by Brian Tomasik
First written: 4 Sept. 2013; last update: 7 Mar. 2016


Intuitions about the intentionality of harm are relevant for moral judgments, but in the case of animals, intentions don't generally bear on how bad the harm feels to experience. It seems plausible that intuitions about the moral reprehensibility of intentional harm cause people to overamplify the raw badness of intentional harm relative to unintentional. If so, this has the unfortunate side effect that people downplay the immense amounts of unintentional suffering in nature. Personifying nature's cruelties is one strategy we could test for dealing with this.


If it is not a result of human intervention, it is not my concern.
--comment on a Reddit vegan forum

Intentions play an important role in morality and criminal justice. Even consequentialist moralities should give substantial weight to intentions by actors in making moral judgments because the purpose of these moral judgments is to change future behavior.

Someone who aims to do the right thing and has an unanticipated accident should usually not be chastised, because we want other people in that position not to change behavior; the mistake was anomalous and not something that could have been foreseen, and future actors shouldn't be inhibited from doing good work for fear of making such mistakes. In contrast, those who make mistakes that should have been anticipated (e.g., drunk drivers) are condemned for their actions.

In the case of intentional harm, rather than just neglect, the contrast is even more stark. Criminals are often at least somewhat motivated by a calculation of potential benefits vs. potential harms, and the possibility of punishment can change the balance of payoffs. This is why we downweight the severity of crimes committed due to the heat of passion or insanity: Punishments serve less purpose there because the actor is not as affected by rational cost/benefit calculations.

And of course, part of the idea behind jail time is to physically restrain dangerous people from being able to harm others in the future. Someone who, by terrible and unforeseeable luck, accidentally kills 50 people is less dangerous than someone who intentionally kills one person.

So there are good reasons to make distinctions on the basis of intent. The degree of punishment and the preventative measures we take depend on whether the actor tried to cause harm, should have known better, or was just really unlucky.

Intentional harms often seem worse

But there's a problem: It seems as though our brains tend to meld together feelings about "how bad the event was" with "how guilty the actor was." If we imagine a cold-blooded murder of a single child, we feel outraged and sick to our stomachs. If we hear about a malaria outbreak killing an additional 100 children, we feel sorrowful but not outraged. The murder would make the news, while the malaria deaths wouldn't. There may be some good reasons for this difference in focus: For example, murder probably has more harmful flow-through effects on society because it incites greater interpersonal animosity and more fear among the populace. But it seems that part of the difference in response is also irrational, as we can see in, for example, the grossly exaggerated reaction to terrorism relative to its death toll.

Furthermore, consider the case of harms to non-human animals. A suffering animal may not understand whether the pain it's experiencing is intentional or unintentional. It doesn't read news reports about animals in other farms or laboratories that strike fear into its heart. The suffering animal mainly just wants the agony to stop.

Animal activists rightly decry harms to animals under human control: Mistreatment on factory farms, painful experiments, crimes against pets, and so on. These actions are all, to some extent, intentional, and indeed, the outrage often correlates with the degree of intentionality: Most people oppose cockfighting, but only some also oppose the factory farming of chickens, where the harm to chickens is known but not the main feature of the activity. In contrast, animal suffering in the wild is not done intentionally by humans and often falls off the radar screen for activists.

There are other factors involved in the differential moral urgency that activists feel regarding human-caused vs. natural suffering. One is personal responsibility: I'm the one who would be causing harm by eating meat, so I personally should choose to refrain. Of course, many veg*an activists don't stop with their own meat consumption but encourage others to avoid causing similar harm, and few people would suggest that we shouldn't interfere with murders committed by other people than ourselves.

Another difference is that human-caused suffering has a more clear solution: Not to eat meat, not to test on animals, etc. The reason this argument against working on wild-animal suffering breaks down is more complicated. To refute it, we would show that, given the numerosity of wild animals, the long-term expected value of research to improve wild-animal welfare is at least comparable to the expected value of more mainstream animal-activism projects, especially work like fighting zoos and circuses. My point in this essay is not to discuss practical questions but merely to address perceptions of how bad is wild-animal suffering compared with domestic-animal suffering, although it may be that questions of feasibility infect intuitions about the sheer badness, just like questions of intention seem to infect intuitions about sheer badness.

Young buffalo vs. farmed cow

It's not uncommon to hear sentiments like this: "Predation isn't bad; it's a natural part of the circle of life. Sure, it hurts, but is it really such a big deal? At least the animal got a chance to live before that."

