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"What is the Point of Wild Animals?" by Christopher Belshaw (Keywords: Ethics; death; Personhood)

White house on hill

Last summer’s top attraction at the Bempton nature reserve was the return visit of a Black Browed Albatross, one of the smaller of such species, but impressive nevertheless. The crowds were delighted to catch sight of the bird – who they referred to predictably and wincingly as Albert Ross – as it wheeled and soared around the cliffs. But it had difficulty in landing, mobbed always by the gannets who seemed to resent this interloper from the South Atlantic, and here only because it had been blown off course by freakish winds. It will never return there, unable to cross the calms of the equator, and is destined now to wander around northern Europe, attacked by eagles, competing hard for food, never to find a mate. To me, it was all rather sad. What is the point of wild animals? They’re good for us, some of them, in obvious ways. Bees help make food. Various tiny creatures, and other not so tiny, enrich the soil. And more of them are good for us in other ways, either individually, just good to look at, or collectively, as species or kinds, reminding us of the history of the planet, its fragile future, and giving stark evidence of the limits on our control. We should note as well that they can be good for each other. Kill an animal and very often other animals will suffer, losing either a parent, or the next meal, or some contributor to their habitat. But is it good for these animals themselves, considered one by one, that they come into being and then live out their lives? Should we want them, for their sakes, to survive, to flourish, and for their species to avoid extinction? I say no. In very many cases we should want them, instead, to cease to exist.


The first thing to consider is that death isn’t bad for them. Epicurus, of course, famously argued that a painless death isn’t bad for any of us, no matter how good our lives are and will be. The standard response to this is to allow that being dead isn’t intrinsically bad, but then to insist that dying, or becoming dead, is still bad if, and to the extent that, it prevents our having a good life. But this deprivation account, implying that the worst death is that of a healthy fetus, with decades ahead, needs amending. And we ought as well to consider the desire for this future life. Not only fetuses, young children, those with certain forms of brain damage, but also most animals lack such desires, and have no conception of or concern for what lies ahead. So no matter what the future, death, I argue, isn’t bad for these animals, or at least isn’t bad in a way that matters, that gives us reason, for their sake, to prevent or regret this death. A lot of people reject this outright and insist that animals do want to live on, pretty much as we do, and that they, like us, have what Bernard Williams called “categorical desires”. But supposed evidence in favour of this – migrating birds setting out for Africa; squirrels hiding nuts for the winter; or chickens, over time, establishing between themselves some pecking order – fails to do its work, just as a tree’s various mechanisms for survival – dropping its leaves in winter, growing roots in the direction of water, or to counter its precarious position on the side of a hill – fail to show that it wants to survive. Conceiving of, and then wanting a future for oneself, requires some highly sophisticating thinking, and thinking along lines of which only persons, in the Lockean sense, are capable. And few, if any, animals are persons. Suppose I’m right here, and death isn’t bad for animals. It hardly follows that it’s good for them. But to make this further move we need only consider a pair of widely accepted claims: that many animals feel pain and that pain is bad for them. But how much pain, and, overall, how bad is it? Pain, physical and psychological, varies both within and between species. So we should resist lumping all animals together – Jacques Derrida’s talk of “the animal” or Christine Korsgaard’s “the other animals” – and properly acknowledge the important differences between them. Oysters have, if anything at all, nothing near so bad a time of it as most mammals, and insects suffer much less than do fish. Even so, many animals have, surely, simply miserable lives. We might fancy there is some sort of paradise in Madagascar or Borneo but most of those we encounter, from the birds in the garden to the antelopes of the savannah, spend almost all their time hunting for food, suffering the vicissitudes of the weather, and watching nervously for creatures bigger than themselves. Don’t we need, however, to consider also their pleasures? Though it’s going to be allowed that at best just a few animals enjoy what are often called the higher pleasures – art appreciation, reflecting on acquiring some skill, a love of philosophy – still it will be said that the lower, or indeed animal, pleasures – food or sex, company, or simply basking in the sun – are very often theirs for the taking. But I doubt these pleasures are as straightforward, or as widespread, as we might think. Our pleasures here are often layered – we contrast this meal, this afternoon with others less satisfactory; sex connects with affection on the one hand, some conscious wielding of power on the other; good company is noticeably, and in many ways different from, bad. Do we really think that many animals seriously enjoy their food, that more than a few, and those mostly males, get pleasure from sex, that we can usefully refer to their offspring as children and think of them as wanting to raise a family? Some exceptions can be made. It does appear that the young of some species – perhaps most obviously, cats and sheep – do, but only for a short period, find excitement in their lives, and have what we can call fun. There is plausibly evolutionary advantage in this, but with maturity, and when lessons are learned, their lives fall into unbroken dreariness. In only a very few cases will it seem that curiosity, play, joy are for long sustained.

