Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wild Animal Suffering

Remember the last time you went into the Great Outdoors? Perhaps you went on a hike in a beautiful, serene meadow, or camped by a harmonic creek, or fished on the side of a magnificent lake. It sure was a nice experience. At the very least the nature shows and outdoor advertisements make it seem this way. Rousseau is present in many of these depictions.

Unfortunately, this picture of an uncorrupted, perfect environment is naive and wrong. The cute chirps you hear from birds in a forest are the sound of thousands of organisms desperate to get laid or hungry for food. Unbeknownst to you, your tent near the creek is also near the carcass of a dead squirrel infested with maggots. The fish you pulled from the water, regardless of whether you keep them, likely felt pain when hooked and likely felt immense fear as they struggled against the line in a futile attempt for escape.

Many people yearn to escape the noise and pollution of the "corrupted" modern world and get back to nature. In an almost pantheistic sense, these people see nature as something beautiful, good, spiritual.

But there is nothing beautiful, good, or spiritual about the savage gladiator arena of the natural world. There's a reason so much footage for nature shows are left on the cutting room floor. The pain of the prey outweighs the pleasure of the predator. Much of nature is brutal, inefficient, pointless and disgusting. In the words of Ligotti, it's malignantly useless.

Wild animal suffering in all likelihood outweighs the suffering of domesticated animals and even humans (another somewhat domesticated animal). Every single day, millions of animals are subjected to fear and pain as the environment and predators threaten their existences. You literally cannot look out the window on a sunny, cheerful day without looking at a state of affairs in which something is suffering, decaying, or dying.

Due to this extreme amount of suffering in the wild, do humans have any obligation to reduce or eliminate such suffering? Surely we have a duty to not bring harm upon animals, such as our domesticated pets or farm animals. But should we care what happens in the Wild? Or are we just too removed to be able to do anything about it?

One obvious answer is to oppose environmentalism for the sake of environmentalism. It only maintains the suffering.

In addition, are we able to access any sort of aesthetic appreciation of nature without ignoring or compartmentalizing away the horrible events that transpire every day?


  1. Yeah, even if the pleasure of the predator outweighed the severe suffering of the prey by orders of magnitude, I'd still advocate wildlife interventionism. If I'm not willing to sign myself up for being eaten alive so as to enable some supermajority to go from a neutral state to an above-neutral state, I can't justify it happening to any other highly sentient organism.


    Make that billions of animals. Worse yet, there's reason to speculate that the figure is actually in the trillions, if the sentience of insects is to count for something.

    To your final question, I do think it's easy to compartmentalize welfarist concerns with the aesthetics in nature, just as any anti-theist can enjoy the sights of a prominent monastery without feeling challenged to intellectually duke it out with the monks inside.

    I view this question much in the way I view Gallows Humor and dark comedy in general. I'm able to laugh at just about anything, when the joke is quality and when it receives the benefits of flawless delivery. The joke-teller could be mocking my most cherished values, but I'll still find myself chuckling if it's done right. Ditto with aesthetics appreciation.

    The important thing, for me, is to stonewall the moral prioritization of aesthetics or humor above welfarism.

  2. "Yeah, even if the pleasure of the predator outweighed the severe suffering of the prey by orders of magnitude, I'd still advocate wildlife interventionism. If I'm not willing to sign myself up for being eaten alive so as to enable some supermajority to go from a neutral state to an above-neutral state, I can't justify it happening to any other highly sentient organism."

    Okay, so this is a very important idea that I've been tinkering with for a bit, and it's related to antinatalism and perhaps to the asymmetry and why I don't really agree with it.

    Basically, any act that instrumentalizes a person is wrong. That is to say, if the person being used for a greater purpose does not agree to be used in this way and/or does not participate in the final outcome, then this is wrong. As Zapffe said, there's no justification in using other human beings as a stepping stone for a utopian liberal dream world that they never get to participate in.

    So in the case of the predator-prey issue, the prey is being instrumentalized for the predator's pleasure. We CANNOT say that the pleasure of the predator outweighs the pain of the prey and say this is moral (even if the pleasure>pain). For the prey doesn't get any share of this pleasure. It's unfair.

    1. I should clarify, because there's two ways of interpreting my first comment. What I meant; the combined benefits of abiogenesis on earth do not ethically justify the combined (or isolated) serious harms stemming from abiogenesis on earth. For this reason, a retrospective look at abiogenesis fallout invites negative judgments. This holds even if someone managed to prove that the combined pleasures stemming from abiogenesis fallout vastly cancel out the combined pains on a purely sensorial/hedonic level. Not saying they do, but even if they did, abiogenesis and its consequences still wouldn't be a value bargain.

