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Should we intervene in nature to help animals?

Guest Post by Catia Faria


It is commonly believed that our obligations towards other human beings are not restricted to abstaining from harming them. We should also prevent or alleviate harmful states of affairs for other individuals whenever it is in our power to do something about it. In animal ethics, however, the idea that we may have reasons not only to refrain from harming animals but also to help them is not particularly widespread. Of course, exceptions can be found regarding companion animals. Most people agree that failing to assist them would be wrong if we could otherwise help them. But what about all other animals in need, shouldn’t we also help them? Consider, for example, a case that has recently caught the attention of social media. In Norway, a man rescued a duck trapped under the ice on the surface of a lake. Everyone is celebrating the intervention as a form of heroism. But wasn’t intervening in order to help the duck precisely what he ought to do?

The laissez-faire intuition

It is sometimes claimed that even though interventions like this seem beneficial, the best we can do for animals living in nature is simply to let them be. In other words, that we don’t have reasons to prevent or alleviate the harms that animals suffer in the wild. This has been referred to as the “laissez-faire” intuition. This intuition relies on two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, it is based on an idyllic view of nature, according to which wild animals have generally good lives, only threatened by occasional human interferences. Secondly, it is based on the idea that we only have reasons to help others in need when their situation is caused by human action. Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons to think that these two ideas are not justified.


The prevalence of suffering over well-being in nature


Contrary to what is often thought to be the case, animals living in the wild are subject to an enormous variety of threats to their well-being. They are usually injured, starved or dehydrated. They must endure extreme weather conditions and cope with psychological stress, mainly due to fear of predation. They also experience excruciating deaths at the claws of predators, are devoured by parasites, and debilitated or killed by disease. Moreover, this does not happen only to a few. The majority of wild animals follow a reproductive strategy (r-selection) that consists in increasing the population’s fitness through the maximization of the number of offspring. The outcome of this is an extremely low survival rate. Most of the animals that come into existence do not survive to adulthood and have gruesome, short lives. This implies that most wild animals experience more suffering than positive well-being in their lives. Hence, on aggregate, suffering is largely predominant over well-being. The idyllic view of nature is thus clearly false, failing to provide grounds on which to base the laissez-faire intuition.


Preventing suffering caused by natural events

The idea that we only have reasons to alleviate the suffering of others when it is caused by human action is clearly incompatible with common practices of helping human beings and companion animals in situations of need. If we want to adhere to that belief we must thus accept that it would be justified to refrain from helping humans suffering from natural events such as starvation, disease or natural catastrophes. And the same would be applicable to companion animals. Nevertheless, this implication seems hardly acceptable. We believe that we have very strong reasons to help these individuals whenever it is in our power to do so. But if this is the case, then we also lack the grounds on which to support the laissez faire intuition regarding wild animal suffering.

This must follow unless we embrace speciesism, an unjustified moral position. Any attempt to establish a moral divide between human and nonhuman animals will necessarily run into the so called “species-overlap” phenomenon. That is, for any attribute we might appeal to in order to justify the preferential consideration of humans over nonhumans, we would have either to exclude some human beings from the scope of moral consideration (those who lack the attribute) or to include some nonhumans within the scope (those who possess it). Since the former seems unacceptable, moral consideration must be grounded on an attribute that successfully applies to any human being whom our actions might affect for good or ill. Sentience, insofar it is the capacity that allows an individual to have a well-being of her own, is the most salient candidate. As sentient individuals, humans and nonhumans are equally susceptible to being affected by what happens to them in negative (suffering) and positive (enjoyment) ways. Hence, they can be equally harmed, either by human action or natural events, or benefited by our help. Thus, the well-being of wild animals is morally relevant. Because of the nasty conditions of animal lives in nature, that implies that we have very strong reasons to help them whenever we can.


