Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Animal Rights and the Predation Problem


The latest issue of the Journal for Applied Philosophy contains an excellent article by Ebert and Machan on what’s known as ‘the predation problem’. To summarise; the predation problem is supposed to demonstrate, via reductio ad absurdum, that animals cannot have rights because, if they did, moral agents would be required to defend animals against other animals. One early example of the argument is David G. Ritchie’s 1894 response to Henry Salt:

in our exercise of our power and in our guardianship of the rights of animals, must we not protect the weak among them against the strong? Must we not put to death blackbirds and thrushes because they feed on worms, or (if capital punishment offends our humanitarianism) starve them slowly by permanent captivity and vegetarian diet? What becomes of the “return to nature” if we must prevent the cat’s nocturnal wanderings, lest she should wickedly slay a mouse? Are we not to vindicate the rights of the persecuted prey of the stronger? or is our declaration of the rights of every creeping thing to remain a mere hypocritical formula to gratify pug-loving sentimentalists…(Ritchie 1894, 109–110)

More recently, the reductio has been deployed in a similar fashion by Carl Cohen (Regan and Cohen 2001, 30–31). By and large the response from those arguing for animal rights has been to accept the above reductio. As a result animal rights theorists have shied away from moving from the premise that suffering is bad for non-human animals to the conclusion that they are owed positive duties of aid. Instead, most have adopted an account of positive duties toward humans and negative duties towards other animals (the ‘let be’ approach) (cf. Simmons 2009 for an example). This ‘let be’ approach unfortunately suffers from pretty hefty flaws, not least because it’s often presented in ways inconsistent with many of the premises that the animal rights argument relies upon (such as that there’s no special moral significance to being a member of the human species).

In their recent paper, Ebert and Machan argue that the predation problem leads to the conclusion that we should either reject the concept of animal rights or adopt a ‘libertarian-ish’ theory of animal rights (more on this later). Ebert and Machan are right to contend that the predation problem has not been adequately dealt with in the literature (I’ve had a paper under review on the very subject for a lamentably long time ). They concentrate on work by (and inspired by) Tom Regan. Ebert and Machan correctly identify the flaws in Regan’s claim that; because animals are not moral agents, their harming of other animals is not unjust and therefore doesn’t obligate a moral agent to intervene. As Dale Jameison has pointed out (Jamieson 1990), a rock falling on a moral agent doesn’t constitute an injustice, but that doesn’t imply that someone placed to save that moral agent has no duty to aid if they can. In the case of predation, it’s not injustice that might obligate, but the prima facie duty to prevent harm where we can do so without incurring serious burdens. The problem as I see it is not that this leads to a reductio ad absurdum requiring man to police nature, but rather the connection with the wider theoretical issue of other-defence in cases of innocent attackers. Ebert and Machan also treat the issue as one of innocent threat, something I’ll discuss below.

Predatory animals, not being moral agents, cannot be considered responsible for harms caused to others (just the falling rock is not responsible for crushing the person beneath it). Rather, predators should be considered innocent attackers in a manner to the mind-controlled gun-man or knife-wielding mental patient.. For an animal rights theorist to maintain a consistent position, Ebert and Machan argue that their account will have to have to allow for, or require, the rights of innocent attackers to be violated. So far, I’m in agreement with Ebert and Machan: predatory animals should be considered innocent attackers, just as violent severely cognitively impaired humans, or violent human children should be considered innocent attackers. What innocent victims are permitted to do in their own defence against innocent threats is a difficult problem. Even more problematic is the question of what third-parties are permitted to do in defence of innocent victims under threat from innocent attackers.

Ebert and Machan’s solution is to push for choice-protecting rights for moral agents and interest-protecting rights for moral patients (those lacking moral agency, but worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes), and to suggest that the former include positive duties of aid whilst the latter do not. This is their ‘libertarian-ish’ position – it amounts to a non-speciesist ‘let be’ approach. Despite the attractiveness of their position, this is where Ebert and Machan and I part company, particularly because I’m unprepared to accept that positive duties to children and other human moral patients are of the special associative kind and not because children are valuable for their own sakes.

Instead, I have argued (in my as-yet unpublished paper) that, in cases of innocent threat to innocent victim there are morally relevant factors that can help determine how we should act. These include: whether it clear that the innocent threat initiated the attack and whether the innocent attacker is likely to go on to attack other innocents in the future. Where moral patients are in conflict and where either both parties are innocent attackers or where the attacker is unlikely to seek to harm other innocents in the future, the principle that harming is worse than allowing harm to occur can provide moral agents with a ceteris paribus reason not to intervene. Of course, this still leaves room for special associative duties of aid to moral patients, but it does not rely upon in the way that Ebert and Machan’s position does.