Suppose I am wrong about this, and that there are more pleasures in the lives of animals, and in particular wild animals, than I claim. Should we think then that perhaps they do have overall good lives, ones that are worth living? Well, even if pleasures might outweigh pains, so that there are more good parts than bad, they cannot, I argue, compensate for pains. Again, the point is one about personhood, and consciousness of time.

We can plan ahead and elect to undergo some present pains for the sake of future pleasures. We accept the pain as a cost. But an animal, I claim, can’t do this. It can’t choose pain as a part of the means to a better time ahead, can’t look back and make a judgment that the price here was, or was not, worth paying, can’t think much beyond the moment. A fox gnaws off its leg to be free of a trap. I think present pain and fear are the motivators here, rather than some calculation that opting for even more pain now will find its justification, once free, in pleasures to come. As the animal has no conception of its life as a whole, so we can’t make any assessment of its life as a whole, thinking of their lives, as we do of our own, that overall it went well or badly. So, suppose an animal does have a good future in store, and suppose as well that it has – is having – a life in which pleasure outweighs pain, still we can deny that it is good for this animal to continue in existence. And, given there are non-trivial pains lying ahead, we can claim, on the contrary, that it is better for it that its life comes, painlessly, to an end.

It surely appears that these animals, and billions more, out in the wild, live such wretched lives that it would be better for them never to have existed.

Yet I don’t need these controversial claims to make my case. It’s enough that we take seriously what, for millions of animals, are the gross imbalances between pleasures and pains. It isn’t strange that we live in an age of simply marvellous nature programmes. The technologies are available as never before, and there is, thus far, still an abundance of animals and locations to be filmed. But it is strange, I think, that millions of people enjoy watching them. Caribou wandering the Arctic wastes, lucky to find even scraps of food, penguins huddled against the elements, sea elephants, thuggish and bloodied, struggling for dominance. It surely appears that these animals, and billions more, out in the wild, live such wretched lives that it would be better for them never to have existed, and better for them, given they do exist (and that there’s considerably more misery to come) for their lives to end now. Their futures aren’t good. And their pleasures are few. Schopenhauer’s gloomy picture, where distress and discomfort are the norm, and the most that can be hoped for is an occasional brief respite, is unconvincing as an account of lives like ours. But it can certainly seem that he gets it right for animals.


Consider the so-called predator problem. My idea, that we should, insofar as we are concerned just for them, get rid of wild animals, might appear to find here some support. Even if, as Peter Singer has insisted, we can’t police the whole of nature, we could make piecemeal interventions and save a rabbit from a stoat, blue tits from magpies, the antelope from the lion. We could go further, targeting particularly voracious species and eliminating them. Some friends of animals – for example, Jeff McMahan – appear to think we should do this and so make things much better for those who right now, and usually in much larger numbers, are prey.

I disagree. Predators are not out to make trouble or bring misery into the lives of others. There’s no moral complaint regarding what they do. They are causing some animals a painful death and, of course, shortening their lives. But first, I don’t think it’s good for these animals to live longer, and so I think there’s no reason, for their sakes, to resist such shortening; and second, it isn’t clear that this death, usually quick and unexpected, will be worse for the animal than that later inflicted by starvation, disease, accident or, in rare cases, old age. So, even if we agree that predators harm their prey, still, we needn’t think they make things worse for them. Of course, I hate the cats, magpies, and sparrowhawks that pick off the songbirds – but this is because I am a sentimental animal lover. And I particularly hate to watch those bits of the nature programmes where one animal rips another apart – but that is because I am squeamish. Still, it might be better if we eliminate predators. But those then benefitted are the predators themselves, rather than their prey.

Elsewhere there is much more support for an animal elimination policy, designed this time to benefit not other animals, but just those whose lives are ended. Probably the biggest concern is food, with many millions now wanting a complete end to meat, eggs and dairy. Wild animals, it is often believed, have worthwhile lives, whereas those on farms endure too many hardships. But of course even self-professed animal liberationists don’t want to set these animals free – that’s one way, but not a good way to put an end to farming – they want them not to exist.

Contrary to widespread thinking, it is farm animals, under our control, rather than those left to fend for themselves in the wild, that have the better lives.

