Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics, “How should vegetarians actually live?"

In 2016, I was the joint winner in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Read my essay here, or below.

Ethical vegetarians abstain from eating animal flesh because they care about the harm done to farmed animals. More precisely, they believe that farmed animals have lives so bad they are not worth living, so that it is better for them not to come into existence. Vegetarians reduce the demand for meat, so that farmers will breed fewer animals, preventing the existence of additional animals. If ethical vegetarians believed animals have lives that are unpleasant but still better than non-existence, they would focus on reducing harm to these animals without reducing their numbers, for instance by supporting humane slaughter or buying meat from free-range cows.

I will argue that if vegetarians were to apply this principle consistently, wild animal suffering would dominate their concerns, and may lead them to be stringent anti-environmentalists.

If animals like free-range cows have lives that are not worth living, almost all wild animals could plausibly be thought to also have lives that are worse than non-existence. Nature is often romanticised as a well-balanced idyll, so this may seem counter-intuitive. But extreme forms of suffering like starvation, dehydration, or being eaten alive by a predator are much more common in wild animals than farm animals. Crocodiles and hyenas disembowel their prey before killing them[1]. In birds, diseases like avian salmonellosis produce excruciating symptoms in the final days of life, such as depression, shivering, loss of appetite, and just before death, blindness, incoordination, staggering, tremor and convulsions.[2] While a farmed animal like a free-range cow has to endure some confinement and a premature and potentially painful death (stunning sometimes fails), a wild animal may suffer comparable experiences, such as surviving a cold winter or having to fear predators, while additionally undergoing the aforementioned extreme suffering[3]. Wild animals do experience significant pleasure, for instance when they eat, play or have sex, or engage in other normal physical activity. One reason to suspect that this pleasure is outweighed by suffering is that most species use the reproductive strategy of r-selection, which means that the overwhelming majority of their offspring starve or are eaten shortly after birth and only very few reach reproductive age.[4],[5] For instance, ‘in her lifetime a lioness might have 20 cubs; a pigeon, 150 chicks; a mouse, 1000 kits’,[6] the vast majority of which will die before they could have had many pleasurable experiences. Overall, it seems plausible that wild animals have worse lives than, say, free-range cows. If vegetarians think the latter are better off not existing, they must believe the same thing about wild animals.

A second important empirical fact is that wild animals far outnumber farmed animals. Using figures from the FAO, Tomasik estimates that the global livestock population is 24 billion (including 17 billion chicken)[7]. I restrict my count of wild animals to those at least as complex as chicken or small fish, which vegetarians clearly believe do have moral weight. Using studies of animal density in different biomes, Tomasik estimates conservatively that there are at least 6*1010 land birds, 1011 land mammals, and 1013 fish. Animals in each of these categories alone are several times more numerous than livestock.

If wild animals’ well-being is negative and the above numbers are remotely correct, the scale of wild animal suffering is vast. As Richard Dawkins writes, ‘During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease.’[8] If they accept the premises so far, consistent vegetarians should focus on preventing the existence of as many wild animals as possible, since even a small reduction in the global number of wild animals would outweigh the impact of ending all livestock production. For example, they could reduce animal populations by sterilising them, or by destroying highly dense animal habitats such as rainforests. This would place them directly at odds with environmentalists who try to preserve nature from human intervention. It may even be the case that vegetarians should react to this argument by eating more meat, since feeding the livestock requires more surface area for agriculture, and fields contain far fewer wild animals per square kilometre than other biomes such as forests.

An intuitive response to wild animal suffering can be that cycles of predation and starvation are natural, and therefore they must be neutral morally. But what is natural is not necessarily what is good, for instance, humans will routinely use technology to remove diseases which are natural.

