Moral illusions and wild animal suffering neglect

There is a lot of suffering in wild nature: hunger, disease, parasites, predation, competition,… Given the numbers of wild animals and the intensities of suffering, we should not underestimate the moral importance of this problem of wild animal suffering. However, this problem of wild animal suffering is wildly neglected. Most people are against interventions in nature to decrease wild animal suffering and improve worldwide well-being. Luckily, in recent years a few philosophers start to tackle this problem and point at its importance (Tomasik, 2015; Faria, 2016; Horta, 2010).

What explains this wild animal suffering neglect? To answer this question, we have to look at a cluster of moral illusions, a group of cognitive biases. Moral illusions are spontaneous, intuitive moral judgments that are very persistent, but they violate our deepest moral values (Bruers, 2015). Moral illusions violate an anti-arbitrariness principle: we have to avoid all kinds of unwanted or unjustified arbitrariness. Unwanted arbitrariness is avoidable arbitrariness that cannot be wanted by everyone. For example the victims of arbitrary discrimination cannot want their arbitrary exclusion. Arbitrariness is only allowed if it is not against anyone’s will.

How can we detect arbitrariness? Suppose we have a set containing elements X, Y and Z. Suppose you pick element X. Then we say that there is arbitrariness about X if we can ask a meaningful and nontrivial question: “Why picking X and not for example, Y or Z?” and if this question cannot be answered by a rule which does not explicitly refer to X (or if there is no reason why X would be so special). So the anti-arbitrariness principle states that if one thing goes for X, then it must also apply to all Y and Z that are equal to X (in the sense of belonging to the same set as X) according to a rule, unless everyone can want that it just applies for X. This principle is the perfect antidote against moral illusions. What moral illusions are at play when it comes to our undervaluation of the problem of wild animal suffering?


One important example of a  moral illusion is speciesism, the (often intuitive) judgment that humans are more important than non-human animals. This moral illusion obviously contributes to the neglect of wild animal suffering: if non-human animals are considered much less important than humans, their suffering is considered as much less important.

As a metaphor of speciesism, we can use the famous Müller-Lyer optical illusion in which one line appears to be longer than the other. Those horizontal lines correspond with the moral values of a human and a non-human animal. The longer the line, the more value the subject has. The small arrowheads correspond with the morally irrelevant properties, such as bodily characteristics. It appears as if one line is longer than the other, as if a human is more valuable than an animal, but this is an illusion because it involves unjustified arbitrariness. Speciesism is a kind of arbitrary discrimination. Why is speciesism arbitrary?

First, you can look at the biological classification. There is a hierarchy of biological groups, from ethnic groups (races or populations) on the bottom to biological kingdoms on top. I can say that I belong to the ethnic group of white Caucasian people. But I also belong to the species of humans, the family of great apes, the order of primates, the class of mammals, the phylum of vertebrates or the kingdom of animals. We can ask the non-trivial question: why would I pick the category of species and not another biological category, such as the ethnic groups or the classes?  Why would I point at the species of humans and say that only those individuals get rights, instead of pointing at other species or other categories such as the class of mammals or the phylum of vertebrates? We are mammals and vertebrates as much as we are humans.

Second, you can look at our ancestors. Suppose I jump in a time travel machine and bring all your ancestors to the present. I put you all in a long row. You are on the far left, then your mother, your grandmother, and so on. You are fully human so you get human rights. So are your mother and your grandmother. They all belong to the moral community, the group of individuals who get rights. But moving down the row, where does the moral community end? There is no sharp boundary between humans on the left and non-humans on the right. Humans and chickens have common ancestors, so all intermediates between humans and chickens have once lived on this planet. Therefore, the idea of a species is not even well defined. Our idea of human rights is based on an arbitrary fact that those intermediates between us and chickens no longer exist.

Traditionally, ethicists started with the set of all important rights or values, and then asked the question: who gets those rights and who has those values? Then we see an expanding moral circle through history. We extend the range of our moral radar. First our fellow tribesmen become visible, then all white men, then all humans get rights. But we cannot arbitrarily stop at the group of humans. The moral circle has to expand further. Everyone and everything should be included, without arbitrary exceptions. So I propose to follow the other direction: we start with the condition that everyone and everything counts and is included in the moral community, and then we figure out what rights or values we should give to everyone and everything.

One of those rights could be the right not to be treated against one’s will, which is a version of the right not to suffer. You cannot want to be treated arbitrarily against your will, so you prefer to have this right. But you are not special, so you cannot arbitrarily exclude others from getting this same right. Yes, everyone and everything should get this right, including plants and computers. There is no arbitrary exclusion or discrimination. But whatever we do, we cannot violate this right of a plant, because as far as we know a plant has no will and therefore cannot be treated against its will. For plants and computers, this right is always trivially satisfied. The right becomes only important when we are considering sentient beings, because they have a will. We should not simply assume that all and only sentient beings have moral value and thereby arbitrarily exclude non-sentient beings. Everything has moral value, but the value is only non-trivial for sentient beings. Therefore, we can derive the special status of sentient beings by using nothing more than an anti-arbitrariness principle.

