Why Preventing Predation Can Be a Morally Right Cause for Effective Altruism?

This article received an honourable mention in the graduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student Pablo Neira

If the interests of sentient animals matter, then there are (at least pro tanto) reasons to prevent the harms they suffer. There are many different natural harms that wild animals suffer, including hunger, disease, parasitism and extreme weather conditions (Singer 1975; Clark 1979; Sapontzis 1984; Cowen 2003; Fink 2005; Simmons 2009; Horta 2010; McMahan 2010; Ebert and Mavhan 2012; Keulartz 2016; Palmer 2013; Sözmen 2013; Bruers 2015; Tomasik 2015; McMahan 2016; Bramble 2021; Johannsen 2021). One of these (on which I will focus in this paper) is the suffering caused by predation. Predation is an antagonistic relationship in which a predator obtains energy by consuming a prey animal—either wholly or partially—which is alive when it is attacked (Begon et al. 2006, 266). The harms predation cause to prey animals can vary greatly, depending on the kind of injuries they suffer in the process and how painful they are, the amount of time it takes them to die, the release of endorphins that reduce pain or the extent to which psychological suffering—mostly distress—affects them during the process. In addition, beyond the pain of predation itself, there are other substantial harms related to predation. It has been argued that death itself may harm animals because it deprives them of any possible future positive experiences (Nagel 1970; Višak and Garner 2016). However, we do not need to agree that death harms animals in order to consider predation a harm, as the suffering it causes to animals is sufficient in its own right. Moreover, some animals may survive predation and yet suffer serious injuries that cause them pain for a prolonged period of time, sometimes chronically (Schoener 1979; Engh et al. 2006; Jonhson et al. 2006). They may also live in fear of being attacked by predators (Lima 1998; Holbrook and Schmitt 2002; Mashoodh 2009). Thus, the pain experienced by sentient animals when they are attacked in nature should not be overlooked. In this essay, I will argue that it is permissible, and perhaps obligatory, to intervene to prevent predation. Moreover, if we accept this, it leads us to consider predation prevention as a cause area to take action seriously from Effective Altruism.

Predation: A Thought Experiment

Consider the following thought experiment:

Trapped Animals. An antelope is trapped between branches and abandoned by its herd. A hyena finds the antelope and begins to devour different parts of its body while it is still alive. This lasts several hours, until the antelope finally dies. Anna is near the antelope and, without placing herself in danger, could untangle the branches so the antelope could escape.

According to some deontological or virtue ethics perspectives,[1] it can be argued that Anna’s intervention would be incorrect. This position can be defended by arguing that there is a rule that prevents intervention or that it is not virtuous to intervene. The idea that we should prevent predation may seem odd and wrong to some people at first. At the same time, based on other deontological approaches, we may have positive duties to animals (including wild ones), which we would fail to honour if we do not aid them when they are in need. Similarly, based on some virtue approaches, refusing to help animals would be contrary to what a virtuous person would do. In fact, that seems to be the case if we do not help the antelope here. Meanwhile, according to a consequentialist perspective, if Anna intervenes she would be acting in the correct manner, as long as her action leads to the best possible consequences all things considered. A counterargument could be that if we save the antelope, the hyena will starve, and thus Anna would be harming the hyena. This supports people’s intuition against preventing predation. However, consider the following alternative:

Trapped Animals 2. The situation is the same as in Trapped Animals, except that Anna is physically close to the antelope, and, without exposing herself to danger, she could place a vegetable meat alternative on the ground with identical characteristics to antelope meat. The hyena would eat this alternative and leave the antelope unharmed. Anna could then untangle the branches so the antelope could escape.

In this case, again, a consequentialist perspective would imply that if Anna intervenes, she will act correctly, as the best outcome will be achieved all things considered. Deontological and virtue ethics arguments could reach a similar conclusion, as we saw in the Trapped Animals case. Therefore, our initial intuition against preventing predation may be shown to be misguided simply by introducing a small modification to the scenario. This is because our intuition against predation may still be present when we consider this case, despite the fact that all relevant considerations would lead us to conclude that we should save the antelope. In addition, our intuition against preventing predation could also be challenged by the following variant of the same case:

Trapped Animals 3. Everything is the same as in Trapped Animals 2, except that instead of an antelope it is a human being that is trapped.

