Going by a purely utilitarian perspective with a goal to reduce pain, I would think humans should do that. What it would involve, maybe feeding lab grown meat to tigers, and separating habitats? And where do animal ethicists draw the line on such things?

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    @MoziburUllah, "the only situation where this might occur is when a species is introduced in a habitat where its able to over-power the local ecology". What about the violence of a predator killing prey? there are brutal situations when the prey is eaten alive. Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 5:06
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    Protecting flies from spiders? Where would you draw the line? Nature is unbelievably cruel.
    – user4894
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 5:33
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    @user4894: indeed, it’s hard to say where you’d draw the line — but equally, it’s hard to justify why a strict utilitarian viewpoint wouldn’t send you down that chain of action. It’s explored rather well by Eliezer Yudkowsky in Three Worlds Collide. (Yudkowsky is a rather extreme utilitarian — he doesn’t give any kind of balanced philosophical perspective, but he’s very good at exploring strict utilitarianism without ducking the hard questions or implicitly appealing to non-utilitarian principles.) Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 9:49
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    Why is violence against plants acceptable? Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 11:27
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    So all of those poor microbes slaughtering one another in the petri dish while "growing" the meat do not matter?
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 21:09

9 Answers 9


Not a terribly philosophical answer here...

Animals in the wild are actually quite efficient at resource utilisation. For example, a lion kills a zebra, the pride eats enough food for them to last for 2-3 more days without any other food. The scraps and bits the lions don't want to eat get eaten by smaller animals (and so on until literally there's nothing left of the zebra but bones). All those animals leave dung which dung beetles like and helps plants to grow, etc etc. Thus, one zebra feeds an awful lot of the food chain.

Humans are bad at the same resource allocation. If we were to lab-grow meat, we'd expend more energy than it took to grow the zebra, and we'd only feed the lions. We'd need to do it all over again to feed the smaller animals, and the insects, birds, bacteria and whatever else that feeds on a dead zebra. Further, we'd be likely to over-feed or under-feed the lions, which then changes other behaviours.

Further, the animals involved all know the 'rules of the game'. Zebras have multiple young to compensate for the odd one getting eaten here and there (just as humans once did, by the way). Lions occasionally come off worse when they get too desperate for food and take unnecessary risks, thus providing a different form of meat for the food chain to enjoy. And so it goes on. For the most part, any animal killings are usually pretty quick (as opposed to slow and torturous 'playing'). As such, I'd say it's probably better to leave nature to do it rather than try to impose our human will on it (side point: what's to say our way is actually the 'right way'? Nothing empirical has been proven, so it's mostly a position based on arrogance).

That said, animals under human control are (in my opinion) a different matter. I'd say we humans do indeed have an obligation, for example, to make sure our pet dogs don't maul the local cats or chickens or whatever. Indeed, I'd go further to say we have an obligation to train pets not to pursue such behaviours in the first place. We also have some obligation not to breed dogs (etc) in artificial/forced ways specifically with the aim to make them more aggressive and therefore likely to be violent towards other animals. One could also argue we shouldn't artificially breed them specifically to be more passive either, but that's a different conversation.

So in summary: yes and no ;-)

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    Also: domestic cats are significant killer of the birds: audubon.org/news/how-stop-cats-killing-birds and sciencenews.org/article/… Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 21:36
  • Excellent answer. If anything perhaps we should find ways to live with the best of our humanity and the best of wild Earth, the latter of which is lacking while the weaknesses of the former wreak havoc.
    – cr0
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 0:28
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    "animal killings are usually pretty quick" And then there is this [NSFL].
    – dbanet
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 22:54
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    When we intervene in ecosystems we generally do more harm than good anyway for most deifnitions of harm. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone shows the effect on a range of prey species from undoing the damage caused by removal of an apex predator.
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 9:18
  • Just because nature recycles doesn't mean it's efficient. We can (in theory) make the meat without digestive tracts, brains, bones, wasting tons and tons of energy on just making the animal grow. For the most part, the nutrient cycle is a closed cycle - but only if you ignore the biggest part by far - sunlight. Most of the energy spent while the animal grows to maturity is just wasted as heat, long before it is killed for food for all those predators and scavengers. The problem is you're looking at a self-balancing ecosystem - the best replacement for that is another self-balancing system.
    – Luaan
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 12:35

I'll attempt to work within the lens of utilitarianism and against the idea that we hold any obligation:

The possible implementations of such a plan to suppress the occurrence of hunting and violence (e.g. to grow meat in a lab or lock up all the tigers) in nature would lead to unnecessary exploitation and disturbance of the environment, where nature does a better job of regulation. This leads to destruction, suffering, and expenses. It is highly likely that more humans would be hurt by dangerous animals, who would not lose their violent instincts and probably crowd urban zoos, laboratories, and research facilities.

