surveys using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.
Animal Charity Evaluators has done preliminary studies regarding the relationship between veg messaging and views about wilderness preservation: Hecht (2016) and Greig (2017). These were experimental studies in which participants were shown messages and asked for immediate reactions to wild-animal-related questions. While this approach is useful, I think it's also important to do a correlational study of the views of existing veg*ans vs. non-veg*ans regarding the attitudes they've formed over many years, rather than looking at people's short-term sentiments after reading a few paragraphs. The main downside of this correlational approach is that correlation is not causation, and trying to control for confounding variables is often more like black magic than an exact science. Even if most existing animal-rights supporters are also environmentalists, this doesn't directly tell us how making one more person support animal rights will affect his/her views on habitat preservation.
Pro-wilderness outcomes of a movement for wild-animal welfare?
First written: 11 Nov. 2017
In the past, I had assumed that talking specifically about wild-animal suffering, rather than about animal rights in general, posed relatively little risk of increasing support for preservation of wild-animal habitats. However, now I'm much less confident about that. As the movement for reducing wild-animal suffering becomes more widespread and mainstream, there may be a shift away from an approach focused on minimizing suffering and toward assessment of wild-animal welfare in general. Many animal advocates care a lot about wild-animal happiness, freedom, and other positive values, and those who see sufficient positive value in nature will be more likely to favor its preservation. There's a significant possibility that the movement to reduce wild-animal suffering will morph into a general movement to "consider the interests of wild animals", and a sufficiently mainstream interpretation of that directive is likely to favor habitat preservation. Maybe the movement against wild-animal suffering will end up increasing overall wild-animal suffering.
This is one of the reasons why I prefer to be quite explicit about favoring reductions in primary productivity as a way to reduce wild-animal suffering, rather than professing a more bland "we should care about wild animals" message. Some might consider articles like "Habitat Loss, Not Preservation, Generally Reduces Wild-Animal Suffering" to be recklessly controversial, and maybe they are. But there's also significant risk from being too mainstream-friendly in one's messaging.
Another takeaway for me is to upshift the value of promoting suffering-focused ethical views in general rather than non-suffering-focused attention to particular issues, because the suffering-focused and non-suffering-focused approaches to situations are often diametrically opposed.