Being just back from a trip with the tent into the wilderness of the Southern Carpathians in Romania, I realised once again the truth of the statement: Most wild animals are happy most of the time. With wild animals I mean here animals, who are not being persecuted by humans, who live an independent life outside of civilisation. I say that, because I keep seeing animals in the wild, and they almost always seem content and happy. Some are frolicking in the sun, some are playing, some are making love, some are resting and simply enjoying themselves. In only very rare occasions do I see animals, who are suffering.
Well, I would not have thought this statement to be remarkable. But for some people it is. There are people, who think that we humans in civilisation have the best possible life and the animals living in the wild generally suffer. They then conclude we should be interfering, bringing technology and civilisation into the wild, and possibly even genetically modify animals to become happy vegans.
The central argument for the suffering of non-human animals in the wild is, firstly, that some animals follow the evolutionary strategy to reproduce much and invest little into their offspring, so that most of them die. Secondly, humans argueing like this are mostly detached from nature and imagine themselves in the wild and conclude they would suffer (from cold, fear, wetness, hunger and so forth), so everybody else must as well. For them, the wild is paradigmatic for suffering, civilisation for safety and happiness. Funny, though, that it seems the opposite is true.
My primary argument for the above statement, that most wild animals are happy most of the time, is not just my observation, but also from evolution. Being happy is an important psychological state for animals, in order to be healthy. A happy animal has not just a much better immune system, he or she is also active and inquisitive, does interact socially and is looking after him or herself. Being happy and content is a vital ingredient to procreate and to live safely and long. Hence, evolution will produce animals, who are mostly happy under normal circumstances. When they are miserable in exceptional circumstances, they will strive to change conditions so that they become happy again.
It is true that most animals die a violent death in the wild. But that does not contradict the above statement. If I am killed today, I would still have lived a mostly happy life. In addition, adult animals feel safe under normal circumstances in the wild. In the evolutionary arms race between predator and prey, the prey animals are always one step ahead, otherwise the ecological balance could not be upheld.
For farmed animals, the absolute opposite is true. Most farmed animals are miserable most of the time. This is because most farmed animals are kept in very closed confinement, in order to produce as much output from them with as little monetary input as possible. But evolution has not prepared animals for being confined. They feel miserable and firstly try to escape. If that is frustrated, they give up and get seriously depressed. This is the state of mind of most farmed animals.
I conclude that our issue as animal activists must be primarily to help farmed animals and other animals abused by humans. For utilitarians, it is there where by far most of the suffering on this planet can be found. For political animal rights activists, for whom the autonomy of animals is the primary concern, animal liberation from human domination is the political goal anyway. This is because autonomy essentially means to live according to your own rules and laws. Wild animals do that, farmed animals mostly cannot.
14 Gedanken zu “Most wild animals are happy most of the time!”
I’m largely sympathetic to your thesis, but I have a few reservations:
1) It seems that your thesis only takes into account large or fairly large mammals who have survived well into adulthood. But this is not representative of animals as a whole, in terms of welfare.
2) Suppose we extend the data sample to include, not just adult animals, but also animals still in infancy. This would complicate your thesis, as it seems to be the case that a vast majority of animals die in infancy from disease, starvation, exposure to elements, etc. Such animals have *not*, on the whole, lived a good or happy life, so can we really say that *most* wild animals are happy most of the time?
Thank you for your time,
I care about the animals happiness and health more than I care about any appeal to nature nonsense.
I’m sick of people anthropomorphizing some kind of human nature into animals, like caring about being entertainment or being raised to be a pet. They do not give a damn. The only thing they care about is food, water, adequate shelter and being able to engage in their normal behavior.
A wild animal is more stressed than a domesticated one because stress helps survival. But all animals who live in the wild can and do die from disease, predators, extreme whether and any other manner of misfortune. Because nature doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything. It’s not alive, it doesn’t have an agenda, it doesn’t know best. We adapt to it, not it to us. It doesn’t have us or any animal in mind. That’s why things can and do go extinct, they didn’t adapt fast enough.
Orca’s for instance are not happier or healthier in human care, because the fund required to have adequate space and enrichment for them are just plain not worth it. Whereas a leopard on a reserve, zoo or even with a human owner can in fact be given adequate space, nutrition and care.
Animals are money sinks, they are an investment in being able to give that animal a happy healthy life and in the case of domesticated or tame animals, to have a personal bond. People who use them only to make money don’t have the right idea about what it means to take care of another creature.
My feelings on people having wild pets is that, you must have all adequate needs (food, water, shelter, space, medical care) met and some enrichment (toys/activities). You should have a reserve of funds for any emergencies including relocation or moving of the animal if needed, and you are taking the risk here. The animal should not suffer in anyway for the risk one takes say sleeping with lions. At any time something could happen. The animal could have a bad day, get scared, or anything else and if the owner or people interacting with the lion get hurt or killed, it’s never the animals fault. All care should be taken to relocate the animal and only under dire circumstances like escape or actively hunting humans should the animal ever be put down. If you die because your cougar whom you raised by hand lashed out, that’s the risk YOU took. The cougar should have the funds to be relocated and taken care of for life by another place and that should be covered for them way before you are even able to get the animal.
