Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Abolish Wilderness?

The animal welfare case against wild spaces

In environmental circles, it is generally taken as self-evident that preserving wilderness promotes animal welfare. At the same time, it is well-understood that life for most wild animals is nasty, brutish, and short. Given that humans’ ability to alleviate some animal suffering will surely continue to improve, it is worth asking if it might ever be morally praiseworthy to oppose wilderness—and morally blameworthy to protect it.

That idea will strike many as viscerally wrong, but to make a case either for or against it, it is important to understand where current moral arguments for wilderness preservation come from, and where a true assessment of nature from the perspective of animals might lead.

Why we care about nature

The idea that it is right to support wilderness preservation hinges on what I call the “Argument from Welfare.” In its simplest terms, the logic can be stated as follows: Because we have a moral reason to concern ourselves with the welfare of animals, and because the destruction of wilderness is inimical to their welfare, we must have a moral reason to preserve wilderness.

If you look closely, you can find the Argument from Welfare embedded in the ideas of environmentalist groups as disparate as preservationists and conservationists, which both center around respect and caring for the natural world. Speaking broadly, environmental conservationists (following Gifford Pinchot, who served as the first head of the United States Forest Service) believe that we should study and give stewardship to the natural world for the purpose of wise resource management. Environmental preservationists (following John Muir, the so-called father of the United States’ system of national parks) have tended to ascribe intrinsic value to the nonhuman natural world and believe that good environmental policy will seek to preserve nature just as it is.

We don’t need to worry about who, if anyone, is right in this old debate. The point is that even when they agree on little else, heirs of Muir and Pinchot appear to agree that animal welfare is paramount. And they both seem to espouse a nonanthropocentric concern for wild animals with the assumption that anthropocentrism is base, strictly economic, and sub-moral.

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From the "Ten Words You Can't Say About Climate Change" issue

But is it? To begin to answer, we need to examine each premise of the Argument from Welfare in turn. An uncontroversial version begins as follows:

First, if a being can subjectively feel, experience, and perceive, then it has the capacity for welfare, and has an interest in its own welfare.

Second, such sentience—especially the capacity to experience pain—is a sufficient condition for moral considerability, that is, for being the sort of entities that deserve moral consideration in our interactions with them. Put another way, I have not wronged a rock if I kick it. I have wronged a person if I have done the same.

Third, at least some nonhuman animals are sentient, and forth, some nonhuman animals are therefore morally considerable and ought to be included in the moral community. That is, if my kick were directed at a dog, I will be generally considered to have wronged a dog. This is a relatively new moral consensus; ethically speaking, for most of human history animals were not considered much different from rocks. There may have been prudential reasons to treat them a certain way, but those reasons were not moral.

Fifth, one purpose of ethics is to promote concern for the welfare of morally considerable beings, and six, given the previous points, we have a moral reason to care about, or at least not disregard, the welfare of some nonhuman animals (or risk being “speciesist”). Ethics may dictate us trying to prevent dogs from getting kicked, for example.

Seventh, the destruction of wilderness inhibits nonhuman animal welfare, whereas wilderness preservation promotes nonhuman animal welfare. Therefore, according to the Argument from Welfare, we have a moral reason to preserve the wilderness.

It bears noting that this argument is not the only one for wilderness preservation. But anyone who has received a fundraising letter from the National Wildlife Federation or been stopped on the street by a Greenpeace volunteer knows that some version of this logic—i.e., a special appeal to protecting the arctic or blocking the development of some parcel of land to help polar bears or frogs—is standard practice.

Worry more about animals than wilderness

The Argument from Welfare may seem comforting and correct in its familiarity. But it is worth considering the opposite case, which I call the “Objection from Welfare.” The Objection from Welfare agrees with its counterpart on several points, including that sentience is a sufficient condition for moral considerability; that some animals are sentient; and that animal welfare ought to matter. But it stops short of endorsing the conclusion that concern for animal welfare goes hand in hand with a desire for wilderness preservation. The dispute centers on whether destruction of wilderness actually inhibits animal wellbeing and whether wilderness preservation actually promotes it.

The argument for the Objection from Welfare runs as follows, and the first part should be familiar:

First, at least some nonhuman animals are sentient; second, sentience is a sufficient condition for inclusion in the moral community; third, we should have concern for the welfare of morally considerable beings; and fourth, we should therefore have concern for the welfare of at least some nonhuman animals.