Speciesism only partially explains the underestimation or neglect of the problem of wild animal suffering, because a lot of antispeciesist animal rights advocates also neglect this problem in the sense that they are too tolerant towards the suffering of wild animals, they underestimate the suffering and they are against interventions in nature to decrease wild animal suffering and improve well-being. Those animal rights advocates are susceptible to some other moral illusions.

Naturalistic fallacy

An obvious moral illusion that is involved in wild animal suffering neglect, is the naturalistic fallacy, the judgment that something natural (such as predation) is permissible or good. This is a moral illusion based on an arbitrariness, because it is impossible to clearly formulate the notion of ‘natural’ and to argue why that should be permissible. If ‘natural’ means ‘something that happens in nature’, are violence and rape natural and hence permissible? If ‘natural’ means ‘not caused by humans’, we are back at an arbitrary speciesist position. Furthermore, is it natural and hence permissible if a predator attacks a human child? If a predator may attack a non-human animal but not a human, then we arrive again at an arbitrary speciesist position.

Even if we can define the notion of ‘natural’, it doesn’t imply that natural is permissible. There is no logical connection between naturalness and permissibility, so there is arbitrariness. Consider the set of all kinds of processes: natural, unnatural, painful, slow,…. Why would all the natural processes be permissible and not for example all the unnatural (artificial) processes, all the intentional processes, all the slow processes or all the painful processes?

If natural processes refer to ecosystems, we have to acknowledge that ecosystems can’t feel, don’t have a will, don’t have subjective experiences and don’t have subjective preferences. In other words: ecosystems don’t care if processes are natural or not. They don’t care if natural processes are obstructed or interfered with. If ecosystems don’t care, who cares? If no-one cares, why would it have moral value?

Status quo bias

Status quo bias (Kahneman e.a., 1991) is the judgment that the current situation is better than the possible alternatives, without having valid reasons to justify this judgment. In the case of wild animal suffering, status quo bias is at work when people believe that the current state of ecosystem functioning is optimal in terms of a moral value function such as a welfare function that measures overall animal well-being.

One method to detect status quo bias is the reversal test (Bostrom & Ord, 2006). If one believes that an intervention in nature (to improve well-being and decrease wild animal suffering) is bad, what about the reverse intervention? If the reverse intervention is also considered to be bad, then that means that the current state is at a local maximum of the welfare function. If there is no possible explanation why the current state of nature should be at the local maximum of the welfare function, then there is an arbitrariness: why should the current state be at the maximum and not some of the many other possible states? You can compare it with a topographic map with mountains and valleys. If you pick an arbitrary point, chances are very low that you have picked a mountain top. This arbitrariness points at a moral illusion: the status quo bias.

A concrete example is the level of predation and competition in an ecosystem. Predation and competition also cause animal suffering. What happens if we lower this level of competition, for example by decreasing the number of predators? People often claim that competitive pressures are good, because with natural selection it pushes populations towards individuals that are more adapted or fit to the pressure. And predators prevent overpopulation of prey animals. Predation is good for the prey because it selects for the healthiest and most athletic prey animals. And the predators are driven towards faster and more agile animals. Decreasing the level of predation and competition might therefore be bad: it could decrease the welfare function.

But what about the reverse intervention: what about increasing the level of competition and predation? What if we introduced extra predators and extra competition to increase the evolutionary pressure towards better adapted animals or to better prevent prey overpopulation? Would this improve the welfare function? Many people consider this to be a bad idea as well, which means that the current level of competition happens to be the one that maximizes the welfare function. But it is not clear why this should be the case, because nature (an ecosystem or an evolutionary process) doesn’t care about maximizing the welfare function. Population or gene fitness is not related to animal well-being.

Nature also doesn’t care about how fast an animal can run or how quick it can react. If nature doesn’t value speed, then who does? Why would speed be more important than well-being? Perhaps you value speed and you prefer a world where animals become very fast. But suppose that I value size: I want a world with bigger animals, so I start killing the smallest animals, such that populations have a selection towards bigger animals. Would that be a good thing? Neither nature nor the animals themselves value things like speed or size. Nature values nothing, and the animals value their own well-being. Well-being is the only property that is valued or preferred by at least someone, namely the sentient being.

Scope neglect

Another moral illusion that plays a role in the judgment that predation is permissible, is scope neglect: neglecting the number of victims. If people think about predation, they see an animal killing another animal. A life for a life: either the predator will starve, or the prey animal will be killed. Both are equally bad. But over the course of its lifetime, a predator kills many prey. Is the life of one predator more valuable than the lives of hundreds of prey?