Always when somebody, like you, moans about anthropomorphising, the actual background is one wants to deny nonhumans essentials for their wellbeing. Its always like that. Humans are animals, there is no way around that. Much more problematic than anthropomorphism is anthroponegation (@ Frans de Waal), denying the similarity of human and nonhuman animals.
Wild animals are not more stressed than domestic ones. I have sat million times around chamois or ibex, for example, in the mountains, when those animals happily played for hours. No stress. But domestic dogs are usually stressed to no end, whereever you see them on the streets. They most often cannot run, cannot engage as they like with others, are pulled at a leash and rarely out in the open.
I have lived with dogs for 3 decades. I have given them the opportunity to run free and walk with me through wilderness as often as possible. And from those 3 decades experience I conclude:
– Even “my” dogs had a much more miserable life than a wild wolf. Thats because the wild wolves are always out in the wilderness, they never have to ask anyone to have a piss or shit, they never have to wait for days on end for their human to get it together to have a time in the wild again, they never have to experience the stress of big city traffic, and they can hunt in a tight social group together. My impression is that the latter is what dogs long for most in their lives.
– For dogs being free and not on a lead, never mind how long that lead is, makes a world of a difference. Dogs, who are free in the sense of not in anyway enclosed, act totally differently than if the same dogs are locked in or on a lead or safety belt. It looks as if their character changes. Once they act like a responsible adult, on a lead they act like a little dependent child. I conclude very clearly: dogs long to be free per se, and not free in the sense of having enough space. They want to be indepedent. And that directly contravenes any concept of zoo, never mind how well it is run.
I think nonhuman animals can reveal their preferences and wishes very clearly to us humans, there is no need to have a verbal language. Actually, I do think that a verbal language is much less reliable than body language based on a good knowledge of each other. My dog friend, for one, I do understand a lot better than most humans. So, no, I would not ask talking animals what they like and conclude that this will be what non-talking animals will like. I can leave them act out what they have decided and respect their decision.
I am not consequentialist, like you seem to me. You seem to say that if two situations have the same consequences, then they must be considered ethically equal. If you, say, took 100 euro from me so that I do not realise, then for me the consequence is the same as if you had not. But isn’t our moral intuition that such a theft is unethical? My rational reason to support this conclusion is autonomy. If you manipulate a being such that he or she thinks he or she is acting according to their will, but he or she is doing that in fact only due to your manipulation, then this being has lost his or her autonomy. Hence you acted unethically. An example is the film “Matrix”. The humans in this film all live in reality in a nutritious liquid without doing anything at all than producing energy. But the matrix is playing a trick on them and is feeding them the illusion that they have happy, active and fullfilling lives. Would you say that is an ethical way of dealing with humans? After all, the consequence is that all humans subjectively feel they act how they like and they all experience only happy things. But their autonomy is gone. The viewer of the film will side with me, the scenario is set up to be a nightmare, not an ideal ethical society.
Similarily, if someone triggers deliberately an avalanche that hurts me or if that avalanche has been triggered by chance makes a huge difference. In one case my autonomy is taken, in the other it is not. Yes, I do see a gigantic difference between a cliff restricting the movement of an animal or me. In fact, the animals sees that difference too. The following is a proven fact: A dog reacts very differently if s/he does not get from you something s/he wants, because you physically cannot give it to him/her, or because you voluntarily do not want to give it to him/her.
A good example is a chained dog. The chain of a dog might be so long, that it will never restrict the movement of the dog. Then, according to you, the chaining should be ok. But it is not. A dog, who perceives himself/herself as chained, has a very different view on himself/herself, than if s/he was not chained. S/he is behaving very differently and feeling very differently. I can see that with my dog friend every day: he wants freedom, he protests being on a lead, even if the lead does not restrict his movements at all. Coming out of the public transport system, where he has to be on the lead, he will stop and not move a step until the lead is taken off. Surely not, because his movements are restricted.
Exchange “human intervention” to “intervention from a technological mass society” and it is worded non-speciesist. Its the monopoly of an almighty superior power that makes technological mass societies to the big ethical problem they are.
Why do humans not leave technological mass societies to escape into the wild? Easy answer: they have completely lost the capability to live independently, and there is not wild space left. My grandmother used to gather 26 species of mushroom to live off, I only know a handful. Without such knowledge, you are lost in the wild. But, would you say the fact that alcoholics keep drinking alcohol and drug addicts keep using drugs proves that they actually enjoy doing that? No, they have rather been trapped and cannot escape. The case for humans and the wild seems to me similar.
True, competition means suffering. But my case is: technological mass societies use far more resources than is their due and hence cause far more suffering than wild animals ever will. If you want to minimise the harm of competition, than restrict and reduce technological mass societies, and not wild animal communities.