The paths between the two moral frameworks begin to diverge at point five: Reducing non-beneficial, unjust, unchosen suffering promotes welfare. “Non-beneficial suffering” means suffering that does not ultimately promote the welfare of a morally considerable being. Many things that are ultimately good for us involve suffering to one degree or another—think exercise, education, trips to the dentist, chemotherapy, psychotherapy. This is beneficial suffering. Non-beneficial suffering is suffering without an intended or reasonably likely positive effect on a being’s welfare. “Unjust” covers cases in which suffering is non-beneficial yet may still be permissible. An example might be a legal fine imposed for a parking violation or, more seriously, a just prison sentence that results in some manner of suffering. The qualification “unchosen” is included to avoid cases in which an autonomous being knowingly exercises freedom to inflict some form of non-beneficial suffering on herself. It may be that, in the case of humans, the value of autonomy occasionally supersedes the value of happiness: think of the savage in Brave New World demanding the right to be unhappy.

Point six argues that humans have a moral reason to reduce non-beneficial, unjust, unchosen suffering if we can. And point seven maintains that life in the wilderness entails vast amounts of non-beneficial, unjust, and unchosen suffering on the part of morally considerable beings: nonhuman animals.

The eight assertion is that at least some of the suffering in the wilderness is unnecessary and could be eliminated through human intervention. And the conclusion, therefore, is that concern about the welfare of morally considerable nonhuman animals sometimes provides a compelling reason to intervene in the natural world such that we diminish or eliminate the conditions that create suffering.

The conclusion may be a hard pill to swallow, even if the steps along the way are reasonable enough. Take the belief, for example, that life in the wilderness entails incalculable amounts of suffering. A life in the wild is one overwhelmingly characterized by fear, predation, stress, disease, parasitism, exposure, hunger, infanticide, cannibalism, and early death. In philosopher Mark Sagoff’s memorable summation: “Mother Nature is so cruel to her children she makes Frank Perdue look like a saint.”

The fact that wild nature entails unbelievable suffering for millions upon millions of sentient organisms, generation after generation, has not previously gone unnoticed. In the nineteenth century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer used the endless suffering of nature to defend his pessimistic view that the world contains more unhappiness than happiness, while scientists like Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell struggled mightily to square the magnitude of natural suffering with their desire to believe in a benevolent God. More recently, Richard Dawkins, one of Darwin’s intellectual descendants (and not coincidently a fervent atheist), has reaffirmed the unpleasant truth:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.

We know that all this involves suffering, and we at least implicitly recognize the intrinsic badness of suffering. “If the wild animal understood the conditions into which it is born,” Sagoff asked in his 1994 paper Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics, “what would it think? It might reasonably prefer to be raised on a farm where the chances of survival for a year or more would be good, and to escape from the wild, where the chances are negligible.” For her part, evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox bolsters Sagoff’s suggestion. “We have no evidence whatsoever,” she has written, “that wild animals are, in any way, happier than domesticated ones which are treated well.”

In fact, it is quite the opposite. Veterinarians understand animal welfare (or happiness) to include safe access to food and water, freedom from stress, fear, and suffering, and the ability to engage in natural behaviors and live out the natural course of a life. By this metric, domesticated and semidomesticated animals usually fare far better than their wild counterparts (with the exception of the worst factory farms). This is particularly so in the case of stress. Wild animals have much higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than domesticated animals. The stress is not pointless. Wild animals need the stress hormones to stay alert given that life in the wild is constantly perilous.

These facts are not controversial. But many are unwilling to make the leap to the logical conclusion: The magnitude and constancy of undeserved, unchosen, non-beneficial suffering that exists in the wilderness gives us a strong moral reason to oppose this state of affairs.

Moral reason and moral duty

It is hard to imagine environmentalists of any ideological persuasion endorsing the Objection from Welfare. Still, many do endorse some version of the Argument from Welfare, and anyone who is inclined to do so must dispute the conclusion of its opposite. There are four ways to go about this, namely, by disputing the factual claims in question, the practicality of the argument’s conclusion, its values, or the logic.

In terms of factuality, the Objection from Welfare fails if animals do not really suffer in the wild. But there is a preponderance of evidence (common sense and scientific) to make us believe that wild animals do suffer, and that they suffer greatly.

