The Lion Question

So...lions.  Jeff McMahan reasons at The Stone:  (1)  Our own carnivorism is morally bad.  (2) While we're not directly responsible for animal carnivorism, we still have reason to prevent it--since it causes the same misery that ours does.  (3) Human populations are encroaching on animal habitats, so before long it's going to be up to us which species survive, and which go extinct.  (4) Instead of preserving them all, we could preserve the peaceful herbivores, and let (make?) the rapacious carnivores go extinct. (5) That would be all to the good, unless each species has some inherent value--e.g. lions have enough value to make up for the suffering they inflict on zebras.  (6) The inherent value of a species is not "personal" value, or value to the individual lions.  (7)  In fact, it's no value at all, so clearly not "enough" to make up for the suffering they inflict.  (8)  So--off with their heads.

There are two ways to approach this argument.  One is to confront it head on--dissect the premises, figure out where there might be problems.  The other is to charge McMahan with "bad attitudes"--this is hyperrational, overly managerial, scary stuff.  The right attitude is ... what? We ought to be humble in the face of nature's goodness, and leave things alone--not entirely, but at least on a very basic level.  We ought to value lions, and let them keep on eating zebras, even if we can't perfectly explain why that's for the best.

My gut feeling, to be honest, is the second--I would distrust the urge to give nature a moral makeover.  Maybe this amounts to a religious feeling, really (but without any supernaturalism)-- the world is good, as far as fundamentals go, and predation is fundamental. But let's not leave it at that--all that compex reasoning cries out for close scrutiny.

To begin with, I have doubts about (2). It's true that our carnivorism causes misery, and lion carnivorism causes misery, but we breed our "prey" and zebras exist naturally.  If lions stopped eating zebras, there would still be zebras.   Instead of the weaker ones being eaten, they'd live longer and possibly suffer other problems.  Unless the idea is that animals are going to be citizens of our nations, there isn't going to be free veterinary care or food stamps for ailing herbivores.  If there would be no reduction in suffering from eliminating lions, but only in killing, it's unclear that there would be any net benefit. 

But that's assuming a lot. Maybe there would be a reduction in suffering, if all animals were herbivores.  If so, then we ought to focus on (7)--whether there's a value to there being lions that makes up for the suffering they inflict. No individual lion cares about the ongoing existence of the species, so the value of the species is not a value to the individual members of the species. There's value to us, since we enjoy lions, but that seems potentially canceled out by the suffering they cause. So what's the good of lions?  It seems to me there is impersonal good here--goodness that's not goodness to anyone. It's valuable for there to be lions because of the specific qualities and capacities that come of there being lions. 

Right--that's not crystal clear.  That's why I started with the point about humility.


UPDATE:  Jerry Coyne asks today:
But what on earth does religion have to contribute to an exploration of morality?  I maintain that there is not a single ethical insight contributed by religion that could not be be better contributed by secular morality—and without the taint of the supernatural. 
It depends what you mean by "religion."   In the end, it seems like the right response to McMahan has to appeal to humility, maybe even reverence, some basic sense of nature being good as is, even if we can't exactly say why.  You don't have to believe in the supernatural to have those attitudes, but they are certainly cultivated in places of worship, and they're not attitudes that really have any place in secular, rational, morality (typified by McMahan).  So "not a single ethical insight" is too strong, even if it's true that secular, rational, morality has much more to offer than traditional religion.


s. wallerstein said...

I would reject his first premise that carnivorism is necessarily bad.

Our carnivorism is bad because we have other available protein sources (beans, soy, etc.) and because in the real world, we depend on factory farming for our meat.

I'm not at all sure that I would condemn the carnivorism of a primitive human group that had no other protein source nor do I condemn the carnivorism of lions.

Wayne said...

This strikes me as not very long-sighted. Without predators, herbivorous animals overpopulate, destroy their food source, then suffer population crashes. So if we're trying to minimize suffering, we might actually do by keeping lions around.

Alternatively, we could hunt and kill some herbivores once in awhile, to prevent this from happening, but then that would seem to defeat to purpose of getting rid of the lions wouldn't it? I confess I haven't read the article yet though.

Lukeroelofs said...

Doesn't McMahan already mention the issue of unintended consequences?

"I concede, of course, that it would be unwise to attempt any such change given the current state of our scientific understanding. Our ignorance of the potential ramifications of our interventions in the natural world remains profound. Efforts to eliminate certain species and create new ones would have many unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic effects."