Does this require man to police nature? In my paper I argue that the duty to aid a particular moral patient does not translate either into a duty placed upon a particular moral agent, or into a general duty to bring about a particular situation where no such aggression occurs. This means that we are not required to go off into the wilderness and seek out cases where prey animals are being threatened, but rather that, if we encounter such a case, and are in a position to aid, we should do so (assuming that aiding will not be overly burdensome). Thus, my argument entails that cat-owners are obligated to release the birds that their cats bring home, and that we may be required to shoot lions in defence of the zebras.

Cue angry howls from conservationists!


Ebert, Rainer, and Tibor R. Machan. 2012. ‘Innocent Threats and the Moral Problem of Carnivorous Animals’. Journal of Applied Philosophy 29 (2): 146–159. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5930.2012.00561.x.

Jamieson, D. 1990. ‘Rights, Justice, and Duties to Provide Assistance: A Critique of Regan’s Theory of Rights’. Ethics 100 (2) (January): 349–362.

Regan, Tom, and Carl Cohen. 2001. The Animal Rights Debate. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ritchie, David. 1894. Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions. London: Routledge.

Simmons, A. 2009. ‘Animals, Predators, the Right to Life, and the Duty to Save Lives’. Ethics & the Environment 14 (1): 15–27.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

50 thoughts on “Animal Rights and the Predation Problem

  1. I think of it thusly (probably easy to pick apart but it works for me):

    Many animals need to predate other animals to survive. Where predation is driven by a survival imperative (rather than desire) it would be immoral to intervene as any intervention in such a case would favour the survival of one being over that of another, regardless of our approval of how any given being maintains that survival. The predator is not innocent, they are driven to do what they do in order to survive.

    Humans generally are able to choose not to kill other beings to survive (as a species we can remain quite healthy on a vegetarian diet) therefore the moral choice is not to take a life or inflict suffering unnecessarily.

    • Your intuitions are shared by most animal rights theorists who’ve approached the question. I’m struck by the thought that the reason we think animals worthy of moral concern for their own sakes (if indeed we do) is largely because of their capacity to suffer. If suffering is bad for animals it is bad for them regardless of whether a human or another animal causes it. If we have a duty to prevent, alleviate, avoid causing, and end suffering in others then I don’t really see why an animal’s status as prey should matter all that much.

      One way of getting at this is to examine the case of human moral patients: if a tiger were about to eat a child and we are in a position to save the child at little risk to ourselves, do we have a duty to do so? If the answer is yes, then why not in the case of non-human animals with similar capacities to the child.

      Ebert and Machan want to say that it’s because we have special duties to the child – perhaps springing out of our relationships, our promises, past circumstances etc. Cohen claims that it’s because humans can have rights and animals cannot (his argument is pretty weak though). I want to say that we have duties to that child regardless of whether it’s the child of an orphaned stranger from another continent, or our own kin – that our duties are basic non-associative duties. So, whilst I agree that the predator is innocent, and driven to kill for its own survival, I still think that the suffering caused to the prey imposes a duty of intervention. The fact that the predator will go on to take more lives in the future allows us to treat it as more than a simple case of killing one innocent to save one other innocent, but rather of killing one innocent to save many innocents.

  2. >>I still think that the suffering caused to the prey imposes a duty of intervention.

    But isn’t a lion who is dying a slow death of starvation experiencing just as much (perhaps MORE) “suffering” than an impala which dies from a quick bite to the neck?

    (And is maybe the reason we think one sort of suffering is “worse” than the other due to the fact that, living in the modern first world, we can imagine being attacked by a lion much easier than we can imagine what it would be like not having access to food for days or weeks at a time?)

    • Thanks for the comment Dave. I agree that the suffering caused by starvation could be worse (and I should say that I don’t want to present this as a problem with straightforward answers or easily applicable rules). However, I do think there are some condiderations that can help us – one is the epistemic uncertainty surrounding whether the lion will starve if we chase it from the impala. We know for sure that the impala will suffer if attacked and killed by the lion, we don’t know for sure that the lion will go on to starve if we chase if off in this case. The second relevant fact is that we know that the lion will go on to kill again – so we could factor in potential future suffering caused to all the impalas the lion will go on to kill – so in this case the numbers may count. If it were an one-off case of lion/impala then the calculation would be much easier.