Lastly, regarding the feel of the wild. Would you really say that feeling a wild, untouched forest has no objective basis? Essentially, it is the same as getting the same preceptions from a virtual reality goggle? Or that, with suitable conditioning, one could get the same feelings from a well trimmed garden or harvested forest? No, I do not think so. We animals are made for the wild, we forest animals are made for wild untamed forests. Their variety, their immense spectrum of flavours and patterns, their smell and touch triggers in us ancient longings, which were evolutionarily developed to enjoy life in this environment to procreate. I am utterly sure that these feelings are necessary for mental health. And I am equally sure that these feelings cannot be created by city gardens or harvested forests.
Further to what I have said, there is an important observation. Mass societies of humans create illnesses, in the state of the wild you mostly do not get ill. In my surroundings, people are ill so often, at least a number of times per year. People get bad teeth from eating sweats, are obese, have diabetese, heart problems, are cold all the time, get colds ever so often and cancer and what not. What I am saying is that wild animals (including humans) are physically usually in much better condition and suffer a lot less than beings in a mass society, as almost all humans are.
Jared Diamond has found that out. He describes in his book how former wild living humans in Borneo changed when they were “civilised”. Yes, in their wild state they had quite high rates of violent death. But after being civilised, they became sick, especially diabetes and heart disease, in unprecedented numbers. And they become depressed, alcoholics and fealt unearthed, lonely and without any sense in life. All feelings that were not present before. Nobody can tell me that, because the rate of violent deaths decreased, they have a happier life. Far from it. The suicide rate is high, while there were no suicides before.
But even more, you might be living as a vegan or not, but being a member of this human society makes you responsible for far more deaths than any lion living in the wild ever will be responsible for. You claim a lion kills 100 zebras during his life. Well, Michael Archer, the Australian Ecological University Professor, claims that in order to produce a 100 kg of wheat protein, you will kill 55 mice. And for living in a city, pest control will kill countless rodents (mice and rats) for each human each year, all in order that you can live. For building houses and roads, countless animals are killed, as they are on the roads by traffic. For using electricty, a lot of animals are killed all the time. Look at wind energy production. Each such production unit kills thousands of birds each year, a statistic says 32 birds per wheel per day.
Everytime you buy food in plastic bags, you are responsible for the death of animals. Everytime you consume anything, there is a death toll. Not so for animals living in the wild. They might kill to survive, but every human in mass society kill a lot more, mostly for mundane reasons. Before you start harassing predator animals, clean before your own door.
Humans produce climate change, before that acid rain and the ozone hole. These are threats for everybody on that planet. Humans are responsible. I find it quite astounding that in the face of those facts, you critisize wild animals for killing for their living the least necessary amount. If you were to intervene and change anything, i.e. stop predators from killing or interfering with genetic changes or in whatever way you might imagine, you will cause a lot more harm than any good ever. It might be much better to intervene and stop the human killing machine. This is where the real problem lies.
– life in civilisation is a lot worse than in the wild (depression, loneliness, alcoholism, cigarettes, illnesses, loss of purpose…)
– civilisation produces a lot more harm than wild living beings (energy production, road building, rubbish…)
– human domination of non-humans causes by far the most harm (farmed animal suffering …)
I am not saying that because I dislike some kinds of suffering in wilderness, everyone (including animals) has to.
If animals can’t reveal their preferences to us (i.e. if they cannot talk to us and if there are no other revealed preference experiments that we can do with them in order to figure out their strongest preferences), we can look at the revealed preferences of other animals (e.g. those who can talk) and use those talking animals as proxy’s. If most talking animals dislike something, and if it is not clear that non-talking animals do not dislike it, and if those non-talking animals are sufficiently similar to the talking animals (in terms of behavior and physiology), we may assume that those non-talking animals also dislike it. That is why I believe some kinds of suffering are unwanted by non-talking animals.
About me playing God: I don’t think animals care about me playing God versus nature playing God. If they don’t care, then I don’t care either. Saying that nature is allowed to play God but humans are not, is speciesist. And nature plays God on a huge scale.
I had no intention to kill animals who are happily alive, to avoid their painful deaths, so I am not speciesist.
About autonomy: so if an animal cannot move forward (because I obstruct its path by putting a fence), it is no violation of autonomy? And similarly if an animal cannot move anywhere forward or left? And if the animal cannot go anywhere forward, left and right? Not even if it particularly wants to go right because there is good food? But when I prevent that animal from moving forward, left, right and backwards, e.g. by putting a cage around him, it suddenly becomes a violation of autonomy? I think it is not black or white: there is a grey area of autonomy violation. The less area an animal can go to, the more its autonomy is violated. An animal in the claws of a predator has roughly zero autonomy.
Do you see a relevant difference between a human putting a fence in front of an animal, versus nature putting a rock cliff or a snow avalanche in front of the animal, if in both cases the animal wants to move forward? With relevant difference, I mean a difference that is perceived by the animal as being relevant.
What do you mean with autonomy meaning being able to make one’s own rules of life? If it implies being able to grasp the concept of rules, then non-human animals are not autonomous (as Kant thought). But if the meaning includes unconscious or non-explicit rules that imply that a subject wants something, then animals can have autonomy, but nature (e.g. viruses, ecosystems, predators, volcanoes, climate,…) can violate the autonomy of animals, if something happens in nature that is not in line with the rule or with what the animal wants.