I'm sure many of them would hurt the trappers or get hurt in the process of being trapped. Also, hunting down all the predators would result in overpopulation of prey species, causing conflicts of space with humans that would, ultimately, lead to suffering of some sort.

The measures to prevent other animals from eating/harming one another would be outrageously expensive (spending more money and resources, thus leading to future or immediate pain to humans in some form) and possibly cause pain to the animals themselves or reduce their quality of life. It is also likely that they experience something akin to our definition of happiness when hunting and killing their prey. This plan would deprive them of such pleasure. Certainly, efforts to prevent the rampant injustices of human consumption and our own intraspecies violence should take fiscal and philosophical priority over more meddling with nature. Simple study of an ecosystem is known to wildly disrupt it.

It could also be argued, simply, that other wild animals do not participate human ethics, anyway, and are exempt from our considerations of utilitarianism. Similarly, we should not be involved in their own ethics.

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    +1: 'animals do not participate in ethics' is also Midgelys argument against the 'selfish gene' trope; genes aren't beings that can participate in ethics either. Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 7:04
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    Would a human being, whose ability to reason is absolutely impaired, be eligibile to be exempt from partaking in ethics and to follow all animalistic urges? Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 7:25
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    @AlexanderKosubek I would say yes, though other humans might have an interest in containing their ability to wreak any sort of havoc. I would not, for example, hold a coma patient or a severe schizophrenic traditionally accountable for their actions, but would institutionalize them for protection. This is an interesting thought, but I would say that the likelihood of threatening other humans (being part of a human society) distinguishes such individuals from the animals considered in OP's question. I'm also going to jump ship since this is already a very opinion-y thread. Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 7:41
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    @0-60FPS: from a utilitarian point of view, it’s irrelevant whether the animals can perceive ethical behaviour. What matters is that they can perceive suffering; we would then have an obligation to reduce that suffering. Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 9:53
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    It is an irony that some would argue an animals lack of awareness demands its protection while others would argue its lack of awareness exempts from protection.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 18:22

"Animals do not participate in ethics" is simply wrong. See the work of Franz DeWaal on primates, they show an understanding of fairness, justice, care for others, all ethical considerations. A more logical approach would be to consider our ethics as that of a specific social species, a system which has evolved to promote our survival in our particular niche in no different a way to that of social primates (who have similar, but not identical ethics to us), to tigers whose ethics are totally alien to us. As Wittgenstein said, if we could translate what a lion was saying we still wouldn't be able to understand it.

The reason we should not get involved in reducing pain from the natural behaviour of other animals is not a pragmatic one (consider if somehow it were practical, would we want to interfere?), it is that our own concepts of what feels right are unique to our species and have evolved to satisfy our ecological niche, imposing them on other species would undoubtedly cause more harm simply because they have not evolved to suit the niche of those species and so their survival would be put at risk.

  • They show those understandings when those concepts apply to themselves. At most, they show it for others of the same group, and that's as far as their theory of mind can take them. They simply do not apply it to others outside their group.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 12:55
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    @Graham I'm not sure what you mean by group, but on anything less than broad species level, DeWaal's experiments showed that chimpanzees had a concept of fairness and justice which they readily applied to their human handlers. Human ideas of fairness and justice are rarely extended to other animals (even more rarely to non-primates), so I'm not sure I can see the distinction you're trying to draw here.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 13:00
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    My point is that animals can't participate in ethics because it is beyond their mental abilities. Their concept of "fairness" does not extend to anyone outside their own group, whereas "ethics" has to be more general. Territorial animals really don't care about why another animal/group has entered their territory. It may be unfair that they have the best fruit trees, hunting areas or whatever, but that doesn't mean they'll give others access, even if those others are hungry and in need.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 13:10
  • Yes, typically "group" is a family group or pack of the same species. As you say though, there may be some flexibility in that when you add humans, so I didn't want to be over-specific.
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 13:12
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    @Graham You are not comparing like with like. We observe how animals behave and make theories about what might motivate them to do so. For a start your understanding of animal behaviour is limited to the popular "red in tooth and claw" image which is not always accurate, and then you are comparing the way animal actually behave with the way humans would like to think they behave - ethics.. The point I'm making in my answers is that our ethics is an aim, not a final result. It is restricted and conflicted by other desires.
    – user22791
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 13:35

Strictly utalitarian, you want to maximize the well-being of all. From this perspective, the misfortune of a few prey is easily outweighted by the advantages of the many.

