Shepherds vs. Wolves

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to walk through a moral conundrum with the intent of questioning and shedding light on the way we think about endangered species and human/animal relations more broadly. As the title suggests, shepherds and wolves will play a key role.

So here’s the setup:

Let’s say we have a community called Ovinium. Ovinium is a farming community–it’s full of shepherds and sheep. Ovinium is, however, also home to a pack of wolves.The wolves primarily eat sheep. Other kinds of prey are in short supply because most of the land in Ovinium is used for sheep grazing. As a result, the shepherds lose lots of sheep to wolves. This hurts the shepherds’ profit margins and even sometimes endangers the financial viability of their sheep farms. The shepherds want to stop the wolves from eating their sheep.

The shepherds want government permission to shoot and kill the wolves or, failing that, to build wolf-proof fences around their properties. The trouble is that because the wolves are so reliant on the sheep for sustenance, either option will likely result in the extinction of the wolf pack in Ovinium. What should the government do?

The first question is whether or not the government has a reason to care about the wolves given that the shepherds, not the wolves, are its taxpaying citizens. Are the wolves worthy of the government’s moral concern? Three ways of responding to this come to mind:

  1. Reciprocity–beings are only morally required to care about those beings that are capable and willing to contribute to their well-being.
  2. Capacity–all beings that suffer are worthy of equal concern, regardless of what the relationship is between or among the beings.
  3. Appeal to Nature–wolves are natural, what is natural is valuable, therefore wolves should be preserved.

Let’s play out all of these methods.


On a reciprocity view, the shepherds do not have moral duties to the wolves because the wolves are not capable of cooperating with the shepherds. They need to eat sheep to live, and this directly conflicts with the interests of the shepherds in an irreconcilable way.

The government also does not have moral duties to the wolves, because the wolves are not willing or capable of paying taxes to it, following its laws, and so on. Since they cannot and will not take on the duties of citizenship, they are not citizens and the state has no reason to treat them like citizens.

However, what if there are other people living in Ovinium who are not shepherds? After all, shepherds cannot exist in a vacuum, they must trade their sheep products with other people for other goods and services. What if the non-shepherds in Ovinium are also environmentalists? The environmentalists believe that wolves are part of nature and contribute to bio-diversity, and that they ought to be conserved. The government does not have duties to the wolves under a reciprocity view, but it may have duties to the environmentalists that include the protection of their interests. If the environmentalists genuinely enjoy knowing that there are wolves in Ovinium, this could provide the government with some moral basis for conserving them.

So how should the government proceed to resolve a conflict between environmentalists and shepherds? In practice, we often resolve these matters by voting. The shepherds are not going to be in the majority by themselves, so unless they are able to convince lots of non-shepherds that the wolves are a menace, they’re going to lose a vote. But is a vote necessarily a fair way of adjudicating this? The wolves do not affect all citizens equally. It is not obvious that each environmentalist enjoys wolves as much as each shepherd detests them. Indeed, given that wolves directly harm shepherds’ assets, it’s quite likely that shepherds are more severely affected than the environmentalists are. If not killing the wolves entails the failure of any significant number of sheep farms, it may even drive up the prices of sheep products (wool, mutton, etc.) such that some of the environmentalists suffer more from rising living costs than they benefit from having the wolves around.

There’s no obvious output of all of this–it depends on the way the variables happen to play out in any given case. If environmentalists vastly outnumber shepherds and the threat to the shepherds’ assets is limited, they probably ought to get their way. If the shepherds are numerically competitive with the environmentalists and/or keeping the wolves would decimate sheep-farming in the region, the shepherds probably ought to get their way. The point being, so long as we’re using reciprocity to make the decision, we’re weighing the interests of humans against each other–the wolves are not in and of themselves consequential. If the state decides to conserve them, it does so only because there happen to be lots of people that like wolves.


On a capacity view, the wolves definitely matter because they can suffer, regardless of what kind of relationship they have with the surrounding community. Whether they’re being shot or starved, the wolves will negatively experience any effort to prevent them from eating sheep. At first blush, this might make it appear that the wolves definitely should be conserved–after all, the wolves’ interest in not dying surely trumps the interest of the shepherds in making a buck.

However, the wolves are not the only new sufferers on a capacity view–we also have to take into account the sheep. Sheep suffer when wolves rip their throats out. Not only that, but in order to survive a single predator must kill many prey animals throughout its lifetime. Each wolf likely does in several dozen sheep per year. While the wolves need to eat the sheep in order to live, the sheep need to not be eaten by wolves in order to live, and there are many more sheep lives to be weighed against the wolf lives.

Often the predator/prey relationship is defended on the grounds that the predators prevent the prey from overpopulation and that the predators guide evolution by weeding out sick or defective prey animals. However, the wolves are no longer necessary to serve those functions–the shepherds are already managing their sheep populations and breeding them to get desired genetic outcomes. Indeed, the shepherds are, in this situation, arguably a more benevolent predator than the wolves, because they allow the sheep to live longer lives before they kill them and they kill them at a fairly uniform point in their life cycle rather than at random, assuring that the sheep live lifespans that are more equal in length and less fearful throughout. If I’m a sheep, I’d rather live a life of guaranteed length with a definite end on a farm protected from other predators than spend my whole life constantly looking over my shoulder for wolves, not that sheep can rationally think through that whole process, of course. Indeed, the sheep probably do not even realize that the shepherds are going to kill them until it’s already happening, and even then, it’s likely much more painful to be torn apart by wolves.

If the predator/prey relationship is defensible and it’s inevitable that sheep will be eaten either by humans or by wolves, it is better for the predator to be a human than a wolf. If the predator/prey relationship is indefensible, then the wolves are acting indefensibly in any case.

Environmentalist citizens might have a view on this, but they don’t count for much on a capacity view because, unlike the wolves and the sheep, their lives are not at stake. On a capacity view, the debate ultimately devolves into a contest between the moral claims of sheep and wolves, a contest that the sheep, through virtue of greater numbers, are going to win. On a capacity view, the wolves die not for the benefit of the shepherds, but for the benefit of the sheep. There might perhaps be an out, if the government can put all the wolves into zoos and fed them synthetic meat, but in any case, the capacity view means that the wolves ought to be prevented from eating the shepherds’ livestock.

Appeal to Nature

Lastly, we might make an appeal to nature, that because wolves hunting sheep is the natural order of things, we ought to preserve that order. That argument is fallacious both because there’s no obvious connection between “natural” and “good”, and because the shepherds are just as much a natural phenomenon as the wolves. If people are part of the environment rather than above it, then human beings and the things they do are equally natural to what we find in the wider environment. For those reasons, the appeal to nature should be rejected, and we should embrace either the reciprocity or capacity views.

So bizarrely, conserving the wolves in Ovinium is more morally defensible under a reciprocity view that denies that the wolves have intrinsic moral worth than it does on a capacity view that forces us to also consider the interests of the sheep. For my part, I am most drawn to a reciprocity view that can deliver either output, depending on the extent to which morally relevant beings value having wolves around and the extent to which the wolves are harming the interests of morally relevant beings. What I find most remarkable about all of this is that we are likely to treat the wolves in this scenario better if we use a moral metric that denies that animals have intrinsic value than we would if we affirmed that value. That blows my mind.