Suffocation induces a sense of extreme panic. It’s a comparatively rare experience in contemporary human life, although panic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by recurring severe panic attacks, is extremely unpleasant and quite common. Whatever its cause, the experience of suffocation is horrific. One’s lungs feel as though they will burst at any second. There is a loss of control of bodily functions. There is no psychological “coping mechanism”, just an all-consuming fear, as witnessed by the traumatic effects of the waterboarding torture practised by the CIA; the entangled piles of bodies of victims in the Nazi gas chambers frantically clawing over each other to gasp in the last traces of breathable air; and the death-agonies of millions of herbivores every day in the wild.
It would be a mercy if the experience of suffocation were fundamentally different in human and non-human animals. This fond hope might be realized if the intuitively appealing “dimmer-switch” model of consciousness were tenable - and an organism’s degree of consciousness were reliably correlated with its degree of intelligence. The dimmer-switch model leads one to suppose that slow asphyxiation feels significantly less dreadful for a zebra than for a human being. Naïvely, we imagine that the asphyxiation of our vertebrate cousins is merely rather unpleasant for its victims rather than unbearable beyond words. Unfortunately, our core emotions are also the most intense modes of conscious experience; and the neural structures that mediate such primitive modes of consciousness are among the most strongly evolutionarily conserved. Intense fear, disgust, anger, hunger, thirst and pain are among the most powerful sensations known. They are phylogenetically ancient. Intense pleasure can of course be vivid too; but pleasure is not our focus here. In contrast to the phenomenology of our core emotions, the phenomenology of serial, “logical” thought-episodes in the distinctively human prefrontal cortex is vanishingly faint, as microelectrode studies and introspection of our own linguistic thought-episodes attest.
Moreover the problem is worse than “just” the acute intensity of suffering. Wildlife documentaries encourage the notion that death in Nature is typically fast. Some deaths are indeed mercifully swift. Many other deaths are slow and agonizing. Simply to survive, members of the cat family in the wild must inflict appalling suffering on their fellow mammals. More disturbingly still, domestic cats torment millions of terrified small rodents and birds each day before killing them - essentially for entertainment. Cats lack an adequate theory of mind. They don’t have an empathetic understanding of the implications of what they are doing. For a cat, the terrified mouse with whom it is “playing” has no more ethical significance than a zombie warrior slaughtered by a teenager playing “violent” videogames. But an absence of malice is no comfort to the tormented mouse.
Most modern city-dwellers do not lose any sleep over the cruelties of Nature, or indeed give them more than a passing thought. Implicitly, it’s assumed such suffering doesn’t matter. Or if it does matter, it doesn’t matter enough to mitigate or abolish. Why? The list of reasons below is incomplete but worth noting.
Our supposed lack of complicity due to impotence.
Throughout most of history, mankind could no more contemplate reordering the food chain than contemporary humans could contemplate changing, say, Planck’s constant or the rest mass of an electron. What happens in Nature is traditionally “just the way things are”; hence no one’s fault. Shortly, however, the persistence of nonhuman animal suffering will be our direct responsibility - whether abdicated or accepted remains to be seen.
A television-based conception of the living world.
Our view of the living world is significantly shaped by wildlife documentaries - and the narrative structure that their voiceovers and uplifting mood-music provide. Wildlife documentaries are designed to be entertaining as well as educative. They offer a spectacle of death, violence and aggression in a manner that is no longer deemed acceptable when practised on humans. It’s the same reason why for hundreds of years the Romans enjoyed the gory violence of the amphitheatre, and why nonhuman animals are still hunted by some humans for “sport”. One contemporary psychological problem for many people in everyday life isn’t pain or depression but boredom, a lack of stimulation. The sight of conflict and killing is exciting.
We like our war movies and horror films to be realistic - but not too realistic. Likewise, wildlife documentaries aren’t expected to portray the full nastiness of Darwinian life, although there would doubtless be a sizeable audience if they did so, as YouTube viewing figures attest. The question of “taste” ensures that the more squeamish sensibilities of a wider television audience are spared most of the horror while still being entertained by the drama. A few minutes of stalking. The ambush. The thrill of the chase. A five-second shot of the lion with its jaw on the zebra’s throat. Next the camera cuts to a pride of lions eating a lifeless carcass. Realistic depictions of the full nastiness of predation are taboo. As David Attenborough once remarked to some viewers who complained that a scene shown was too gruesome: “You ought to see what we leave on the cutting room floor”. This text hints at the horror, but words don’t really portray it. And even the most explicit video couldn’t evoke the first-person reality of being dismembered, strangled, impaled, drowned, poisoned or eaten alive. The problem of suffering in Nature described here is worse - and its prevention more morally urgent - than we suppose. For example, try to imagine what it’s like slowly dying of thirst over several days during the dry season. There may be no overt drama. It’s just subjectively horrific. Hence the ethical obligation on the dominant species to stop such horrors as soon as we acquire the technical expertise to do so.
Adaptive empathy deficits.
Human empathetic responses are shaped by natural selection. Genetically, it’s fitness-enhancing for parents to experience an empathetic response to the feelings of their children, but maladaptive to feel compassion for their children’s “food”. Selection pressure for empathy toward members of other races or species - or genetic rivals - is weak to non-existent since such empathy wouldn’t promote our reproductive success - except insofar as it enabled our ancestors hunt and kill more successfully, or outwit their enemies. The human mind/brain isn’t designed to track the well-being of other members of our own species beyond our own tribe, let alone all other sentient beings. Such empathy sporadically occurs, but it has been selected, not selected for; its existence is just the byproduct of a fitness-enhancing adaptation. The discussion here focuses on empathy-deficits born of anthropocentric bias; but the ultimate empathy-deficit stems from egocentric bias. Coalitions of selfish genes throw up vehicles whose egocentric virtual worlds do not track the well-being of others sentient beings impartially. Perhaps only clones (i.e. identical twins, triplets, etc) could “naturally” do so reliably.
The cruelties of the living world are “natural”, therefore worth conserving: a price worth paying for the glories of Nature.
This is the way things ought to be, because this is the way things have always been. Status quo bias is endemic. Thus it simply doesn’t seem to have occurred to some otherwise smart thinkers in slave-owning societies that slavery could be morally wrong. Had the case for universal human freedom been put to them, the idea might well have seemed as silly as does questioning the inviolability of the food-chain at present. Potentially, status quo bias can take benign guises too. If we already lived in a cruelty-free world, the notion of re-introducing suffering, exploitation and creatures eating each other would seem not so much frightful as unimaginable - no more seriously conceivable than reverting to surgery without anesthesia today. Of course the extent of our status quo bias shouldn’t be exaggerated. There is something self-intimatingly wrong with one’s own intense pain while it lasts; and to a greater or lesser degree, we can generalize this urgent sense of wrongness to other suffering beings with whom we identify. But since most humans aren’t in agony most of the time, any generalizations we make tend to be weak; and restricted in scope on account of our evolutionary descent.