      • Does that mean we are morally obligated to KILL the lion and not just chase it off? Or maybe ALL lions? Or couldn’t it also be argued that we are morally obligated to humanely kill all the impalas we can (perhaps with fast-acting neurotoxins) and feed them to all the hungry lions, so that nothing suffers?

      • Three questions in there: 1) yes, we may be obligated to kill the lion if we can do so at little risk to ourselves, 2) no, that doesn’t mean we have to kill all lions (as I said in the post – more in a moment), 3) I don’t think that suffering is the only issue at stake here – certain animals will have a biographical existence over time, so for them death will also be bad for them. As for killing all lions: I don’t think we each have duties to become vigilantes and seek out crimes to prevent – the same is true in predation cases. However, it may be wrong (as Tyler Cowen has argued) to contribute to the conservation of predatory animals.

  3. I think the problem I’m having with this argument is the assumption that all persons (human or otherwise) are created equal — and, correlatively, that we live in a de facto, innately “just” and “egalitarian” society.

    This is not the case. Society has been constructed and indeed is founded upon ideological hierarchies: man over woman (patriarchy), human over nonhuman, etc.

    To dismiss the very real differences produced by this established hierarchization of society and to equalize the playing field (if I’m understanding the article correctly!) as consisting of “equal moral agents,” I feel, is (as typical of statistical analyses) to whitewash the entire condition of the question at hand.

    I have a personal problem with the idea of “morality,” but I do believe in ethics — how one daily constructs her life. I think there are many ethical reasons (charted out by eastern and western thinkers, from Thich Nhat Hanh to Nietzsche) to adopt animal rights into human law. …. How this would occur in, say, the U.S. legal system is beyond my knowledge…..

    • I’m not sure I follow your argument (apologies): one of the points of thinking morally is to consider how we should act and identify where we are acting wrongly. The presence of injustice and inequality makes it more pressing that we think about how things should be. So, the fact that we do not treat animals with the moral concern that we should is not a reason not to think about how we should treat them – quite the opposite in fact.

      • Hi Steve,
        I certainly agree with you — I’m vegan and all for animal rights, if I must disclose my position (!). My question regards the moral ground upon which you’ve predicated your argument: not all agents/persons are valued equally. This has historically been the case. From this reality, that animals — like all cultural minorities who have not had historically, systematically, culturally, etc — have been subjugated, “domesticated,” and enslaved puts them on a different ground then humans. This means that animal-to-animal relations are beyond our purview (esp a moral one!). What we (“we” meaning those of us who care about the earth and its inhabitants) have an ethical obligation about is remedying the disparity, the difference(s) in power with nonhuman species….made difficult by the fact that we communicate differently. The discourse surrounding “animal rights,” therefore, is a very human one, and therefore needs to be constructed from the vantage point of the “one in power” — the human. We cannot legislate beyond this fact (ie, we can’t legislate animal to animal relations; the idea that we can is an ignorant one predicated, once again, upon the blind/dominant view that difference, disparity, and domination have not existed throughout time).

      • My apologies again, I’m still struggling. Allow me to de-construct your argument if I may.

        You appear to make the follow argument:

        P1. Not all agents/persons are valued equally and neither have they been through history.
        C1. Therefore “animal-to-animal relations are beyond our [moral] purview”.

        I agree with premise P1., but I don’t see how it leads logically to conclusion C1. C1 just doesn’t seem to follow. Then you make a second argument:

        P2. The discourse surrounding “animal rights,” is a human one.
        C2. Therefore ‘The discourse surrounding “animal rights,”… needs to be constructed from the vantage point of the “one in power” — the human.’

        P2. seems trivially and self-evidently true, but I’ve no idea how it leads to C2 or even what C2 means. How does one identify a particular discourse, what does it mean to construct one, why a discourse be constructed (in the prescritive sense) from a particular vantage point? What does all that have to do with thinking about how we should act in particular situations?

        Lastly, really struggling with your assertion that my post, and Ebert and Machan’s article is premised on the belief that ‘difference, disparity, and domination have not existed throughout time’. I don’t assume that, Rainer doesn’t assume that, and neither does any animal rights theorist I’ve ever met assume that. What am I missing?

  4. Punishment (as some sort of retributive vengeance) would obviously make no sense when applied to an individual that cannot be cognizant of its actions and their effects, but interference could possibly be justified in some cases.