I take that as saying that we should consider, say, the removal of lions only when we are able to reliably predict the outcomes, and then manage those outcomes, probably with forms of fertility control to prevent overpopulation and "free veterinary care or food stamps for ailing herbivores". If we can alter the design of ecosystems to remove some species, we can also alter loads of other things.

"We ought to be humble in the face of nature's goodness, and leave things alone--not entirely, but at least on a very basic level."

How is this different from someone saying 'we ought to be humble in the face of infectious disease and its goodness, and leave things alone, not try to vaccinate populations to exterminate an entire species of bacterium'?

Lukeroelofs said...

"Our carnivorism is bad because we have other available protein sources (beans, soy, etc.)...I'm not at all sure that I would condemn the carnivorism of a primitive human group that had no other protein source"

I don't think he means 'bad' is the sense of 'should be condemned', but rather 'bad' in the sense of 'should be regretted', like the destruction caused by a storm, which clearly isn't open to moral condemnation but would still be better to prevent if possible.

Faust said...

Re: Coyne.

Fun Wittgenstein quotes for the day:

"What is good is also divine. Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics. Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural."

"You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other. The good is outside the space of facts."

Both from Culture and Value, 3e.

Faust said...

General further note:

Is the elmination of suffering the purpose of human existence? Does elimination of suffering outweigh all other considerations in any FINAL analysis?

Jean Kazez said...

Lukeroelofs, Yes, he talks about unintended consequences, but doesn't highlight that human vegetarianism is distinctive--it doesn't mean more cows, whereas an end of lion carnivorism does mean more zebras. It seems worth noticing the difference.

Right--we wouldn't want to be guided by humility in all moral matters. That's why I said we should leave things alone "not entirely, but at least on a very basic level."

s. wallerstein said...

Faust: You ask the winning question of the day: does eliminating suffering trump all other considerations? I would say "no".

Luke: I don't see lions eating zebras as something to be regretted. That people who can easily find other tasty sources of protein eat meat is to be regretted and to be condemned.

There is a difference between the the social system and the way things are due to the way that the world is. Society in developed countries could prohibit factory farming, for example, and educate people about other sources of proteins.

For example, I'm 64. I'm going to die, most probably within the next 20 years. I don't consider that to be regretable, simply the way that things are. In my mindset, it's good to accept the ways that things are, which, once again, have nothing to do with the injustices and cruelties of our current social system.

Aeolus said...

I mentioned this article by Ty Raterman once before, but it's relevant to McMahan's musings:

I see that McMahan's piece was not well received by commenters in the NYT. There was a lot of hostility to McMahan and to philosophers in general. I also note the large number of commenters who seem to believe that plants, not to mention bacteria, desire to live and can experience pain, so that the wish to reduce suffering in the world by not eating meat is ridiculous and that if vegetarians really want to walk the talk they should just kill themselves.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, it looks like they'd like him to drink the hemlock. Lots of hostility, lots of stupidity, but I rather like the first question about whether human extinction would be for the best.

I certainly think the suffering caused by lions is something worth thinking about. Suffering in/caused by animals is a springboard for one of the best ways you can make the argument (against God's existence) from evil--it's not a dismissible concern. McMahan makes that point part way through the essay.

The interesting question is--what if in fact you could eliminate all the carnivorous species, and you could thereby reduce total suffering in the world. Just what if? Is there something so inherently valuable about these species, or so worthy of respect about nature as it is, that you'd be wrong to take this step?

I think it's extremely hard to make a rational argument why the step shouldn't be taken, but my intuition is very powerfully "don't do it". Hence the combination of trying to make an argument, and making an appeal to humility.

Lukeroelofs said...

Out of interest, would your intuition change if (as I think is probably more reasonable) the proposal were not to remove the species but to intervene in their lives and upbringing in such a way that they all grew up used to eating only (human-provided) synthetic meat, and with inhibitions against hurting (though not necessarily against chasing or playing with) zebras?

Aeolus said...

Doesn't familiarity play a large role in our feeling about the value of lions? I can imagine a parallel world in which there are no lions, but in which the African herbivion is endangered. Shocking, but true: the magnificent herbivions, with their incredibly cute offspring (known by children the world over as "herbies") are threatened by disease and habitat loss and face extinction. It could be very expensive to save the species, and some scientists have proposed replacing herbivions with a genetically engineered carnivorous creature they propose to call a "lion". Eminent philosopher Jain Zezak is horrified. "There is a goodness in the existence of herbivions that is inherent in their specific qualities and capacities. Replace them with these hypothetical 'lions'? Perish the thought!"