It is important to emphasize that the claim ‘wild animal suffering is bad’ does not imply a guilt claim of the form ‘predators are morally guilty’. A lion’s instinct is indeed natural and does not deserve our moral condemnation. However, we can avoid much confusion if we remember to keep separate the concepts of guilt of an agent and wrongness of an action. It is perfectly possible to claim that X is harmful and should be prevented while also holding that the direct cause of X is not a moral agent. The fact that we are so used to thinking about cases of human behaviour, where guilt and wrongness are largely aligned, may partly explain why arguments about wild animal suffering seem counter-intuitive.

Underlying some of these principled arguments is the intuition that harmful acts, like killing livestock, are worse than harmful omissions, like failing to avert wild animal suffering. I cannot begin to give a full treatment to the act/omission debate here, but one thought experiment suggests harmful omissions matter at least somewhat. Imagine you see a fire spreading in a forest and, while walking away from the fire, you see an injured fawn: a broken leg prevents her from fleeing. You carry a rifle and could instantly kill the fawn at no cost to yourself, preventing her from the extreme suffering of being burned alive. In this situation, for vegetarians who care about harm to animals, it is clear that it would be immoral to omit to act and allow wild animal suffering to happen. So the general principle ‘allowing wild animals to suffer is morally neutral’ cannot hold.

A second set of counter-arguments are empirical: they concede that consistent vegetarians are morally obliged to reduce wild animal suffering, but attack various empirical claims made above.

It may be objected that we cannot reduce the number of animals by sterilising them, because as soon as fewer animals are born, more resources (like food and territory) become available, which increases the evolutionary payoff of producing more animals. If we sterilise some deer, there will at first be fewer fawns, so there will be more nuts and berries available, which allows other deer (or other species) to have more offspring, until we are back to the original equilibrium. The existence of such evolutionary pressures towards an equilibrium population seems plausible, but it remains an unsolved empirical question. It may be the case that the population takes several years to reach its equilibrium again, in which case much animal suffering would be averted in the meantime. Regardless, this is only an objection against one particular method for reducing wild animal numbers, and it only tells us that sterilisation would be ineffective, not harmful. If we reject sterilisation on these grounds, habitat destruction, for instance, evidently does reduce animal numbers for the long run.

A frequent objection against intervening in nature is that we are uncertain about the consequences: for instance, culling predators might cause an ecological catastrophe. While our uncertainty is a good reason to do more research in order to reduce it, it is not in principle an argument for inaction. If we are so uncertain, inaction towards predation could also be causing vastly more suffering than we currently estimate. In order to make sure our aversion to intervene is not caused by status quo bias, we can use the reversal test,[9] an elegant instance of which is provided by the reintroduction of wolves in Scotland, where they had been hunted to extinction in the 1700s.[10] If we are more worried about the uncertain effects of reintroducing wolves than we are about the uncertainty of inaction towards wolf predation, this may be due to status quo bias.

Possibly the strongest counter-argument is that we are extremely uncertain about whether wild animals’ lives are worth living. How much pain or pleasure animals feel in response to certain stimuli is dependent on facts about their neurology which is not well understood. While we may make some reasonable extrapolation from our human experience (being eaten alive is very painful), animal subjective experience may differ significantly. While animals might experience hedonic adaptation[11] to their circumstances, encounters with predators produce lasting psychological damage similar to post-traumatic stress disorder in humans.[12] There is some evidence that domesticated animals are less stressed,[13] but measures of stress hormones may not coincide with animals’ revealed preferences[14]. Clearly, I do not pretend to have solved this difficult empirical question. However I note that these considerations should also make us uncertain about the subjective well-being of farmed animals; and I have already offered reasons why wild animals plausibly have worse lives than free-range animals.

Even if vegetarians still reject this argument, and believe that wild animals’ lives are better than the lives of farm animals, to the extent that they are worth living, this does not imply they should do nothing. They should not reduce animal numbers, but they should still reduce the suffering of existing animals. Because there are so many animals and the suffering they undergo can be so extreme, this consideration would likely still dominate concern about farmed animals. One could vaccinate animals against diseases: rabies has already been eliminated from foxes for human benefit[15]. After elephants’ teeth wear out, they are no longer able to chew food and eventually collapse from hunger, after which they may be eaten alive by scavengers and predators. Fitting elephants with artificial dentures, which has already been done on captive animals, would significantly increase their healthspan[16]. Or one could cull predator populations by allowing more of them to be hunted.

