I killed a frog when I was twelve years old – I stepped on it accidentally while walking through the yard. I hadn’t killed it outright, but I had eviscerated it and there was nothing I could do to save it. I tried to walk away and put the animal out of my mind, but with each step, the weight of guilt and responsibility made my feet heavier, until I stopped dead. I had brought suffering to an animal, and without my intervention, the suffering would continue. I went to the tool shed, found a hammer, and returned to end the frog’s suffering. It was over in an instant, but the gut-wrenching impact it had on me was not. It was my first practical lesson in the ethics of euthanasia.
From a strictly practical point of view, suffering serves a purpose. It is a biological motivator that drives us away from situations that are harmful to us: “That fire burns, stop touching it.” “That animal bites, get away from it” “Loneliness is painful, find company”. These are all examples of beneficial suffering, in that they teach us about the world around us, and protect us from it. For the frog I’d stepped on as a child, the suffering no longer served a purpose. It had nothing left to “teach” him, and it could not save him. In this unfortunate case, the frog was enduring unnecessary suffering, and putting an end to unnecessary suffering, is an act that can at least be understood, if not condoned.
An article published in Quartz yesterday, by philosophers Amanda MacAskill and William MacAskill, presented an “interesting” thought experiment that focused heavily on the idea of preventing unnecessary suffering. The piece put forward the radical suggestion, that the killing of Cecil the lion was not just inconsequential, but rather morally justified, and perhaps an aspirational example for devoted animal rights activists.
While I appreciate a good thought experiment as much as the next person, I do expect that the exercise be grounded by rules that offer context to the discussion, and this is where the piece falls down. The number of outlandishly incorrect assumptions made regarding predators, their prey, and the nature of their interactions, was very disturbing, especially considering the gravity of the conclusions they were used to justify. The ill-conceived dogma put forward in the piece left me with the inescapable feeling that, in some cases, animal rights activists pose a far greater threat to conservation efforts than renegade trophy hunters.
If we are to entertain the misguided argument for a moment, it still fails as an exercise in reducing the cumulative experience of suffering. Removing an agent that inflicts suffering, does not remove the capacity to suffer. If we’re going to get ridiculous in the pursuit of a world, free of suffering, Let’s go big or go home: The only way to effectively eliminate suffering on this planet, is to euthanise every single being capable of experiencing it.
“Oh the humanity!”
One of the most problematic elements of this piece is that it presumes to impose human moral values on complex ecosystems, full of animals with neither the inclination, nor the capacity, to abide by them. The authors use the spurious analogy of murdering a serial killer to prevent future loss of life as a twisted justification for killing predators such as lions. This is not a meaningful analogy, but rather a veiled attempt to bestow anthropomorphic victimhood on the predator’s prey. Equating a human homicide victim with an animal that has been killed for food is beyond disingenuous; It’s offensive.
Judging predators by human standards displays a staggering degree of anthropomorphic projection. The arrogant suggestion that we are the stewards of life on this planet, and thus have the right to extinguish a species to placate our own ill-defined standards of “acceptable” suffering is frankly terrifying. Several times within the article, predators are painted as the “bad guys”, while their prey are portrayed as victims, and yet the authors have the audacity to instruct the reader to refrain from making judgement calls on whether predators have any more right to exist than prey:
“By killing predators, we can save the lives of the many prey animals …that would otherwise be killed in order to keep the animals at the top of the food chain alive. And there’s no reason for considering the lives of predators like lions to be more important than the lives of their prey.”-A&W MacAskill
The authors go on to suggest that killing predators may not be enough. We must further alleviate the suffering of countless prey animals by preventing starvation, illness, and parasites, while somehow managing to control the population growth:
“…it may be better for us to kill predators like Cecil than to do nothing, even if it would be even better if we could humanely remove predators from the environment without killing them.”-A&W MacAskill
“…In other words, we should focus on reducing disease, parasites and starvation among wild animals, or on reducing their population size.”-A&W MacAskill
The abject failure to recognise the integral role played by predators in maintaining healthy prey populations, feels like something lifted straight from a Monty Python sketch: “Alright, but apart from reducing disease, parasites, starvation and controlling the population…What have the predators ever done for us?”
“…For example, we could take the predators out of their natural environment and give them good lives that don’t involve hunting prey.”-A&W MacAskill
The level of delusion displayed here is typical of the kind of extremist, faux-activism that can only exist within the disconnected vacuum of Western privilege. In what world could we possibly enact such a ludicrous plan, and even assuming we could, how exactly do the authors propose we feed the inmates of this carnivorous mega-prison? The mind boggles…Or at least the rational mind does.
While the authors have the humility to acknowledge that ecosystems are “complex things” and that there may be unexpected consequences should a predator elimination program be implemented, they quickly ditch any vestige of restraint when they move on to postulate on the likely impacts of such an endeavour:
“Individual hunts are unlikely to have knock-on effects on the ecosystem of the region…”-A&W MacAskill
The authors go on to cite several peer-reviewed studies that support their theor… Oh. Wait… Nope.
“…Nor are they likely to lead to increased death of prey through starvation, since it is highly unlikely that killing individual predators will lead to prey overpopulation.”-A&W MacAskill
Conservationists may argue that challenging this ridiculous article lends it a credence it does not deserve, but the inconvenient truth is that some of the greatest enemies of the conservation movement come from within our own ranks. We delude ourselves when we allow ourselves to believe that any animal lover, or animal rights activist, is by default a friend of the conservation movement. There are radicals in our midst, and it is our responsibility to call them out when they are wrong. The activists who free mink from a fur farm, but allow them to decimate the local wildlife are not conservationists. The patrons who withdraw their funding when they find a conservation practice too tough to stomach are not conservationists. The person who decides whether or not a species is worth saving based on an anthropocentric evaluation of its “worth” is not a conservationist.
The truth is, many self-professed “ethical” animal lovers are out of touch with the realities of nature, and wish to stay so through willful ignorance. Their stance has not been put in place for the benefit of the animals, but to benefit themselves. They want to hide from the realities of nature because they cannot stomach them. It’s a form of weaponised cowardice, that doesn’t seek to end suffering, but rather their exposure to it:
“These kills can be difficult to watch, but they are an inevitable outcome of allowing predators to continue to live.”-A&W MacAskill
The danger in allowing these views to proliferate unchallenged, is that they have been formed as an emotional reaction, without any real exploration of the deeper impacts. Sometimes the real world is messy. Sometimes doing the right thing means embracing ideals that seem cruel or counter-intuitive. But the conservationists making these decisions are doing so from a scientifically, and philosophically, informed place. They’ve opened their mind to every possibility, and are willing to stare the gut-wrenching horrors of real-world conservation in the face. They can make the tough decisions to facilitate the greater good. In short, a real conservationist will know how it feels to go back and kill the frog.
About the Author: Rob is a zoologist specialising in invasive freshwater bivalves. He is the PR Officer for The Herpetological Society of Ireland. Find him on Twitter here.
Many thanks to The Porch Naturalist for her assistance on this piece. Find her on Twitter
Derek Keats Flickr. Used by license.