This gets things the wrong ways round.Certainly, there’s no defence to be made of factory farming, where conditions are simply abysmal. But think of what is often called “humane” farming. Most farm animals have only short lives. But so too do animals in the wild. Yet look to life’s quality, rather than just its quantity, and farm animals are often streets ahead. Of course, it’s mainly for economic rather than altruistic reasons, but they are cared for – provided with food, shelter, protection from predators, medicines when needed – throughout their lives. Their suffering, and no one should deny there is some, is limited. So, contrary to widespread thinking, it is farm animals, under our control, rather than those left to fend for themselves in the wild, that have the better lives. We should, if we care for animals, and, assuming they’ll exist either way, attempt to domesticate even more of them.

An objection here, and one that has many supporters, is that this simply misses the point. Animals are just not for us to use, no matter how well we use them. And wild animals are not to be interfered with, no matter how impoverished their lives. We should let nature be, not because of some religious or romantic notion that nature knows best, or will then find itself in balance, improving lives across the board, but just because its business is not ours. Of course, if we fail to let it be, and our meddling is to ill-effect, then we’ll be obliged to remedy things.But otherwise it’s hands off. There are, though, problems with this.

First, where’s the rationale for restraint? There are, understandably, limits on our interfering with other people, but it can still be right to give assistance even when it’s not requested. Why shouldn’t we make things better for suffering animals wherever they live? Second, even setting this aside, there are difficulties in marking out, and putting weight on, human interventions. Can we really hope to identify, and so then differentially deal with, the pains we have caused?

I’m in the country, cycling on a narrow road by the side of the lake, when I hear what sounds like a baby crying. Surely there are no babies, crying or otherwise, around here. But I soon discover that the noise comes from a frog, somehow caught hanging by a back leg from a thorn, and otherwise airborne, wholly unable to extricate itself. Of course I set it free, and it hops off, crying no longer. Should I have let it be? It’s hard, I say, to understand the theory that requires I leave it there, evidently distressed, soon to die. Should I have first determined whether human activity had anything to do with its predicament? Was this rose, in this place, natural, or were the seeds left there by some bird, stolen from a garden a mile or so away. Had the frog perhaps intemperately jumped out of the way of a passing car? It’s hard to believe these factors could make a difference. And of course there are many such cases. It’s hard to see how it might be bad for some animals to be killed in floods or forest fires but only on condition that human beings had some part to play in the manufacture of climate. It’s similarly hard to see how I can have a reason to save an animal from a collapsing building, but not from a collapsing rock face or tree. And it’s hard to see how the badness of extinction depends on the level of our involvement in its cause.


Picture 1901 "Interior en la calle Strand"

Imagine that strange creatures are suddenly among us. It isn’t clear whether they’ve emerged from what was the permafrost, travelled from some distant planet, or have been fabricated in a laboratory. But either way they are unfamiliar, sharing no role in our history, in our affections. They form species; they live, reproduce, and die. And imagine that these creatures, though individually and collectively they survive, lead evidently miserable lives. We shouldn’t assume this is impossible – perhaps they reproduce early on, and life is tolerable until that point. We can surely think, and with good reason, that it would be better for these creatures never to exist, and better for those that do exist to die off now. So, now it is merely an empirical question as to how far actual animals have lives like these. Most animals, and indeed most kinds of animal, don’t live wretched lives. Most animals are insects, and luckily for them, their mental capacities are insufficiently developed. But I’ve claimed that many of those for whom we have the greatest concern – especially the larger mammals, many birds, some fish, recently, the octopus – and most obviously when out in the wild, and left to their own devices, do have such lives. Suppose they do. What is the conclusion? Nothing that I’ve said entails, implies, or suggests we should just get rid of wild animals. There are, for those that are sentient, reasons to do this. But there are almost always reasons against. It’s often bad for those who survive if others of their kind, and also those of different kinds are removed. And in very many ways it is bad also for us. Balancing these different and competing reasons isn’t easy. But what we shouldn’t think is that in protecting animals, upping their wellbeing, extending their lives, and ensuring their survival, we are doing what, individually or on a one by one basis, is good for them. What would be good for them, in many cases, is simply not to exist.

Christopher Belshaw has taught philosophy at the University of California Santa Barbara, Lancaster University, the University of York and the Open University. He is currently an honorary associate at both the last two institutions. His most recent book is The Value and Meaning of Life (2020).


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider buying a copy of this issue or becoming a subscriber. We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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