    I would tend to agree with this to some degree. I think that if one considers the suffering of sentient beings to be a bad thing, and the deprivation of life (and potential enjoyment) to also be a bad thing (which I do), then it would be consistent to interfere with the lion/zebra situation but only if it could be ensured there was a net positive result.

    I think there are some problems with the specific examples and arguments you used, though.

    1. Shooting the lion isn’t the only way to protect the zebra.

    2. Eliminating predators through whatever means isn’t necessarily going to mean less zebra suffering. For example, imagine that the zebra’s predators are sterilized and can no longer reproduce. After the last lion dies off, the zebra population rises until resources are exhausted and population density causes disease spread. Zebras die from starvation and disease rather than lions.

    3. It’s difficult to determine whether problems such as #2 will arise through interference with the food chain, so it would be hard to act confident that the overall effect would be positive.

    4. Even if the knowledge existed, it actually enact such a program would require vast resources and demi-god like powers. It’s possible applying those resources to other problems would result in a higher utility.

    5. We can control our own human effects much more easily, and we are more directly responsible for those. It’s likely that going for the low hanging fruit would be considerably more efficient.

    • Thanks for the response. All of what you say is true if you adopt a consequentialist moral theory and see good soley in the amount of suffering/happiness present in the world. I don’t buy consequentialsm, and I don’t think an animal rights perspective is compatible with it in any case (since is treats animals as individually valuable for their own sakes). Also, as I mentioned in the post, my consideration of this issue is from the perspective of the individual moral agent presented with a predation case, which doesn’t imply the kind of mass interference you suggest. How political societies respond to this kind of problem may well be much more complicated – I’m still thinking about it.

  5. The error of the lion/zebra argument is that you are considering each animal as an individual rather than assessing the ecosystem as a whole. Consider the ecology of Yellowstone when the wolves were eradicated. No predation of large herbivores, herbivores over populate causing unexpected and massive damage to the ecosystem as a whole. When wolves were re-introduced, herbivore populations were reduced and the ecosystem returned somewhat to its ‘normal’ and more complex state.
    To interfere with predation on an ‘individual level’ would by extension lead to the same error and damage to a whole range of flora and fauna within an ecosystem.

    We all know that suffering occurs in the natural (non-human affected may be better) world on a massive and daily scale, probably most wild animals die a nasty and cruel death by predation or starvation. Do we have a moral obligation to interfere and alleviate this enormous suffering? My feeling is a definite no; to do so would be to place our perceived moral obligation above the complex and evolved Gaian ecosystem. In other words our moral obligation to alleviate suffering in any individual animal (let alone plant) is transcended by our moral obligation to protect the ecosystem as a whole.

    Full-scare vegetarianism also implies extensive agricultural development. Agriculture requires control of pests such as rodents and crop-eating birds and insects. Control means either direct killing or removal leading to likely starvation of said pests. Furthermore alienating natural environments for human agricultural needs necessarily requires the displacement of animals native to the land that is converted to farmland. Modern agriculture usually requires extensive mono-cropping and soy is probably the best (worst) example; can we justify the destruction of complex ecosystems to sustain universal human vegetarianism?

    • You can say it’s an error, but I think you need more of an argument. I certainly wouldn’t be prepared to accept that ecosystems are valuable for their own sakes or that we should ignore massive human suffering if that’s what protecting a particular ecosystem requires.

      The point about the harms to animals caused by agriculture is interesting (although I think it lacks the force you do), I think it merits a separate post in the future, so thanks for making it.

      • It’s an error of formulation. Think of the eco-system as a whole if it has survived is because a way of functioning developed through thousands of years. It’s not so wise to replace that energy recycling technology with human pubescent systems. That could lead to the destruction of the substrate that feeds us. However we are also agents of this world, in an individual scale our wish to alleviate suffering is also part of the whole system, so a defensive action is also a manifestation of our will. On the other side when you get to serious about “killing the venomous species” you get closer to a nazi mentality. Forcing things to be the way you want is not the answer, Being indifferent neither. It’s about acknowledging you are here as a humble, a very humble agent in the middle of an ever changing unstoppable chaos where suffering is everyday’s meal.

