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The Pain of Wild Animals Is Always Bad (Part I)

By Dustin Crummett
11 Apr 2022
photograph of red deer on prairie

In a recent piece, I argued that we should intervene in nature to alleviate the suffering of wild animals, when we can do so effectively. For instance, we might eliminate ecologically unnecessary parasites, like the New World screwworm, which cause immense suffering to vast numbers of wild animals. Or we might distribute oral vaccines against various diseases through bait. Or we might take other, even more drastic steps as technology allows.

My argument for this was simple. It is bad when animals suffer. For instance, it is bad if some stray dog suffers from cold, hunger, and disease, and then dies prematurely. And it is good, all else equal, when we prevent the suffering of animals, and allow them to flourish instead: for instance, if some human cares for the stray dog and allows it to have a nice life instead, that would be good. Wild animals are animals, and their suffering is bad, just like the dog’s. In fact, there are very many wild animals capable of suffering–trillions or quadrillions or quintillions of them, depending on exactly which animals are conscious–and they suffer a lot, so their suffering is very bad. So helping them is extremely important.

Parker Haratine has responded. First, Haratine questions whether we really have an obligation to alleviate wild animal suffering, even when it is bad. Second, he questions whether all wild animal suffering is bad. His view is that because of the questions he raises, “it is not clear that human beings ought to intervene on behalf of wild animals.” I think this is wrong: I think it is clear that human beings ought to intervene on behalf of wild animals (when this can be done effectively). In this piece I will address Haratine’s first question, and in a subsequent piece I’ll address his second question.

Do we have an obligation to alleviate wild animal suffering, when it is bad? Haratine says he has “not yet seen a good reason to believe it.” But here is a reason. Suppose an earthquake is going to release a poisonous gas into an area that is inhabited by no humans or domestic animals, but by millions of wild animals. These wild animals are not endangered, or anything like that–in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter to the ecosystem what happens to them–but still, there are millions of them. Breathing in the gas causes immense suffering: for many days, it feels like one is being skinned alive all over one’s body simultaneously. Further, this experience is maddeningly traumatic, so that any animals who survive it will experience horrific psychological anguish for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, the company you own knows how to manufacture a neutralizing gas that will render the subterranean gas harmless, sparing all the animals this terrible fate with no ill effects. However, the materials for the gas cost $45. Further, you will have to drive into work on Saturday and spend 30 minutes mixing the ingredients to get the gas ready on time. Are you morally obligated to spend $45 and 30 minutes to spare millions of animals this anguish? Or would it instead be perfectly alright to just stay home and do nothing?

I think it is obvious that you must save the animals. In fact, this is about as clear to me as anything in ethics. So you have an obligation to prevent wild animal suffering, even when this costs you something. Admittedly, this is what philosophers call a pro tanto obligation: in principle, it could be overridden by other factors. For instance, if the chemicals were needed for something else that would prevent even more suffering, you should use them on that instead. But since there is so much wild animal suffering, the reason to address it is very strong, any overriding factors would need to be correspondingly strong.

Here is another reason. Consider this ethical principle:

If something will be extremely bad for someone, you should prevent it, unless there is some sufficiently strong reason not to.

This principle again seems clearly right to me. Furthermore, it seems to me that the best versions of the leading ethical theories will all agree that this principle is true. Further still, the principle seems to accord with our judgments about what we should do in various situations. (Try thinking of situations where you can prevent bad things from happening, and you’ll find that the principle gives the right results.) Finally, this principle entails that we have an obligation to alleviate wild animal suffering (at least when the suffering is bad for the individual–again, I’m talking about that in the next post).

Again, this principle only states a pro tanto obligation: it acknowledges the possibility of contrary reasons which could defeat the obligation. If, say, helping someone avoid suffering required an extremely great sacrifice on your part, that might be a sufficiently strong reason not to do it. But, again, because there is so much wild animal suffering, any contrary reason would need to be extremely strong.

Haratine suggests that “if all pain is intrinsically bad, and human beings ought to prevent all pain, we experience a moral overload. This is unrealistic, too onerous.” But the point that I am defending a pro tanto obligation addresses this. Our abilities and resources are limited, and we do rightly care about things besides just wild animal suffering. So perhaps there are cases where the reasons not to intervene outweigh the reason to intervene. We should not, say, invest a billion dollars into preventing a single lizard from being uncomfortably cool for fifteen minutes. This does not show that we are not obligated to intervene when the costs are manageable and the benefits very great.

Haratine also suggests that my view “would require us to intervene in all instances of pain, without discrimination regarding the kinds of pain and the degree of pain. Are we really to consider cases of an animal with a thorn in its side as serious as the case of an animal with a New World screwworm?” But this is not an implication of my view. The pain caused by the screwworm is much more serious, because there is much more pain. So if you can only prevent the screwworm pain or the thorn pain, you should prevent the screwworm pain. Further, preventing thorn pain is often not worth the cost. Still, if you can prevent thorn pain at no or minimal cost to yourself, you should do it. (Perhaps, say, you see a deer about to run into a thornbush, and you can yell out, spooking it and causing it to change course.) And that is the intuitively correct result. Far from being a counterexample, this case supports my view.

So Haratine fails to undermine the obligation to alleviate wild animal suffering. In my next post, I’ll defend the claim that all wild animal suffering is bad.

Dustin is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He received a PhD from the University of Notre Dame in 2018, and specializes in social and political philosophy, ethics, and the intersection of these two fields and philosophy of religion.
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