About the freedom to become invisible (“Freedom does not mean freedom to become invisible for example”): I could say that freedom does not mean freedom to fly. So when I prevent someone to fly, it is not a violation of freedom? If nature prevents someone to become invisible and that individual really wants to be invisible, what is the difference with me preventing someone to fly if that person really wants to fly? Again with difference I mean a difference perceived by the subject as being relevant.
Your statement “Living in the wild in a self-determined way without human intervention is the utmost freedom and autonomy” explicitly refers to the word “human”, so it is speciesist if you believe that word is important. I would delete that word to avoid speciesism.
“I do not consider it a restriction of autonomy, if the wild makes me cautious doing this or that.” But I consider it as a restriction of my autonomy. So to respect autonomy, it is up to the individual to decide whether it counts as an autonomy restriction or not.
“In contrast, evolution has not set us up to be locked up. Nothing ever in nature has prepared us for that.” So why are predators allowed to lock up others in their claws and jaws? And has nature prepared us for diseases so that we do not dislike diseases? It seems nature hasn’t prepared me…
“In contrast, you seem to have no feeling and no experience of the wild and so conclude, the wild must be awful.” First you have to explain why such experiences of the wilderness would make you less biased than I am. Who are you to judge that I don’t have feelings or experiences of the wild? Or that my experiences of the wild where less reliable than yours? And how do you know that it is my lack of such experiences, and not for example my empathy with suffering wild animals, that explains my judgments about unwanted suffering in the wild?
“In their youth, I suppose, they never had the chance to experience that, feel the difference between an old forest and a farmed forest. That is very sad and has cut them off from very important experiences.” This is literally the kind of argument I hear from livestock farmers against vegan urbanites. Vegan urbanites never experienced life on a farm, the circle of life and food chain kind of stuff. Being in a city cuts you of from very important experiences of life on an animal farm, where you can experience the real purpose of animals.
“This is why people become depressed” I don’t think there is a scientific consensus that that is the reason why people become depressed.
“And in their completely narrow minded world view, they conclude that technology is good […] the depressed lot destroying the planet have the audacity to believe it is actually them, who have the better life and the others should be forced or manipulated to fit to their wrong ideas. No, it is, if anything, the other way round. Wild living beings have an infinitely much better life than the poor depressed and lonely humans (and pet animals) living in a technological society.” Let’s test this in the way you tested the preference of animals being free: “Just open the door and see what they do.” Our society has opened the doors for those depressed people to go to the wilderness and away from technology. Are they fleeing out technological society? Are they going to live a life like wild animals in the wilderness? Do they really want to escape technology, like a bird wants to escape a cage? I don’t think so. Perhaps they have a false preference to stay in society, but then the bird might equally have a false preference to escape its cage. Or perhaps they choose to briefly go to the wilderness, like you do when you feel a need to, but so the bird can also return to its cage, e.g when there is food in it.
About the illnesses in mass societies: in modern societies, people have more healthy life years (QALYs) and lower mortality rates than people (humans and animals) living in the wilderness.
About birds killed by wind mills: the studies I’ve seen, gave much lower death rates. But most of all: also natural elements (trees, rocks, wind,…) kills birds. And those natural elements even don’t produce useful energy. The same goes for mice and other animals being killed in our food production system: this is in fact nothing but a natural process called competition, something that animals do a lot in wild nature (where the behavior of one animal to obtain food results in the deaths of other animals). My point is exactly to do research to minimize those kinds of harm, whether done by humans or non-human animals. That does not imply killing humans, neither does it imply killing animals that compete with other animals for food.
I am not saying that because I prefer this or that, everyone else has to. I hear you saying that, ie that because you dislike wilderness for fear of death or pain, everybody else has to. You even explicitly say that some talking humans do that, so the non-talking animals most likely will do too. That is my issue with your position: it is absolutely unbearably paternalistic. You would love to play god on this planet and decide who is doing what. That is the utmost restriction of autonomy. It is not maximising autonomy to guide someone’s life and steer them through to maximum happiness without asking them what they want. It is the contrary. A being, who is being dominated in this way, even with good intentions, has completely lost his or her or its autonomy.
You can very easily ask farmed animals themselves, what they want. Just open the door and see what they do. We, as a society of humans, have decided that we can not kill humans, to avoid their painful death, while they are still happily alive. And with good reason. This very same reason applies to non-humans. You are speciesist if you make up rules for non-humans, but different ones for humans.
It is not restricting someone’s autonomy if a danger in the wild is driving them to do this or that, but not do something else. That is, sorry, an absolutely ludicrous concept of autonomy. If I cannot move straight on, because there is a rock cliff and I would fall off, that is restricting my autonomy? If I cannot cross that snow slope because of fear of avalanches, either? No, not at all. Autonomy is the possibility to make my own rules of life, not anybody else. That is how Kant defines it. Freedom does not mean freedom to become invisible for example, but the freedom of not being manipulated and dominated by others, like you want to do with wild animals. The impossibility for me to turn invisible does not restrict my autonomy at all.
