Animals and Human Ethics
Here's something that puzzles me a lot. It's fundamental, from many moral perspectives, that each individual counts, and in some sense counts equally. Utilitarians say each counts for one, and none for more than one. That's not to say that every individual warrants the same treatment, but the interests of one individual warrant the same consideration as the like interests of any other individual, regardless of race, sex, etc. From a Kantian perspective, each person is as inviolable as the next. None are to be used merely as a means.
Suppose you think that animals "count" morally. So we can't simply exploit them to benefit ourselves. There are limits on what we can do to them, though the nature of the limits depend on which moral perspective you generally find more plausible. OK...so far so good.
But now let's go out in the wild. What happens when we try to apply this individualistic and egalitarian thinking to animals who have a completely different way of life than we do? Take, for example, wolves. A wolf pack is not an equal opportunity affair. The alpha male has all the fun with the ladies. Lower status males surely suffer much frustration.
Suppose I am a utilitarian, and I want to maximize total good. Granted, I'm not actually going to get out in the woods and try to alter wolf behavior--there are much more pressing problems in the world. But I can't even conceive of what the greater good is, when it comes to wolves. Is it better if every male wolf satisfies his individual interest in copulating and reproducing? Or is it better if the whole pack functions "as nature intended"?
Can it really be that "good" and "bad" out there in the wilderness beyond us is just as we've come to think of it, as a result of thousands of years of living in a human society, time spent coming to grips with what a good life is for us, given our nature? That simply sounds absurd.
Push comes to shove at the interface between ourselves and animals. We're not going to go into wolf country and demand equal rights for bachelor wolves, but we have to decide whether it's right or wrong to hunt wolves. There's a huge controversy about the question in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, where wolves that were restored to the area in the 1990s are now public enemy #1. Basically, the problem is that they're challenging human hegemony, killing prey that some humans see as theirs (livestock and elk).
To hunt or not to hunt? To answer the question, we have to confront this most basic of questions: does each and every wolf count, as an individual?
National Geographic has a good article about wolves this month.