On the one hand, animals in nature face all kinds of coercive horrors, such as starvation and disease. According to the Principle of Negative Fairness, these natural horrors are a moral issue: we should care about the coercive horrors that animals experience in nature. Simply leaving animals alone in nature – however much animal advocates may like to romanticize it – is, on Rightness as Fairness, not fair to animals. Just as there is nothing fair about leaving fellow human beings to suffer or die from starvation or disease, so too is there nothing fair about leaving animals to suffer and die from such things in nature.
Marcus Arvan, Rightness as Fairness: A Moral and Political Theory (2016) ISBN: 9781349712649
People who accuse us of putting in too much violence, [should see] what we leave on the cutting-room floor. My conscience troubles me more about reducing the pain and savagery that there is in the natural world than the reverse.
Many humans look at nature from an aesthetic perspective and think in terms of biodiversity and the health of ecosystems, but forget that the animals that inhabit these ecosystems are individuals and have their own needs. Disease, starvation, predation, ostracism, and sexual frustration are endemic in so-called healthy ecosystems. The great taboo in the animal rights movement is that most suffering is due to natural causes.
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. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. 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.
Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995) ISBN: 9781857994056
Wild animals almost never die of old age: starvation, disease, or predators catch up with them long before they become really senile. Until recently this was true of man too. Most animals die in childhood, many never get beyond the egg stage. Starvation and other causes of death are the ultimate reason why populations cannot increase indefinitely. But as we have seen for our own species, there is no necessary reason why it ever has to come to that. If only animals would control their birth rates, starvation need never happen.
[. . .] it is clear you have either never taken a course in ecology and evolution, or forgot the message. There is this strange thing called a food web – in which organisms are primary producers, eat primary producers, eat the eaters of primary producers – and so on. That is called life. It has NO ethical or moral values. Those are HUMAN values. A wolf or lion kills another animal – the pain and suffering are not ecological issues – the life of the wolf or lion is the issue. If the wolf or lion dies of starvation – then the prey potentially become over populated – like the deer in Princeton. Your values are not the values of nature.
Indeed the amount of suffering and premature death present in nature could still be glimpsed were we only to consider the tiny number of animals that successfully reach maturity in comparison to those who die shortly after coming into existence. Population dynamics shows how this figure is very low because of the prevalent reproductive strategy in nature, which consists in producing very large numbers of offspring who have very little chance of survival.
The creatures are [. . .] set to fight—whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his thumbs down, as no quarter is given. He must admit that the skill and training displayed are wonderful. But he must shut his eyes if he would not see that more or less enduring suffering is the meed of both vanquished and victor. And [. . . ] the great game is going on in every corner of the world, thousands of times a minute; [. . .] were our ears sharp enough, we need not descend to the gates of hell to hear sospiri, pianti, ed alti guai. . . . Voci alte e floche, e suon di man con elle.
Thomas Huxley (1888) “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society”, Evolution & Ethics and Other Essays. 1894
[. . .] for practical purposes I am fairly sure, judging from man’s past record of attempts to mold nature to his own aims, that we would be more likely to increase the net amount of animal suffering if we interfered with wildlife, than to decrease it. Lions play a role in the ecology of their habitat, and we cannot be sure what the long-term consequences would be if we were to prevent them from killing gazelles. [. . .] So, in practice, I would definitely say that wildlife should be left alone.
The suffering that animals undergo while being caught and eaten may be intense and the process by which they are killed may last for a quarter of an hour or more. Because the number of predators worldwide is enormous, and because, like us, many of them must eat with considerable frequency, the aggregate amount of suffering in the world at any time that is caused by predation is unimaginably vast.
Viewed from a distance, the natural world often presents a vista of sublime, majestic placidity. Yet beneath the foliage and hidden from the distant eye, a vast, unceasing slaughter rages. Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous.
In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature's every day performances. [. . .] The phrases which ascribe perfection to the course of nature can only be considered as the exaggerations of poetic or devotional feeling, not intended to stand the test of a sober examination. No one, either religious or irreligious, believes that the hurtful agencies of nature, considered as a whole, promote good purposes, in any other way than by inciting human rational creatures to rise up and struggle against them.
John Stuart Mill, On Nature (1874). In Nature, The Utility of Religion and Theism, Rationalist Press, 1904.
If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals. They have been lavishly fitted out with the instruments necessary for that purpose; their strongest instincts impel them to it, and many of them seem to have been constructed incapable of supporting themselves by any other food. If a tenth part of the pains which have been expended in finding benevolent adaptions in all nature, had been employed in collecting evidence to blacken the character of the Creator, what scope for comment would not have been found in the entire existence of the lower animals, divided, with scarcely an exception, into devourers and devoured, and a prey to a thousand ills from which they are denied the faculties necessary for protecting themselves! If we are not obliged to believe the animal creation to be the work of a demon, it is because we need not suppose it to have been made by a Being of infinite power.
John Stuart Mill, Three Essays on Religion (1875). pp. 58-59
The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on.
“the death of a gazelle after painful torture is just as bad for the gazelle when torture is inflicted by a tiger as when it is done by a human being ... we have similar reasons to prevent it, if we can do so without doing greater harms."
Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006), p. 379.
I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs, a very endearing sight, I'm sure you'll agree. And even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged onto a half submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters, who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature's wonders, gentlemen. Mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that is when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.
The fact that in nature one creature may cause pain to another, and even deal with it instinctively in the most cruel way, is a harsh mystery that weighs upon us as long as we live. One who has reached the point where he does not suffer ever again because of this has ceased to be a man.
Albert Schweitzer, Animals, Nature, and Albert Schweitzer. The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, The Albert Schweitzer Center, The Animal Welfare Institute, and The Humane Society of the United States, 1982. Animal Welfare Institute 2002. 4 July 2006
Nature is often perceived as an idyllic, beautiful and peaceful place, where wild animals live in freedom. This romanticized view conceals the fact that wild animals suffer in horrible ways. Far from being idyllic and peaceful, nature is actually “red in tooth and claw”: at its heart it’s all about competition. Animals are frequently eaten alive by predators – a horrific, extremely painful death. Food scarcity often leads to starvation, and wild animals endure injury and painful diseases without relief. Nature’s cruelty knows no boundaries: For example, gulls peck out the eyes of baby seals, leaving them to die so they can later eat their remains. Some animals use venom to paralyze their prey and eat them piece by piece. Wild animals certainly also experience moments of happiness, but gruesome fates as described above are by no means exceptional. On the contrary, they are rather commonplace in nature, and even if a wild animal manages to avoid them, his or her life is for a large part a constant struggle for survival in a harsh and relentless environment.
If animals like free-range cows have lives that are not worth living, almost all wild animals could plausibly be thought to also have lives that are worse than non-existence. Nature is often romanticised as a well-balanced idyll, so this may seem counter-intuitive. But extreme forms of suffering like starvation, dehydration, or being eaten alive by a predator are much more common in wild animals than farm animals.
It is of the utmost importance to emphasize the fact that, whatever the legal fiction may have been, or may still be, the rights of animals are not morally dependent on the so-called rights of property; it is not to owned animals merely that we must extend our sympathy and protection. [. . .] To take advantage of the sufferings of animals, whether wild or tame, for the gratification of sport, or gluttony, or fashion, is quite incompatible with any possible assertion of animals' rights.
We cannot allow ourselves to spuriously rationalize away the suffering that takes place in nature, and to forget the victims of the horrors of nature merely because that reality does not fit into our convenient moral theories, theories that ultimately just serve to make us feel consistent and good about ourselves in the face of an incomprehensibly bad reality.