Living in the wild in a self-determined way without human intervention is the utmost freedom and autonomy. There can be no more freedom than self-regulation. I do not consider it a restriction of autonomy, if the wild makes me cautious doing this or that. In contrast, being in the wild independent of human intervention is the greatest freedom there is.
I have provided very logical arguments based on evolution that most wild animals are happy most of the time. Being happy must be the normal state of affairs of wild animals. This is how evolution has set us wild animals up. This is why I am convinced that the tadpoles are happy in their little pond. And in addition, my ability to read that from their behaviour supports that reasoned conclusion from my logical argument. In contrast, evolution has not set us up to be locked up. Nothing ever in nature has prepared us for that. This is why my logical conclusion is that being locked up makes you feel miserable and longing to escape. Indeed, my personal experience very strongly supports that logical conclusion. I have not heard from you any argument disproving both of those observations. In contrast, you seem to have no feeling and no experience of the wild and so conclude, the wild must be awful. That is very superficial: neither a logical argument, nor personal experience. And based on that you make ethical claims we all should adhere to? Isn’t that a bit far fetched?
My meta observation of what is happening here: There are some humans, who just have no feelings whatsoever for the wild. In their youth, I suppose, they never had the chance to experience that, feel the difference between an old forest and a farmed forest. That is very sad and has cut them off from very important experiences. Since ever more people feel this way, the population at large misses something important to stay healthy and happy. This is why people become depressed (the biggest illness in civilisation, unheard of in the wild) and feel lonely (46 % feel lonely always or most of the time, unheard of in the wild). These unhealthy people might become attached to technology, this is where they turn to in their quest for a substitute of wild living. And in their completely narrow minded world view, they conclude that technology is good and the poor humans and non-humans, who have no technology, are, firstly, inferior beings in need of guidance, and, secondly, must be helped to reach their happiness. This is quity baffling: the depressed lot destroying the planet have the audacity to believe it is actually them, who have the better life and the others should be forced or manipulated to fit to their wrong ideas. No, it is, if anything, the other way round. Wild living beings have an infinitely much better life than the poor depressed and lonely humans (and pet animals) living in a technological society. It is rather that the wild beings need to help the techno freaks than the other way round. I am trying to do that. I have been on walks with youths, who suffer from depression and a crisis of a sense in life, and it is quite amazing how they recover when they feel the wild. When they feel what it means to overcome danger on their own, when they must work together to succeed and so forth. Even if that causes pain sometimes and even if that causes death sometimes, it turns out to be the much much better life. Every single time I have tried it with people.
there is a number of issues where we totally disagree.
Firstly, autonomy means being able to create your own rules of living. In other words, autonomy means that you are not dominated by anyone else, who is deciding on your behalf. So, yes, if you kill someone, you have taken their autonomy. But the same is true if you manipulate others, change their gene code, feed them and make them dependent on you or otherwise interfere in a way that they might even not realise but that takes away their free choice and consent. Hence, the best we humans can do, morally, is to stop any intervention in the lives of anyone else outside of our own society and to only help, when we are asked for it.
Further, and I tried to make that clear in my article, a violent death is short, normally short in comparison to anyone’s lifetime. So a violent death does not contradict the observation that most wild animals are happy most of the time. Considering your r-strategy, take for example frogs. We can see them in the wild everywhere. Often, there are huge amounts of tadpoles in a little water pond. Most of those will not live to become frogs. But watch them: they are happy. They frolick around, swim here and there, interact, dive or lie still. They live their life and use all their physical abilities. They live autonomously. Yes, even if they face a violent death – as we all do, at least a painful one – and even if that is much earlier than for us, they still lived happily most of the time. The statement still is true.
Evolution set us up in a way that misery must be short lived. It should drive us to change circumstances so that we become happy again as soon as possible. That proves that feeling miserable must be the exception. In other words: most wild animals are happy most of the time.
I would always choose a fulfilled week of life and a painful death, than a death immediately. Always without hesitation. And respecting autonomy means leaving that decision up to the animals’ themselves. You should not decide something like that for them. Anyone has the right to risk a painful death if they so choose.
Prey animals are always ahead of their predators, otherwise they would die out immediately. We can see that in an Austrian forest in Allentsteig right now. Humans had put mufflons there so that they can hunt them. The mufflons are from Corsica, where there are no wolves. Now, wolves have come in from outside and the mufflons have gone in no time. This is what happens if predators are ahead. Not so for stags and deer. They are ahead of the predators and so they still live their. Under normal circumstances, they will always escape predators. This is why they generally feel safe and not so bothered. Clearly, if they were afraid all of the time, they would be miserable and could not live healthily and procreate. That proves that they do mostly feel safe, while taking precautions and being aware and careful. I do the same in the wilderness. But one is getting used to such danger. I have seen it with horses and dogs too. Even in woods where there are cougars, wolves and bears, they are not miserable and scared all the time. They are very conscious and aware, but often relaxed and at ease. Evolution made them such, because they are the descendants of animals, who have procreated, ie who had to have been happy most of the time. There is no confinement by predators. That is a totally different matter. Most animals want to be free, even if that means being afraid of dangers and not being sheltered and fed. Women wanted to be free even if that means working themselves and not having a husband going to work for them. Many people have died fighting for freedom. Freedom, which is THE SAME as autonomy, is the primary value. It necessitates freedom to voluntarily give freedom up. That proves that our moral obligation is first and foremost to make sure that animals are free. And in almost all cases that means free from human domination and even well meant manipulation.