The practicality issue is usually the primary objection—and at first blush the most damaging. If it is impossible to lessen the suffering of wild animals through human intervention without necessarily causing an equivalent or greater amount of suffering, then we must reject the Objection from Welfare. Take a relatively simple form of suffering, predation: According to philosopher Jeff McMahan, the “commonest objection” to ending predation through deliberate intervention is that “the complexity of any major ecosystem so far surpasses our understanding that an attempt to eliminate predators within it . . . would have unpredictable and potentially catastrophic ramifications throughout the system.” We can imagine a Malthusian nightmare in which reduced predation and disease causes populations to explode, thus creating a situation in which suffering increases through starvation and increased competition for scarce resources. If the welfare of sentient wild animals necessarily depends on the presence of top predators, disease, and so on, then no wild animal is benefited by the removal of top predators, disease, and the like.

McMahan, who does endorse a narrow version of the Objection from Welfare aimed at eliminating predation, has a cogent response. It is true, for example, that simply eliminating top predators without taking any other action would likely decrease animal welfare, not least of all for the predators being eliminated. But this observation only implies that the removal of predators must be done in the right way, not that it shouldn’t be done. In principle, there is no reason why we could not find a way to maintain healthy ecosystems while also increasing animal welfare; human beings have long been engaged in just such an enterprise on behalf of our own welfare. To be sure, we are now realizing that there are limits to how much we can safely alter the state of nature without it becoming counterproductive to present or future generations, but no one seriously maintains that the fate of human beings would be better if we remained permanently in the wild, subject to the amoral laws of evolution by means of natural selection, without any of the trappings of culture or civilization.

The issue, then, is waiting for our understanding and technical abilities to catch up with our intentions. Many will balk at the idea they ever will. But the history of science and technology shows that today’s science fiction frequently becomes plain science a few decades, centuries, or millennia down the road. The moral and political will to change something is often what it takes to make the fantastical scientifically, technologically, and economically feasible.

A different kind of practical objection questions whether we have the resources to concern ourselves with the welfare of wildlife when we cannot adequately protect the welfare of all human beings. This objection is probably true so far as it goes. But there are three responses. First, it does not obviate moral burden we have to reduce suffering and promote animal welfare. It merely (though correctly, I think) points out that at present we probably have more pressing moral projects. Second, if we take this objection to be decisive, we would have a hard time justifying our engagement in any moral effort so long as a more important one exists.

The third response is that given the scope and scale of suffering that occurs in the wild, proponents of the Objection from Welfare could plausibly respond that the suffering of wild animals constitutes as great a moral crisis as any other.

Even if we accept the facts and the potential practicality of the Objection from Welfare, we might still question the values on which it is based. In other words, just because animals suffer, and just because we could potentially reduce their suffering, why should we think that the suffering of wild animals is, morally speaking, bad? As Dawkins reminds us:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

Right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice—these are features of the human world, not of wilderness, the argument goes. In the wild, nothing is good or bad—it just is. Why, then, the skeptic may ask, should we be morally concerned about suffering in an amoral sphere? This objection makes two mistakes.

First, it posits that if animal suffering isn’t a moral issue for animals or nature or the universe, then it can’t be a moral issue for human beings. It is true that animals (and nature, and the universe) are not moral agents. But just because something is not a moral agent doesn’t mean that it is not a moral patient—a being toward which a moral agent can have moral responsibility. For example, we do not regard human infants as moral agents. We do not (or should not) morally blame them for disturbing our sleep or pulling the cat’s tail. But we do regard infants as moral patients, that is, we regard them as beings to whom we have a responsibility. The reason is not solely because they are members of our species.

Imagine you are in the grocery and you see an infant reach out and knock a box of cereal off the shelf. The infant’s parent slaps them hard across the face. Why is this wrong? Even though there are issues of rights, laws, and parental duties, the primary reason we think this action is morally wrong is because it harms the child. Likewise, even if the animal world contains no moral agents, it surely contains moral patients—a notion the Argument from Welfare would agree with (think of the polar bears!). Morality and justice may be anthropogenic, but that does not mean that they ought to be anthropocentric.