        I think this topic is more about wisdom than logic. You want a good answer? ask an old man from the jungle that had been nurtured by real life experiences. Read the old master Lao Tzu on the nonsense of intervention. Read poems on the topic, ask a kid, ask a granny! use your emotions to digest this problem. I bet there’s something very personal about it you are not sharing or even realizing. I’m not giving you a point to debate but a feedback I hope you can integrate into your very well structured thinking 🙂

      • Thanks for the comment. I’ve read my fair share of Taoist literature, and poetry, and I’ll happily listen to the granny, kid, or jungle-dwelling old man. But unless these sources are come with reasons for acting or believing then why would one heed them? What you’re supplying is a bundle of emotions and intuitions, and it’s not wisdom so much as ‘received wisdom’. These are starting points for reflection and failing to subject them to reasoned interrogation is both lazy and a dereliction of moral duty. Emotions are without doubt incredibly important factors in deliberation, but they do not take the place of reason. An emotional response that stems merely from intuition needs to be subjected to reflection before being accepted, otherwise we’re failing to discriminate between fitting and inappropriate emotional responses. Once we’ve reasoned and reflected on a state of affairs then this is what should generate our emotional responses to it. Determining that X is unjust gives us reasons to endorse and express our feelings of outrage, but a feeling of outrage bereft of supporting reasons may as easily be misplaced as fitting. So, I guess I’m saying that yes, we should take heed of many of these sources – they are valuable entry points to discussion – but if we were to stop the discussion at them, or privilege them over rigorous analysis then we’d be acting both wrongly and foolishly.

        I shan’t respond to the invocation of Goodwin’s law, or to the suggestion that the post reflects some deep personal issue of mine; we can do without that kind of sophistry here.

  6. Hi Steve,

    No worries — I enjoy having this discussion with you. I think you’ve confused of your (very exciting/Spinozist!) Ps & Cs….ie, P1 and C1 don’t follow — at least that’s not what I intended. P1 actually goes with what you considered to be P2&C2, both, in how you articulated them, do indeed seem vapid.

    I think language—especially when we think of animal rights as LAW (which is language; language = law)—is at the root of this conundrum.

    My basic argument is that “animal rights,” as constructed by the human, needs to be understood as a discourse created from that vantage point — and this should have very real consequences on how we think about animal rights.

    What this all means, to be a bit short about it, is that, if I may, the Ps & Cs of “animal rights” cannot rely upon the notion that all persons are equal in the sense that this is a historical inaccuracy. (Here my mind is racing to affirmative action, and then to a panel of white men legislating women’s vaginas….)

    The ideal is that all persons are on an equal playing field of power relations — this ideal, I think, should not be the foundational condition of a discussion on animal rights. The ideal also enables the discussion about whether humans can act as third party interveners/moral adjudicators between, say, a lion and a zebra. This is a moral impossibility for the human, even though we may — through compassion, empathy, ‘the emotions’ — take action on behalf of the victim.

    The problem with constructing animal rights is that the minorities groups, the nonhuman species, are unable to contribute to its construction. My concern is that the white man will ventriloquize or ‘speak on behalf’ of said nonhuman (or …woman…or woman’s vagina…a slippery slope!).

    I guess, what I’m trying to make space for in this consideration of animal rights is the power differentials between persons that need to be incorporated into any discussion of animal rights.

    I think it’s all too common of people in power to be, willfully or not, ignorant of not just a minority perspective but of how that minority perspective functions as a minority…. (this sounds vague…..sorry)

    Does this make sense?

    • It makes more sense than it did – thanks. However, I still think it’s wrong! Take this bit:

      “The ideal is that all persons are on an equal playing field of power relations — this ideal, I think, should not be the foundational condition of a discussion on animal rights.”

      This looks like a straw man to me because I’ve never seen any theorist take this position. Rather, we make claims that non-human animals have moral standing for their own sake and this informs how we should behave towards them. Similarly, we make an argument for the moral equality of persons, defend that with reasons, and then argue about how we should behave as a result of that claim. How particular people or beings have been treated in the past isn’t relevant to whether they are worthy of moral consideration, all it is relevant to is providing a point of comparison to hold up to the ideal.

      Additionally, I’m at a loss how thinking ethically about how to behave in the lion/zebra case is an impossibility – it can’t be since we’re doing it.

      Nor do I see how the non-contribution of the minority group (non-human animals in this case) is in any way relevant. We know that our actions may harm them or cause suffering, and we each have a moral imagination. Non-human animals can’t take part in the debate, what more is there to think about? I don’t get it.

      Lastly, how do you mean language = law? That doesn’t look at all obvious to me. If language were law, then why would we bother with the concept of law, wouldn’t we just say language instead?