Indeed we seem to totally disagree on some issues.
Let’s start with the things that we do agree on. First: if we do not intervene, a lion will kill N zebras. Second, we agree that being killed by a human means autonomy is taken away. We are also both antispeciesist, which means that if being killed by a human is a violation of autonomy, then also being killed by a lion violates autonomy. So we agree that the autonomy of N zebras is violated if we do not intervene (e.g. if we do not produce clean meat to feed the lion, if we do not chase the lion away from the zebras). However, you believe that if we intervene, then the autonomy of the lion is violated, because the lion becomes dependent on e.g. clean meat produced by us. But being antispeciesist, it doesn’t matter whether the lion is dependent on humans for food or on something nonhuman for food. The point is: the lion is always dependent on something (food), so does not have maximum autonomy in that sense. In any case, there is no full autonomy; always someone will lose autonomy by our choice: if we choose not to intervene, the N zebras will lose their autonomy.
In this discussion, autonomy is practically similar to preference satisfaction. I.e. if you strongly prefer freedom and that freedom is satisfied, a strong preference is satisfied. And respecting your autonomy means that you are the one to decide your preferences. So one option now is to be a preference utilitarian who maximizes preference satisfaction. Or translated to your ethical viewpoint: be a autonomy utilitarian, maximizing autonomy or minimizing autonomy violations. But it seems you are not an autonomy utilitarian either, because you prefer the autonomy violation of 100 individuals (the zebras) above the violation of only 1 individual (the lion). So there is another value in your ethical system that I do not understand yet, and that does not refer to autonomy (because you disapprove of the strategy to minimize autonomy violations). And as I said: that extra value of yours is so important that it allows the sacrifice (autonomy violations) of 100 individuals. Is that value shared by those victims? If yes, then you still respect their autonomy, but if not, you violate it. So there is your biggest challenge: what is that extra value that you have and that is shared by the victims to such a degree that the victims are all willing to die (and lose all their personal freedom, as well as all the freedom of their friends and family who also die) for this value? I don’t believe you have such a value. And if you don’t have such a value, you are walking a dangerous path, violating the autonomy of other individuals.
About the tadpoles: it is difficult to say how much suffering they experience. Who knows they feel hungry? Who knows they don’t care about their freedom, but just care about food? Looking only at a running zebra might make you think “look how happy that zebra is running”. But it was chased by a lion and you did not see his fear. The claim is: given abundant r-strategy, there is a high risk of overwhelming suffering in nature. Arguing about net positive or net negative well-being, or above or below 50% risk, is futile without more evidence, so that is why we should do more research (welfare biology). Brian Tomasik, I, you, we can all have our own judgments based on our own perspectives and estimates and intuitions. The more I study it, the more pessimistic I become and the more I realize that mere trips into the wilderness cloud my judgments because of cognitive biases such as survivorship bias and status quo bias.
About the painful death dilemma: you prefer the extra week, I prefer the painless death, and to respect autonomy, we agree that neither of us can impose our own value judgments or preferences on others. The problem is that wild animals cannot clearly communicate their preferences. We don’t even know if they have a preference for one above the other after all. What we do know is that, of those individuals who can express their preferences (i.e. people with whom we can talk), most of them say that they are willing to trade a painful death for some amount of happy hours or days. So we can expect that non-talking individuals might also have such preferences. And if those individuals have very short lives followed by painful deaths, it becomes risky: perhaps they are willing to trade their whole short lives away to avoid the painful death.
But my major worry is that you seem to violate that kind of autonomy of animals as well, many times, e.g. in your response to Jose. You value freedom above all else, so all animals do so as well? You are willing to take the risks in the wild, so all animals are willing to do so as well? You said you much rather die from a bear attack instead of being only in a forest without bears. Why would you say this, except for stating your own preferences? It seems that you argue that wild animals also have that preference of rather being attacked by a predator than living in a forest without predators? It is like you value predation, next to autonomy, but are the wild prey animals also valuing predation like you do? You said you came to accept a painful death and you would never trade any amount of decent life for it. That is again your own preference. And you knew that at least one other individual, namely me, has another judgment: I would trade a happy week to avoid a painful death. So what are you trying to say? That animals are just like you not willing to trade any amount of decent life to it? You refer to your own mountain climbing experience to argue that a violent death by a predator is not painful to the prey animal. To respect autonomy, it is up to the victim to decide whether or not it is painful. Your experience with a smashed shoulder doesn’t matter, because I might have another experience that was painful, and who are you to say that your experience is better or more accurate than mine? Are you saying that when we see animals in nature with smashed shoulders, their suffering is not so bad because they are as tough as you? Finally, you mentioned your experience of suffering when sitting in a close confinement and derive from this that that farmed animals experience suffering as well. But now perhaps you are oversensitive? I know a livestock farmer who clearly said that his animals do not suffer because he does not suffer when cramped together with many people on a long intercontinental flight where you cannot escape or even stretch your legs. What if this farmer says that you should respect the autonomy of farm animals by not imposing your own judgments or preferences on them, by not deciding for them what they would or should prefer, that your suffering in confinement says nothing about farm animals suffering? All in all, you seem to have given lots of examples where you violate the autonomy of others by merely referring to your own experiences and deriving from them what others would prefer.
