Killing to Survive

I've watched far too many episodes of "Breaking Bad" in the last few weeks, and just about my only defense is that the show does provide lots of food for thought about ethics.  Spoiler alert!  If you're trying to catch up before the season finale on Sunday, don't read this post.

Lots of people get killed in the show, and many of the killings are done for purposes of self-preservation.  The killings make it clear that self-preservation is one thing, self-defense another.  You might plausibly say killing in self-defense is always justifiable, but clearly killing to preserve yourself is very often wrong. Take for example Todd killing the boy on the bike. It was a matter of self-preservation, because the boy had witnessed the train heist, but not self-defense (the boy was not on the attack), and the killing was obviously very wrong.  When Walt poisons Brock, nearly killing him, that was self-preservation (he did it to get Jesse to help him find the evil, murderous Gus), not self-defense (the boy was not on the attack).  When Walt watches Jane die, his rationale had to do with self preservation, but she was not attacking him--it was not self-defense.  We may have some degree of sympathy for a person who kills for purposes of self-preservation, but we certainly don't excuse them in the way we do when people kill in self-defense.

OK, strange segue:  when it comes to killing animals, we don't make this sharp distinction between self-preservation and self-defense.  I can kill an animal in self-defense: if a bear attacks me, I can attack the bear to protect myself.  But it's also true, we think, that a perfectly innocent rabbit could be killed, if I were lost in the woods and had to kill to survive.   We can't kill innocent, non-attacking humans for purposes of self-preservation, but we can kill innocent, non-attacking animals for purposes of self-preservation. Surely we can.  That means that if animals have rights at all, they are not as robust as human rights.  They are overridden in cases of self-defense and self-preservation, whereas human rights are overridden only in cases of self-defense (focusing just on those two circumstances).

The interesting thing is that even staunch defenders of animal rights often grant the self-preservation exception, and I'm sure they don't grant it across the board, excusing every killing for self-preservation in a drama like "Breaking Bad."  Without putting it this way, they actually agree that animal rights are less robust than human rights. Case in point:  in the book Zoopolis, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka say it is permissible for us to kill animals when it is necessary for survival, though they think all animals have basic rights.  They don't explain this in terms of animal rights being particularly overridable, but instead say people struggling to survive aren't in the "circumstances of justice" where rights must govern our decisions.  But I very much doubt they think the struggle to survive always puts us outside the "circumstances of justice".  They believe starving Eskimos are not in the "circumstances of justice" with respect to seals, but I doubt they'd say Walter White wasn't in the "circumstances of justice" with respect to Brock and Jane.  Survival motives give us a prerogative to dispatch animals for self-preservation, and less of a prerogative to dispatch humans for self-preservation -- in fact no prerogative at all.

So--why are animal rights more overridable? What's that really all about?  I offer an answer in my book Animalkind, but truth is, I'm still thinking about.  I find it a very hard question.


Daniel Hooley said...

Interesting thoughts, although I'm not sure I'd agree that it is acceptable to kill just any animal in order to survive. I have my doubts that this would be permissible for the great apes, dolphins, and maybe elephants.

Rhys Southan said...

Humans can more easily cooperate with other humans than they can with other animals. So human-human interactions are often mutually beneficial, whereas human and (wild) animal interactions tend to be more of a zero sum game -- if humans gain, other animals lose, and vice versa. (Not always, but far more often than with intra-human interactions.)

When it comes to self-preservation, humans can often avoid conflict and work to preserve everyone by combining efforts, using division of labor to more effectively exploit resources, talking out problems, making compromises, improving our lives through technological innovations, using culture to make people behave certain ways and punishing defectors. This way, self-preservation doesn't usually have to come at the cost of other humans, and if it does, we're most likely breaking society's rules and taking more than what most people in society would say we've earned (arbitrarily favoring ourselves over other humans), or we're in an extreme circumstance. But we cannot do most of these things with other animals, even in non-extreme circumstances. If we were to protect animals from humans the way we protect humans from humans -- as far as making harm-causing self-preservation a crime -- we would essentially have to let other animals win the conflict over the world's limited resources. We'd have to go extinct.

When we're about to starve is not the only time we harm animals in order to survive. Agriculture, roads, human civilization generally, all our pollution causing activities, taking over habitat for ourselves for whatever reason -- these all lead to harms against animals that most societies would object to if done to humans. We kill animals who aren't on the attack all the time, often as a foreseen unintended side-effect, but in ways that would be crimes if done to humans. It's just not possible to give animals a true, robust right to habitat, for instance, even if animals need it to survive, without giving up our own claim to habitat.

In Breaking Bad, it seems selfish and arbitrary for Walter to favor his own self-preservation over that of so many other humans. This is especially true because he got himself into this mess by breaking society's rules, which makes his implied claim that there is something better and more important about his existence than the lives of all his victims particularly hard to stomach. There might have been a way for him to preserve himself without harming so many people, but it would have involved more compromises and taking a different route than becoming a violent drug manufacturer. (For instance, he could have accepted that money for his cancer treatment in season one.)