When we include a human in the scenario, our intuition changes significantly. It no longer seems merely permissible but obligatory for Anna to act. It could be argued that this has no relevance for the previous cases, as there is a crucial difference between wild animals and humans. Indeed, it has been argued that wild animals possess certain capacities that allow them to use their natural abilities to survive, while humans do not (Simmons 2009, 19–21). However, this objection does not seem to work, as in the cases we are considering both the human being and the nonhuman animal will surely die if Anna does not act. Thus, the antelope cannot adequately deal with the threat. So, if we are not speciesist, it seems we should hold a similar position in all cases.

This conclusion is further reinforced by the following case:

Trapped Animals 4. Everything is the same as in Trapped Animals 2, except that Anna is a biologist and knows that the antelope has a highly contagious disease. If the hyena eats it, this disease could infect other mammals, including humans.

Again, in this case it seems that it would not only permissible but obligatory for Anna to act. But, it is not clear whether there is a relevant difference between this case and the previous ones. We can only claim that there is if we maintain that the interests of humans are important in a way in which the interests of other beings are not.

Practical Implications: The Case for Effective Altruists

We may also conclude that this is an important cause, considering (as effective altruists do) its scale, neglectedness and tractability (Singer 2016, 19–20; MacAskill 2019, 12–15; Timmerman 2019, 166–68; Berkey 2020, 368–70). Regarding the scale, it is difficult to determine the exact number of wild animals that exist,[2] although we can estimate that the number is vast. Most suffer due to natural factors, and many are killed by predators. The overall amount of pain will be several orders of magnitude greater if we consider a long-term perspective, as the number of sentient animals that will live in the future is likely to be greater than the number of sentient animals that are alive now and have lived in the past as a whole. As for neglectedness, it is evident that this topic (and that of wild animal suffering in general) has received very little attention from animal charities or other organisations (for an exception, see Animal Ethics 2020). Finally, regarding tractability, there are different courses of action that could be implemented to prevent predation. I will now consider four of them. The first two are more speculative, and their expected results would need to be researched in far more detail before they could be implemented, which should first occur through pilot programmes. Meanwhile, the third and the fourth ones could be applied immediately and are much less controversial.

First, it has been argued that resources could be devoted to researching how to perform interventions similar to the natural evolution that led to the herborisation of some previously predatory species (e.g. the giant panda). This could be done by genetically modifying predators so that their offspring gradually becomes herbivorous, consequently changing their predatory behaviour (Pearce 2009; Palmer 2013; McMahan 2016; Bramble 2021; Johannsen 2021).

Second, resources could be devoted to organising the gradual extinction of predatory species (Pearce 2009; McMahan 2016; Bramble 2021), for example, by administering contraceptives to predators and allowing them to gradually disappear. Depot-contraception (a form of contraceptive injection that prevents ovulation in females) could be administered to carnivores, causing predatory animals to disappear within a few generations, and the resulting population effects on predated spices could be managed through more selective forms of contraception. Such advanced contraceptive techniques could be controlled by computer programs, which would be tested first on a small scale and then applied on a larger scale.

Third, the resources currently used to promote the conservation of predators (which are sometimes significant) could be allocated elsewhere, potentially having a better impact, while allowing the predators to disappear naturally (Cowen 2003).

Fourth, reforestation plans could be designed so the resulting ecosystems contain less rather than more predation. Different types of plants can support different types of animals. Accordingly, we could choose to plant types of vegetation that are less likely to support predators (Animal Ethics 2020).

If the arguments made in the previous sections are correct, then all the courses of action indicated above should be considered acceptable. However, many people will find this counterintuitive in the first two cases, despite the arguments presented above. Nevertheless, the latter two approaches could be considered acceptable by anyone willing to give at least some weight to the interests of wild animals. This means that preventing predation is tractable, at least in some ways.

Conclusion

I have argued that intervening to prevent harms to animals resulting from predation is morally right. Those who argue that we should not act in cases of predation must rely on ad hoc responses to intervention in scenarios in which such action seems to be the right choice. Admittedly, this will likely be a counterintuitive conclusion for many people, although the arguments I have presented appear to imply it. However, while some of the approaches for preventing predation may appear contrary to intuition, that is not true for all of them.

