A Cruelty-Free World?

Some writers think nature isn’t very nice. David Pearce is one such writer. Pearce told George Dvorsky at the weblog io9 (a daily publication connected with Gawker.com that “covers science, science fiction, and the future”) that re-programming nature so as to eliminate animal habits we don’t like isn’t a new idea: “The Bible prophesies that the wolf and the lion shall lie down with the lamb.”

Conceiving the natural world as pitted against many animals’ interests, Pearce, a utilitarian philosopher, hopes biologists devise ways of reducing suffering in natural habitats as well as in captivity. In “Reprogramming Predators (Blueprint for a Cruelty-Free World)” Pearce discusses “the problem of predation” and proposes that predators be eliminated—either by extinction or genetic engineering. Then, Pearce proposes, buffalo and zebras would be managed with contraception technologies in wildlife parks. “On almost every future scenario, we’re destined to play God, says Pearce. “So let’s aim to be compassionate gods and replace the cruelty of Darwinian life with something better.”

Philosophical grandstanding aside, we’re not going to have an Earth devoid of carnivores. They belong to the natural system of trophic cascades that keeps the whole bio-community functioning. Consider that almost all communities of birds feed their hatchlings insects and worms, and the obvious becomes clear. To wipe out natural predation is an impossible dream that would very quickly lend itself to ethical and environmental nightmares.

It’s a fact of life on Earth as well as a strain on the advocate’s emotions that the world’s animals often have short, stressful lives. Tom Regan acknowledges: “When it comes to interspecies relations, nature is red in tooth and claw.” Regan’s Case for Animal Rights firmly states that the rights view does not, however, urge us to control others; instead, it obliges us to let other animals carve out their own destiny. Animal rights does not boil down to pain relief, and the call to control the lions and bobcats from doing what they do to live shows that at the most striking level. We humans can refrain from killing others; and we’ve developed, and can spread, the ethic of non-violence. But forcing other animals, including obligate carnivores, to subscribe to vegetarianism would bring no challenge to our control over other animals; it is, rather, human dominion on overdrive.

“Reprogramming Predators: Blueprint for a Cruelty-Free World” (2009), published on the BLTC [“Better Living Through Chemistry”] Research website, whose mission statement asserts that “Post-Darwinian superminds” can and should abolish pain. David Pearce has assured me, when I wrote previously about this issue for a book, that the website is not meant to be satire.
Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (1983), at 357.
Thanks to Bernard Jones for bringing George Dvorsky’s piece to my attention.
Polar Bear Family Group Photo Credit: Susanne Miller/USFWS

17 thoughts on “A Cruelty-Free World?

  1. ““On almost every future scenario, we’re destined to play God, says Pearce. “So let’s aim to be compassionate gods and replace the cruelty of Darwinian life with something better.””

    Mr. Pearce must live on a different planet than I do. It’s my impression that virtually all of the human harm done to the one I live on has been the result of the human conceit that we “knew better” than “Darwinian life”. The only two human activities that I know of that conceivably offer instances of potential good or pleasure for all living beings are healing (medicine) and music (a number of other Earthlings seem to enjoy some forms of human music). And the former certainly offers a number of instances of good intentions producing bad results (thalidomide, for example).

    Mr. Pearce would do well to spend some serious time on comprehending the track record of the human species in terms of what we’ve done (and are doing) to our planet and our sister/brother Earthlings. His statements indicate a a serious lack of understanding that thinking “we know better” has almost always ended up at “oh sh*t, what happened?”.

    Jeez, if his “thinking” is an example of what our “best minds” come up with…help.

    • The idea of humans ever trying systematically to help free-living animals at a time when we are systematically harming their captive cousins in our factory-farms sounds fanciful. Right now, I think our overriding priority should be shutting down factory-farms and slaughterhouses. My main worry about even discussing the plight of free-living nonhuman animals is the risk of distraction.

      That said, what should be our long-term goal?
      Yes, I think we should work for a future where sentient beings don’t harm each other – global veganism, literally.

      Let’s distinguish two objections to such an idea.
      1), ideally, sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other. Sadly, humans simply cannot be trusted, ethically or technologically, to do anything about it without making things worse. Utopian technology will lead to a dystopian outcome. The best thing we could do with tomorrow’s wildlife parks is stay out of them.

      2) Engineering global veganism, let alone some fantastical pan-species welfare state, entails humans interfering with the destiny of nonhuman animals. What right have humans to impose our values on nonhumans?

      My response to the first objection is that humans already interfere – massively – with the living world: “Rewilding”, captive breeding programs for big cats, combating the Anopheles mosquito, and a thousand-and-one other initiatives multiply daily. Preventing human interference with Nature is sociologically impossible. At best, bioethicists can try to establish what principles should govern our interventions. For example, does it make sense to rescue obligate carnivores so they can harm more herbivores?
      Or is this a textbook case of ineffective altruism?

      My response to the second objection is that sentient beings can only forge their own destiny only if they aren’t hurt, harmed or terrorised. We don’t prioritise the rights of human predators over their victims. Why turn this principle on its head when the victims are nonhuman? Predators – human or nonhuman – shouldn’t be harmed; but they do need to be prevented from causing harm. Ultimately, perhaps the best way to prevent the harm they cause is to ensure that they don’t have the impulse to harm other sentient beings in the first place.

