Animal Rights and Policing Nature


If animals have rights, it is sometimes asked, do we have obligations to police nature? To what extent should we intervene, if at all, in predator-prey relationships so ubiquitous in the wild? Is animal rights philosophy necessarily hostile to ecological concerns? What are the boundaries of our moral responsibility for others in general, including humans? It is clear that we should eliminate all intentional, avoidable, and unnecessary harm and violence against others and that we should reduce regrettable, but practically necessary harmful side-effects of our actions as much as possible; but what about our obligations to physically or militarily intervene to prevent the immoral actions of others? Is the behavior of true carnivores – who for all practical purposes need to kill to survive – immoral? [1] Would the world be better off without true carnivores? These are all difficult questions. Like many questions regarding ethics and morals in all areas, these questions are about where lines should be drawn. These questions also bring up conflicts between holist and individualist ways of viewing ethics, which go to the root of ethical and moral foundations.My goal in this essay will be to propose general answers to some of these questions within the context of prima facie rights and duties, giving priority to the interests of individuals, but also considering the holist point of view, at least to the consequentialist extent of preserving a sustainable ecosystem and environment. I’m using the word consequentialist instead of utilitarian because while I see the need to consider ecosystem and environmental consequences for the goal of preventing serious harm in these areas, I do not see a need to maximize environmental balance and health, as if such maximization of environmental balance and health were the summum bonum of human and nonhuman activity. First, if such maximization were the summum bonum, the first step would be to abolish all cities and virtually all of modern industry and transportation and cull the enormous planetary human herd of six billion; a step that I’m glad to dismiss out of hand, if for no other reason than it would violate the rights of many individuals. It would also be difficult to achieve a political consensus on the matter of who gets culled and why (we humans – including ecologists embracing holism – tend to take our own individual rights to life very seriously, or at least more seriously than we generally take others’ rights to life, human or not). Second, I value existing individual consciousness and sentience, human and nonhuman, far more than an aesthetically-pleasing and balance-maximizing “ideal ecosystem”. Obviously, we need to protect ecosystems and the environment sufficiently for survival and health of current and future generations, but concern for the environment is very much a utility concern akin to our concern for the condition of our home: we want it clean, balanced, and livable, both now and in the future, and perhaps cleaner and more livable than it is now, but there’s no need for perfect balance and to make the environment immaculate as if it were a museum piece (even if it were possible to do so).

Policing Humans and Nonhumans

Regular readers of this blog will probably begin to notice a certain approach that I take to answering ethical and moral questions surrounding animal rights, which is an approach based on respect for generally accepted human rights: first, look to the precedent established in human rights; second, see if that precedent needs any revisions based on differences in surrounding circumstances. I will approach the “policing nature” questions in the same way.

If humans in remote and sometimes violent areas of the planet have moral rights – and I take for granted that they do, even if they have no legal rights – then do we have obligations to police predatory behavior of local tribes, tyrants, or chieftains? And if “we” do, who is “we”? Do we personally, as individual citizens of economically developed country X, have an obligation to hop a plane to underdeveloped country Y and “take care of business” over there, restoring justice? Or is it our government and volunteer military operating under a liberal democratic political system that would take on this responsibility? Or perhaps our government’s and voluntary military’s responsibility is to safeguard our national interests and not to assure human rights for the six billion human inhabitants of the planet? Isn’t the question of how much “we” (i.e. our country or the United Nations) should do to police the world really more of a complicated political question with difficult moral and ethical considerations than a question of human rights, per se? It certainly seems so to me.

It should be clear after a short reflection on the above paragraph that the question of how much we should “police nature”, particularly in developing a society-wide policy on such policing, is more a complicated political question with the same difficult moral and ethical considerations than a question of animal rights, per se. Granted, there are no governments or political factions in the wilderness, but that doesn’t change the political nature of the debate of what “we” should do about policing nature. In addition, many of the human conflicts inflicted by tyrants around the world really are akin to life in the wilderness rather than life in a civilized, governed political society. Predation (or worse, planned genocide) is precisely what goes on in many world conflicts. Being the political question that it is, it is a question better addressed in a society of vegans, who will probably disagree on “where to draw the line” on policing nature as much as citizens who strongly promote human rights currently differ over “where to draw the line” on policing human activity outside of one’s own country.