In addition to the fact that we are generally reluctant to get rid of things that have been part of the familiar furniture of our lives, we are rightly in awe of the development of complex organisms over millions of years. That's another reason why we'd hate to replace our good old herbivions with some lab-created artifact like a "lion".

s. wallerstein said...

Of course, familiarity plays a large role in our feelings about the value of lions, as it does in our feelings about the value of our neighborhood, our spouses,
our friends, and that seems fine to me.

One thing that determines value (for me at least) is the psychic energy I've put into it and obviously, familiar things are those I've put energy into.

Jean Kazez said...

Lukeroelofs, I have the same intuition about that--let lions be lions. It's not easy at all to explain why that's best, but that's my intuition, for what it's worth.

Aeolus--Hey, I'd defend leaving all animals alone, not just the admirable lion. In fact, herbivores do some pretty obnoxious, violent things. For example, the males of some species attack each other during rutting season. There's injury, suffering, and probably sometimes death involved. If you really want to reduce suffering, you'd probably have to get rid of them, too.

Familiarity comes into play not in deciding which species should be left alone (all, if possible), but in deciding which should be actively protected by environmental organizations. Yes, I admit I'm more worried about lion protection than...whatever protection.

Gotta read that article --predation is actually an interesting topic.

Fireman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt said...

Jean, I just came across your blog and it looks like we have pretty similar thoughts about some aspects of McMahan's article. I posted here (http://theconsternationofphilosophy.blogspot.com/2010/09/is-our-world-better-off-without.html) arguing that McMahan needs the (very implausible) premise that eliminating predation reduces suffering. We shouldn't expect this, I argued, because herbivores will still die from other causes, which may be even more painful-- and none of this assumes a Malthusian population crash.

Thanks for a great read!

Unknown said...

A. Lion kills zebra today
B. Zebra lives longer and dies of something else.

Both Jean, and Matt (above) suggest that B might be worse than A because whatever kills the zebra might be worse than the short painful death involved in A.

The first response to this is that it seems to ignore the benefit to the zebra of future life. It counts only the harms. There is pain and suffering in A, but possibly more pain and suffering in B. However, whether the zebra lives for another month or year, or longer it does not seem likely that their life after the point at which they would have been eaten by the lion is not-worth-living. It is difficult to know how much benefit they get from their life. But unless you are Schopenhauer or Benatar why think that this is worse than nothing? It is true that what comes later may be bad, and very bad. But is it really so bad that it would have been better for the zebra to have died a year/month etc earlier?

Even if there is something to the worse-death argument, I don't think this concern is decisive. Apart from anything else McMahan anticipates it "Perhaps ... action to reduce predation would create a Malthusian dystopia in the animal world, with higher birth rates among herbivores, overcrowding, and insufficient resources to sustain the larger populations. Instead of being killed quickly by predators, the members of species that once were prey would die slowly, painfully, and in greater numbers from starvation and disease."

McMahan would concede that if it were the case that zebra-life would be significantly worse for the absence of lions, we would have a good reason to preserve lions.
We are not currently in a good position to predict the impact of lion extinction on zebras as a whole, nor on the rest of the ecosystem. McMahan (expressing humility) notes that this gives us good reason not to attempt anything so radical - yet.

But if we were in a position of choosing between species, and of being able to anticipate the effects - should we not choose to eliminate, or at least try to reduce those species that cause suffering.

Here is another thought experiment, since we all like these around here. Imagine that we are not talking about deliberately making lions extinct. Instead the planet is dying and we are having to relocate to another planet. All current Earth species of large animals will (within a couple of generations) become extinct. There is a large spacecraft, an 'ark', that we are using to take some existing earth species with us to populate the new planet. But how should we choose which to take with us? Let us imagine that we cannot take every species with us. If we could take 400 species of animals with us (and could be confident that in the new environment they would thrive, co-exist etc, and not suffer major population catastrophes), should we not choose herbivores rather than carnivores if we have good reason to think that there will thereby be less animal suffering on Earth 2?


PS favourite comment #1 "though some of us, for reasons I have never understood, do go to the trouble to paint their vestigial claws a sanguinary hue"
favourite comment #2 "I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment"

Jean Kazez said...