Perversity, futility and feasibility

A common way of objecting to intervention in nature is to appeal to perversity, futility or feasibility considerations. They all share the belief that intervention aimed at alleviating wild animal suffering might fail to do so. This may happen either because intervention might have counterproductive results (perversity), it might produce no significant effects at all (futility) or it is not currently possible to implement (feasibility). Nevertheless, the soundness of these objections is clearly limited. After all, interventionists and anti-interventionists of this sort agree that the best state of affairs is one in which we could phase out wild animal suffering. But once we refine our understanding of intervention as cautious and informed interference, current or future epistemic limitations fail to provide any grounds for opposing intervention.

Moreover, beneficial interventions in nature already take place. In addition to occasional rescues, such as the one in our initial case, there are other, more significant ways in which we are already helping animals. Vaccination programs for wild animals against diseases such as rabies or tuberculosis have been implemented for decades. In national parks, starving animals are sometimes provided with additional food so that they may survive. These are just some examples among many. The success of these interventions suggests that many others would definitely be feasible as well. At any rate, the fundamental discussion is not about which ways of helping animals in nature are already available, but rather whether we have reasons to develop the means that will make it increasingly more feasible to help them.


Catia Faria is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Law, Universitat Pompeu Fabra

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15 Comment on this post

  1. Hello Catia,

    You write that the “laissez-faire intuition relies on two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, it is based on an idyllic view of nature, according to which wild animals have generally good lives, only threatened by occasional human interferences. Secondly, it is based on the idea that we only have reasons to help others in need when their situation is caused by human action”
    Could you explain why you think that one (or both, it’s not clear) of these propositions is/are necessary for the laisez-faire view ?

    I certainly don’t have an idyllic view of nature (animal or human), and I don’t think we should limit helping others to when their situation is caused by human action.
    But I share broadly the laissez-faire view, and see no logical inconsistency in doing so.

    Or have I overlooked something ?

    1. Anthony, thank you for your comment.

      The laissez-faire intuition *usually* relies on either one of the two assumptions I mentioned (sometimes both). It is indeed conceivable, though not common, to share the laissez-faire intuition without endorsing any of these assumptions. But if that is the case, however, then supporters of that intuition need to provide the different grounds on which it might be justified. You imply that you believe that, at least in some cases, there are reasons to aid individuals in need of help, even if their situation has not been caused by human action. Yet, additionally, you claim that there are certain circumstances in which, when there are some individuals similarly in need of our help, we nevertheless should not (or we are in no obligation to) help them. If this position is to be made consistent, one has to point out to a morally relevant difference between both cases —thus, the burden of proof is in the side of those who claim this.

      There are certainly some considerations to which those who believe this can appeal in order to defend their view. For example, it could be the case that you reject the idyllic view of nature and that you accept that we have reasons to help other individuals affected by natural events, but only in case they are human beings. However, if that were the case, your position would be unjustified for other reasons, as I thought I had made clear in the post. Whatever the reasons why nonhuman animals fail to satisfy the conditions that allegedly make them legitimate beneficiaries of human aid, there are some human beings who will also fail to satisfy them (see the argument from species overlap). Given that species membership is a morally irrelevant attribute, a position that supports the laissez-faire intuition for nonhuman animals while rejecting it for human beings in similar circumstances would be unjustified.

      But, of course, I would need to know more about your reasons to endorse the laissez-faire intuition in order to properly assess the existence ofinconsistencies in your position.

  2. I think another question here is whether we should value animals (and prevent animal suffering) over plants, bacteria, fungi and viruses (and over the suffering of these organisms). Unless you inherently value animal life over the lives of these other organisms, then I believe speaking about overall suffering/benefit is more complicated. For instance, had the duck saved by that Norwegian man died, its death would have directly benefited the many millions of microorganisms who would have decomposed it. Is there more suffering in the duck’s death, or in depriving all these microorganisms?

    1. Hi Scott, thanks for your comment.

      I believe that the only morally considerable entities are sentient beings. Though plants, fungi, bacteria and viruses are living organisms, they are not sentient. I do not think it makes sense to talk about harms or benefits with respect to non-sentient entities, since they cannot be affected for good or ill. They cannot be said to suffer or benefit from what happens to them, except figuratively. Due to this, even though intervening to relieve wild animal suffering might damage these forms of life, we lack compelling reasons to take that damage into account. In itself, it is morally irrelevant.

