An Ethic of Intervention
There is suffering. We can be certain of it because we experience it directly.
We are the only authorities on our own suffering, as we are the only ones experiencing it directly. But, we can assume that other minds experience it too, in a variety of ways. This certainly includes all fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and perhaps even insects and other arthropods. We are open to there being significantly more minds than that, and of radically different kinds than that, but for the purposes of our current work, our focus is on animals. Our focus is also exclusively on suffering on Earth. Given that there appear to be no minds in the near vicinity of Earth, and our capacity to reduce the suffering of those outside that area is zero, to be effective we must keep our focus only on Earth.
Our focus is on wild animals, because they bear the brunt of suffering on Earth at present. And, to that end, the only acceptable action for us is the one which reduces their suffering the most. We must explicitly endorse an ethic that is in direct conflict with wilderness conservation. The wild that is conserved through these efforts has preventable suffering, so we have an obligation to prevent it. Nature holds no value in and of itself, and no value at all outside of humanity’s personal attachment to it. And while the loss of something humanity is attached to certainly causes suffering for humans, it seems safe to say that this suffering is minimal compared to that of animals in the wild. The moral crisis of nature is not that the status quo is threatened, but that the status quo is terrible.
Consider two possible universes, two possible options to make real.
In the first universe, on Earth, humans have cured all diseases, both for themselves and their companion animals. Wars have ended, government is democratic or otherwise fair, resources are communal, and wealth is abundant. Bigotry, racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have been eradicated, both from the everyday actions of individuals and from the systems of laws or other social bonds that govern human interactions. There is plenty for all, and resources are harvested sustainably and thoughtfully. People live good lives with minimal suffering, for the most part.
In this world, animal agriculture has been eliminated, and animal products are not consumed or otherwise used by humans. On the farms that remain, animals are not killed indirectly from harvesting machines or accidentally through other processes. Humans have eliminated to the greatest extent possible the suffering that they cause directly in our current world.
In the areas touched less by humans, the “wild”, animals live their lives much as they do now. They reproduce. They are hunted by other animals. They play. They graze. They die. When a deer breaks her leg, she has no options but to wander for days, in unbearable pain, until she is violently killed by a mountain lion, or dies of infection or starvation. Some animals live in fear, others live quiet lives. Some animals endure incredible stress, living at the edge of starvation, hunted, exhausted, and alone. Animals die from infectious diseases regularly, or the stress of drought, starvation, or the seasonal changes that destroy their habitats.
In the second universe, for humans, the conditions are similar. Animal agriculture has been eliminated, along with disease, discrimination, and poverty. Humans are comfortable and have eliminated the suffering they cause directly to the greatest extent possible.
And nonhumans in the wild are comfortable too. They don’t live in fear of being hunted. There is not violence in everyday life. Infectious diseases, illness, predation, starvation, and climatic changes that cause harm have been eliminated or reduced to the greatest extent possible. The survival rate for conscious minds is much higher. Animals live longer lives, and they tend to be lives worth living.
To any individual given the opportunity to make one of these universes a reality, the choice is obvious. One would always choose the second universe. It is a better place precisely because it has less suffering.
But that universe is not a fantasy, it is an option. The primary principle of wilderness conservation is that nature is valuable because it is unchanged. But nature changes on its own, and not for the better. We have the choice to influence that change. To intervene and make nature better. The way that nature is and has been is at its most basic, terrible. It is unpleasant, unkind, and above all, full of preventable suffering.
There is a species on Earth with the capacity to significantly reduce that suffering. Because of that capacity, that species has an obligation to intervene in nature. An obligation to steward it to reduce the suffering of animals, wild and farmed. An obligation to analyze nature’s systems and ecologies, and to take the steps which make nature better for its inhabitants. To not do so is not only a misstep. It is wrong. We must intervene.