      Now, I think there's no inconsistency in believing this, but also recognizing that abiogenesis cannot be undone, and prescribing predation on a case-by-case basis, particularly in cases where the predator would go on to endure a terribly prolonged famine and death had all its prey been removed, but where the counterfactual killing of the prey at the claws of the predator would've been relatively swift and far less brutal compared to the famine.

      Since the natural order is irreversibly imperfect, suffering reducers are cornered into recognizing that some ugly trade-offs can be justified, namely those reducing serious harms like lengthy famine at the cost of less serious ones, like the premature death of the prey.

    2. I think I can agree with that. The only choices we have here are bad and worse.

      Of course, we could just nuke the whole world. It's a difficult thing to come to terms with: are your personal pleasures holding back the relief of others?

      Surely we would be opposed to building infrastructure that harms other people or animals. We're already doing it in the form of pollution.

      But we do have the means to eliminate all future suffering. We've had the means since the advent of the Cold War, and likely before that. So the pessimists of the past had the luxury of pointing out the tragedy of the world without having the means to do anything about it, which did make it tragic in its own way. But today we can recognize the same truth but now, instead of merely being an observer, we could get involved.

      Regardless of this, I at least feel a peculiar sense that nuking the entire world would be wrong, despite all the suffering that goes on. So I'm in this weird valley in which I wish abiogenesis had never occurred, but I don't wish life to end now that it has started.

      Now I wouldn't be against the transition into non-existence by a ceasing of reproduction. I might be able to get behind the sterilization of life forms. But I also think that it's too much to ask of me or anyone else to put the benefit of the whole before the benefit of myself, i.e. nuking the planet, killing everyone including myself.

      One thought that I've been tinkering with is that preferences are more important than pain or pleasure. So blowing up the planet would indeed reduce suffering - but at the expense of practically every single sentient organism's preference to continue to live. Now we may argue that these sentient organisms don't exist anymore to be angered about their preferences being frustrated, but then again neither can they recognize that there's no more suffering. Hence why I believe that if we ignore the breach of preferences and destroy the world, we wouldn't be doing it out of compassion for the organisms but out of an aesthetic disgust with the state of affairs. I've made a post on this already and am about to make another to expand on this idea.

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  3. Thanks for the post. :)

    > if the person being used for a greater purpose does not agree to be used in this way and/or does not participate in the final outcome, then this is wrong.

    I disagree with this kind of approach because it's extremely conservative in the sense of preserving the status quo. It's similar to the problem in welfare economics of only accepting Pareto improvements but not being able to change initial endowments, which leads to a situation where you can't force billionaires to give food to starving people because doing so isn't Pareto-improving (if the billionaires are selfish). Perhaps your principle would prohibit having children (since the children can't consent to being born), but it wouldn't allow you to prohibit other people from having children, in which case those who disobey your principle will inherit the Earth.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brian. I was mostly focused on using people to achieve ends that aren't related to reducing net suffering below a certain threshold. For example, if killing a raving murderer stops him from killing ten other people, we should kill the murderer even if the murderer doesn't want to die. But if we just decided to kill someone so ten people could get some ice cream, we're obviously doing something wrong.

      We can apply this same principle to birth in the sense that many, many generations are being used as stepping-stones for an implausible future utopia that they don't get to participate in. If this utopia is achieved, all the better for those who get to enjoy it. But this enjoyment does not justify the plight of those who came before, i.e. it would not be right to "restart" everything and do it all again.

      So I take the opposite view of Nietzsche: for Nietzsche, a single joyous experience justifies the entire cosmos. For me, a single pathetic suffering negates the entire cosmos, in the sense that it would be wrong to do it all over again.

    2. Cool. :) It seems like NU would imply your modified anti-instrumentalization point. Is your anti-instrumentalism an intuition pump to motivate NU or its own moral viewpoint? (And if the latter, does it differ from NU?)

    3. Yes, I would say this anti-instrumentalism idea is an intuition pump of sorts. I'm not sure if it leads directly to NU, as we can still see pleasure as genuinely valuable and not worthless. However, I think that it's sort of weird to imagine someone giving someone else pleasure out of concern for their "lack of pleasure". Those who are not suffering can take care of themselves. If they're not suffering gratuitously, I don't think it's any of our responsibility to get involved in their lives and give them more pleasure.

      A better intuition pump, I think, comes from Julio Cabrera. He writes that we wouldn't find anything wrong with a spy spilling the beans while being tortured, but we would find something wrong with him doing so in order to get a mansion, or a billion dollars, or whatever. Both pain and pleasure seem to morally disqualify us, but only the unrestricted pursuit of pleasure can be seen as morally blameworthy.

      In that sense, I guess I subscribe to an "analgesic" utilitarianism of sorts, rather than a second-tier "gratification" utilitarianism.