  3. Catia –

    I agree with the general spirit of your post, but I believe you have mischaracterized and overly weakened your opponent’s views.

    I second Anthony’s point. First of all, I know very few people who share an idyllic view of nature. Most of the time, their reluctance to accept an obligation to intervene are based on agency concerns, or prospects of doing more harm than good, or on the view that events causing suffering are required by ecological processes. These might be very weak reasons to deny that wild suffering matters and provides reasons to be relieved. But this is clearly not identical to having an idyllic view of nature. Analoguously, people who believe we lack strong reasons to relieve global poverty clearly do not do so on the basis of an idyllic view of global poverty. The latter’s badness is not logically connected to strong reasons to intervene/interfere/assist, although most people recognize it is a source of pro tanto reasons to want it to cease.

    As for the second assumption you target, it is more plausible to attribute it to laissez-faire advocates. However, among the open advocates of the intuition”, Clare Palmer (2010), for instance, never states that we do not have reasons to prevent wild suffering, merely that we lack a significant obligation to do so unless we can be held causally responsible for the situation (e.g. dependency, vulnerability) of the animal. She even argues that it is prima facie permissible (and we have reasons) to intervene in many cases, and that we actually *ought* to intervene when we are causally responsible (directly or indirectly, for present, future or past harms).

    The causal criterion also explains the seeminlgy inconsistent belief that we ought to assist fellow humans and companion animals but generally not to assist wild animals. Both human beings and domesticated animals are to a significant extent dependent on human beings’ assistance, even when nobody’s causally responsible for what happened to them (e.g. natural disasters), or structurally vulnerable to be in need of assistance given the structures of domination, global inequalities of power and wealth, etc. So, the fact that we take ourselves to be required to help in these cases carries little weight in our reasons to assist wild animals, unless you can prove that wild animals are essentially in an analoguous position with respect to human beings.

    All of these rejoinders to our obligations of intervention are compatible with the recognition that wild suffering is bad, but I suppose they see it as a lesser or necessary evil in the wider context of our relationships with nature or the environment.

    Finally, the perversity, futility or feasability arguments is arguably the weakest objection to intervention, as you rightly show, since it presupposes that, absent theses considerations, intervention would not only be impermissible but perhaps also required. However, it sustained, these are also the strongest arguments against the interventionist view. If ought implies can (not uncontroversially, I admit), then we will only have strong reasons to conduct the sort of research that is not beyond our capabilities. Assuming performing the research called for by interventionists is not hopelessly wasteful and offers reasonable prospects of significant future benefits, it is truly important. But then I worry that your typical non-interventionist may become a strawman (I’m familiar with the claim that reasons to intervene presently translate into reasons to do research, but I have not encountered people arguing that the laissez-faire view translates into a similar view in research — or else, I’m happy to know who does, and I stand corrected).

  4. HI Nicolas, thanks for your comment.

    As I told Scott, I agree that an opposition to intervention need not follow from holding an idyllic view of nature, and that it may be based on different grounds. The last section of my post addresses a series of objections that do not depend on that assumption (perversity, futility and feasibility). A complete map of the case against intervention, though, would require tackling objections which I could only but sketch in my original post, as well as others which I had to leave unaddressed due to space restrictions.

    Nevertheless, if the argument for the predominance of suffering over well-being in nature is sound (which I think it is), then almost any position against intervention is to some extent based on an idyllic view of nature. The fact that most opponents to intervention do not acknowledge the main cause of wild animal suffering (r-selection) and base their assessment on how a tiny minority of animals fare in the wild (mostly mammals) suggests that this is indeed the case. This is important because, even though there may be reasons not to intervene, it may be false that these reasons are sufficient. In fact, given the magnitude of wild animal suffering, the opposite strikes me prima facie as the more plausible view —that there are decisive reasons to alleviate it.

    For example, Clare Palmer, as you rightly point out, is among those who believe that we have sufficient reasons not to intervene in order to alleviate wild animal suffering. As you said, this is because we normally lack the kinds of relationships with wild animals which she believes that generate decisive reasons to help individuals in need. However, it is not at all clear to me that she manages to deal successfully with the most important objections that her position faces, namely, its implausible consequences for the human case.

