On intervention in nature, human arrogance and moral blind spots

Is it possible that people who claim to be very much against X are doing X themselves and are at the same time strongly criticizing other people who are against X and are not doing X?

Last week I was at the International Animal Rights Conference where I gave a presentation on the moral blind spots in the animal rights community. It was one of the two presentations that dealt with the problem of wild animal suffering. I argued that we should start doing scientific research on how to intervene in nature to improve wild animal well-being and autonomy. I made the claim that when it comes to wild animal suffering, a lot of animal rights activists who are against human chauvinism and speciesism, are chauvinist and speciesist themselves. They don’t see their own speciesism, hence the moral blind spot. Those presentations were pretty controversial and resulted in a lot of reactions by critics who are against intervention. These reactions proved my point that also animal rights activists have very persistent moral blind spots.

Those critics want the natural world to be preserved. They claim that intervention is a kind of human dominance or chauvinism. They claim that I am an anthropocentric speciesist because I want to impose my human values on non-human nature. I will argue that those critics who claim to be against arrogance, chauvinism and speciesism are being arrogant, chauvinist and speciesist themselves while at the same time they unjustly criticize me for being arrogant, chauvinist and speciesist.

First about speciesism: the first reaction after my presentation was that we should make a distinction between human caused suffering and non-human caused suffering. I want to be an altruist who only cares about what the others (the victims, all the sentient beings) want. But in the case of wild animal suffering, the wild animals who suffer don’t care about who causes the suffering. They simply don’t want this extreme unnecessary suffering, and for them it doesn’t matter if it is caused by humans or by non-human nature. But this person in the audience claimed to be against speciesism whereas she explicitly made the human/non-human distinction herself. When stating her moral principle, she explicitly used the word “human”, referring to the human species. For the victims this distinction is not relevant, so it is by definition anthropocentric speciesism. So I was accused of being a speciesist by someone who made a speciesist distinction between human and non-human caused suffering.

Second about arrogance and chauvinism: the critics who are against intervention in nature to improve animal well-being are the ones who are arrogant, because they argue that they want to save biodiversity or respect natural processes and so they impose their own values (that naturalness is good, that we should not play God, that biodiversity has a moral, non-instrumental value) on other victims (wild animals) in a way that those victims do not want. By saying this, those critics believe that what they want (their own preferences and values) is more important than what all those suffering animals want. That is not real altruism. The animal activists like me who are in favor of intervention, are not arrogant, because they want what the others (the victims, the animals) want. They are primarily focused on what the others want and don’t think that their own preferences and values are more important than those of the victims in the world.

So the opponents of intervention want naturalness (ecosystem integrity, natural beauty, biodiversity,…) to be preserved, whereas the proponents want what the victims want (improve well-being). The opponents value naturalness, the proponents value well-being. The difference between the opponents and the proponents is that the opponents only want something that they themselves want: nature itself doesn’t care about naturalness. Ecosystems don’t care about their own integrity or biodiversity, because ecosystems do not have a conciousness to experience their integrity or biodiversity. Biodiversity or integrity are not the preferences (utility functions) of ecosystems, because the ecosystems are not capable to value something, they are not aware of anything. On the other hand, when I value the well-being of someone else (a wild animal), there is always someone else (namely the wild animal) who also values this well-being. So caring about someone else’s preferences and well-being and valuing what someone else wants, is the most altruistic and the least arrogant or chauvinist thing to do.

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10 reacties op On intervention in nature, human arrogance and moral blind spots

  1. I’m with you, but I think this whole argument hasn’t contradicted someone who says they also want what the animals want, but where it is something different (eg autinomy). I think to have a waterproof argument, you need to show that you are really giving them what they want and the others don’t.
    Or are you saying that you give them what they want, in the abstract, whatever that thing may be, and it could also be autonomy if that is what they want?

    • stijnbruers zegt:

      So you mean what happens if the animals have contradictory wants? Then we should do what they want the most (i.e. the largest consistent set of things they want to most). If autonomy is what they want the most, we should improve their autonomy.

      • i mainly mean: the assumption that they most of all want to avoid suffering is a solid assumption, but it’s still an assumption. it would be good to be able to demonstrate that that is their number one priority, and not autonomy.

  2. I believe you are the one with the moral blindspot…
    There is only one way someone can achieve the view on life you have: a moral compas built by looking at thousands of years of history. Forcing your view on the rest of the world never worked, as history has shown us. For the more recent examples you can look at WW2, Korea, Nam, USSR, Iraq 1, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq 2, Arab Spring and I’m missing a couple in this list.

    So why do you think it’s a good idea to start trying the same thing on different species? Because to put your proposition into practice the entire world has to be reshaped into prison camps & farmland. Ultimately shit will hit the fan, the lack of biodiversity on the farmlands will change them into deserts. While the detention of 100% of non-human population will be impossible for the human population to uphold, resulting in “riot’s” and “prison breaks” killing a lot of animals (humans included) in the process. Ultimately, you’ll be responsible for at least the same amount of deaths-by-animal as you are trying to prevent. On top of that, you’ll cause even more deaths (and probably extinctions of entire species) before the planet has repaired itself.

    • stijnbruers zegt:

      It is unclear to me why forcing my view on the world never worked, because the war examples you gave are not examples where my view was forced on the world. In those examples, people did things that other individuals did not want, and so these examples or the opposite of my view. Forcing my view on the world is comparable to the allied forces forcing their view on Nazi Germany at the end of WW2. And that worked, because people preferred to be liberated from nazism.
      About why to start trying the same thing on different species: because we have to avoid speciesism, arbitrary discrimination on the basis of species.
      The fact that you feel a need to appeal to straw men arguments (e.g. reshaphing the world in prison camps) is an indication that you are susceptible to this moral illusion or blind spot.
      About causing more deaths: most likely animals do not prefer more deaths, so causing more deaths is not what they want, and I said we have to do what they want. So our interventions shouldn’t cause more death. So if we pick a beneficial intervention that does not cause more death, it is impossible that this intervention at the same time causes more death.

  3. Thanks Stijn for your presentation at the IARC (which I have yet to watch) and for this article. I much like your idea of turning the charge of arrogance around against the anti-interventionists. We are constantly being accused of wanting to “play God” by people who steadfastly believe that they have “God on their side”.

  4. Great article! What do you think is the best intervention to start convincing other animal activists of the importance of wild animal suffering?

  5. Pingback: It’s time to take the Red Pill and change your mind | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

  6. Pingback: Discrimination biases | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

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