Owls, Cormorants, Wolves, and Possums: Who Lives, Who Dies?
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today / Animal Emotions
December 2018

Do scientists need ethical theories when making life and death decisions?

Trading owls for owls, cormorants for salmon, wolves for wolves, and possums for other species

Conservationists often choose to kill individuals of one nonhuman animal (animal) species so that individuals of other species or of their own species can have a chance to live. For example, barred owls have been killed to help Northern spotted owls survive in Oregon, cormorants are killed so that salmon can live on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, and wolves were moved from Jasper National Park in Canada to Yellowstone National Park in the United States so that individuals of their species can have a chance to repatriate areas where they had previously lived before humans killed them off. Another example of humans, including youngsters, killing individuals of different species so that individuals of others can live is New Zealand's widespread inhumane and violent war on wildlife including possums and other so-called "pests."

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Many conservationists and others argue that this killing spree will not work. (See "Why Is It Wrong to Not Want to Kill Animals?", "New Zealand Kids Get Into Killing Animals and Love Doing It," "Killing Animals Is 'Weirdly Addictive' Says New Zealander," and links therein.) It is these sorts of trade-offs that need to be discussed openly.

Let's briefly consider wolves. Many people consider the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone to be a conservation and ecological success. I do too, however, it's important to remember that some wolves suffered and died for the good other individuals of their species. I've learned that many people did not know about this trade-off or didn't pay attention to this possibility, and a good number weren't happy when they learned about it. On the other hand, some thought it was ok, since it was for "the good of the species," and, while they lamented the death of some wolves, they thought it was worth it in the big picture, because wolves are now roaming in the Yellowstone ecosystem and elsewhere. Also, numerous coyotes were killed when wolves resurfaced in Yellowstone. In my home state of Colorado, many people are interested in bringing native wolves back home. (I often ponder if the individuals who were moved or later died thought it was ok, but that's another story.)

Who gives a ____ about what ethical theory you're following?

Clearly, decisions who lives, who dies, and why, have an important ethical aside to them. Here I'm focusing on conservation decisions and protocols, although I've been thinking about these sorts of decisions for many years in the various venues in which other animals are used, abused, harmed, and killed. However, I haven't really given that much attention about which ethical theory my thoughts, feelings, and actions reflect. Whenever I think about trading off the lives of individuals for individuals of their own or other species I find myself coming out against such conservation practices. Just last week I received an email that rekindled my thinking about to which ethical school, if any, I belong. The email read, "I've read a lot of your essays and your book The Animal's Agenda and wonder what role do you think different philosophical schools of thought should play in decisions on and actions on whether or not and how to use animals?" Focusing on conservation, they go on to mention a few examples, including two of the above. I wrote back saying I need to think some about this, and although (i) I know about some schools of thought within moral philosophy, I'm surely not an expert about the details of what they entail and (ii) I'm not sure what to call myself. In addition to this email, I'm often asked about which ethical theory I follow and I usually say I don't know because I don't know the details, and then go on to write, "does it really matter?"

The reply to my note was short and to the point: "Who gives a ____ about what ethical theory you're following?" The person did make some other comments but that was the gist of their response. This really got me thinking aloud. I asked a colleague some questions about different ethical theories and quite coincidentally they responded, "That's funny... I got a similar email the other day about some blogs and stuff...wondering what philosophical theory (rights, utilitarian, etc.) I rely on, since it didn't seem evident from my writing. It was a good question... my answer same as yours: it doesn't matter, as long as the killing stops. Each theory is only partially useful, not the whole truth."

So, I don't really know what I am in terms of to which philosophical school I belong. Some colleagues also wonder where they fall. Based on my reading about various ethical theories, I'm not a philosopher and I'm not sure I understand and appreciate the nitty-gritty details of each school of thought, although I've published books and essays with a number of philosophers on animal issues and have loved working with them and have learned a lot. Nonetheless, I know, for example, I'm not a consequentialist or deontologist. Perhaps I'm an abolitionist or rights' theorist as some suggest, because I don't want other animals to be harmed or killed. I believe in and follow the guiding principles of compassionate conservation, namely, First Do No Harm*; All individuals Matter; Valuing All Wildlife and Their Intrinsic Value; and Peaceful Coexistence, and want the killing of nonhuman animals to stop. (Also see "Rather Than Kill Animals "Softly," Don't Kill Them at All," "Killing In the Name of Coexistence Doesn't Make Much Sense," and "Summoning compassion to address the challenges of conservation.")