    However, let me tackle first a consideration you mention which is distinct from that of the relevance of relations or the causality of harm. You imply that we can establish a difference between human beings and domesticated animals, on the one hand, and animals that live in the wild, on the other, based on the former being “to a significant extent dependent on human beings’ assistance”, whereas the latter are not. Yet that is false: there is no such difference. As facts about existence in the wild make apparent, animals that live there fare very poorly. As individuals, they lack the skills that would enable them to confront the harms posed by the environment and by other animals in a way that allows them to lead long, worthwhile lives. On the contrary, their lives are short and full of suffering. If there is anyone dependent on the assistance of human beings to avoid suffering and death, those are wild animals. If being dependent on human assistance is a source of positive obligations to assist those in need, animals in the wild qualify at least as much as humans and domesticated animals.

    Secondly, if we agree with Palmer that positive moral obligations are generated by the relations she mentions, what reasons may we have to help, say, a starving, distant, disabled human child? We have not brought her into existence. We are not causally linked to the situation of vulnerability and dependence in which she encounters herself. In addition, the child, given her disability, cannot reciprocate and will never be able to. The harm she experiences is a natural accident. In addition, we may suppose that she is a member of an isolated community of human beings. Nothing about her situation of need has been caused by “the structures of domination, global inequalities of power and wealth” through which humans have rendered other humans vulnerable.

    If, regardless, we believe that we ought to assist this child, then, there must be different grounds for our positive duties of assistance other than entering into certain relations. What I claim is that such is the case with her experiential well-being. It is the value of the well-being of sentient individuals, rather than how we relate to them, what generates positive obligations to help them.

    Certainly, experiential well-being is not a phenomenon restricted to human children, but rather being exemplified by most nonhuman animals, including those living in the wild. In fact, according to Palmer, the experiential well-being of animals (domesticated or wild) is what generates the negative duty to abstain from harming them (domesticated or in the wild). But if experiential well-being imposes restrictions on what we may do to do to animals so as not to frustrate their interests, then experiential well-being is also relevant to decide what we should do in order to actively promote the satisfaction of their interests. If the fact that animals can suffer is what generates the obligation to abstain from causing them to suffer, then that suffering is morally relevant no matter who or what causes it. Therefore, we should act in order to relieve it, whenever we can.

    This leads us to your last point. Let us leave aside the controversy associated with “ought implies can”. As I mentioned in the post, there are already many feasible ways of benefiting animals living in the wild (e.g., vaccination against painful diseases, contraceptives to keep populations under control, additional food for starving animals). It follows from my position that, in addition, we have instrumental reasons to conduct research on more ambitious ways of helping animals in the wild. On the contrary, someone who opposed intervention would claim that we have no such reasons. These reasons are instrumental to the aim of intervening to help wild animals, and an anti-interventionist would claim that we should not adopt that aim. If, like Palmer, we claim that our reasons to intervene are, at best, only sufficient, then we will have reasons to conduct that research only insofar as we choose to intervene.

    I must say that I fail to see how I might have represented any of these positions in a way that makes them mere ‘straw men’. Moreover, I have explained why I think these views are mistaken, why we should intervene in nature to help animals that live there and why our reasons to find better ways of doing so are very strong.

  5. Contrarily to Nicolas, I find that very many people do share an idyllic view of nature, and that many others share a view of nature that is not quite idyllic, because they acknowledge the “cruelty of nature”, but that is staunchly positive. I also feel that these flawed perceptions of nature heavily contribute to the failure of so many, even within the animal movement, to grasp, at least, that natural suffering is a serious problem.

    We view the world through our own eyes and tend to believe that what we see is an objective picture of it. But humans are a privileged species, by and large, and even more so today, and in affluent countries. If we are cold, most of us can just put on a sweater, and if we are thirsty there is running water not too far away. Even when an incurable disease wrecks our bodies we have morphine to temper the pain. When we go for an outing in the countryside or the mountains, we “immerse ourselves in nature”, but still are actually viewing it through a glass window. We enjoy the calm of a meadow without perceiving the suffering of the countless sentient beings devoured by spiders or birds, the hunger and despair of the fledglings in their nests when as so often happens they are fed too little to survive, the panic felt by their parents, and all the rest.

