The Relevance of Wild Animal Suffering
This collection of articles was first published on the website of Sentience Politics.
Society has become increasingly aware of the suffering of animals due to human beings. Many will be familiar with the shocking realities of factory farming, or will have seen horrific images of animal testing, neglected and abused pets, the systematic murder of animals in slaughter-houses. Humans are responsible for a large portion of animal suffering, and there is much to be done in terms of eradicating this great source of injustice. What is less well known about, but perhaps even more morally relevant, is suffering caused to animals by other animals, or by Nature itself.
Wild animals undergo torture. It is commonplace for creatures to be eaten alive by predators. Intense competition for resources means that starvation, one of the most agonising ways to die, is the norm for many species. Illnesses ravage their victims, injuries are left to fester; only a fortunate minority of any member of a species is able to lead the full, enjoyable life we typically imagine of animals in the natural world. The gruesome existence of wild animals needs to be acknowledged.
Why wild animal suffering matters
We ought to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. If we were being eaten alive or starving to death, we would certainly want others to help us. Therefore, we ought to try to help wild animals.
Consider: does it matter whether equally intense suffering occurs in nature or on a factory farm? Applied to ourselves, the answer to this question is obvious: location makes no difference. So, taking an impartial perspective, we should ignore the factor of location when measuring suffering. As sentient beings, wild animals deserve just as much moral consideration as non-wild animals.
In practice, there is much more concern about human-caused animal suffering. However, from the perspective of the affected individual, it is irrelevant whether their pain is caused by a human, another animal, or Nature. Taking an impartial view leads us to conclude that there is no intrinsic difference between suffering caused by humans or the natural world.
We should strive to reduce suffering wherever it is found. Since nature contains a lot of severe suffering, we should try to help wild animals by finding positive, scientifically-grounded interventions aimed at improving their lives. A valuable first step towards this, is establishing wild animal suffering as morally relevant, providing strong motivation and resilience in the face of likely practical difficulties.
The following talk by Adriano Mannino and Ruairí Donnelly includes current strategies for helping wild animals, as well as a more detailed summary of why wild animal suffering is relevant. The talk concludes with a comprehensive discussion of possible objections.
If we accept that we should help wild animals, then the next question is: How important is wild animal suffering compared to other cause areas? Effective altruists prioritise cause areas based on scope, neglectedness and tractability. For example, farm animal advocacy is a top priority because a large number of individuals are affected, because the issue is highly neglected, and because we can do something about it. How does wild animal suffering perform on these criteria?
The scope and neglectedness of wild animal suffering
To determine how concerned we should be about wild animal suffering, we must find out how many individuals are affected. Calculating the exact number of wild animals on earth is difficult, but estimates suggest that it is several orders of magnitude higher than humans and farm animals combined. For every human on earth, there are thousands, perhaps even millions of wild animals, many of whom suffer in horrible ways. It’s plausible, therefore, that the scope of wild animal suffering far exceeds other causes of animal suffering, such as factory farms and slaughterhouses.
Considering its enormous scope, wild animal suffering is extremely neglected. The animal rights movement focuses almost exclusively on human-caused animal suffering; the number of individuals focused on wild animal suffering is currently negligible. The scope and the neglectedness of the problem suggest that we should prioritise wild animal suffering and invest far more resources into finding solutions.
The tractability of wild animal suffering
There have been no serious attempts to reduce wild animal suffering, so we cannot accurately judge this cause’s tractability yet. At first glance, wild animal suffering appears to have low tractability. It is simply quite difficult to conceive of a solution, or many solutions, to the various problems posed by the natural world. However, it is conceivable that effective interventions may be identified in the future, if greater focus is given to the cause. Future generations, aided by a better knowledge of ecosystems and more advanced technology, will be better placed to tackle this issue, so it is imperative that we lay the foundations for this cause now.
Our limited understanding of ecosystems should discourage human intervention for the time being. Instead, we should conduct a research project of “welfare biology”, with the aim of answering open research questions and identifying possible interventions. After a long phase of small-scale trials, we might ultimately implement a large-scale intervention. In addition to research, we should spread concern for wild animal suffering amongst interested groups to increase the probability that future technologies will be used to benefit wild animals.
Some critics argue that an intervention in Nature can only make things worse, as our track record shows. This refers, however, to intervention for egoistic reasons; there is no bad track record for altruistic intervention. A careful, gradual, scientifically-grounded procedure is more likely to reduce rather than increase wild animal suffering. Even if an intervention involves significant risks, they have to be balanced against the certain catastrophe of doing nothing. When evaluating the merits of an intervention, it is crucial that we do not let omission bias and status-quo bias distort our assessment of the situation.
Due to its enormous scope and neglectedness, wild animal suffering should be considered a top priority for effective altruists.
We usually overlook the fact that the overwhelming majority of sentient beings on earth are wild animals. If we are serious about including all sentient beings in our circle of compassion, then we cannot ignore their billion-fold suffering.
- Horta, O. (2010). Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes: Population dynamics and suffering in the wild. Télos.
- McMahan, J. (2010). The meat eaters. New York Times.
- Ng, Y. (1995). Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal conciousness and suffering. Biology and Philosophy.
- Pearce, D. (2012). A welfare state for elephants? A case of compassionate stewardship. BLTC Research.
- Tomasik, B. (2009). The importance of wild animal suffering. Foundational Research Institute.