  7. Further complicating the predator-prey argument is the fact that some level of predation may be necessary to prevent the prey animal from overpopulating its’ habitat and using up its’ its’ own food supply, thereby leaving most of its’ kind to starve, which in turn leads to the starvation of the predators. If we “moral” creatures are to intervene to minimize suffering, we will have to establish some optimal population level for both killers and victims, and maintain it by occasionally inflicting lethal violence to both groups.

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. What you say is true only if the duty held by individuals translates into one held by political communities. I think you’d have to do a lot more work to make that argument.

  8. Pingback: Ethics | Pearltrees

  9. Hello all!

    Although this is extremely rude of me I simply don’t have time to read all the comments and so am instead going to leave a link to an essay about the ethics of intervention. This piece is pro-ethical intervention which seems different from the mood here so hopefully it will generate some discussion!

  10. Hi Steve,
    fyi, I discuss the predation problem in my book The Ethical Consistency of Animal Equality: In that book, I present two hypothetical principles that an animal rights ethicist could (should) adopt if s/he claims that we do not have a duty to intervene and protect prey from predators.

    • Thanks for the link – some interesting stuff. Could you tell me what the argument you have is for the naturalness claim is (the ring finger)? – it seems a bit post hoc.

      • the argument for the naturalness claim. First, it is coherent with three moral intuitions that many people share: predation, procreation and motion are allowed, even when they would violate the forefinger and middle finger. principles This coherence of intuitions makes it already less post hoc (less a coincidence). Second, naturalness is related to biodiversity, and in my book I present an analogy between two intrinsic values: well-being and biodiversity. This makes it less farfetched to give intrinsic value to biodiversity. Third, carnists (most meat eaters) themselves refer to a kind of naturalness in thier justification of eating meat, so my ethics matches their ethic a little, which makes it more acceptable.

      • Thanks for this. I can’t help thinking that you put far too much weight on intuitions to support your argument. I, for example, don’t share your intuition about procreation. Nor do I see how drawing an analogy between an ecosystem and a sentient being is sufficient to assign intrinsic value to biodiversity since, regardless of similarities, ecosystems lack the capacity to suffer. To my mind, saying that an ecosystem is healthy/well is closer to saying that a spanner is unbroken or a car is running well. Lastly, I’m not sure how it’s a strength of a position that it’s more acceptable to those who hold a mistaken belief.

      • I tend to agree with Steve, have you read Oscar Horta’s work Steve?

      • I have thanks – he’s written some interesting stuff (although, that’s not to say that I fully agree with him).

      • What is it that you disagree with?

      • It’s been a while since I had a discussion with Oscar, but as far as I recall (let me know if I’m massively misremembering) his claim is that non-human animals suffer a great deal in the wild. As a result of this, we should potentially regard domestication as a good for animals (certainly from a utilitarian perspective). I’m not fully convinced by his empirical claims about life in the wild, however this may be because I’ve not seen enough of the evidence.

      • Well life in the wild is pretty bad 😦 Check out some of Brian Tomasik’s essays:

      • Oh, I’m sure that it can be (and thanks for the link), but I’m not sure that it is that bad most of the time and for most creatures. I found a fair bit to agree with in Balcombe’s Second Nature [Ch.9].

      • In my approach to ethics, I indeed put a great weight to intuitions. I consider moral intuitions as input data, comparable to scientific experiments. The data should be assembled into a coherent system (a reflective equilibrium approach). If we have different intuitions, it is like using different axioms, which means that our resulting (ethical) systems will be different and incomparable. Most people that I know do have the intuition that some animal populations are allowed to procreate even if they do not contribute enough to an aggregated lifetime well-being. I am thinking about animals with shorter lifespans or less rich emotional lives (less capacity for well-being). Dogs are allowed to procreate even if behind a veil I would prefer to live the life of a healthy human instead of a healthy dog.
        About acceptability for those who hold a mistaken belief: well, as a moral non-cognitivist I do not belief in moral truths. I tend towards constructivism: we should construct a consistent system. The reason why carnists who eat meat have mistaken beliefs, is because their ethical beliefs in their system are mutually inconsistent. They have moral illusions (moral intuitions that are inconsistent with a coherent ethical system that is constructed out of their strongest and mutually supporting moral intuitions).
        I had to include the ring finger, because me, most carnists and most animal rights ethicists are tolerant towards predation (we do not have a duty to stop a predator if we could). My objective was to make our (including me, most carnists and most animal activists, excluding you) system consistent

      • I have a few worries not – first, the process of reflective equilibrium requires us to abandon intuitions that don’t cohere with our considered convictions and other intuitions after reflection. With this in mind, I’m not sure why you need to be so wedded to retaining all of the intuitions you’ve selected.