    The words “nature”, “natural” and so on are almost always perceived as positive. Nature “before mankind” (whatever that may mean) is described as “pristine”, “pure”, “peaceful”, “magnificent”. In contrast, human action is seen as pollution and as violence.

    This attitude is even more common among the animal crowd. Just yesterday someone posted the following video on my Facebook timeline: – a video suggesting a beautiful and peaceful world ruined by “man”. On the corresponding youtube page, the first comment reads:

    Too be completely honest with everyone of you, i hope humanity dies out, goes extinct. I know it’s a bad thing to say because there are a lot of good people on the planet but all they do is watch and are obedient to the system.. So in a way, death is deserved for all humans, the bad and the good. I don’t wish for the world to end, but i do wish for humanity to end. I would gladly sacrifice this race before we completely murder every other race out there. This planet deserves to be a lush green paradise once again and that’s only possible if we’re not on it anymore.

    “A lush green paradise” – this says it all!

    Many educated people are keenly conscious of the facts of predation and the “survival of the fittest” – which implies the demise of all others. They accept that nature is “cruel”, but argue that it is amoral, which somehow annihilates any moral implications that may stem from this cruelty. The concrete fates that the concrete sentients suffer is absorbed into notions of “stability”, “equilibrium”, “harmony” and into functionalist notions of “roles” “played” by the different “actors” of the natural “system”. They may not see nature as a paradise, on a factual level, but emotionally it is quite as if they did. They react, sometimes violently, against any suggestion of intervention in nature to phase out the carnivorous regulation of herbivores. Though they assert that nature is amoral, they actually react as if they too viewed it as some kind of realm of perfection.

    Perhaps the question “what can we do about the suffering in nature” comes too soon in the discussions. Our gut reactions, our emotional perceptions, matter even if we believe that there is nothing we can do about the state of affairs that provoke them. Nothing that I can do today can change in the slightest the suffering that was endured during the Holocaust. Exactly the same can be said of a present-day neo-Nazi: neither he nor I can do anything about the past. I do however feel that I am right in judging that what happened was horrible and very immoral, and that he is wrong in believing the opposite. I think that it is important, even if we think that we can do nothing about natural suffering, that we perceive it correctly, and stop our universal glorification of natural processes. I say this despite being a staunch consequentialist; our attitudes too have consequences, even if we don’t initially see how.

  6. Thanks for this compelling article, Catia!

    For those interested in the subject, here is a talk on it by Adriano Mannino and Ruairí Donnelly:

    “It is often presumed that the well-being of wild animal individuals should be irrelevant to our (ethical and political) decision-making. Arguments for this conclusion include the views that life in the wild is idyllic; that “nature knows best” and we can only hubristically mess up; that eco-systems (and species) have intrinsic value and shouldn’t be modified; that non-human animals don’t count in general, or count for much less than human animals (speciesism); that non-harm is of much greater importance than help, and that we can’t help wild animals without harming some; or that we should, at any rate, have very different priorities.

    This talk examines the evidence, or lack thereof, for these views and asks: How should we act with respect to wild animals?”

  7. We have already interrupted, and destroyed habitats,and food sources of wild animals. OF COURSE we should help!

  8. Some issues relating to this that require further exploration include:
    – which animals are included in the calculus? Ants make up most of Earth’s biomass.
    – do you have some uncertainty over the moral worth of animals on the basis of brain mass? If so, what kinds of functions do you apply over the domain of brain size? If you place some probability that you should give moral weight to animals in proportion with the square, or cubic, or exponential of their intelligence (as approximated by brain size for animals that are less intelligent than us), then one might have little regard for non-human animals at all.
    – would you expect wild animal suffering to be eliminated later anyway? probably, in some tech futures guided by AI or nanotech.
    – the total volume of wild mammals is only about 10x more than the number of livestock, and is mostly smaller-brained. So it seems pretty plausible that the moral weight of livestock exceeds the moral weight of wild mammals. So do you want to include non-mammals?