A possible concern with this type of intervention may be that any advantage given to a particular individual by reducing their suffering would increase the suffering of others. For instance, if elephants can eat for longer, more other herbivores will starve; or if we kill predators, their prey will proliferate and their competitors will starve. If we think that ecosystems lie on such a razor-sharp evolutionary equilibrium where all animals are strongly competing for every piece of resource, this objection is plausible. But crucially, if we accept this, then it is becomes plausible that wild animals actually do have lives that are not worth living: if evolution produces so many animals that each can just barely survive, it is likely that they endure much suffering and little pleasure. So it seems like we must either accept that some interventions can reduce extreme wild animal suffering, or concede that animals’ lives are plausibly not worth living.

Some may choose to treat this outlandish conclusion as a reductio against vegetarianism (either against the idea that farm animals matter morally or against the belief that we should prevent them from coming into existence). Perhaps vegetarians who still reject the conclusion should increase their confidence that buying free-range meat is a good thing. For those who accept it, the question of how most effectively to reduce wild animal suffering is left open. As I have repeatedly emphasised, we are still very ignorant about many relevant empirical questions, so immediate large-scale intervention will not be very effective. In addition, intervention may have significant backlash effects and reduce sympathy for the anti-speciesist message. The best immediate action is probably to produce more research on wild animal suffering, in order to make future action more likely to be effective.

[1] Dawrst, Alan. "The predominance of wild-animal suffering over happiness: An open problem." Essays on Reducing Suffering (2009): 255-85.

[2] Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "Salmonellosis." Quoted in Tomasik, “The Importance of Wild Animal Suffering”

[3] Tomasik, Brian. “Intention-Based Moral Reactions Distort Intuitions about Wild Animals.” Essays on Reducing Suffering (2013)

[4] Horta, Oscar. "Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes: population dynamics and suffering in the wild." Télos 17.1 (2010): 73-88.

[5] Ng, Yew-Kwang. "Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering." Biology and Philosophy 10.3 (1995): 255-285.

[6] Fred, Hapgood. Why males exist: an inquiry into the evolution of sex. 1979. Quoted in Tomasik, “The Importance of Wild Animal Suffering”.

[7] Tomasik, Brian. "How Many Wild Animals Are There?." Essays on Reducing Suffering (2014).

[8] Dawkins, Richard. River out of Eden: A Darwinian view of life. Basic Books, 1996.

[9] Bostrom, Nick, and Toby Ord. "The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics*." Ethics 116.4 (2006): 656-679.

[10] "Wild Wolves 'good for Ecosystems'" BBC News. BBC, 31 Jan. 2007. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

[11] Frederick, Shane, and George Loewenstein. "Hedonic adaptation." (1999).

[12] Zoladz, Phillip R. An ethologically relevant animal model of post-traumatic stress disorder: Physiological, pharmacological and behavioral sequelae in rats exposed to predator stress and social instability. Diss. University of South Florida, 2008.

[13] Wilcox, Chritie. "Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?" Scientific American Blog. N.p., 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.

[14] Dawkins, M. S. "Using behaviour to assess animal welfare." Animal welfare-potters bar then Wheathampstead- 13 (2004): S3-S8.

[15] Freuling, Conrad M., et al. "The elimination of fox rabies from Europe: determinants of success and lessons for the future." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 368.1623 (2013): 20120142.

[16] Pearce, David. "A Welfare State for Elephants?." RELATIONS 3.2. November 2015-Wild Animal Suffering and Intervention in Nature: Part II (2015): 153.


Written on July 4, 2016