Notes:

[1] It could be also be defended from a rights perspective, wild animals can certainly harm each other, but they cannot violate the rights of others (Regan 1983; Jamieson 1990; Cohen 1997; Milburn 2015); of capacities, the capacity of specific species to flower, requiring a type of predation (Nussbaum 2006; Schlosberg, 2006; Cripps 2010); or of the community of animals, as it is reasonable to assume that wild animals are fully competent to address the challenges they face (Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011).

[2] Specifically, there are estimated to be 1011–4·1011 birds, 1011–1012 mammals, 1011–1014 reptiles, 1011–1014 amphibians, 1013–1015 fish, 1014–1017 earthworms 1014–1017 mites, 1015–1018 polyps, 1017–1019 terrestrial arthropods, 1017–1019 rotifers, 1019 gastrotrichs, 1018 copepods and 1020–1022 nematodes (Tomasik 2019).

 

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6 Responses to Why Preventing Predation Can Be a Morally Right Cause for Effective Altruism?

  • Paul D. VanPelt says:

    Interesting notion and perspective. I am totally unsure of practicability. The trapped animal scenarios represent what some philosophers have called brute facts. These things transpire in the food chain scheme of things—they are elements of reality in an ongoing sense. I have examined a relation between reality and context and concluded we, as humans, can and do create reality to suit our interests, preferences and motives. These ‘realities’ are often or mostly of little interest to many others; abhorrent to some: one person’s vision of reality does not amount to reality for all. A former president illustrated this in numerous words and actions. Contextual reality may reside on a continuum, ranging from mildly absurd through reckless to deadly. It is happening every day. I don’t think anyone can predict with confidence outcome(s) of altruistic interventions in predation. Not with certainty, anyway. Natural processes do not behave in accord with what we might direct. That is not the theoretical contextual reality I sketched above. If falls more nearly under the brute facts category.

    Another commenter to Practical Ethics addressed the paper on responsibility gaps, thoughtfully and lucidly. I would highly recommend anyone reading his thoughts thereon and considering his reasonings there for. The topics there and here are related, seems to me. And LV, I think, would likely agree.
    There are matters of practicability over which we have some control if we are not too excruciatingly lazy. There are other projects which do not suggest such malleability.

    • Pablo Neira says:

      Thank you very much for your comment, Paul. It is not clear to me how you are using the term “brute fact”. I assume that you mean that predation is a fact that we cannot intervene in any way. That is, predation is something that occurs, and we cannot affect it with our actions. Therefore, you conclude that eliminating or reducing predation is neither viable nor treatable.

      Your conclusion does not seem to affect my central thesis: there are moral reasons to intervene against predation given the harm suffered by some wild animals. I understand that you are focusing on another issue: whether or not we can intervene in predation. To this question, your answer is no. Briefly, I will explore some of the possible actions that we could take. I assume that you deny the possibility that any of these actions could be effective.

      If this is the case, it seems to me that your conclusion is incorrect. Humans constantly intervene in nature. For example, we can reintroduce predators to an area, potentially increasing the suffering of the wild animals that live there (e.g. the reintroduction of wolves in habitats where there were no predators). Alternatively, we can protect some species so that they are not preyed upon (e.g. there are actions to protect sea turtles from predators until they reach the sea after their birth). Therefore, it is possible to intervene and affect situations where predation occurs (either preventing it or promoting it). Based on the previous examples, intervening in predation is possible, and I believe it is relevant to look for actions that aim to intervene seeking to increase the well-being – or reduce suffering – of wild animals (following my main thesis).

