Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Humanitarian intervention: humane not human

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I’m on a train travelling down to Oxford. Tomorrow I’m presenting a paper to the Society for Applied Philosophy‘s annual conference. I’m a little nervous about this paper, as involves me dipping my toes into international ethics and law, and I’ve not really touched that since I did my MA. Plus, it’s pretty controversial, and my chair-commentator, who will respond to the paper before questions, is the fiercely sharp Zofia Stemplowska of the University of Warwick.

The argument I make is that principles of humanitarian intervention should extend to non-human animals, and I use the critically endangered orangutans of Sumatra as my case study. Just to give you a picture of how dire the situation for those orangutans is, and why I think something more drastic than traditional conservation approaches is needed, I’ve listed some potted facts below (apologies for the lack of references – my Internet connection is a bit too shaky to drag them up).

Orangutans have been protected under Indonesian law since 1931 and also have a protected status under international law. Conservationists have expended enormous efforts to save them from extinction. However:

  • Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered and decreasing in numbers.
  • In total there remained only 7,300 in 2004.
  • Only three populations of over 500 (the minimum size needed for genetic viability) remain.
  • Orangutan numbers have declined by 80% in the last 75 years.
  • Orangutans are frequently hunted for pets, and killed as pests or for food.
  • The greatest threat to them comes from the destruction of their habitat through both legal and illegal logging and forest clearance.

Orangutan communities possess cultures of their own, they use and produce tools, have a theory of mind, have been taught to use sign-language creatively, and to understand abstract symbols, and the Sumatran orangutans constitute a distinct racial group from those living in Borneo.

With this in mind, I argue in my paper that a species-blind principle of humanitarian intervention provides the international community with a duty to take action in defence of the orangutans. This is because Sumatran orangutans are under threat of extinction as a result of the deliberate acts of human beings. The consequences of these acts are known to the Indonesian state, and preventable by them. Furthermore, by licensing deforestation for palm oil production, the Indonesian government has become complicit in what amounts to the destruction of an ethnic or racial group. Conventional conservation methods and legal protections have been unsuccessful and it is likely that the Orangutans will soon become the first of the Great Apes to become extinct.

Obviously, there’s a fair bit of argument to get through for the underlying case for a non-speciesist account of positive duties of aid before the above argument can succeed. I’m not going to fill in the gap here (mainly because I want to read through my paper a few more times before I get to the conference). However, a good place to start for the sorts of issues at stake and arguments to be made is John Hadley’s lovely little paper The Duty to Aid Nonhuman Animals in Dire Need. Incidentally, reading John’s short paper was one of the main sources of inspiration for my PhD thesis (thanks John) – it’s definitely worth a gander.


Author: Steve C

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

One thought on “Humanitarian intervention: humane not human

  1. Pingback: Humanitarian intervention: humane not human - logo | orangutan news |

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