        Second, if you’re a non-cognitivist then your entire argument is the expression of a set of emotions and we have no basis for argument since you are correct about your emotional responses to predation and I am correct about my responses to predation. I’m not sure where we would go after that.

        To be honest, I’m a bit confused now because I’d always considered constructivist meta-ethical theories to be committed to the claim that we can make truth-apt claims about moral facts and there can be moral properties, so that would rule out non-cognitivism.

      • yes, it is difficult to place constructivism between cognitivism and non-cognitivism. Let’s say I am a non-cognitivist who starts with moral emotions and intuitions, and one of those intuitions that I emotionally like, is coherence. So then I start constructing a coherent system that best fits my strongest intuitions. The weaker intuitions that do not fit this coherent system, will be rejected as moral illusions. Now, I have very strong intuitions that I do not want a world where all predators should stop hunting, where all large animals should stop moving once we discover that insects are sentient, and where all animal species who do not contribute enough to aggregated lifetime well-being should stop procreating. I am not willing to give up these intuitions when I can fit them in a coherent moral principle, even if the principle refers to something else than subjective preferences. We cannot argue about this any further, because it comes down to how we deal with our moral intuitions and emotions. I will not convince you with rational arguments to have the same intuitions that I have. What I suggest is that all moral agents should now democratically decide how strong this value of biodiversity is. If everyone except me says that biodiversity has no value and that we should only look at aggregated well-being, well, fine, I would accept that majority vote.

      • I think you’re right, finding agreement will be difficult, especially given that I also reject your commitment to aggregating well-being. However, I think it’s more than a little unfair to suggest that I’m not amenable to rational argument because I don’t see that your arguments carry the force that you think they do.

      • aggregating well-being was just one example of another moral principle. What is your principle then?
        What I meant was that we mutually are not amenable to rational argument once we arrive at the point where it comes down to differing moral intuitions that we strongly value.
        I wonder how you deal with the predation, motion and procreation problems. Are we allowed to move when insects happened to be sentient? (even jains would kill and harm insects by accident) If a predator happened to be a moral agent, should s/he commit suicide?

      • I’d probably place myself in the constructivist camp too (for now), but I’m firmly in the realist camp and I adopt a set of deontological principles in my ethical theorising.

        I disagree on the point where rational argument fails since the intuitions I currently hold have been accepted or rejected as a result of rational interrogation & so could change if I’m presented with better argument.

        The last point is interesting. First, I’d say that ‘if insects were sentient’ is a very big ‘if’. I seriously doubt we’ll discover sentience in insects, but if we did then their level of sentience is likely to be so low that the harm done to them by injuring them is very low. In any case, I doubt that they have much of a biographical existence over time, so I can’t see that killing counts as much of a wrong done to them either. Additionally, if we cannot live without harming them, then the ‘ought implied can’ principle might come into play. On the predation point, where a predator a moral agent then they could chose not to predate (there are synthetically produced nutrients that allow even obligate carnivores to live on vegan diets). If they could not chose not to kill, then they wouldn’t really be moral agents. I don’t see where the suicide argument comes in.

      • Dolphins have a proto-morality. Let’s suppose they acquire full blown moral agency (reflection etc). However, they can’t produce the synthetic nutrients underwater with their fins, and we can’t produce enough for them either. As their prey (fish) are sentient, dolphins cause suffering and they use sentient beings as merely a means (for vital needs). According to my forefinger (consequentialist aggregation of well-being) and middle finger (deontological right not to be used as merely means), dolphins have a duty to stop hunting and eating fish, hence the suicide. Unless they are allowed to do that behavior due to another principle (a deontological permission). Libertarianism (Ebert & Machan) will not give that permission if dolphins are moral agents. Libertarians say that we do not have a duty to stop dolphins, but dolphins themselves, as moral agents, have a duty not to harm fish. That is what they should conclude. The same problem occurs when insects were sentient and we (as moral agents) harm insects by moving around.
        I believe ethics has to be able to deal with all possible kinds of extreme hypothetical ‘if’s. An ethical system is stronger if it it can also deal with more extreme hypotheticals. That is why I reject Ebert & Machan’s libertarian solution to the predation problem. That is why I reject your answer that dolphins should be able to use synthetic nutrients and that insects should not have too much sentience. I agree that ought implies can, but we can commit suicide to protect insects.

