Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Oscar Horta, a Professor of Philosophy who is currently working at Rutgers University has written an interesting and thought provoking article about how speciesism impacts our thinking and actions towards free-living animals. Here is the introduction, followed by a link to the entire piece.

Disvalue in nature and intervention

The fox, the rabbit and the vegan food rations

Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose there is a rabbit and a fox that is about to capture and eat her. We are witnessing this, and we have two rations of vegan food. We consider what to do. Among the different ways in which we could act there are the following three ones:

(1) We eat one of the rations of vegan food and see how the fox catches and eats the rabbit.

(2) We give the fox one ration of our vegan food and we kill and eat the rabbit ourselves.

(3) We give the fox one ration of our vegan food, we eat the other one and the rabbit runs free to live her life.

Please read the whole thing here.

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Comment by Tim Gier on January 4, 2011 at 11:26
The hypothetical could have been written such that the antelope was killed by a falling rock or some other purely natural disaster without changing it's instructive value.
Comment by red dog on January 4, 2011 at 11:19
But it would have been even better not to trespass in the antelope's home and run her over in the first place. That's an important point I forgot to mention.
Comment by Tim Gier on January 4, 2011 at 11:12
Thank you red dog,

By considering the hypothetical (however unlikely) we can hope to devise a general principle which we can use to guide us as we act in the world as it really is. As you noted in an earlier comment, we cannot eliminate all harm done to all others in the world, neither can we alleviate all suffering. But we can employ a general principle which says, basically, that even though the world is imperfect, and even though we are imperfect too, we can strive to be better than we were, and better than we'd be with no principles to guide us.

At the risk of boring you all, I will repost one such general principle here, which I believe we can all agree on:

It is better for there to be less suffering in the world, rather than more. We, as moral agents, ought not to cause suffering when it can be avoided, and we should avoid it at almost all costs. To live a truly morally good life, we ought to relieve the suffering of others when we can do so at minimal costs to ourselves, when doing so does not create an equal or greater rights violation against others.

We may not ever be able to save the antelopes from the lions without causing someone harm. But if we could, it would be better if we did. Therefore, we ought to at least think about the possibility, hopeful that one day we might.
Comment by red dog on January 4, 2011 at 10:46
I'd have to say yes to Tim's question--yes, I'll throw the dead antelope to the hungry lion in the very unlikely event that I'm ever in that situation.  
Comment by Tim Gier on January 4, 2011 at 9:59
Consider this: There is a hungry lion. There is a lone young antelope within range. The lion sees the young antelope and is ready, willing and able to attack and kill her. The young antelope is too small and too slow to be able to escape. It just so happens that you are in your Land Rover, and you have the body of a dead antelope who you only moments ago killed in a tragic freak accident. It also also the case that you can throw this dead antelope to the hungry lion, feeding the lion, saving the young antelope and harming no-one in the process. Would you do it, or would you do nothing and let the lion kill the young antelope?
Comment by Sam Hillyer on January 4, 2011 at 9:17

I agree  with the points you made red dog, and I am sorry that people tried to bring you down just because you don't have a perfect answer. Who ever is going to?

 

Nick, I'm not saying you are right or wrong, but if you believe humans should not intervene with nature then in a scenario where you witness a human baby in the woods under threat from a wolf about to eat her, as mentioned, would you not intervene as best as you could? The wolf has found this baby as nature intended, and this baby by some unfortunate circumstance has been separated from her mother or orphaned, as nature intended, does this mean you let what is about to happen unfold?

Comment by red dog on January 3, 2011 at 15:11

On the question of interfering in nature: I think it can be justified in certain situations, but that we should try as hard as possible to minimize the effects of our presence on other beings (especially animals in nature). If you bring a child into the world, or adopt a child, or adopt a dog or cat from an animal shelter, or set up a wildlife rehabilitation centre or farm sanctuary, you've taken on an enormous responsibility to the beings under your care. You have an obligation to deter predators, either by putting up a fence or keeping the dog, cat or human child under close supervision. You also have an obligation to harm the predators as little as possible and to do your best to prevent conflicts before they happen. Putting food out for wild animals may be the "right" answer in a thought exercise, but in real life it could very well attract them to the area and create conflicts that otherwise could have been avoided.

 

I also can't say it's right to walk past a drowning wild animal and not help, even if the situation has nothing to do with humans. If you're certain a wild animal is sick or injured or orphaned, it would be very uncompassionate not to help, and I think there should be vets and wildlife rehabilitators to deal with these situations. On the other hand, I wouldn't advocate sending out helicopters/boats/submarines to look for animals in distress in areas where there are no humans--I'd prefer that humans stay out.

Comment by red dog on January 3, 2011 at 14:49

Regarding the example of the sick cat with parasites: I was in that situation a few years ago, and I paid to have the cat treated before bringing him to a no-kill shelter (one where I had previously volunteered, so I know it's a good place). I avoid killing insects in other situations as far as possible, and I certainly wouldn't intentionally kill a beetle or fly just because she was in my apartment--but in that case, I felt a greater sense of obligation to the cat. I guess I felt that way because the cat was clearly a victim of human irresponsibility (whether it was individual or collective irresponsibility, I don't know--but he was obviously domesticated and then ended up on the street somehow).

 

When I mentioned this experience on another message board a few years ago, people used it to bully and harass me. One asshole kept barking at me that I was a "phylumist" who only cared about "chordates" and kept repeating this charge over and over again regardless of what else I said. Another message board warrior put it something like this: You either draw the line between humans and all other animals, or you have an obligation to help every cockroach on Earth and are an immoral person if you don't. (Not his exact words, but that was the gist of his "argument.")

 

It's disturbing to see an article like this because it seems to belittle veganism, animal rescue, wildlife rehabilitation, and other efforts to do the greatest good and the least harm. I think there are many people out there who will dismiss all concern for nonhumans as trivial if you don't have a grand solution to stop all the inevitable suffering of the world--suffering that seems to be an inherent part of life as far as anyone can tell.

Comment by red dog on January 3, 2011 at 14:23

I read the article after catching a glimpse of the discussion in the chat room, which was very confusing, and I have to admit I'm still confused. I don't really understand what Horta is proposing in practical terms. I agree, it seems appropriate to feel sorry for the insects and other wild animals who are (apparently) doomed to live short and miserable lives, but beyond that--what can we do about it? Even if we leave the solution to people of the future, as Horta suggests toward the end, it's hard to imagine how anyone could alter ecosystems in such profound ways without creating much bigger problems. This thought exercise seems more like a religious question than an ethical question: Why worship a being who causes so much suffering and distress to so many other beings?

 

Ethics to me is about living a good life--avoiding any uses of animal products as far as possible and practicable is an important step toward a life that causes the least harm. Helping animals who are clearly in distress because of the actions of other humans (e.g., someone brought a cat into existence and the cat is about to be killed because she has no home) seems like another ethical obligation for humans. Unfortunately that presents a dilemma, and I really hope I can transition my cats to a completely vegan diet soon, but the author seems to be suggesting that's not enough--maybe I'm neglecting my moral responsibilities if I don't spend all my time cooking gourmet vegan food for the world's tigers, lions, cockroaches, whales, seals, and beings who live at the bottom of the sea who I'll never meet. How can anyone be a moral person if those are the requirements? Wouldn't the pollution from the fuel I'd have to use to travel there by plane, ship, submarine, etc., cause undue harm to other beings? Is it wrong to rescue a sick cat and pay a vet to kill the parasites who are making the cat sick? I can't see it that way.

Comment by Nick Dalzell on January 3, 2011 at 10:47
there is just no possible way to make the lion lies with the lamb fantasy come true

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