Somehow, though, humans favoring their own self-preservation over that of other animals doesn't seem as offensive. Yeah, that's because we don't want to go extinct, but there's certainly some speciesism involved here. Valuing the perpetuation of the human species even though our self-preservation will almost always come at their expenses (at least for wild animals) implies some sort of species chauvinism. Why do we think we're so special? Why continue to exist instead of allowing other animals to preserve their selves and flourish in our places?

Rhys Southan said...

A follow-up (part one of two -- sorry for the long comment!):

The other reason I would add to practicality and speciesism is confusion caused by treating humans as morally culpable creatures, but not doing the same for non-human animals. There may not be a way to ethically distinguish between self-preservation and self-defense when it comes to animals, because animals can do no wrong and thus never "deserve" to be our victims, unlike aggressors in a self-defense scenario.

With humans we can see a difference between self-defense and self-preservation because a hostile human is "wrong" and a docile human is "right." It can be acceptable to kill the "wrong" aggressive human but the "right" docile human not so much. Generally this is because most people like the docile human and not the aggressive one -- most of us feel safer and happier with cooperative kind humans in our midst than with aggressive violent ones who might harm us or those we love, and we feel bad for the people like us who are hurt by aggressors, so we (generally) create rules punishing the aggressive, destructive and threatening humans (the "guilty"). In contrast, the humans who are more cooperative, kind and productive are "innocent," and only a guilty aggressive person would kill an innocent person for their own self-preservation, except in extreme circumstances. Most of us, being relatively "innocent" ourselves, side with the other innocents in these conflicts, and so object when an aggressive human kills a docile human out of self preservation. Most of us care more about the boy on the bike than we care about Todd because the boy seems nice and agreeable (innocent) while Todd is a menace and psychopath (guilty), so we would rather the boy live even if this destroys Todd.

We can't easily apply this thinking to other animals because we're not allowed to call other animals guilty -- they're thought to exist outside that kind of category when it comes to their interactions with humans. However, if we replaced "guilty" with "strongly disliked defector" and "innocent" with "well liked or at least cooperative enough," we could employ this thinking with other animals (if it weren't for the practicality and speciesism issues I pointed out in my previous comment). The animals who are aggressive and directly threaten us would be "strongly disliked defectors" and those who don't pose a direct threat but whom it might benefit us to kill would be "cooperative enough." To harm the former to protect ourselves would be acceptable and to harm the latter would be unacceptable. But save for the amoralist philosophers, ethicists won't allow us to do this because they want to elevate our likes and dislikes of certain kinds of human behaviors into questions of right, wrong, guilt, innocence and justice. Unlike many other animals, humans have the ability to be trained to behave a certain way and respect others, and feel guilt when hurting others (if not a psychopath). Therefore, aggressive or overly selfish humans are held accountable if they threaten the less aggressive and less selfish, and so self defense actions can be a form of punishment or even justice, whereas there is no punishment element to killing a non-threatening human in self preservation. Aggressive humans are "to blame" for their destructive actions, and so it's justice to fend them off. Docile humans are not doing anything wrong and so harming them (outside of extreme circumstances) will usually be considered going above and beyond acceptable selfishness into arbitrarily favoring oneself over the innocent -- those most of us would rather co-exist with over the aggressive.

Rhys Southan said...

Part 2 of 2:

But ethicists don't dare give moral culpability to other animals when it comes to their interactions with us, hostile or non-hostile. Non-human animal actions are considered to lie outside of the right-wrong continuum, and so they are perpetually innocent, or perhaps perpetually guilty, or maybe just neither. Therefore, the ethical distinction between killing them in self-preservation and self-defense can't really exist. It collapses. Nonhuman animals are always the boy on the bike, even if they're about to bite our limbs off. Killing an animal in immediate self defense is just as much killing an innocent as is killing an animal for threatening our crops, or for being a tasty meal, or for being in the way of property we want to develop, or for being nutrition when we're about to starve. If animals are never morally culpable, there is no difference between any of these, since animals never "deserve" to be punished. This makes it either always wrong to hurt them (perpetually innocent), never wrong to hurt them (perpetually guilty), or just some confused muddle that no one will ever agree about. (I vote the latter, obviously.) Since we must hurt animals in some way in order to survive, it will be impossible to apply a coherent, consistent rule here. So self-defense and self-preservation become largely irrelevant and how we want to treat animals will come down to how selfish we want to be, how feasible it is to reduce our harms to them and how much we think our actions actually do harm them (is death a harm?, do animals suffer in as complex ways as we do?, do they care that much when they lose a buddy to a hunter?, etc.).

But again, most of us think it's okay to kill animals in self-defense *and* self-preservation scenarios because we kind of have to be okay with killing animals in self-preservation if we want to exist at all, and because most of us are speciesist and favor humans over other animals -- which is also why most of us feel okay with eating animals even when self-preservation doesn't seem to be an issue.

Wayne said...

Walter White (to simplify and make more analogous) kills Brock to get Jesse to turn on Gus. This is self-preservation because Gus will kill Walt if Jesse doesn't turn on Gus. So if Walt doesn't do this, Gus will kill Walt. Are we supposed to believe that there are no other options available to Walt, that wouldn't threaten his self-preservation?