    So I think there are lots of perfectly consequentialist objections to concern for wild animals.

  9. Hi Catia – great post! I think it is really well written and shoots the gap between overly broad and minutely narrow. I’ve recently been reading a lot of pieces concerning animal ethics, but I have a background in well-being scholarship. I’m wondering what you make of the phrase “animal well-being” in your post. Does it refer to just the utilitarian pleasure principle? Or is it meant to encompass a broader standard of well-being (the way we might define human well-being with reference to emotional states, mental states, communities, and even goals)? If it does have a broader standard should we conclude that some types of animals (like companion animals, other domesticated animals, or more acutely sentient animals) should have preference in interventions?

    I ask because the weighing of the difference in animal preferences seems important to the overall goal of intervention to prevent suffering/increase well-being. Given the massive amount of suffering in the natural world, it seems like a pretty radical overhaul is the logical terminus of this type of project. If we expect to induce massive changes those changes ought to be towards an ideal state, but that ideal state can’t be reckoned until we have decided what weight to give the preferences involved.

    As a larger and secondary question: Do you think environs have a value in themselves when entering into this type of calculus. Not merely the aggregate sum of the animals’ preferences, but the state of the environment they live it as it is.

  10. Excuse me for interrupting the philosophical debate on ethics to consider an ongoing practical example of intervention in nature to help animals. I believe it would very hard to morally or rationally disagree with the type of intervention/help mentioned below.
    Encounters between humans and animals are on the rise for several reasons. Suburban development is pushing into many formerly wild areas, especially in western states. In the Northeast, forests have been growing for a century on farmland abandoned in the 1800s, creating more habitat for beavers, moose, black bears, and other large creatures. And some species, such as wild turkeys and white-tailed deer, are thriving in suburbs where there are fewer predators and hunting is banned or severely limited.
    Many communities that need a targeted and safe way to address overpopulation are turning to birth control, which is generally seen as a humane alternative to hunting or culling herds. “The demand [for contraceptives] is overwhelming,”
    That’s because birth control is often quite effective. Enforced infertility to control creatures is often done by using PZP which is administered by hand injection or via a dart fired from a dart rifle, CO2 pistol or blowgun. Darting is preferred whenever possible, because it avoids the need to capture and handle the animal, but darting from helicopters is often the safest and most efficient way to dart African elephants.
    As part of this effort, The Humane Society US obtained, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registration under the name “ZonaStat-H” for use of PZP on wild horses and burros in January 2012, and will be working to extend the registration to include deer and other animals. HSUS is also exploring the potential for the use of immunocontraceptives on companion animals.

  11. It’s been very thought provoking reading other people’s comments and questions along with Catia’s articulation of wild animals, are they worth saving?
    It is only my perspective, but yes, they do require our assistance. All sentient beings require our help, including plants. Plants make choices too, there is a documented video of a type of weed that chooses it’s plant victim, it is quite fascinating to watch. (If I can find the video again, I am happy to post it). They also have communication with insects using scent, infrared red wavelengths and defence mechanisms. Working in the garden or on a farm teaches me that all forms of sentient life is valuable, nature is not kind or unkind, it is what it is, millions of soil animals, tiny life forms die because we abuse it with pesticides, tillage, and over fertilization. Shifting our gears in understanding the impermanence of all life makes more for a valued sense of doing, thus wanting to restore, and care for land, animals and people, this sounds counterintuitive given that impermanence is about changes and acceptance of it.

    I understand that there is much I am unable to do to help, for example, the caterpillar that is infected by a wasp that becomes host to larvae that eat the caterpillar from the inside out, but I can step on a bee that is being mauled and chased by ants unable to defend himself due to lost leg, the bee still is food for ants but no longer suffers. Or how about feeding wildlife when temperatures plummet to minus 30 – 40 for days on end that results in months of no food, and loss of fat storage. As sentient human beings, we are very privileged, we have the ability to help each other and to help all other beings when we are able to do so and when we see it happening.

    Thank you.

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