Wild Animals: A Rights-Based Approach

This is the first of a series of posts exploring how different ethical systems affect how people should react to wild-animal suffering. The employees of Wild-Animal Suffering Research follow a variety of different ethical systems, and WASR as a whole does not have a position on which philosophical system is right; nothing in this post should be taken as an endorsement.

Introduction to Regan’s Rights-Based Approach

Tom Regan, one of the most famous philosophers of animal rights, articulates a rights-based approach to animal rights in his classic The Case for Animal Rights. Although Regan’s rights-based approach is usually understood as being totally noninterventionist with regards to wild animals, in reality his viewpoint implies that we should intervene in nature to help wild animals, at least in a few limited circumstances.

Regan argues that many animals– most obviously, but not limited to, mentally normal mammals over the age of one year– are subjects-of-a-life: that is, they have beliefs, desires, perceptions, memories, a sense of the future, an emotional life, preferences, the ability to take actions to support their goals, an identity over time, and an individual welfare in the sense that their life can fare well or badly for them independently of their usefulness for others or others’ opinions on the matter. As subjects-of-a-life, they have inherent worth.

Regan argues that beings with inherent value have a right to be treated with respect. He outlines five principles for respecting the rights of beings with inherent value:

  1. Beings with inherent value must be treated in ways which respect their inherent value: specifically, they must not be treated as mere receptacles of valuable experiences or as if their value depended on their utility relative to others, and prima facie we must assist those treated in this way by others (the respect principle).
  2. We have a prima facie duty not to treat beings in a way that detracts from their welfare (the harm principle).
  3. Special considerations aside, when we must choose between overriding the rights of the innocent many or the innocent few, and each individual will be harmed in a prima facie comparable way, then we ought to choose to override the rights of the few, not the many (the miniride principle).
  4. Special considerations aside, when we must decide to override the right of the innocent many or the innocent few, and the harm experienced by the few would make them worse-off than any of the many would be if any other option were chosen, then we ought to override the rights of the many (the worse-off principle).
  5. Special considerations aside, if all involved are treated with respect, any innocent individual may act to avoid being made worse-off even if doing so harms other innocents (the liberty principle).

He also lays out four situations in which we may override the respect and harm principles without worry:

  1. Self-defense by the innocent.
  2. Punishment of the guilty.
  3. Innocent shields (a guilty person sets up a situation where preventing them from harming others requires harming an innocent person).
  4. Innocent threats (a moral patient threatens harm, or a moral agent accidentally threatens harm, and there is no non-rights-violating way to prevent the harm).

Regan’s View of Wild Animals

Regan extensively addresses wild animals in the The Case For Animal Rights: in chapter nine he discusses the rights-based view’s attitude towards hunting and trapping and towards endangered species, and in the 2004 preface he discusses his opinions on wild animals more generally. “With regard to wild animals,” Regan claims, “the general policy recommended by the rights view is: let them be!”

Hunting and trapping, Regan argues, are not always wrong: for example, an animal might pose an innocent threat to other beings, in which case we are justified in killing them. However, the rights view is entirely against hunting for sport or for profit. The benefit to hunters cannot outweigh the violation of the animals’ rights. Some people argue that hunting and trapping are justified from a humane perspective: if animals are not hunted or trapped, then there will be too many animals for the environment to support, and the animals will starve. Regan disagrees for three reasons:

  1. Being hunted or trapped is not necessarily a less painful death than starving.
  2. Current wildlife policy (“maximum sustainable yield”) is to try to maximize the number of animals hunted or trapped over time, not to hunt or trap the minimum number necessary to prevent starvation.
  3. By the respect principle, it is wrong to kill an innocent animal who is not a threat or a shield, even to maximize overall wellbeing.

Some ways of preserving endangered species, Regan argues, are valid. Of course, if hunting and trapping are wrong in general, then hunting and trapping members of endangered species is also wrong. In addition, animals can reasonably be considered to have a right to habitat, so destroying their habitat is causing them harm. When we have harmed members of endangered species in the past, we should seek to make up for it by devoting more resources to the preservation of those species in the future. However, in the process of preserving endangered species, we must never violate the respect principle. We should not value the lives of members of endangered species over the lives of other species; we should not decide which species to preserve based on the benefit to human beings, and we should not use wild animals as tools in order to have a beautiful and stable ecosystem.

Our Duties to Wild Animals

Some people believe that Regan’s view of animal rights requires that we not intervene with predators, because predators have a right to life. A close reading of his arguments shows that this is not so. Regan is opposed to predator control programs as they actually exist, because these programs are intended to increase the profits of livestock farmers; it violates an animal’s rights to kill them in order to increase the profit of your business, just like you shouldn’t kill a baby or your grandma to increase the profit of your business. The fact that the business is itself unethical only strengthens the case.

It is also true that, when a lion hunts a wildebeest or a buck attacks another buck, neither animal is violating the other animal’s rights. As moral patients, lions and bucks are incapable of committing rights violations. (The same is true of many other causes of wild-animal suffering– storms, fires, floods, inadequate food, diseases, parasites– which are from Regan’s point of view not even moral patients or subjects-of-a-life.) However, intuitively, if someone observed someone who was about to be eaten by a lion and refused to warn the victim because lions aren’t moral patients, we’d think they were kind of missing the point.

