by Benjamin Studebaker
I recently found out that one of my professors is a self-described extinctionist. He believes that we have a moral duty to bring about the extinction of most, if not all, animal life. What makes this more interesting is that this particular professor is a vegetarian, and that he is an extinctionist for animal welfare reasons. I realise that the reader is probably not predisposed to agree with such a radical view, but I think for that very reason it is worth examining and thinking about. So today, I aim to take up, without prejudice, the question of whether or not the extinctionists are correct.
There is one fundamental assumption that must be accepted in order to consider seriously any kind of extinctionist argument:
It is possible for a being to have a life of negative utility.
If we accept this assumption, then we are saying that yes, it is possible for a being to be under such miserable conditions that, rationally considered, death would be a better alternative for that being, because that being’s life is, in aggregate, harmful to his interests, and has no significant potential of improving. Now, just because death is a better alternative does not mean that the being will necessarily commit suicide. Suicide might be in the interest of a being that is nonetheless incapable of committing it for some reason or another. A couple circumstances come to mind:
- The being is not sufficiently intelligent to be aware of its capacity for suicide.
- The being has an irrational fear of death that prevents it from committing suicide even though it is in its interest to do so.
Any being, human or non-human, could potentially be under such conditions. I am prepared to accept that this assumption is true. If say, I were sent to a North Korean prison camp where I would live out my days in a cell so small that my muscles would inevitably atrophy from lack of exercise, where I would receive bare bones rations that left me chronically malnourished, and where, even were I to attempt escape, I would still find myself in North Korea, which is in itself an unpleasant place to be, I would have to accept that death is the only realistic escape from such a torment. Consequently, I would have to accept that the rational thing to do in that scenario would be suicide. I may still be unable to kill myself in that circumstance due to cowardice, but it would be the sensible thing to do.
Now, in order to get from that assumption to extinctionism, we need an account of the animal experience that is somewhat similar to the North Korean case I offered. Consider the living conditions of farm animals. Now, I’m not restricting this to factory farmed animals–farm animals in general. A farm animal is trapped on a plot of land, perhaps reasonably sized, perhaps not. In either case, what do farm animals do with their lives? They are fattened and eaten, or milked, or what have you. If you or I were put in similar circumstances, if we were fattened up to be eaten, genetically modified so as to produce copious amounts of milk and then milked daily, we would call this an extremely disutile existence. Being “free range” would be no significant salve. A death camp is a death camp, whether you are in a small cell or a big one.
And what is the condition of an animal that is not being farmed? What of animals in the wild? Would you like to be a wild animal? In science fiction and fantasy, people often play around with the idea of assuming animal forms, or transforming into animals. But in the real world, being an animal is not particularly fun. Most animals live in constant fear of being viciously attacked and eaten, dying of thirst, starvation, disease, freezing to death, heatstroke, getting hit by cars, getting shot at by hunters or poachers, you get the picture. A sheep that escapes its pen must now worry about wolves and foxes. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The only way we justify all of this, that we claim that animals have happy lives, is on the basis that they are not sufficiently intelligent to comprehend the indignity with which they live. We ourselves would never choose to live in the conditions that wild animals live in, but we permit them to do it even though they are equipped more poorly than we are for the task. Your average human being in the wild can build a fire, make a shelter, make tools, outsmart predators, and so on. This is why human beings got out of the wild in the first place. Your average animal cannot do these things. Leaving your average animal to fend for itself in the wild is not all that different from leaving a deeply mentally disabled person in the wild. We would very likely call that cruelty, would we not? And as we have learned in our biology classes, most animals live in a food chain, a food web. They exist to be consumed. If we are not farming them, predators, in a much less organised way, are. And as for those predators themselves? They live day to day, on the verge of starvation if they are unsuccessful in obtaining a meal.
Many of us would even find living as one of our own pets demeaning or belittling. For most of human history, calling someone a “dog” or saying that someone “lives like a dog” has been a common insult.
The conclusion that the extinctionist draws from all of this is that the animals themselves live lives that are objectively not worth living, that they would be better off dead, and that, therefore, we are obliged to give them death, or at least sterilisation.
Now, I don’t consider myself under any obligation to accept any of the argument I have presented to this point, because I reject the other assumption this argument implies:
We have moral duties to non-reciprocating animals.
Much of my moral theory is about reciprocity and the belief that in order for us to have duties to a being, that being has to be part of our moral community, i.e. it has (or will soon have, in the case of children) the capacity to have and honour moral obligations to us. If animals do not contribute to our society and do not have the potential to do so, then we do not have duties to them, and if we do not have duties to them, then we can have no duty to bring about their extinction for their own benefit. Given that many of us enjoy eating animals, our utility is sufficient to deny animals extinction. I’ve made the reciprocity argument in reference to animals before. So if you agree with me on the necessity of being a current or potential contributor, does the extinctionist have any more moves left?
There is one that comes to mind.
It takes more food to keep a cow running than it does to keep a person running. Insofar as there is scarcity of food resources, choosing to increase the cow population reduces the human population, thereby diminishing the number of potential human contributors to our society.
However, if food scarcity is not a significant problem, if the real problem is food distribution (and I have compelling evidence that this is so), then making more cattle does not necessarily result in making fewer people. There is no outright food scarcity, so that argument in turn collapses.
If, however, you do not agree with my thoughts on reciprocity or food security, I put the question to you–why aren’t you an extinctionist?
