Seven Broad Rules for Effective Discussions of Participation Ethics
Due to the small size of the movement to create a research field of welfare biology, and to raise interest in reducing wild animal suffering, it is critical that proponents of reducing wild animal suffering use language carefully and effectively.
Because reducing wild animal suffering (RWAS) ideas tend to be in direct conflict with conservation ethics, and because conservation ethics are dominant among animal rights activists, biologists, and progressives, it is critical to both present RWAS ideas as part of a broader nature ethic, and in as clear a way as possible.
The language we use will be the language that is used against the movement. Keeping professional, thoughtful dialogue is crucial to widespread acceptance of these ideas.
While some of the guidelines listed are based on research conducted by Utility Farm, social psychology, and the research done by the broader animal rights movement, most of this guidance is speculative. I expect this guide to continuously be updated for future advocates.
Seven Broad Rules:
1. Talk about humanity as part of, and participating in nature, as opposed to intervening in it.
We can break down the broadly held view that humans are outside of natural systems, and therefore are somehow intruding when we act to improve the welfare of wild animals. By directly co-opting the language of environmentalism, we can appeal to the strongly held view that stewardship of natural systems is acceptable. Our language should focus on participation in natural systems and stewarding nature for the betterment of wild animal welfare, as opposed to intervening in something. We want to pose the movement as part of nature and acting on behalf of nature, as opposed to being an outside force acting against what many people see as something that valuable in and of itself.
“Nature changes on its own. Aren’t we already affecting the way that it changes by efforts to preserve species near extinction? Why not focus those efforts on making the lives of wild animal better?”
2. Emphasize the scope, but focus on the individuals
While addressing wild animal welfare is urgent due to the vast numbers of wild animals experiencing suffering, and while this scope needs to be conveyed, individual stories tend to be more effective at creating compassion and empathy for wild animals, and for animals who might not otherwise be considered moral persons.
“A pair of frogs might lay 20,000 eggs, which in turn hatch into thousands of tadpoles. But if the frog population isn’t growing, only a few will make it to adulthood. What do you think life is like for thousands of tadpoles competing for resources in a tiny pond? Imagine a newborn tadpole - she does not get care from a parent, like a human, but instead lives in constant fear of predators until she starves to death or is killed. Is this really a good life?”
3. Know your audience before mentioning controversial, speculative approaches. Focus on the reality of the movement now.
Avoiding discussion of ideas like mass predator removal, or large-scale deforestation, is crucial for bringing these ideas to the broader public. While this doesn’t mean that these potential projects shouldn’t be discussed, or that the movement shouldn’t work on issues like preventing the reintroduction of predators, etc., the focus on conversations with the public should be twofold: wild animals experience the vast majority of the suffering on earth, and because of that, we should know more about how and why they suffer.
“We need to know more about what the lives of wild animals are like. Why don’t we focus biological research on knowing how wild animals suffer, so we can do better by them in the future?”
4. Bust myths by describing successes
In my experience, one of the most common responses to introducing the idea of active participation in nature is a general view that humans will somehow “mess things up”, or that participation will have unforseen consequences (though exactly what this means is unclear). We can point out that while humans meddling in nature in the past has had unpredicted effects, we’ve not been changing natural systems with the specific intention of reducing wild animal suffering.
We can point out the cases where we have stewarded nature on behalf of animals, with positive effect. For example—
“For decades, we’ve given birth control to wild horses. This has kept the population down, and has stopped horses from competing for resources, preventing widespread starvation. What is the downside to this project?”
“If you found an injured animal in the woods, wouldn’t you bring it to a wildlife rehabilitation center? Isn’t this the sort of intervention in nature you think will cause issues? But it doesn’t - it is good for the animal to get treatment for these injuries. Humans are a part of nature, and should help animals in need of aid.”
“The cause of deforestation in the Amazon, isn’t people trying to make the lives of animals in the Amazon better. It’s people acting self-interestedly. They aren’t thinking about animals or nature, so of course animals and ecosystems end up harmed. This isn’t the same as informed action with the intention of improving the lives of animals.”
5. Appeal to conservationists’ misanthropy
Wilderness conservation is generally framed as protecting nature for nature’s sake. Humans are bad actors who can “mess up” what’s good for nature. But the underlying assumption in this language is that what’s valuable about nature is what humans find valuable about nature.
By directing attention to the fact that conservation is actually about preserving what humans find valuable, often only on aesthetic grounds, and framing conservationist projects as human projects to shape nature based on human interests, you can appeal to their sense that humans shouldn’t impose their values on natural systems to undermine conservationists’ commitments to projects like predator reintroduction.
"Is conservation about conserving nature for nature's sake, or conserving nature because people like natural spaces a certain way? We know that nature changes, why not allow changes that make the lives of animals in nature better, instead of constantly fighting that change? Why just preserve what people find aesthetically beautiful, instead of doing what reduces suffering?"
6. Provide specific calls to action
Instead of just working on making people broadly aware of wild animal suffering, providing specific actions that individuals can take might break down the conception of humans as distinct or separate from nature.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of both general knowledge about the natural systems in which suffering exists and specific knowledge about the impacts of major interventions on wild animal welfare, this may be a particularly hard task. However, specific calls to action might include encouraging people to keep their cats indoors, promoting the field of welfare biology, or encouraging people to take seriously the interests of oft neglected species.
7. Avoid talking about killing
Finally—given the general belief that euthanasia, even if painless, is bad (perhaps due to a widely ingrained belief in a right to self-determination about life, to the fullest extent possible), focusing on programs that don’t involve killing is crucial. For example, it seems likely that people are much more likely to be receptive to birth control programs that improve wild horse welfare, as opposed to killing wild horses, even if these programs have the same effect in the long run.