Another example of scope neglect in wild animal suffering is the underestimation of the suffering of many animals belonging to species that have a so-called r-selection reproductive strategy (Horta, 2010). Those r-selected animals have many offspring and only a very few of them survive to reproductive age. Hence the majority of those newborn animals have very short lives with a lot of negative experiences due to hunger, diseases and predation. The suffering of death could outweigh the few positive experiences in their short lives. So the probability of having a negative lifetime well-being is higher for animals that have an r-selection reproductive strategy. But when we think about animals in nature, we often focus on the surviving animals, the animals that survive to adulthood, and we neglect the many r-selected animals that have very short lives full of suffering. It is not unlikely that the majority of lives on earth are basically lives not worth living, because they are short and full of suffering.

Just world hypothesis

The just world hypothesis (Lerner, 1980) is the belief that the world (nature) is just and that the victims are in fact culpable, as if the world has an invisible moral force that restores the moral balance. When it comes to wild animal suffering, in particular predation, the just world hypothesis creates the belief that predation is just and morally good, because without predation the prey animals will lose control over their fertility and start competing with each other by overpopulating the ecosystem, the weak prey animals will also procreate and weaken the whole population and the diseased prey animals will infect other animals. It is as if prey animals are not innocent victims of predation, as if the painful death by predators is the deserved punishment of the diseased, weak and competitive prey. This is a moral illusion because we would never think that way when humans or our friends instead of prey animals were involved.

Futility thinking

Futility thinking (Unger, 1996) is the tendency to neglect a problem if the problem cannot be solved completely. Suppose there are two problems A and B that both cause suffering. Problem B is much bigger and causes 100 times more suffering than problem A. You have to choose between two interventions. Intervention 1 completely solves problem A and eliminates all suffering caused by problem A. Intervention 2 only partially reduces the suffering caused by problem B with 10%, so problem B is only partially solved. Intervention 2 is 10 times more effective in terms of reducing suffering, because a 10% decrease of 100 units of suffering caused by problem B is better than a 100% decrease of 1 unit of suffering caused by problem A. Still, a lot of people prefer intervention 1, because intervention 1 completely eliminates a problem whereas a 10% solution of problem B seems more futile.

This preference for the less effective intervention is an example of futility thinking. It is a moral illusion, because it is based on an arbitrariness: an arbitrary separation of all suffering into suffering caused by problem A and suffering caused by problem B. There are many other ways to separate all the suffering in the world. Perhaps problem B is the composite of two subproblems B1 and B2 and intervention 2 completely solves problem B1. Why aggregating both problems B1 and B2 into problem B that seems to be futile to resolve (although B1 can be completely resolved), but not aggregating problems A and B? Why arbitrarily separating the suffering instead of looking at all the suffering in the world?

The connection between futility thinking and wild animal suffering is obvious: people often perceive interventions in nature to decrease wild animal suffering as futile, because the problem of wild animal suffering is so immensely big. It seems less futile to do something about e.g. fur farms.

The above moral illusions are just a few examples that interfere with our judgments about wild animal suffering. Together they create a cluster of moral illusions that results in an attitude of neglecting the problem of wild animal suffering. This suffering should not be underestimated, and neither should we underestimate our potential capacities to decrease this suffering.

To tackle the problem of wild animal suffering, we first have to do more scientific research about the problem and how to intervene in nature. In terms of improving future animal well-being, the effectiveness of scientific research on interventions in nature is underestimated. A lot of wild animals from a lot of future generations could benefit from scientific research. But our moral illusions tend to deform our judgments in such a way that even a lot of animal rights advocates are not open to the idea to do research on how to intervene in nature to decrease wild animal suffering. Therefore, overcoming our moral illusions and debiasing our moral judgments is of prime importance.


Bostrom N. & Ord T. (2006). The reversal test: eliminating status quo bias in applied ethics. Ethics 116 (4): 656–679.

Bruers S. (2015). In search of moral illusions. The Journal of Value Inquiry, DOI 10.1007/s10790-015-9507-8.

Faria, C. (2016). Animal Ethics Goes Wild: The Problem of Wild Animal Suffering and Intervention in Nature (Ph.D.). Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

Horta, O. (2010). Debunking the Idyllic View of Natural Processes: Population Dynamics and Suffering in the Wild. Télos 17 (1): 73–88.

Kahneman D., Knetsch J. L. & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (1): 193–206.

Lerner M.J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Plenum: New York.

Ng, Y.-K. (1995). Towards Welfare Biology: Evolutionary Economics of Animal Consciousness and Suffering. Biology and Philosophy 10 (3): 255–285.

Tomasik, B. (2015). The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering. Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism 3 (2): 133–152.

Unger, P. (1996). Living High and Letting Die, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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2 reacties op Moral illusions and wild animal suffering neglect

  1. Anon zegt:

    What you call the “naturalistic fallacy” is actually known as an “appeal to nature”. I’m sorry if this seems pedantic and inconsequential, but it’s a pet peeve of mine.

  2. Pingback: My cause prioritization | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

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