The second mistake the values objection makes is that it fails to realize that suffering is intrinsically bad even if no one is morally responsible for it. Since suffering occurs in the wild, badness exists in the wild. No being, moral or amoral, is responsible for volcanoes and earthquakes, yet they cause suffering and early death. So while Dawkins is right to say that there is no justice in nature, this does not mean there is no badness in nature. A zebra, for its part, does not care whether its suffering comes from an amoral lion or a morally capable person. All that matters from the zebra’s point of view is the suffering.

The last objection—to the logic of the Objection from Welfare—is more promising than the previous three. It asks why the recognition that wild animals suffer and are morally considerable logically entails that we ought to intervene on their behalf. It might be that we have a duty of non-maleficence toward wild animals, but no duty of beneficence. That is, while we might be morally required to refrain from harming wild animals, we have no duty to actively improve their lives. If this were true, it would be wrong for us to harm wild animals, but there would be no obligation to stop harm caused by other forces.

The merit of this objection depends on whether you think we have positive moral duties to help animals when the cost to ourselves is minimal or merely negative moral duties to avoid causing harm to animals. Disputes over the priority, difference between, and relative importance of duties of beneficence and non-maleficence run deep in the history of moral philosophy. Those disputes cannot be settled here, and they do not need to be.

Indeed, the Objection from Welfare does not need to support a strict duty of beneficence (which I admit it does not do). All it must do is demonstrate that we have a compelling moral reason to oppose non-beneficial, unchosen, undeserved suffering, especially when doing so comes at little cost to ourselves. The idea of such a compelling moral reason that may still fall short of an obligation is easily illustrated with a now conventional anthropocentric analogy. Let’s say I have twenty dollars that I don’t need to meet any of my basic needs. I see an advertisement from Save the Children telling me that a $20 donation will provide medical care for a child who will otherwise die. I put in my due diligence and conclude that Save the Children’s claim is reliable. Now, whether I have an absolute moral duty to send the money to Save the Children, I certainly have a compelling moral reason to do so—and doing so would surely be good for the child.

Similarly, those who argue that we don’t have a duty to intervene in nature—when doing so will prevent more harm than it causes and can be done at little or no cost to us—need to explain why we shouldn’t intervene. To put it another way, they need to explain why the moral reason not to intervene is stronger than the moral reason to intervene.

The danger of moral reasoning

The Argument from Welfare is a favored tool in the struggle for wilderness preservation because it rightly recognizes the moral considerability of wild animals. In doing so, it gives wilderness defenders a nonanthropocentric reason, and thus a supposedly better moral reason, to preserve the wilderness.

But as this exercise shows, the Argument from Welfare’s own principles can be turned toward the conclusion that we must be committed to eradicating wilderness conditions if and when it would increase animal welfare without causing an equivalent or greater decrease in welfare for other morally considerable beings. The lovers and defenders of wilderness ought to examine the reasons they have for loving and defending it. If their reasons are distinct from issues of animal welfare, they need to ask whether these reasons morally trump the unremitting suffering and early death of innumerable morally considerable creatures. If, by contrast, their reasons invoke animal welfare as the only or primary moral justification, then they will need to start considering what, if anything, would be wrong with a world in which suffering is reduced, welfare is increased, and no areas of land or sea are left untouched by humans.

There is another, more pointed, lesson to be drawn, especially as it relates to making moral cases at all. We have seen in the debates over the environment the alacrity with which participants resort to moral language and moral condemnation. This strategy is not unreasonable. After all, if you can paint your opponent as not just wrong but morally wrong, then you’ve landed a very heavy blow.

Yet there is considerable danger in this strategy: First, moral attacks have the tendency to alienate rather than engage one’s opponent. As a method of academic dialogue or policy discussion it is ineffective at best, inflammatory at worst. Second, we know so little about the moral problems associated with wilderness preservation that blanket ascriptions of right and wrong, moral and immoral, are frequently unjustified and often counterproductive.

Philosophical environmental ethics, which is barely 50 years old, remains in its intellectual infancy. Our ignorance vastly outstrips our understanding; we are still coming to grips with the problems let alone confident in the solutions. This is not a reason for environmental quietism or for the abdication of environmental responsibility, but it is a reason for intellectual caution, personal humility, and careful stress testing of all claims that are explicitly or implicitly made from moral reasoning.

This article is adapted from Wilderness, Morality, and Value by Joshua Duclos, Lexington Books, 2022.