      Another question might be whether the removal of predation as a whole is treatable. Although I do not deal with this topic directly in the article, I will answer it briefly. Although the harms caused by predation may not be completely solved at present (for example, due to technical limitations or the lack of interest of the public), it does not imply that we are not capable of minimizing a portion of the problem. That is, we can carry out actions that lead to a reduction of part of the suffering. We can even look for actions that serve to establish a base for a complete solution in the future. For example, assuming that we are unaware of many relevant aspects to tackle predation, we can promote more research to accumulate greater knowledge or develop disciplines such as welfare biology. In any case, I think targeted actions are beyond the scope of my paper. I hope I have answered you and that my response serves to expand the debate.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    In the interest of fairness, I decided to re-read this post, to ascertain whether my comments were too harsh. I don’t believe they were and have other offerings for possible discussion. But I will sit on my thoughts and see what others may wish to add here. If anyone expands upon what I have opined, then that gives those ideas either validity or dashes them on the rocks. I don’t take it personal in either case. In other words, have at it folks. I would love to read what you have to say. And add, accordingly—or, continue to sit on my thoughts.
    Errata: for a time, I followed some posts from a blog out of an American university, dealing with altruism, philanthropy and musings about what those things meant to anyone and why. There were no useful conclusions or resolutions reached on any questions, far as I know. I encouraged some therewith involved to try harder, think better and do the best they could with what they have and know. Sometimes philosophy seeks to kill both the song and the piano player. That could be a problem…

    • Pablo Neira says:

      Thank you very much for your comment, Paul. It is not clear to me how you are using the term “brute fact”. I assume that you mean that predation is a fact that we cannot intervene in any way. That is, predation is something that occurs, and we cannot affect it with our actions. Therefore, you conclude that eliminating or reducing predation is neither viable nor treatable.

      Your conclusion does not seem to affect my central thesis: there are moral reasons to intervene against predation given the harm suffered by some wild animals. I understand that you are focusing on another issue: whether or not we can intervene in predation. To this question, your answer is no. Briefly, I will explore some of the possible actions that we could take. I assume that you deny the possibility that any of these actions could be effective.

      If this is the case, it seems to me that your conclusion is incorrect. Humans constantly intervene in nature. For example, we can reintroduce predators to an area, potentially increasing the suffering of the wild animals that live there (https://philpapers.org/rec/HORTEO-7). Alternatively, we can protect some species so that they are not preyed upon (e.g. there are actions to protect sea turtles from predators until they reach the sea after their birth). Therefore, it is possible to intervene and affect situations where predation occurs (either preventing it or promoting it). Based on the previous examples, intervening in predation is possible, and I believe it is relevant to look for actions that aim to intervene seeking to increase the well-being – or reduce suffering – of wild animals (following my main thesis).

      Another question might be whether the removal of predation as a whole is treatable. Although I do not deal with this topic directly in the article, I will answer it briefly. Although the harms caused by predation may not be completely solved at present (for example, due to technical limitations or the lack of interest of the public), it does not imply that we are not capable of minimizing a portion of the problem. That is, we can carry out actions that lead to a reduction of part of the suffering. We can even look for actions that serve to establish a base for a complete solution in the future. For example, assuming that we are unaware of many relevant aspects to tackle predation, we can promote more research to accumulate greater knowledge or develop disciplines such as welfare biology. In any case, I think targeted actions are beyond the scope of my paper. Therefore, I will leave a couple of links that may be of interest to you:

      https://www.herbivorizepredators.org/
      https://www.animal-ethics.org/introduction-to-welfare-biology/
      https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/the-meat-eaters/

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    In your response to my comments, you referred to treatability and /or viability in the first paragraph. With some due respect, you miss my point, and I, yours. Or, more probably, we just disagree. Which is ordinary. Brute facts go way back, to,Hobbes, I think. So, if you assert we ought to alter those, somehow, because we CAN, that enters the realm of contextual reality, to which I have previously alluded. We, as sentient beings(?), have created and recreated this. Contextualization has been going on since Christ was a cowboy. Morally-right-cause-for-effective-altruism fails and has failed.
    .

  • Mihai Voicu says:

    In my view, helping one antelope is morally neutral. One should do whatever he/she feels.

    I we move to Kantian universals, we could argue that helping all antelope might be morally wrong, by reducing the fauna diversity of the predators. However, I don’t think this is really an ethical question in practice, except for endangered species. If the predators are overpopulating and the antelope would be close to extinction, it would be right to help the antelope from a practical perspective.

    I think it is hard to build an Ethic that is not human centric. All our intuitions about ethics comes from empathy to humans and some extend it to animals. It is not wrong, and it is not right. I think preserving the Life’s biodiversity is a desirable outcome.

    I cannot paste actual links, my reflection on subject can be found at:
    https://meaningofstuff.blogspot.com/2015/11/on-morality-applied-to-animals.html

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