Regan’s solution is that, in addition to duties of justice, we have duties of beneficence, that is, duties that involve doing good to others. Regan does not go into detail about what our duties of beneficence are, but it seems plausible that they could include some duties towards wild animals. Duties of beneficence are fairly limited: you should never violate a being’s rights in order to help another being

That seems like it implies that we shouldn’t kill predators to protect prey, because that would be violating the predators’ rights in order to help prey. However, that is not a logical conclusion of Regan’s argument. One exception to the harm and respect principles is innocent threats, which includes moral patients which are going to harm other beings. It is permissible to harm the innocent if they are threatening other innocent beings and there is no other way to get them to stop. Absent science-fictional proposals such as genetically engineering lions to eat grass, the least invasive way to prevent lions from hurting other animals is to kill them.
Regan does not buy this argument. He argues that animals have a “general competence to get on with the business of living”. If animals did not have this competence, the species would go extinct. Therefore, the best way to protect an animal’s rights is to allow them to “live their own life, by their own lights, as best they can.” He contrasts this with the other primary example of moral patients, babies. Babies are not generally competent to get on with the business of living: they have no realistic hope of surviving without intervention from adults. To put a baby in the wilderness in order to allow it to live its own life, by its own lights, as best it can would be criminally negligent.

There are several problems with this argument. First, evolutionary success does not imply competence on the part of the individual animal, even if it implies competence on the part of the species. For example, if nine hundred and ninety-eight out of a thousand members of a species die within fifteen minutes of being born, while the remaining two survive and produce a thousand offspring, the species would survive even though the individual species members are not competent in the slightest. Indeed, since most babies would survive longer than fifteen minutes in the wild, the average member of this species is less competent than the average baby.

Second, animals themselves have babies. While some species of animals, such as deer, are competent as soon as they’re born, that is not true for many species of animals: for example, kittens do not eliminate feces on their own without the licking of their mothers. Presumably baby animals are taken care of by their parents, but the parents could be reasonably argued not to be competent: if a human parent left her children alone and they were eaten by a wild animal, she would be charged with negligence. Further, the parents often die: if nothing else, if Regan accepts that we have a duty of assistance to orphaned human children, he must accept that we have a duty of assistance to orphaned animal children.

Third, animals, just like human beings, face unusual situations they are not competent to deal with. If a human’s house was destroyed in a hurricane, we would generally assist them, even if the human was normally competent to handle their own affairs. Similarly, there is a justification for disaster relief as part of our duty of beneficence.

Finally, Regan argues, even if we have a duty in an individual case– for example, a duty to save a specific wildebeest from a specific lion– we do not have a duty to wild animals more generally. We have a duty to save a child menaced by a lion, but that does not mean that advocates of children’s rights must go around killing every predatory animal lest one of them menace a child. While that is true, we would consider a society to be very negligent about children’s rights if lions were allowed to regularly wander through the streets and threaten children. Even if no individual has a responsibility to prevent lions menacing children, society as a whole does have such a duty. When there is no way for a species to eat other than to harm children, such as parasitic worms, we consider it a good thing to eradicate that species. Since there is no way for lions to eat other than to cause grave harm to other animals, it must (all things equal, setting aside practical considerations of the proper functioning of the ecosystem) be a good thing to eradicate lions.

Everett’s View

In Environmental Ethics, Animal Welfarism, and the Problem of Predation, Jennifer Everett complicates Regan’s view. She argues that our duties of beneficence exist when, as a matter of course, this assistance is necessary for the being to flourish according to its nature. Humans (including human babies) are social animals who are naturally part of societies; therefore, being assisted by other humans is a core part of humans flourishing in accordance with their nature. Conversely, the nature of wild animals is to be wild; as such, routinely providing assistance would not be conducive to wild animals flourishing according to their natures.

However, it is not the nature of all wild animals not to interact with humans. Some animals are synanthropic: that is, they live near humans and benefit from human habitats, such as houses, gardens, and garbage dumps. These species include rodents, house sparrows, pigeons, gulls, waterfowl, and even insects such as cockroaches. In many cases, these species have evolved to fill ecological niches that only exist because humans exist, such as eating our garbage. As such, it is conducive to the flourishing of a house mouse or a pigeon to receive significant benefits from humans, which implies we have a duty of assistance to those species.

Further, many animals have evolved in environments that are fundamentally shaped by human intervention. For example, many animals evolved in an environment without megafauna, because humans drove the megafauna extinct. Others evolved in environments fundamentally changed by humans, such as Scotland, which has been severely deforested for thousands of years.
While these animals mostly live independently on a day-to-day basis, the conditions of their lives are set by human intervention. For this reason, a rights-based approach would imply that we have intermediate duties of assistance to those animals. It would be unethical to transform wild areas into a sort of very large open-air zoo, but we could and should fulfill our duties of beneficence in a minimally invasive way. For example, it may be ethical to eradicate predators in these areas, to set up a long-term contraception program, or to try to prevent flooding in areas where lots of animals live.

In conclusion, advocates of Regan’s rights-based approach believes we should leave wild animals alone. However, a reasonable analysis suggests that our duties of beneficence to wild animals require that we help them, at least in certain limited cases, such as synanthropic species, disaster relief, or care for orphaned animals. In addition, if it is necessary to kill a predator to protect the prey, it does not violate the animal’s rights to do so.