      • If dolphins were what they are not, and if insects were what they are not… – we’re stretching things rather far now. But, lets suppose that a) dolphins have become moral agents, and b) the only way they can survive is by eating fish, and c) fish are sentient. That still doesn’t imply that dolphins must starve themselves to death. We might, for instance, take the level of sentience a fish has into consideration, along with their interest in continued existence. We’d certainly have to take the in extremis circumstances of dolphin existence into account. It would certainly mean that dolphins would have a duty to minimise suffering in their prey, and it would also mean that they’d probably be required to prey on the least sentient options available. The mistake here lies in thinking that rights are absolute boundaries, that they can never be violated whatever the circumstances, whereas I think of them as a special class of very weighty reasons.

        p.s. I’ve not claimed that “insects should not possess too much sentience,” I’ve claimed that it’s likely that they are not sentient.

      • Does a moral agent automatically have more interest in a continued existence compared to an amoral (but sentient) being? I don’t see that this is necessary. If it is not, then it might be possible that some moral agents have lower or equal interest in a continued existence. One could say that in that case still the well-being of moral agents count more, such that moral agents are still allowed to harm amoral sentient beings for vital needs to a large degree. But then this violates my intuition that we should not sacrifice mentally disabled humans for organ transplantations in order to save moral agents. (But perhaps you do not share this intuition, or of you do, you would easily override it?) And I don’t understand why moral agency would allow a moral dolphin to kill not only one, but many thousands of sentient fish.

      • The answer is no – individual beings will have different interests and with differing strengths. Moral and non-moral beings might have similar interests in not suffering for example. It’s not the moral agency that might permit a moral dolphin to kill fish, it’s different degrees to which each suffers and the different interest each has in continued existence. The fact that a dolphin must to it to survive would count as an additional reason speaking in favour of a permission.

        I still remain puzzled by the degree to which you seem comfortable talking about moral duties and making moral claims given that think that moral claims don’t refer to anything.

      • So, then we are back at the start: what if moral dolphins have equal interests as amoral, sentient fish? What if their degrees of suffering (by starvation or being eaten) were equal? My intuition says that in this case we should count the numbers (i.e. use some aggregation). As one dolphin kills many many fish, the interests of the fish trump the interest of the dolphin. So the dolphin should stop hunting fish. And that violates another of my intuitions.
        I wonder what intuitions of mine would be violated if I were to follow your ethic.

      • Yet more what ifs! 1) If fish are not as sentient as dolphins (which they are not), then they cannot suffer to the same degree. 2) if dolphins can kill without causing suffering then we’re left with the fish’s interest in continued existence, which is likely to be limited (whereas the dolphin’s is not). 3) I still haven’t seen an argument from you for the claim that if the only way a moral agent can live is to kill an innocent they must chose to die – I’d be interested to see that argument. Finally, it’s plausible that if interests were equivalent in strength and character we might want to have the numbers count, but in cases where they don’t then I’d want to see an argument to back up this claim.

      • As a reply to points 1 and 2: I believe that an ethical system is stronger if it is able to deal with all possible ifs. If you do not want to seriously question the possibilities, then we cannot argue any further. Than we can only conclude that you are very lucky that in our world dolphins have more interests or can suffer to a higher degree than fish.
        At point 3: it’s an argument by elimination of alternative possibilities. In the end, the argument might read: moral agents have a duty to either not cause too much harm to others (e.g. killing thousands of individuals would be too much harm) or not to use someone as merely a means (e.g. as food) or some other rule like that. Then, if a dolphin’s only choice is between violating one of those rules or dying, and if violating those rules is not permissible, then the only alternative (ought implies can) is dying. If you claim that those dolphins do not have to die, then you have to come up with a rule about what a moral dolphin is allowed to do towards sentient fish. As long as I haven’t found such a rule, the only option remains: dying. (Note that I do have such a rule, but that rule refers to naturalness/biodiversity, which you rejected. So You have to come up with another rule, or come to the same conclusion that moral dolphins have to die)

      • Again, we disagree about the nature of rights; I don’t see them as absolute prohibitions that hold in all circumstances. But, were I to agree that if the only way a moral agent were able to live would be to violate the equally weighty interests in living or not suffering of another being then they would have a duty to die. I’m not sure how that concession would present a problem for me; I don’t see that accepting it would weaken my argument any.

      • I don’t think that it has to do with the nature of rights, as I also don’t see them as absolute prohibitions. But it seems you come to the conclusion that there is a hypothetical situation where those dolphins have to die, whereas my intuition says that they do not have to die, even in that situation. So that’s where we differ…

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