Is this situation supposed to be analogous to the following?

I'm lost in the wilderness, and a bunny scampers up to me. I'm not particularly knowledgeable about edible wilds, nor am I particularly adept at surviving outdoors. This bunny may indeed be the difference between my self-preservation and death.

Walter's position is a false dilemma. Maybe Walt's position is closer to the following:

I intentionally get "lost" in the wilderness to film a reality game show. I have the opportunity to kill a chicken to feed myself. I really am not in any danger of starving to death, but not eating will make me lose the game.

Walt has plenty of opportunities to stop cooking meth. He finally does stop at the end. He tells Lydia that its not his problem anymore. Moreover, like the reality show contestant, he put himself in that position, knowing full well the risks involved (although with no guarantee of safety).

So really what we should ask ourselves is if I'm on Survivor, and I'm a vegetarian, should I eat the meat that I win at challenges, or should I just starve until I earn a medical evacuation?

Rhys Southan said...


That's a good reason why Breaking Bad may not be the best analogy for this. But I think Jean is right that vegans are more accepting of killing harmless animals in self-preservation than most of us are accepting of killing harmless humans in self-preservation -- at least when the harmless human being killed is not otherwise in danger of losing his or her life, as would be the case with a bunny in the wilderness.

(Francione tries to dodge this problem by equivocating in his examples. He compares the killing of a bunny in the wilderness to a lifeboat scenario with humans where everyone is on the brink of dehydration and starvation, but on a lifeboat, the alternative is all the humans dying versus some having a chance of survival if they eat one of their fellow passengers. In the wilderness, that bunny is adapted to survive and would live if you didn't eat her.)

What if your example looked like this?:

"Ted is lost in the wilderness, and a human walks up to him. Ted is not particularly knowledgeable about edible wilds, nor is Ted particularly adept at surviving outdoors. The human seems afraid of Ted, isn't listening to Ted's pleas (and perhaps can't understand them), and is trying to get away from Ted. This human may indeed be the difference between Ted's self-preservation and death."

Would you be as okay with Ted killing that human as you would be with Ted killing a bunny?

Wayne said...

In the re-worked scenario, we have two individuals, with arguably equal moral status (I don't think animals have equivalent moral status as humans... but like Singer depending on what the interests are, one might override the other. So I'm not sure I have the same problem that Jean has).

Now if Ted and Human X were both in survival situations, and both needed to eat, then the simple solution is that we wait for one of them to starve, and the one who doesn't starve gets to eat the other. Cannibalism itself isn't objectionable, its the killing to eat that seems objectionable. But if Human X were a native, and could easily survive, whereas Ted can't, and they can't communicate, then I think that Ted's interests wouldn't outweigh the interests of Human X. They both want to live, but one has the means to do so without robbing another's happiness to do so, where as Ted doesn't.

Jean Kazez said...

Sorry, I was away for several days. I read the comments up to a point and then lost track.

As to my Breaking Bad analogy... Brock is just poisoned, not killed. Perhaps the best analogy involves the killing of Gale. Gus is clearly going to kill Walt, unless Walt is the only expert meth cook. To make himself the only expert meth cook, Walt has to kill Gale, who's another expert meth cook. So he tells Jesse to kill Gale. What Walt does is pretty certain to save his life, and it does save his life. I don't think killing a rabbit in the arctic is any more certain to save someone's life. Actually, maybe less. If you kill a rabbit to eat for a day, you have to face the possibility that you will freeze to death the next day. The rabbit may turn out to have died in vain. So I don't see how we can use the issue of efficacy or uncertainty to say it's OK to kill the rabbit for the sake of self-preservation, but not OK for Walt to have Gale killed for the sake of self-preservation.

Rhys Southan said...

I think it comes down to speciesism, like Wayne saying that animals don't have equal moral status with humans. A human saving her life by killing an animal seems like a good trade off whether the animal is aggressive or not, but a human saving her life by killing a non-aggressive human seems neutral at best, and probably worse than neutral since the more aggressive human survives.

I was having an email exchange with Sue Donaldson and brought this topic up. She basically said she *wouldn't* be okay with killing an animal for survival outside of "the circumstances of justice," but she might do it anyway. Basically the argument seems to be not that survival justifies it exactly but "Who can think of ethics when your life is at stake?" In other words, we just can't expect people to think beyond themselves and willingly give up their lives altruistically in a crisis like that. She says that would be supererogatory.

Theoretically Sue might say that this would apply with humans or animals -- that when the circumstances of justice don't exist for someone, there's no difference between them killing an animal or another human to survive. It seems unlikely that she would behave that way in a crisis (seeing no difference between nabbing some bird eggs or killing a rabbit for a meal vs. killing a human), but she might still insist that there would be no ethical difference between the two if the circumstances of justice really weren't there. Neither would be "okay," but both would be understandable.

Aeolus said...

Execute Elephant Poachers on the Spot, Tanzanian Minister Urges