In addition to the predators, there are other advantages to the ecosystem that increase the well-being of many animals, including the (other) prey. In the wild, predators tend to kill weak, ill and old animals predominantly, because they are the easiest to catch. This improves the average health of the herd, and rids it off weaker members. It also creates selection pressure, making all the surviving members of the herd stronger. This pressure also exists on individuals. Without predators, the prey would have no reason to evolve, to grow strong or smart or really anything except eat.

A comparison between a painful death an a life-long torture of boredom might be overdoing it, but the fact is that these animals - predators and prey - evolved into being the way they are, and it is highly likely that their well-being would suffer if the balance is upset.

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    Why does promoting smarter/fitter animals matter from a utilitarian perspective? Does evolving to evade predators better make the animals happier? This seems kind of Social Darwinist (except applied to animals).
    – mic
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 1:52
  • Evolution works through both outside and inside pressure. Why does boredom exist at all? Because in nature, exploring is a useful activity. Trees do not get bored. Following these evolved desires, I would argue, contributes to well-being.
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 12:48

Utilitarianism is, roughly, about maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering, out of all sentient beings. Therefore, if we can reliably reduce wild animal suffering (without screwing it up and causing more suffering), then we should do so.

With our current technology and our current state of research on the happiness of wild animals, there's probably not much that we can do. But with future technology, we might be able to. For instance, we could conceivably eliminate the predators, then sterilize some herbivores to prevent overpopulation. That plan might be a bad idea, but we don't know enough at this point to say that it's impossible to successfully reduce animal suffering.

It's important to note that wild animals probably do suffer a lot, more than the other answers think they do. From Wikipedia:

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins challenged Darwin's claim in his book River Out of Eden, wherein he argued that wild animal suffering must be extensive due to the interplay of the following evolutionary mechanisms:

  • Selfish genes – genes are wholly indifferent to the well-being of individual organisms as long as DNA is passed on.
  • The struggle for existence – competition over limited resources results in the majority of organisms dying before passing on their genes.
  • Malthusian checks – even bountiful periods within a given ecosystem eventually lead to overpopulation and subsequent population crashes.

To counter the point that animals fall outside the scope of our ethics, this definitely isn't what prominent utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Peter Singer have believed. It's not as if animals particularly value preserving the status quo of nature. I think they too would agree with the principle of increasing happiness and reducing suffering, if they could understand it.

Somewhat related links:


Goal to reduce pain for whom ?

While you can assume "a purely utilitarian perspective with a goal to reduce pain", there can be a significant variation about the set of entities for whom you'd want to reduce pain.

There are many possible perspectives, from the narrow to wide:

  • Minimize pain/inconvenience for myself only;
  • Minimize pain for a "tribe" of people that I consider more important than others; no matter if the "tribe" consists of my family/clan; my nation or race; people who share my political or ethical viewpoint, etc.
  • Minimize pain for all my fellow humans;
  • Minimize pain for all sentient beings;
  • Minimize pain for all alive beings;
  • .. and many options in between these.

You can't go from pure statements of fact to a normative "ought" statement, you need some assumptions about the ethical goals. If you assume a goal to reduce pain, then the choices listed above pretty much determine the answer to your question, but different subjective choices about the goal result in very different answers about this obligation.


There is a basic misunderstanding within many people. Pain is not bad. It warns people and animals against danger. Sometimes people want to suppress pain because they already know the situation, and it is fruitless to do anything more by instinct except those they know they will do. People may also feel less pain by instinct if they have a strong will to do something else, or they have a reason to explain the pain (didn't find any source, sorry). Animals are evolved to have the instinct of feeling the pain for a reason. It won't be good to remove them for themselves, unless, in some cases humans are taking over a large part of all the evolution mechanism, such as in the farms, where some kind of pain doesn't imply danger anymore in the perspective of the benefits of humans. If we go further and not only remove the pain, but also the cause of it, it would disrupt the evolution and won't be good in long term.

Sometimes people do things not for the animals themselves (as in the Buddhist way, but I don't think they want to specially reduce pain anyway), but for their own feeling. In this case they may selectively want to reduce pain for cats, but not for mosquitoes.

It would be easier to understand this kind of ideas just by imagining some extreme things to humans, and try to find some reasons why we would hate it. The fact is, every person received much, much more from the society than they actually pay. And they could contribute to the society (including their family and friends) much more, at least they have the potential. These things won't be justified if they feel betrayed in an extreme way. Beside the pain, it's more about the creepiness from the random treatment to them and the uncertainty of what is going on. It could make many of the people's believes for everyday life questionable. Ethics are mostly about the trust and not generating the good not ever existed, after all. Other people may interpret the reason in different ways, but I described mine just as a example.