Dom, I think we need more facts here. Which zebras actually get killed by lions? If it's the healthy little guys, then yes, they're deprived of many good years. But maybe it isn't. Maybe zebras have evolved to keep the little guys in the middle of the herd, and it's the old and infirm that tend to go down. If so, then even for the zebra who gets eaten, it's not good to eliminate lions. They're basically nature's euthanizers.

This is a point about what's good for each zebra, not about the hazards of herbivore overcrowding in a world without carnivores, so a tad bit different from what McMahan concedes in that passage you quote.

We also have to imagine what it would be like for future zebras for one of the forces that make for natural selection to be eliminated. That infirm zebra who lives in a lion-free world can go on and reproduce (no menopause or andropause for zebras!). That might have some costs for future zebras, no?

Another consideration--zebras have evolved to run away from lions. All their senses, etc., are geared to that activity. How we do know it isn't pleasurable for them to deal with the threat of lions? Would they really be happiest in a zoo-like wilderness managed by clever humans?

Well anyway...I'm not going to stake all my belongings on zebras being happiest in a world that includes lions, but I don't think McMahan has established the opposite.


I like your thought experiment. The nice thing about it is that we get rid of the issue of how intrusive and managerial humans should be. We have to make a "Noah's ark" type decision. We can't take all of the beasts... Maybe we should just take the ones that can compose a "peaceable kingdom"....?

Fun question. I'm going to ask the resident young people.


Now I'll go read what Matt wrote!

Aeolus said...

Dominic makes a good point about the benefit of future life. And I like the space-ark thought experiment.

I don't know whether the prey that lions eat are typically in poor health. In any case, here's the famous Battle at Kruger, where the potential meal is a youngster. (It can't be exactly an exciting game of tag to have a crocodile's jaws clamped on one end of you while a pride of lions is tugging at your other end.)

Faust said...

I like the ark thought experiement. I think it's a good way to avoid a lot of the complexities that come with "elminating species" (however imagination chooses to unpack such a possibility) while still getting at the underlying question.

For me, the way Dom puts the question of future projects actually brings out for me quite forcefully the probably locus of where I depart from more enthusiastic animal defenders.

Dom notes/asks:

"It is difficult to know how much benefit they get from their life. But unless you are Schopenhauer or Benatar why think that this is worse than nothing?"

I agree that it is difficult. So difficult that I think the question is not "unless you are Schopenhauer or Benatar" rather it is "unless you have a non-cognitive, empiricaly unverifiable, effectively faith driven belief in the existence of "animal consciousness over time," why ascribe particular weight to it? We have good reasons to think that animals feel pain. I don't see that we have any corresponding resons to think that they have ANYTHING like what we have when we think of "human projects" which are really all that give us "benefit over time."

Perhaps there is some very small sense in which some of the higher, highly social mamals, might get some weight in this kind of a calculus. But it seems unlikely to me to be a persuasive vector, particulary when the suffering question remains a bit ambiguous even when considered in and of itself.

Jean Kazez said...

Why do you attach so much importance to "projects"? I think McMahan is just assuming that animals' lives can go better and worse for them, moment to moment. Better to have one pleasurable moment after another, worse to have one painful moment after another.

But let's talk about "projects." Like you, McMahan thinks animals don't have them--they live moment to moment. I've never understood why so many people find that view attractive. Animals actually have lots of ongoing projects--migrating, building dams. They do part of the job one day, resume where they left off the next day, etc etc. I think the presumption ought to be that their mental lives reflect these projects they are involved in, and they don't just experience one separate moment after another.

Jean Kazez said...

p.s. McMahan's view that animals live moment to moment (no "projects") is clear in his book The Ethics of Killing, not in the Stone column.

Faust said...

I'm not particularly attached to projects, it's just that "projects" is the easiest way to shorthand the notion of a conscious "something" that persists over time.

But I think I can expand on my sense of this issue by quoting Hellen Keller:

"Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness...Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another."

Now let us assume that animal life is a bit like this: that it is "unconscious, yet conscious 'nothingness'" Where in this space will the kind of "mental life" you refer to take root? Where will this "building of the beaver dam" manifest? Keep in mind that this is Hellen Keller, who had a human mind, biologicaly predisposed to developing elaborate symbol systems refering to a state where her mind had not yet developed it's natural capacities for symbolic production. How much more profoundly empty might the life of a more naturally instinctual mind be?

I don't pretend to know, but in the absence of such knowledge, there is no clear path to the kind of position you suggest (perhaps this is why so many people find the opposing view attractive).