If I look for any label at all, it seems to my philosophically naive mind that it would be correct for me to call myself a "practical ethicist," but I think that doing this ignores some important philosophical subtitles about which I know little to nothing. (See Roger Crisp's "What is ‘Practical’ Ethics?") In his essay Dr. Crisp notes the difficulties of labeling different ethical views. He also writes, "I look forward to seeing our first cohort of Masters students developing their own ethical theories, partly through response to particular ethical issues, and to their employing those theories to seek clarification and at least partial resolution of the problems in practical ethics which led them to apply in the first place." If I'm reading this right, I see I'm not alone in not being able to label myself a "this" or a "that."

Other animals need all the help they can get in an increasingly human-dominate world: Do scientists need ethical theories when making life and death decisions?

"I agree that a practical ethics course that only taught students theories, then told them to choose one and follow through its implications for issues in applied ethics, would be a faulty methodology. Unfortunately, from my knowledge of university practical ethics departments in this country, Europe and the USA, this is all too often the methodology. There is not only an institutional bias towards theorizing in universities which tends to select and reward theorists in applied ethics, but there is also an expectation among many students that university courses, including those in applied ethics, are in essence the acquisition of theories and the application of them to problem-solve."
— Keith Tayler, comment on Roger Crisp's "What is ‘Practical’ Ethics?"

It should be clear from the above that I don't know where I fall in terms of traditional schools of thought, I don't think it really matters, and I'm not alone. I see myself as a "practical ethicist," and what is important is that I have a point of view and that my actions follow my thoughts and feelings. It might be good to have a label, but they can be constraining and no matter what I'm called it won't make a difference in the goals for which I work. I simply try to specify and justify the principles on which I rely and to be consistent when different situations arise.

The important thing is to get something done, and it doesn't matter if it's theory-driven. So, when someone once says to me something like, "You've got to be a member of some ethical school" or "Oh, you must be a ___," I feel comfortable saying that I'm not, or at least I don't think I am, unless being an abolitionist or a rights' theorist is the appropriate label. Other animals need all the help they can get in an increasingly human-dominated world in which they're severely mistreated, harmed and killed for the supposed good of other nonhumans and/or humans. Far too many are disappearing, along with their homes, right in front of our eyes, ears, and noses, and I'm driven by the principle that each and every individual has inherent value and that is what matters when we decide whether it's permissible to harm and kill them in all of the venues in which control their fate.

All animals depend on us for our goodwill and for being concerned with the life of each and every individual. If killing isn't an acceptable way to resolve animal-human conflicts, it's essential to express it clearly, get killing off the table, and to work for this virtuous goal. Offering ideas with which some people feel uncomfortable gets much-needed discussions going. If we don’t work diligently for nonlethal solutions, they won’t materialize and the killing fields won’t go away. People who are arguing for nonlethal practices need to get their place at the table so they can participate in honest and respectful discussions and debates.

Dr. Crisp's essay, Dr. Tayler's comments, and talking with colleagues and others, got me thinking more deeply about some of the topics I consider here, and perhaps in the future more people will develop and follow "their own ethical theories." I fully realize I'm trespassing into foreign and challenging turf, but many of the conservation issues we're facing right now and surely will confront in the future call for the best science or science-sense, some common sense, and carefully thinking through what leads individuals to implement different solutions with which they're satisfied because they think they'll solve the problems at hand. We live in an extremely challenging world in which humans constantly are faced with difficult decisions about what to do in a wide variety of different situations. Thinking aloud and talking with people in different disciplines with shared interests is a good thing to do.

I hope my mental meandering and thinking aloud gets others to think more about the ethical theory or theories to which they appeal, if they really fall into one theory or another, does it really matter if they don't, or if they're some sort of hybrid as they try to problem-solve in the real world. Non-philosophers would surely benefit from these discussions and other animals don't need to get caught up in our deliberations about in which ethical theory we fall, if anywhere. Clearly and globally, a wide variety of countless animals sorely need our support, respect, compassion, and empathy right now.


*"The takeaway point of 'first do no harm' is that, in certain cases, it may be better to do nothing rather than intervening and potentially causing more harm than good." It turns out, "Although this is generally thought to have been taken from the ancient Greek Hippocratic oath, no translations of the oath contain this language."

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