by Ben Davidow
First written: 11 Nov. 2013; last update: 11 Nov. 2013

Summary

Various intuitions prevent people from taking wild-animal suffering as seriously as it deserves, including status-quo bias, just-world hypothesis, and lack of intentional harm. Fortunately, most progressive movements have successfully overcome deep-seated bias, so hope remains for the wild-animal movement.

Translations of this piece: Spanish, Portuguese

Introduction

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.
--Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

If an alien visited our planet, she might find it odd that rare events like shark attacks capture widespread attention while a pervasive issue like wild-animal suffering (WAS) is all but ignored.a

Why is WAS invisible or irrelevant to most people? My hope is that by exploring this question we can get a sense of the barriers that confront the WAS movement and how we might break through them.

WAS is unexceptional

Our brains are wired to care about the exceptional. This made sense in our primal days when a failure to register a sudden change in your surroundings could mean a one-way ticket down a tiger's esophagus. The novelty-equals-relevance equation got hardwired in our brains.

Today, however, our biggest threats are things like heart disease that develop gradually as a result of habitual choices rather than momentary blunders.b Likewise, today's key ethical issues are systemic, not sudden.

Think sweat shops, factory farming, trafficking, and malaria.c WAS is even more systemic: It has no novelty and no clear beginning or end in time. It's unexceptional.

Just as our evolutionary craving for sweets, which once aided us, has now betrayed us, so has our preoccupation with the exceptional. Just as piling down donuts somehow feels right, so does reading about shark attacks or isolated acts of violence. But doing so gives us a skewed perception of the world. For instance, scanning today's headlines, it's easy to conclude that the world contains more violence than it ever has. But the best evidence suggests otherwise: Violence among humans has dramatically declined in the past few centuries.d

Likewise, our preoccupation with the exceptional lets us ignore constant, unexceptional issues like WAS. These issues rarely or never grab headlines, and it's easy to forget that they exist or to assume that they don't matter.

WAS is not about us

Our tribal brains are interested in our own problems and the problems of those with whom we have reciprocal relations (e.g., cats and dogs). WAS disproportionately affects smaller-brained, non-mammalian species that we will never interact with.

Any new way of thinking that has shifted humans (especially those in power) away from the center of the universe has met intense resistance throughout history: heliocentrism, the theory of natural selection, civil rights, etc.

Likewise, alleging that WAS is a serious ethical issue is a threat to human uniqueness. Pointing out in 2013 that wild animals, not humans, are the epicenter of suffering in the world is blasphemous in a similar way as pointing out in 1613 that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our solar system. It's unlikely, for instance, that an American could be elected to public office if she suggested that addressing WAS deserves priority over addressing gun violence.e

WAS is the status quo

The status-quo bias predicts that people have an innate preference for and trust in the familiar and an aversion to change. There is nothing more "status quo" than nature. When wild animals do get attention it's almost never about change, but rather unchange, i.e., conservation. When people donate to wild-animal causes, it's almost always to protect the way things are or to restore the way they used to be, by, say, replenishing an endangered species.

The sanctity of the status quo explains both why religious folk may perceive WAS intervention as tinkering with God's creation and why scientists may see it as an infringement on natural selection. In either case, the base intuition is the same: Infringing on the natural world and natural processes is wrong.

WAS is unjust

The Just World Hypothesis is our innate bias that the world is essentially just: Noble actions are rewarded and evil actions are punished.

A just world is desirable because it is predictable and safe. In a just world we are in control: As long as we follow the rules, we'll be Okay.

This bias explains, for instance, why many people blame the poor for their plight and fail to see structural problems that create poverty. It may also explain why people trivialize WAS.

WAS, after all, suggests we live in a world in which most creatures are born into lives of suffering, and they can't do anything about it. Even if our rational brains understand that the world isn't fair, the emotional part of our brain needs it to be. To confront WAS is to confront the reality that our world is inherently unjust. Even for the most cynical among us, this can be scary.

WAS is rationally important

When we make rational, utilitarian calculations, WAS emerges as a big problem. Unfortunately, this means little when it comes to spurring concern and action for WAS because our analytical faculties are largely separated from our empathy faculties. It's been found that analytical thinking actually decreases empathy. Psychology research has found that citing large statistics on the scope of a problem or the number of victims tends to make people less, not more inclined, to donate or take action, than simply describing a specific victim.f

The consistent finding in psychology research is that proportion matters more than magnitude in inspiring action. One study found that people felt more compelled to contribute to a cause that would help 1,500 out of 3,000 people than one that would help 1,500 out of 10,000 people, despite the same level of impact.g Someone could help millions of wild animals and still be helping a small portion of them.

WAS lacks intent

WAS has no perpetrator we can point our fingers at -- no scheming and no intent. While some wild-animal advocates propose that we should personify Mother Nature as an abusive parent, there's no obvious way to assign blame for WAS. Since Brian Tomasik has insightfully explored this reason for neglecting WAS in another essay, I won't go into detail here, but the lack of intentional harm is likely one of the top reasons WAS is ignored and trivialized.

In closing

Criticizing a person for failing to take WAS seriously is like criticizing a submarine for failing to drive down a city road. Our brains are simply not designed to care about WAS.

Thankfully, there's still hope. Most progressive movements have overcome deep-seated moral intuitions and bias. For now, I wanted to lay out the primary barriers facing the WAS movement, and in a future piece, I'll look at potential ways to overcome them.

  1. Though technically, shark attacks could be considered a form of WAS, if humans are classified as wild animals.  (back)
  2. I'm using "our" here to encompass the sort of people I imagine reading this. In some places in the world, more immediate, environmental dangers are still the biggest threat.  (back)
  3. I'm defining ethical issues here as sources of preventable suffering. It still may seem odd to characterize malaria as a moral issue. If so, watch this presentation by Peter Singer. He argues that spending our disposable income on extraneous things we don't need, rather than donating it to save children from cheaply treated diseases like malaria, is a moral blunder essentially the same as failing to rescue a child drowning in a public fountain.  (back)
  4. Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books, 2011.  (back)
  5. I'm not implying that this politician would be correct, just that her views would be so controversial as to result in losing the election.  (back)
  6. References:

    • Small, Deborah A., George Loewenstein, and Paul Slovic. "Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102.2 (2007): 143-153.
    • Small, Deborah A., and George Loewenstein. "Helping a victim or helping the victim: Altruism and identifiability." Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 26 (2003): 5-16.
    • Slovic, Paul. "'If I look at the mass I will never act': Psychic numbing and genocide." Judgment and Decision Making 2.2 (2007): 79-95.
    • Smith, Robert W., David Faro, and Katherine A. Burson. "More for the many: The influence of entitativity on charitable giving." J. Consumer Res. Forthcoming.

      (back)

  7. D. Fetherstonhaugh, P. Slovic, S. M. Johnson, and J. Friedrich. "Insensitivity to the Value of Human Life: A Study of Psychophysical Numbing." Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 14 (1997): 283-300.  (back)