About prey animals being ahead of predators: that may be a meaningless statement, because if the survival of prey means they are ahead, then also the predators are ahead because they are also the ones who survive. The predators didn’t die out immediately. But they cannot both be ahead of the other at the same time. Instead of looking at populations, I prefer to look at individuals, because that is where the preferences and autonomies are (populations themselves do not have autonomy or preferences). Now we see that one predator kills many prey, so the predator was one step ahead of all those prey. Those prey could not even escape one single predator.
About there being no confinement by predators: what about this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1083794/Pictured-The-astonishing-moment-python-tries-swallow-wallaby.html ? How far can this wallaby walk? How far can a pig on a farm walk? Then who is more confined? And both confinements are intentional, but that doesn’t matter. The point is: that wallaby is not free, and our moral obligation is first and foremost to make sure that animals are free. Similarly, animals suffering from diseases, parasites, hunger… are not fully free either, just as humans are not fully free when they are starving or ill in bed, because those individuals cannot do what they want.
About your risks of climbing unsafe rocks. You say that risk doesn’t maximize your happiness. Then why are you doing it? For me, I like facing some risks like rock climbing, because it makes me happy, I enjoy it. Anyway, we have to make a distinction between wanted and unwanted risks. We agree that the wanted risks should not be eradicated, but what about the unwanted risks? What if an individual faces an unwanted risk, meaning that that individual does not want that risk? I have unwanted risks, so I know unwanted risks can exist, probably also for other individuals. The fact that you want a risk does not mean that someone else also want to face that same risk. For that other individual, it can be an unwanted risk.
Also be careful not to make a status quo bias. Animals in nature face some risks, that is true. Now the question is: does this level of risk maximize the aggregate well-being, autonomy, preference satisfaction, happiness or whatever is valued by the wild animals? You believe that decreasing the risks for animals in nature is bad, as it decreases autonomy? Then do the reversal test: what about increasing the risks? Shall we make nature more dangerous to the animals, harming and killing more animals? That also decreases autonomy? Then the current state of nature has a risk level that exactly maximizes autonomy? That is very unlikely. Compare it with: If you want to go rock climbing to the top of a mountain, and you arbitrarily pick a point on your map as your destination, chances are small that you picked a mountain top. Nature never intended to set a risk level for the animals so that autonomy of the animals is maximized. It would be pure luck if the current state of nature has a risk level that maximizes autonomy. So this is a status quo bias, which is irrational. But perhaps all animals have this same irrational status quo bias as you? What about respecting autonomy of individuals who have irrational beliefs or preferences? When you think about it, you cannot violate the autonomy of an individual who has irrational preferences and you pursue a consistent set of his strongest preferences.
Dear Stijn Bruers,
You wrote a lot of amazing statements in your answer.
I was astonished to read first that you agree with Martin Balluch in some essential points, but in truth you used the beginning of your answer to force the other one to agree with your position. So already the beginning of your long answer shows that obviously there is no demand for agreement but rather a struggle of opinions.
If you decide to solve the problem of the truth of nature by calculating, then you have to calculate a l l suffering creatures, not just two species.
You attack several experiences of Mr. Balluch – but it is one of the main purposes of a blog to tell of personal experiences, isn’t it? If a blog has a lot of readers, they decide to think on this experiences by themselves. If there are a plenty of unsuitable experiences, they stop reading.
Despite your own hints to be careful with examples, you use strange examples on yourself: Why should be a dead or almost dead wallaby on the end of its life be compared to farmed, alive animals? The most of us will probably not run a marathon before we die.
A lifestock farmer should be asked for his opinion on farmed animals, he of all the people? Of course I would prefer to ask a prisoner, sorry. If we had not been able to learn from different, but decisive experiences, there would be no culture at all.
To believe on Hobbes, no one can be forced.
To call a person who experienced confinement as the worst time in life maybe oversensitive seems to be less sensitive. To be sensitive, one may improve.
First and foremost, I need to state that I am not at all utilitarian, ie I do not think it is my moral duty and neither anyone’s moral obligation to maximise happyness and minimise suffering in this world. In contrast, I believe that to be very amoral. I argued that case elsewhere, in fact my book “The dog and his philosopher” has been translated to english and will be available at the time of our conference, which has my arguments spilled out.