It also should be clear that a cost-benefit analysis, including costs to the balance of ecosystems, should be considered. Personally, I think we should protect the rights of as many non-predatory humans or nonhumans as we can reasonably afford to protect, even if we must override the rights of a fewer number of predatory humans or nonhumans. How many we can reasonably afford to protect – regardless of whether they are human or nonhuman – depends on not only the potential costs of lives in the attempt to protect, but also the costs of the degree of harm to an ecosystem that causes serious hardship to members of the ecosystem, whether those members are human, nonhuman, presently existing, or to exist in the future. In other words, to what degree, if at all, we should police nature is a complicated question, and one that even a society of vegans would have significant political differences over. Policing nature is also an issue – like other complicated political and moral questions about policing humans – that generally ought to be decided on a case-by-case basis, with case analyses on specific proposals with specific facts about specific ecologies considered in light of the moral implications of animal rights, which, just like human rights, need not be absolute. We need not settle the issue here with broad, sweeping generalizations sure to apply only to a few specific cases, if any at all. Most importantly, as we will see in the next section, there are more immediate concerns to address in our “protection” of animals; specifically, that we should start leaving animals alone by not intentionally breeding them into existence and abusing and slaughtering them before we talk about protecting wild animals in nature.

The Implications of Animal Rights

As we established in previous essays, animals have the basic rights to physical security and not to be property against humans by virtue of their sentience. [2] The duty of humans regarding these basic rights is essentially to abstain from intentionally harming animals and taking reasonable actions to prevent or reduce unintentional harm. [3]

If we breed animals into existence, purchase them (of course, breeding, selling, and purchasing animals should be illegal) or adopt them, we acquire the duty – as we would acquire the duty if we adopted children – to take further steps to protect their rights as their guardians which goes beyond our duty to abstain from harming them or our duty to take reasonable actions to prevent or reduce unintentional harm. Our acquired duties toward animals we take action to bring into existence (or who exist due to our negligence) or become the guardians of, like our acquired duties toward those humans whom we become the guardians of, are far more stringent than the duties we have to those beings, human or nonhumans, whose existence is not our responsibility or whom we have not become the guardians of.

Domesticated versus Wild Animals

Domesticated animals, by definition, are those who have been brought into existence by the intention or negligence of humans (e.g. negligence involving failure to spay or neuter). Because of this intentional action or negligent non-action, we have acquired duties toward those animals whose existence is our responsibility which, as stated in the section above, go beyond and are far more stringent than the duties we have toward wild animals whose existence is not our responsibility.

Our acquired responsibility toward domesticated animals is to provide a comfortable existence, including food, shelter, the ability to engage in natural harmless behavior, and reasonable protection from harms. If we do not want this responsibility, we should avoid negligently or intentionally allowing domesticated animals to breed and we should avoid purchasing or adopting them. Of course, if we want to take on this responsibility, we should only adopt since there are millions too many unwanted domesticated animals already in existence.

As for wild animals, we are not responsible for their existence and have no acquired duties to provide for them. We only have duties to abstain from intentionally harming wild animals and taking reasonable actions to prevent or reduce unintentional harm. [3] Our duties to police their behavior, just as in the case of policing humans in remote areas and other countries, are limited in any case to reasonable actions (i.e. there are no stringent duties here) and range from no such duties to duties determined on a case-by-case basis considering and balancing ecological sustainability concerns, the advice of experts, and the rights of individual animals.

The Unreasonable Assumptions of Animal Exploitation Advocates

One of the reasons for writing on this topic is that sometimes animal exploitation advocates bring up the impossibility of “policing all of nature” as an attempted, but failed, reductio ad absurdum of the animal rights position in general.

