“…the monkey may be a better tree climber than a human being. If we humans value mathematics more than tree climbing, that is because our conception of civilized life makes the development of mathematical ability more desirable than the ability to climb trees. But is it not unreasonable to judge nonhumans by the values of human civilization, rather than by the values connected with what it is for a member of that species to live a good life?”
~ Paul Taylor, The Ethics of Respect for Nature
That question formed the thesis of a college paper I wrote many years ago: “Is it not unreasonable to judge nonhumans by the values of human civilization?”
There was scholarship on this subject at the time, including the first books I ever read on animal rights by Peter Singer and Tom Regan. When I was in my early 20s, I checked out two books from the library, Singer’s Animal Liberation and Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights. Literally the next day, after slamming shut the back covers, I became a vegetarian. I was horrified by the information I read, but also felt betrayed and ashamed that I hadn’t understood the scope of animal suffering and exploitation up until that point.
Later, I was exposed to works in ecofeminism and the intersecting ideas between women’s rights and animal rights. Among the authors I discovered were Andree Collard (Rape of the Wild) and Carol J. Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat), both of whom wrote persuasively on the links between systemic oppression of women and nonhuman animals — the “cycle of objectification and fragmentation” which led to “entitlement and abuse.” [Adams]
“We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
“My interest arose out of the pain and empathy I experienced upon learning of the harrowing treatment of other–than–human animals throughout modern society.”
“Dissatisfied with the moral philosophies of the animal advocacy movement, I turned to the holist theories in the field of nature ethics in the hope of encountering more inclusive ideas. Once again, I encountered a tendency to neglect the role of empathy and care for individual beings. Individual animals appear to be swallowed up or ‘sacrificed’ for the larger ‘whole.'”
“I was beginning to suspect that the neglect of other–than–humans was not an incidental aspect of the Western nature philosophies, but rather central to it.”
In human policy decisions, consider the repercussions when we lose sight of the individual: people become collateral damage to objectified ends. I would argue that absent concern for the individual in wildlife management, wild animals become collateral damage in the same way.
This is a perspective that sometimes puts me at odds with others, even those who share almost all of my other wildlife ethics. It’s not always popular to challenge normalized practices such as recreational hunting and population management. In the abstract and on paper, many of these methods fit in with our current model and can seem reasonable. But when viewed from an individual perspective — i.e. how those practices affect the animals themselves, their mates, their families and their social systems — a much murkier picture emerges of what is “right” or just.
To argue that morality and individuality have no place in wildlife policy is to ignore centuries of morality’s critical role in almost every human revolution of thought. It also flies in the face of current laws for companion animals which do assign value to individual suffering and quality of life.
Our current conservation structure is critical for making sense of our biological world, especially in an age when the most fundamental concepts are threatened by ignorance and information suppression. But from my perspective, unless it begins to incorporate these critical advancements in understanding, it is incomplete.
The obvious conundrum, beyond the philosophical, is one of quantifying. What measures do we use to revise this understanding? It’s a broad question getting some deserved attention of late, and way too broad for this short discussion. But, a rudimentary framework might look like this, which is set of guiding principles from the Compassionate Conservation movement:
RECOGNISING that wild animals, whether free-ranging or in captivity, may be affected by the intentional or unintentional actions of humans as well as the natural processes within ecosystems and the wider environment;
RECOGNISING that both conservation and wild animal welfare should implicitly respect the inherent value of wild animals and the natural world, and that both disciplines should try to mitigate harms caused by humans to other species;
BELIEVING that all harms to wild animals should be minimised wherever and to the extent possible, regardless of the human intention and purpose behind them;
PROPOSING that the principles and actions that underpin Compassionate Conservation, by combining consideration of animal welfare and conservation, will lead to a reduction in harm and in the suffering of individual wild animals, and will improve conservation outcomes.
I’ll wrap this up with a quote from Jonathan Balcombe, from the same Fresh Air interview cited above:
“Sentience is like pregnancy. You’re either pregnant or you’re not; you’re either sentient or you’re not. And if an animal is sentient, which means some kind of conscious awareness, but particularly the capacity to feel pain and, I would say, by extension, to feel pleasure, then, to me, that means that animal has moral traction, or it should have moral traction — that the animal is deserving of consideration of others. Because that animal can have a good day and a bad day and can have good or bad things happen to them. And that, as I say, is the bedrock of ethics.”