[…] kill bugs because they haven’t thought about it. I have written a series of different posts about animal welfare in which I have given the value of the lives of animals, including bugs, serious […]
Will to live is not “irrational fear of death”. You ignore joy. You ignore play. You ignore pleasure. You ignore a lot of natural instincts. (And you are really only talking about a tiny percentage of species on the planet anyway.) You are describing severe mental illness, deep depression. In animals it is described as being shut down. Animals cannot commit suicide, do not contemplate the meaning of life, that is a human construct. But what if the animal has plenty of food, enough water, shelter and health, room to move around and interact with others within its small confines? Is it suffering?
Your professor is deeply disturbed, and I would say that it’s the professor that has “negative utility”. What has prevented him/her from committing suicide? Reading comments from Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PETA, makes one wonder why she repeatedly discounts human Life as having no value, yet still breathes air. Maybe there is some kind of satisfaction in bitterness and hatred. Like flagellation, it must release endorphines, and there you have an answer.
The will to live would only be an irrational fear of death if the being were already under sufficiently miserable conditions that continuing to live would not be in its well-considered interests. You can definitely take the view that no set of possible conditions is sufficiently miserable, but this is rejection from first principle rather than an invalidation of the argument on its own terms.
I don’t think it’s obvious that no such conditions can exist. I can think of various scenarios I could be in where I should rationally prefer death (e.g. living in a North Korean prison camp). Is the state of affairs for most animals better or worse than that? It’s not clear to me that it’s better, given the intense misery of most farm animals and the terrifying existence of wild animals, who live in constant fear of becoming somebody’s lunch. Consider deer–they are absolutely petrified of everything and lack the mental capacity even to know when they are safe from predators. I struggle to see how that kind of life would rationally be worthwhile, yet the deer lacks the mental capacity to end its own life or do anything about this. It’s kind of torturous when you think about it.
My professor considers his own life to be worthwhile (his argument applies primarily to non-human animals). Moreover, I got the sense that he finds his own conclusion discomforting and would like for someone to logically disprove it for him. I certainly don’t think it was motivated by hatred or bitterness. The guy takes moral philosophy very seriously.
What proof do you have that ‘most’ farm animals suffer in intense misery? Intense misery is deadly. Anecdotes are not proof, but in nearly 70 years spending time with animals of many species, misery and suffering is truly rare. Your views are more opinion, not fact, based in human emotion and anthropomorphism.
Of all the people I am personally acquainted with who work with, train, raise animals of many species, I have never met a single one who is unable to observe the signs of suffering and stress and act to relieve it, and does everything possible to prevent suffering and/or relieve it. Stress in animals is observable and measurable. First of all, “misery” is not an objective assessment, stress is a more helpful term, and stress in farm animals is bad for every aspect of agriculture. Bad for quality, bad for the bottom line, health, productivity, safety, even bad for the farmers’ emotional health. To believe otherwise about the motives and feelings of farmers is exactly where that bitterness and hatred is shown. I maintain that your professor exhibits depression and misanthropy. Wears a hair shirt every day, a kind of global Guilt for merely existing, in a kind of fake martyrdom.
So tell me how you can know that wild animals, like deer, are in constant fear – if that were the case, they would just simply all die. Fearful animals cannot eat, let alone reproduce. Constant low level stress is equally deadly, but just takes longer. I feel sorry for your professor – he would probably feel better with a little animal-assisted therapy.
Most farming is now industrialized, and this kind of farming inflicts a variety of forms of severe suffering on animals–a British court famously ruled that many of these methods constitute a form of torture:
The practices discussed in this case are mainstream in human agriculture–approximately 74% of chickens, 43% of beef, 50% of pork, and 68% of eggs are produced this way. Animals that are farmed via alternative methods have lower efficiency yields, encouraging industrialization.
As far as wild animals go, perhaps I should be clearer–wild animals do not necessarily constantly experience mortal danger, but they do constantly experience the possibility of mortal danger. A deer will eat, because it has to eat, but at the same time it will maintain a thorough vigilance. If you approach a deer while it’s eating, it will stop what it’s doing and run from you, because its instincts tell it that any given sound or approaching species could be a predator. Deer are not sufficiently intelligent to be able to tell the difference between an approaching neutral species and an approaching hostile one, so they treat every large animal that approaches them as a potential threat. This is a very high level of fear to live with on a day to day basis, is it not? It’s unsurprising that most white tailed deer only live 2 or 3 years given the amount of stress they are under and the threat of being torn limb from limb by another animal and eaten.
I really enjoyed this article, but there seems to be a rather surprising absence of writing on the issue of Extinctionalism. With the prospect of further writing on the subject, would you care to divulge the name of your professor?
My email is email@example.com
If not – never mind. This article was very thought provoking and I anticipate future growth in the field of Extinctionalism.
I agree that factory farmed animals generally suffer to the extent that they are living in constant pain and distress, and in these cases we could see their lives as ‘net-negative.’ However, I would argue that humans are responsible for this suffering, therefore we have a moral responsibility to try to alleviate it; not by killing the animals but by phasing out factory farming and improving their quality of life. You deny that we have moral duties to non-reciprocating animals – but these animals are reciprocating by providing you with your KFC.
The idea that animals in the wild or companion animals do not lead lives worth living is entirely based on applying human values and needs to animals. This is anthropocentic and shortsighted – numerous studies have demonstrated animal’s capacity for pleasure, play and joy in the wild or in our (responsible) care. I’d recommend your Professor read Bekoff’s Emotional Lives of Animals if he truly wants his view challenged; his stories of animal joy are truly life-affirming!