One sure sign of speciesism is the tendency to, first, cast animal rights in absolute terms admitting no exceptions and to project our corresponding duties as absolutely stringent and impossible to achieve, and second, choose the other extreme of doing whatever we please to animals. The speciesist notion goes something like this: if animals have rights, then that would require us to establish a planetary utopia whereby we must prevent all harm from any source whatsoever from visiting on animals (one imagines hurling oneself into the path of lightning bolts halfway across the globe and generally doing endless battle with Zeus). Since we cannot achieve such a state of affairs, so say animal exploitation advocates, we ought to abandon any ideas of rights and accept the opposite extreme of doing whatever we please, perhaps “mitigated” by (impotent) welfare laws.

Animal exploitation advocates ignore all of the middle ground and reasonableness that we apply in formulating and applying human rights, both practically and theoretically, when they think of animal rights. There is a palpable intellectual dishonesty in the exploitation advocates’ “ignorance of” or refusal to acknowledge the middle ground and reasonableness of animal rights and the similarities, particularly in this regard, of human rights and animal rights in both theory and practice.

The exploitation advocates’ dishonesty and “disunderstanding” (dishonest misunderstanding) would ordinarily not fly as well as it does in our society if not for the cultural prejudice of speciesism currently so prevalent in society to being with. Indeed, most people, when faced with the ignorance and corresponding fear of the unknown of veganism (which is actually an easy, healthy, and delightful way to eat), are all too happy to “play dumb” and ignore this dishonesty. The good news is that this dishonesty can only be a temporary obstacle for animal rights. The longer the light of day shines on the ease and healthy living of veganism and the exploiters’ dishonesty, the less sway the exploiters’ objections will have. Assuming progress in human civilization over the coming decades, someday, hopefully soon, it will be utterly embarrassing, as it should be, to put forth the objections that are so commonly offered by today’s animal exploitation advocates.



[1] Humans sometimes refer to themselves as “carnivores.” In contrast to true carnivores, applying the word “carnivore” to a human is absurd. As opposed to scavenger “carnivores” (who are better categorized as necrovores or omnivores), true carnivores kill prey with their fangs and claws; are fast, quick, tough and very strong considering their body weight; tear through and easily digest raw, living, bloody flesh; and eat the being while the blood is still warm and before any disease and rot has had an opportunity to infest the body. True carnivores have short digestive tracts and not only can, but generally must, eat virtually nothing but muscle, blood, fat, and entrails (i.e. no vegan food). A true carnivore’s survival needs will always at least excuse, if not justify, behavior otherwise considered immoral. So even if true carnivores could deliberate morally, they would be excused from their otherwise immoral behavior due to survival requirements.

Contrast that with humans: we cannot hunt without artificial weapons; we’re slow, physically soft and dull, and relatively weak considering our body weight; we have harmless teeth and nails; we have long, ape-like vegetarian digestive tracts, and usually cook the disease out of rotting flesh (as opposed to eating it fresh, warm, bloody, and raw). Most of us would be disgusted by precisely what a true carnivore (or even a true scavenger/omnivore) eats. The more we consume animal products, the more we are overcome by heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, strokes, and cancer. [1.1] It is quite clear that we are best suited to a diet with little or no animal products.

[1.1] For more information on the health benefits of veganism, check out Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine and The China Study.

[2] See Sentience: The Morally Relevant Characteristic Justifying Basic Rights and Property Status and Animal Welfare: Two Deep Roots of Cruelty.

[3] “Reasonable actions” means that we are not obligated to incur significant personal cost or sacrifice, or disrupt our lives, to prevent or reduce unintentional harm. It means that if there is something relatively inexpensive and risk-free we can do or implement to prevent or reduce unintentional harm, we ought to do it. The same standard arises in our obligations to prevent or reduce unintentional harm toward humans. In fact, the law in the United States does not require us to assist others even if there is no cost to us in attempting to do so; it is more lenient than what I propose in this essay.

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