In particular, consider as an example, an African buffalo. Upon being born, it grows amidst the herd. During the first year, there's an extended drought, but the buffalo survives without long-term damage. At 20 months of age, the buffalo ventures off to a river for a drink, whereupon a crocodile bites the buffalo's leg with its jaws. The buffalo stumbles, and the crocodile takes another bite into its belly. After 2 minutes of shrieking in response to the knife-like tearing of its flesh, the buffalo loses consciousness.

Compare this with a farmed cow in the US. Upon being born, the calf is raised with its mother for 7 months. It experiences distress upon abrupt weaning for a few weeks but eventually recovers. It also endures castration and branding, causing significant acute pain. It grazes on grass with lower fear of predators and with only occasional hunger. At 15 months of age, it leaves the pasture for a feedlot, where it remains until 20 months of age, at which point it is transported in a stressful way to a slaughterhouse. Upon slaughter, electric stunning is applied with the aim of inducing unconsciousness before exsanguination. (Note that while stunning seems to be applied correctly most of the time, there are concerns about whether it actually eliminates conscious pain or just induces immobilization. Electrical stunning should induce a grand mal seizure, and as far as I can tell, these do lead to genuine unconsciousness, not just paralysis.)

The buffalo and cow stories both have unpleasant parts. Which animal would you rather be? I would probably rather be the cow, though the choice isn't obvious. The pain of castration, branding, and transport strike me as much less severe than the awfulness of having your belly torn out in a horrifying 2-minutes of agony. There's some chance the cow isn't unconscious during exsanguination, but this is compared against a much larger chance that the buffalo isn't unconscious, and the buffalo's flesh wounds are far more severe than the cow's. Other parts of the lives of the animals seem similar. Where the cow endured early weaning from its mother, the buffalo endured a period of drought. Both had some happy moments as well.

We could debate the comparison further, but the point is that the buffalo's overall experience seems unlikely to be vastly better than that of the cow. Now consider: Would you want to be born as the buffalo in this story? If yes, would you also want to be born as the cow? If yes, do you object to factory-farming cows based on the harm it causes them directly? If yes, what's the resolution of these statements? Of course, people can oppose beef production on environmental or economic grounds, but many animal activists see it as bad for the cows themselves on balance. I agree, but then this may have implications for the life of our depicted African buffalo as well.

Hedonistic-utilitarian vegans who refuse to eat any farm animals for the sake of the farm animals themselves (rather than because of memetic, social, health, environmental, meat-price, etc. side effects or convenience, taste, expensiveness, etc.) are committed to the view that all farm animals have negative lives, including a fully grass-fed steer whose castration and dehorning are done with anaesthesia by a qualified veterinary professional and who is killed in a well operated Temple Grandin-designed slaughterhouse following perfectly executed stunning. But it seems implausible that the average wild animal has a better life than the very best-treated beef cattle.

One objection is that the buffalo in my story lived only 20 months, while mature buffalo can live 18-20 years. This indeed changes the balance of suffering vs. happiness for buffalo overall, but it doesn't change our moral response to those who are eaten at 20 months. Moreover, buffalo are among the wild animals most likely to have net good lives, because they have long lifespans relatively free of predation and lower infant mortality than most other species. The bulk of animal suffering in the wild comes from short-lived r-selected animals. Even if you would like to be the buffalo in this story, it's less clear you'd like to be a mosquito that dies at just 14 days of age.

Incidentally, this brings up another real-world caveat, which is that in practice, I support having more buffalo because they eat plants that would otherwise feed many more smaller, more r-selected animals instead. Even if buffalo endure net suffering, it's much less suffering than would be endured by the smaller animals that would take their place eating the same food. If buffalo populations are increased via eliminating predators, that seems like a good thing in terms of reducing the painfulness of death for the buffalo as well as reducing the suffering of small animals.

Should we personify nature?