Does that apply for animals? Well, if you think yourself the person who breed the animals, sometimes it does. In fact, some people would try not to be emotionally associated from the beginning, to avoid these feelings. But most people don't know who took care of a specific animal, so they could only make general statements based on some assumptions, such as they could be somewhat bad.

If we could find such a reason, it would be rather irrelevant whether the pain are caused by animals or humans. If they live in a natural way that they should evade the danger, they should feel pain, unless humans made them feel safe and they should actually have removed the danger. If they must die as the human planned, some people would think it's ethical to not let them feel the pain, or at least make the job more relaxed. Other people may only think that's good for the meat quality in some cases (in other cases it's the exact opposite). But in the case that they must die as planned AND they must evade the danger (to train some carnivore for hunting), for the ethical-thinking people, it's... complicated.

But humans are practical. They could compare the pros and cons. Very few people could just decide on a single ultimate goal. If you want to be ultimately good you may invent some replacement food moved by a game controller, ie. split the brain and body. But before that becoming feasible and having more priority than most of the other humans' good, some people have to live with it.


I would argue that trying to prevent animal on animal violence is extremely unethical.

That would imply exterminating (i.e., directly killing, or, worse, starving to death) all animals that are secondary predators. Which would quite certainly result in an overpopulation of primary predators, with very bad consequences not only for secondary predators, but for plants – which would be decimated by an unchecked growth of primary predator population – and, in the long term, even for primary predators, who would starve (in my view, a much worse way to die than the quick violence of a predator). So, unless we are prepared to pretend that provoking an ecological catastrophe that will kill far more animals and plants than "animal on animal violence" is somehow "ethical", we should leave animals to sort their own lives as they see fit, and concern ourselves with the things we can change – violence among us being a far more concerning issue than lions eating zebras or spiders eating flies.

Why would the only species that deliberately kills its own brethren be entitled to mess up with other species' lives out of a cheesy concern for "life" in abstract?


No matter what ethics one adheres to, the dark master is always his emotion. Morals or ethics have always been the servants of their dark master; they have never been the guidance to anyone's action. Simply by looking at a person's ethics, one can gain some insights into the heart of this man

The ban on cruel and unusual punishment is a very recent thing. Less than two hundred years ago and in the most civilized part of the world, people brought picnics to watch criminals being drawn and quartered and would be hugely disappointed if the criminal was pardoned or quickly put to death. Nowadays this sort of thing is unimaginable in the civilized part of the world; there was definitely a change of heart among the wider populace in the past 150 years or so. A Russellian scholar would try to find the cause of this sudden change of heart in economic conditions and in nutrition and diet: numerous account recorded that the English in Elizabethan time ate well - beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, cony, capon, pig, deer, wild fowl and a great variety of fish, just to name a few; they will look into climate, evolution, the spread of literacy, the rise of science, the prevalence of art and literature which was made possible by the abundance of leisure, and, most important of all, in a small number of individuals of transcendent ability - this was the circumstance in which the smooth-tongued Shakespeare was born and raised. What impact did Shakespeare have on the English sensibility? This is a very interesting subject. The person who can accomplish this task probably needs to speak several European languages, which I do not.

American moral fervour is disgusting, not only because it tries to justify the sort of thing that pleases savages, but also because it cultivates muddleheadedness. Almost every philosophy club in the US is about "morality"; no sooner a meeting starts than a patriarch-figure in a deep voice begins to moralize, which makes you want to puke. To have a taste of how a moral person reasons, let's take a look at the honoured George Marshall:

In 1946, immediately after WWII, Marshall tried to broker peace between Chinese nationalists and communists. Seeing that the Chinese genuinely wanted to kill some more Chinese, Marshall decided to step aside in order to preserve his personal integrity and that of the US government. Marshall was probably genuinely weary of war - he was in the mood for medals, ribbons, awards and prizes, and he was more than ready to opine the kind of majestic opinions professed by victorious Roman generals that he hated war ... of course the deaths of millions of Chinese were of very little concern. The rest of the story is history: the world repaid a hundred fold in blood and toil and misery for Marshall's moral squeamishness. The period between the end of WWII and August 29, 1949 was probably the only window of opportunity in human history in which war could be eradicated just like smallpox was eradicated. Truman and Marshall, two of the world's most mediocre men in high place, wasted it.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this episode, it is this: be very sceptical about the abilities of those who rose to prominence in hierarchical organizations. Hierarchical organizations favour docility more than anything else - if a house dog has a human shape, he would rise among the ranks like a hot air balloon.

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