I think that the primary moral value is autonomy. And autonomy is not at all the same as maximum happyness, often far from it. Every being should be able to choose ways of life that risk more suffering for them. I, for example, just spent weeks in a wilderness, where there are bears and other wild animals, who could potentially kill me. I had no weapon with me, I took the risk. I deliberately go there, instead of to other areas without such potentially dangerous animals. And I tell you without hesitation: I MUCH RATHER die from a bear attack and have spent a day or a week or a month in that wilderness, instead of being only in forests without such animals, where I am not killed. Equally, I climb rock faces or ice falls, and I say without hesitation that I much rather die doing that than not doing it at all or climbing elsewhere “safe”. That is my deliberate choice and it does not maximise happyness. I expect that choice to be respected by others. I would consider it highly immoral if they maximised my happyness by stopping me risking my life.
More to the point of your article, which is very long, but pointing out one striking feature, I very strongly disagree with your conjecture that a painful violent death is balancing out 3 years of happy life. I almost can’t believe that anyone would seriously consider that. Most of us will experience a painful death. This seems almost unavoidable. I have seen it often. Also recently. I have come to accept it. I would never trade any amount of decent life for it. Never.
You seem to be thinking that a violent death by a predator is very painful. It is not. I know that, because I had a number of very serious mountain accidents. Once, for example, I was hit by a rock while I was climbing a rock face. My shoulder smashed to bits. Nevertheless, it took a long time before it started hurting. If I had not been hit by a rock but by an attacking bear, I would have been long dead before any pain would have set in.
Any experience by any wild animal pales in comparison to the lifelong misery experienced by farmed animals. And that is because evolution did not prepare us animals for being in close confinement. I have experienced it, sitting in a little cell. The suffering does not stop. On the other hand, evolution has prepared us for escaping predators and for hunger, for example. I refused to eat for 39 days and I can tell you that this suffering is nothing compared to the suffering in close confinement. I know now that dying of hunger is by far not as bad as being in close confinement.
Be careful not to make a fallacy: the survivorship bias. Most of the animals we see in wild nature are healthy, because the very unhealthy animals are not visible: they are hidden or killed, eaten, decomposed. One bird lays many eggs. So for every singing bird that we see, there are more than 10 birds we did not see. What happened to them? They had short lives. Most animals have a r-selection reproductive strategy, which means most animal lives are very short (i.e. shorter than their life expectancies). If a life is much shorter than the life expectancy, we can expect that that short life contains proportionally a lot of misery (hunger, parasites,…), because if it had no misery, it becomes more difficult to explain why that animal died so early. And then there is the suffering of dying. If I have to choose between a painless death today or living another week in full happiness but ending with a painful death (like being attacked and eaten alive by a predator or a parasite), I prefer death today, which means the painful death counts as the loss of a fully happy week. It is possible that for birds, a painful death also counts relatively heavy and is the equivalent of a long time of suffering.
About the claim that humans conclude that they would suffer if they have to experience fear, wetness,…: the behavior of wild animals indicate that the animals don’t like these experiences either. And livestock farmers could also say something like: “vegans imagine themselves as animals on the farm and think that they would suffer, so they erroneously conclude that the livestock animals suffer as well.”
About the evolutionary explanation for happiness: as mentioned above, most animals have very short lives. So short in fact, that they are not able to procreate themselves. So there is no evolutionary pressure for those animals to be happy. All those animals that die at an early age have no better immune system when they are dead, are not active and inquisitive when they are dead, can’t procreate and are not healthy. So for them, happiness has no instrumental or fitness value. All animals strive to change conditions when they are miserable. But apparently it didn’t work that well, as more than 90% of them died.
About the arms race between predator and prey: if the prey are always one step ahead, predators would not survive. In reality, predators are about 100 steps ahead, because 1 predator eats 100 prey animals. It’s as if a predator is 100 times better at surviving.
There is no ecological balance between predator and prey. There may be short term equilibriums, but those equilibriums are not maximizing happiness. Evolutionary and ecological processes are not directed at increasing aggregate well-being of all animals involved. We should not make a status quo bias. This bias can be tested with a reversal test: if you believe that decreasing the level of predation is bad for animal well-being, what about the reversal process: increasing it (by introducing extra predators)? Would that be bad as well? If you say yes, then you believe the current state happens to be the one that maximizes well-being, but there is no reason for this.
We agree that keeping animals in closed confinement causes suffering and violates their autonomy (otherwise farmed animals would not have miserable lives and confined animals would not try to escape). But in nature there is also confinement, especially by predators: prey animals are confined in the claws or jaws of predators. This is confinement and a violation of autonomy, because the prey want to escape as well. We agree that autonomy is very important, but this seems to contradict the statement that one predator is allowed to violate the autonomy of 100 animals. If a predator is allowed to hunt prey, there must be a value that is 100 times more important than the value of autonomy of animals. What value can this be? And is this a value that only you think is important, or is this value shared by the animals, including the prey? If the victims (the prey animals) do not share this overtrumping value, you are imposing your values onto them. That seems arrogant, not really altruistic. Would you like having imposed such values onto you, resulting in your death? If not, then you violate the golden rule.
And this one: