Trying to get to the bigger moral picture

Jeff McMahan's recent piece in the New York Times has provoked a lot of discussion (including two pieces here). He argued that just as it is bad for animals to suffer at the hands of humans, so is it bad when they suffer in the wild. Moreover, since there are vastly more animals in the wild than in captivity, this might be a much bigger issue. McMahan illustrated the problem by suggesting that if there were some way to eliminate carnivorous animals from the planet without messing up the ecosystem (a big if), then it would be very important that we do so. This example was presumably designed to show how the moral claim that it is bad for so many animals to suffer could be made practical, but it ended up muddying the issue a lot, as many people focused on this hypothetical rather than the big issue.

Let us therefore return to the central idea that animal suffering in the wild is just as important as animal suffering at human hands. If we accept this, then we should also accept that since so many more animals are in the wild, this is the much bigger issue. Indeed, since there are (at least) thousands of wild animals per human, the problem of wild animal suffering may be much bigger than that of human suffering. It is true that due to our developed mental faculties humans can probably suffer in more ways than animals, but some of these ways, consisting of extreme pain, are among the worst and are shared by animals. Even if individual animals suffer less due to their more primitive minds, the sheer numbers might well make their suffering outweigh human suffering.

Of course, animals don't merely suffer, there is also pleasure in their lives. Does the pleasure in an individual wild animal's life outweigh the pain? This is a very difficult question, and a very important one. My guess is that it does, and that the animal suffering is outweighed by animal pleasure. If I am wrong, however, and their suffering outweighs their pleasure, then there are very counterintuitive consequences: for example, it might be good rather than bad to reduce animal habitat as this would decrease the number of bad animal lives. Even if I am right that animal suffering is outweighed by pleasure, taking both of these seriously might suggest that most of what is good in the world as a whole is in the realm of non-human animals and most of what is bad is also in this realm. On this view the good of human lives would only be a small part of the total good and the main moral importance of humanity might be in what (if anything) we can do to help animals on a very large scale — for example, in avoiding nuclear war, or some other global disaster.

I'm not sure if I accept this big picture view of our place in the world, but it is certainly a sobering possibility that arises very swiftly from a willingness to take wild animal suffering seriously.

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5 Responses to Trying to get to the bigger moral picture

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I agree : and would add that a similar conclusion could be reached by considering the asteroid that landed on Chixculub some 65 million years ago, destroying the dinosaurs and thousands of other species, but creating the conditions for the existence of man.
    Does it make sense to take a moral position on this event? I’d suggest not : we are talking about something that is sui generis – it just happened that way.
    One could argue that ethics is confined to the actions (and non-actions) of man. Nevertheless, the realisation that in the big picture we count for not much should, as you suggest, sober us up and give us a little humility.

    Perhaps this could be one of the explanations of the “prejudice that we shouldn’t go against nature” raised by Alexandre Erler last month?
    I don’t want to be misunderstood : I don’t support the anti-scientific prejudices that he mentions any more than he does. I merely suggest that Pope was right in stating the the proper study of mankind is man.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    The claim that McMahan’s article “ended up muddying the issue a lot, as many people focused on this hypothetical rather than the big issue” may be true of the wider discussion (I haven’t followed it so can’t comment), but would I think be unfair if applied to the discussions we’ve been having on this blog. On the contrary, I think we have rather been using the indeed hypothetical example raised by McMahan to inspire us to compare our moral intuitions precisely on what Toby describes as “the big issue”.

    One of the issues that came up in this context was the question (proposed by Simon Rippon if I recall correctly) that the thought experiment provided a “reductio ad absurdum again utilitarianism”. I arged that it didn’t. Meanwhile it was pointed out (again by Simon) that the utilitarian position, at least as some of us were applying it, could be described as “sentientist”. While this was in response to the implicit suggestion that failure to take account of animal welfare was “speciesist”, and therefore bad, it can also be taken as a morally neutral term that expresses the values of a certain type of utilitarianism, or more generally a certain attitude towards the issue of animal welfare, and one that on the whole I espouse.

    So: taking a “sentientist” perspective here, it seems to me that level of “sentience” that exists among the 6.7 billion or however many we are now people on the planet greatly exceeds that existing among all other current species combined. If this is correct (and there are obvious issues around definition and measurability that may need to be clarified here), then this would suggest that animal welfare – whether among wild animals or domestic, whether resulting from our actions or not – is actual a rather marginal issue in the grand scheme of things (i.e. the “big picture”).

    By the way this comment is also relevant in the context of the ongoing discussion on “Why aren’t you a vegetarian?”, and I would be especially interested in Joan’s response to this. That I regard animal welfare per se as a marginal issue rather than totally irrelevant would seem to put daylight between my position and that of Dennis Tuchler, as does my utilitarian as opposed to social-instrumentalist perspective. But so far it has not been enough to convince me to go back to being a vegetarian (like Dennis I tried it once, although in my case mainly for health reasons…)

  • Toby Ord says:


    I think that moral considerations still exist even without people. For example, if an animal suffered intensely a million years ago, the lack of people didn’t change its degree of suffering, and I think that that it is this suffering that is important, not just its relation to us. This can also get practical. Suppose we could set up an asteroid diversion system that could keep functioning even after we went extinct, I think that would be a good thing as it would prevent massive suffering in the future even if there are no humans at the time (this is not to say it is high on our list of priorities).


    You are right that my comment about ‘muddying the issue’ didn’t apply to the comments here on the Practical Ethics blog, and I should have been more clear about this.

    You may also be right about the moral value of what happens to humans outweighing all other animals, but I am quite unsure about this as there are *a lot* of other animals. I tried to find a figure for the number of mammals for my post, but couldn’t find one. I know that the total number of animals is very high as there are approximately 10 quintillion insects (10,000,000,000,000,000,000), which is a billion for every human. If insects count at all, it seems likely to me that they count at least a billionth as much as a human, but it is not clear that they can suffer or enjoy at all. There are obviously fewer mammals or birds or fish than there are insects, but it is still vast compared to the number of people. I’d love to know approximately how many though. One word of caution: it is easy to think that we probably count more than, say, all other mammals, but if we don’t even know how many mammals there are to within a few orders of magnitude then that starts to look suspiciously like wishful thinking.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Many thanks Toby. I agree there may be an element of wishful thinking there. If you are right in your suspicion, then we are faced with a choice: either accept that we are not really interested in maximising the welfare of sentient beings using a “fair” measure of sentience (whatever that is exactly), or we are morally obliged to align our priorities accordingly.

    That being said, the opposite of wishful thinking is guilt-tripping, and that can also be a source of cognitive bias. In addition to knowing the total number of mammals, we really would need some way to measure and quantify sentience. It is not entirely implausible to me that the level of sentience in most mammal species would be so vastly inferior to that of humans that even orders of magnitude ratios between populations would still leave the “moral centre of gravity” firmly within humanity. The obvious exceptions to this are great apes, and perhaps whales and dolphins.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thanks for your reply, Toby
    For me, the « big picture » concerns man and his place in the world, and more specifically the application of the discourse of ethics to other species.
    Let me try to mount a rather crude skeleton argument, which clearly needs much more detail :
    1. Our world exists, as a mere speck of a colossal universe, since some 4550 million years ago.
    By a series of chance events, various forms of life have emerged, but the overwhelming majority have become extinct at some time through their inability to adapt to changing conditions, climate changes and asteroids included.
    Humans, or species resembling them, have been around for the tiniest fraction of that time.
    2. The species currently present are present because they have been able to adapt (through physiological or behavioural change) to their environment, which for some 5 million years includes the effects of man).
    3. These adaptations have produced a finely-balanced system, in which small changes can produce large-scale effects
    4. A part of man’s adaptation is the development of norms, customs and rules which have favoured his survival, and a part of these is what we call ethics.
    5. Ethics is a uniquely human enterprise, and centred on man’s behaviour.

    This skeleton argument certainly allows for treating animals as objects of morality, such as seeking to reduce suffering, eliminating factory farming, abolishing hunting and so on. I would add, ex parte, that ethics is by no means confined to the notion of pain or suffering, but also consists of notions of fairness, justice, equality, control, retribution and so on…..

    But the arguments of McMahan go a lot further than reducing the suffering caused by mankind : he argues that we have a duty to prevent suffering not occasioned by man, and indeed that we should (if we could) impose on other species a non-carnivore solution.

    I would argue that three points follow from my skeleton argument :
    1. Such a policy would completely change the behaviour and survival prospects of many species : I don’t think it’s a « big if » but a certainty.
    2. It is misplaced to wish to modify animal behaviours that have developed precisely to ensure their survival.
    3. Given man’s tiny place in the big picture, such a policy is arrogant sentimentalism, akin to a form of specieist colonialism.


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