  2. While I don’t see us stopping animals from eating each other without destroying the ecosystem anytime soon (and anyone who disagrees there has probably fairly simplistic views on the complexities involved here), I wonder which rational justification we can come up with *not* to try and reduce suffering in the wild (due to predators). While I intuitively don’t feel like it’s a good idea to force carnivores to go extinct or to genetically modify them in a way making them capable of eating plants, I would have problems explaining why it’s irrational to just strictly follow a core motivation behind being vegan (i.e. reducing the suffering of sentient beings).

    • Thanks for commenting, Brandon. But that’s just it. Does being vegan mean the reduction or elimination of suffering?

      Many advocates and groups these days do claim that vegan work is about reducing animal suffering, and they further claim that they are effectively carrying out that reduction (even if what they are promoting at the moment isn’t vegan), so we should donate to them, so they can be even more effective. Have you noticed that pattern in activism?

      Here is veganism defined by the people who set out the principle. Is it actually about reduction of suffering?

      Or is it about something else?

      This is one reason I think it’s important to address the claims of David Pearce. When I first encountered them, I thought they were satirical. If you try to wipe out suffering, you could end up wiping out animal life itself. I thought Pearce was creatively trying to make that point.

      Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has promoted the reduction-of-suffering idea and has also opined that bio-engineering chickens without brains would be a good idea because we could consume the birds and they wouldn’t care. That is about as far from the vegan principle as anyone could get.

      • Well, I wouldn’t say that veganism eliminates animal suffering, but I think it’s fair to say that a vegan diet reduces animal suffering – or at least refuses to support it directly.

        I agree that the positions from Pearce come close to being satirical in some sense especially if we consider that such thought experiments were frequently invoked to show the absurdity behind carrying out the reducing-suffering-idea completely.

        A far as brainless birds go, while I intuitively oppose to the idea of mass-producing these, I can see the benefits it has compared to suffering birds with a brain. So why I wouldn’t eat them it would be an improvement on some level.

      • Re the chicken with no brain or central nervous system –clearly high-tech use and control of others; however, Lee, Meg, Brandon, how do you feel about flesh/meat created in a lab? Since it would probably involve the use of live tissue, cells, whatever, it seems counter to vegan principles even though it would lessen or end suffering. Logically, meat producers could realize huge profits in this way over standard agriculture, and the phasing out of current meat production may some day be an ecological necessity. I do believe centuries from now humans will learn about our current meat production/slaughter and be disgusted; however, cynical me believes the changes will come for economic rather than ethical reasons.

    • This is an interesting evolution of the fundamental interest of the founders of veganism. However, to take the the desire to end exploitation (the founding doctrine), and transform it into an end of suffering would require such massive interference into the world and lives of other species as to make exploitation the very thing we do most. What would that interference be, if not exploitation for our interests, and interference for our satisfaction? Maybe the best way to understand this, Brandon, would be to consider what would it require to relieve you of all suffering? How could I propose to do that without taking control of your life completely, and ending in the conclusion that your death would be the only effective way of eliminating your suffering?

      • You raise some good points there. I think eliminating all suffering is not going to happen since negative feelings such as suffering would occur in all complex environments. One could propose a mild version which is: ending extreme suffering, i.e. tolerating mild suffering that naturally occurs but trying to reduce horrible pain and the like. But I don’t think we’ll or should do that in our complex ecosystems because – as you mentioned – it would take the freedom away from the organisms in question. I guess a good middle-way is to reduce extreme suffering but maintain freedom at the same time, which makes human intervention problematic.

        Furthermore, please note that this discussion was of a purely theoretical nature for me, I also oppose to the idea of creating a suffering-free world because (a) we are far from the point where we could do it properly and (b) it ‘feels’ wrong intuitively.

  3. Thank you, Lee, for your factual response to this ridiculous notion of a benevolent god/human manipulation of nature (still not sure this isn’t a joke or satire). That being said, history tells us that this isn’t the first time humans have played god with nature…guess that merits a short response.

    Technology gives humans “king of the jungle” predator status, which now threatens all life on earth. Perhaps we need to recognize our own animalness, our own place in nature as evolved primates who kill not just for survival, but for sport, fun, greed, and world domination. Our predatory practices of controlling others continues in escalation and efficiency. Since most major religions condone enslavement, use, and killing of other animals for just about any kind of human benefit, the arguments for reasoned thinking and equal consideration mostly fail to penetrate the entitlement mindset. Frankly, as I approach the end of life, my hope for a sweeping change in the predatory human has become just a flickering glimmer kept alive by tireless abolitionist vegans such as Lee. Shouldn’t we use our thumbs and large brains to focus on changing the hearts and minds of the human animal before jumping into an egotistical exercise in mental masturbation involving a battle to “fix” millions of years of evolution.

      • Thank you Meg. I enjoyed reading your thoughts too. Interesting, that people who have been attacked by mountain lions will sometimes, through their pain and suffering, say that they hold no ill feelings toward the lion, that she was just doing what lions do to survive…just a thought prompted by your post.

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