My purpose in this piece is not to argue that smaller wild animals in aggregate have net-negative welfare (although I think this is also true). My claim is just that we should, in general, give more seriousness to the suffering of wild animals than we're accustomed to doing, and I suspect the fact that nature's harm to animals is not intentional plays some role in our differential moral outlook. To see this, consider that many of the strongest condemnations of suffering in the wild work by personifying nature:

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it: "For nature, heartless, witless nature / Will neither care nor know"
--Richard Dawkins, "God's Utility Function," Scientific American, 1995

Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder.
--Nick Bostrom, "In Defense of Posthuman Dignity," Bioethics, 2005

Personifying nature to elicit a more appropriate degree of moral concern for its cruelties runs the risk of making us seem naive. Of course nature isn't actually a person with intentions. Yet it might be worth at least trying this approach and measuring how well it works. To animals themselves, it doesn't matter if they're being tortured by an insane human owner, a hamburger eater, or a hungry crocodile; they just want the pain to stop.

Postscript: Why are there no memorials for wild-animal suffering?

Often it's suggested that the reason humans shouldn't try to address wild-animal suffering is because doing so would likely cause more harm than good. People claim that although nature contains a lot of suffering, humans would only cause more suffering by intervening. This line of reasoning ignores the fact that, even if the preceding claim were true (which I think it isn't), the expected value of further information alone remains very high. But in any event, suppose it were the case that there was literally nothing that could ever be done to help wild animals. Is people's behavior consistent with this kind of stance?

Consider other examples of suffering that we can do literally nothing about: The 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Rwandan genocide, the Vietnam war, the European slaughter of Native Americans. These events are rightly remembered as awful tragedies, and many of them have memorials, national days of commemoration, or other ways to express solemness about the horror that took place. We cannot reverse any of these events, but we still pay a tribute of recognition in our memories and culture. Why do we not see the same for wild-animal suffering? Even if it were completely unpreventable, should we not at least witness profound expressions of grief, as a way to show regards to our fellow sentient creatures?

There are some charitable explanations for this contrast. For example, maybe it would be claimed that we can learn from human history about how to avoid similar atrocities in the future, whereas we have nothing to learn from the atrocities in nature. Or maybe it's claimed that these human tragedies involve non-suffering-based harm (e.g., destruction of cultural traditions) not present in wild suffering. These suggestions might be partly true, but I think a big component of the reason is also just that people care less about wild animals; their suffering doesn't tug the heart strings very much.

Now, it's good to avoid feeling judgemental about this fact. What we care about is always fundamentally arbitrary, and we are all cast afloat in a sea of intuitions that push us from place to place. However, for those who wish others would care more about wild animals, it's helpful to explore why even educated, compassionate people care less about wild-animal suffering than unchangeable human suffering. A few plausible reasons:

  • Speciesism: Many people do not even care about cruelties on factory farms as much as comparable harms inflicted on humans, so the same extends to feelings about atrocities in nature.
  • Cognitive dissonance: Recognizing the horrors that nature contains is inconsistent with the feel-good aesthetic sense that we get when imagining nature, a sense which encourages many people toward conservationism.
  • Lack of cultural recognition: It's painful to think about massive amounts of suffering, and many people would probably rather avoid it unless the matter is brought to their attention. We have significant cultural institutions and norms that recognize the horror of, say, the 9/11/2001 attacks, and these induce even those who may not feel much intrinsic empathy to go along with ritual recognition of their seriousness. We don't (yet) have similar norms with respect to wild animals.
  • Psychological distance: Even among human tragedies, those that occur closer to us (in time, in space, in cultural/national similarity) evoke more emotional response. There are many more tears shed over the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks killing 2,996 people than over the Great Chinese Famine killing 20-40 million. Wild animals are one step more distant still.
  • Intentionality: As discussed in the main essay, intentional harms against humans are usually regarded as more horrific. There are more memorials for wars and genocides than for natural disasters, famines, or pestilence. Still, we do have outpourings of grief at hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like. We also have World AIDS Day, World Hunger Day, World Malaria Day, etc. regarding unintentional human suffering.

It seems that none of these explanations can be sustained upon rational examination, unless we privilege one or more of these factors as somehow being morally relevant. I personally think these and other similar reasons are the primary explanations why wild-animal suffering is not a major moral issue. When people hear of shootings, rape, and famine on a news report, they're shocked and saddened. When they hear of the same events occurring to animals in the wild, it's called "the circle of life" and "mother nature's wisdom" and "the playing out of highly complex and beautiful systems." The world we observe is not consistent with the hypothesis that most people care deeply but merely feel that doing anything about wild-animal suffering would cause more harm than good.

Update, 10 Jun. 2015: Japan now has a monument dedicated to insects killed by humans. However, it doesn't respond to the suffering of insects due to natural causes. Also, this particular monument unfortunately has an environmentalist message.