IEET > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > HealthLongevity > David Pearce
The Problem of Predation (Part 1 of “Reprogramming Predators”)
David Pearce   Feb 25, 2012   HedWeb  

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the
 calf and the young lion and the yearling together and a little child shall lead them.”  
Isaiah 11:6

“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, others are 
running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping 
parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so.” 
Richard Dawkins
 River Out of Eden (1995)

A biosphere without suffering is technically feasible. In principle, science can deliver a cruelty-free world that lacks the molecular signature of unpleasant experience. Not merely can a living world support human life based on genetically preprogrammed gradients of human well-being. If carried to completion, the abolitionist project entails ecosystem redesign, immunocontraception, marine nanorobots, rewriting the vertebrate genome, and harnessing the exponential growth of computational resources to manage a compassionate global ecosystem. Ultimately, it’s an ethical choice whether intelligent moral agents opt to create such a world - or instead express our natural status quo bias and perpetuate the biology of suffering indefinitely.

This utopian-sounding vision isn’t the upshot of some exotic new theory. The abolitionist project follows quite straightforwardly from the application of a classical utilitarian ethic and advanced biotechnology. More controversially, the abolitionist project is the scientific expression of what Gautama Buddha aspired to some 2500 years ago: “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”. Provisionally, let’s assume that other things being equal, a cruelty-free world is ethically desirable, i.e. it would be ideal if there were no [involuntary] physical or emotional pain. As our technology matures, some hard choices are ethically unavoidable if these noble sentiments are ever to be turned into practice.

First, a cruelty-free world entails a transition to global veganism. Realistically, global veganism won’t come about purely or mainly via moral persuasion within any plausible timeframe. Such a momentous transition can occur only after the advent of mass-produced, genetically-engineered artificial meat that is at least as cheap, tasty and healthy as flesh from slaughtered factory-farmed animals - with moral argument playing a modest supporting role. For sure, there is still the “yuk factor” to overcome. But when delicious, cruelty-free cultured-meat products become commercially available, the “yuk factor” should actually work in favour of cultured meat - since meat from factory-farmed animals is not merely morally disgusting but physically disgusting too.

However, this transition isn’t enough. Even the hypothetical world-wide adoption of a cruelty-free diet leaves one immense source of suffering untouched. Here we shall explore one of the thorniest issues: the future of what biologists call obligate predators. For the abolitionist project seems inconsistent with one of our basic contemporary values. The need for species conservation is so axiomatic that an explicitly normative scientific sub-discipline, conservation biology, exists to promote it. In the modern era, the extinction of a species is usually accounted a tragedy, especially if that species is a prominent vertebrate rather than an obscure beetle. Yet if we seriously want a world without suffering, how many existing Darwinian lifeforms can be conserved in their current guise? What should be the ultimate fate of iconic species like the large carnivores? True, only a minority of the Earth’s species are carnivorous predators: the fundamental laws of thermodynamics entail that whenever there is an “exchange of energy” between one trophic level and another, there is a significant loss. The majority of the planet’s 50,000 or so vertebrate species are vegetarian. But among the minority of carnivorous species are some of the best known creatures on the planet. Should these serial killers be permitted to prey on other sentient beings indefinitely?

A few forms of extinction are almost universally applauded even now. Thus the demise of the smallpox virus in the wild is wholly unlamented, though controversy persists over whether the last two pathogenic Variola copies in human custody should be destroyed. The virus could be recreated from scratch if needed. Technically, viruses aren’t alive, since they can’t independently replicate. Yet the same welcome will be extended to the extinction of scores of bacterial pathogens that cause human disease if we can plot their eradication as efficiently as the two Variola variants that cause smallpox. Likewise, exterminating the five kinds of protozoan parasites of the genus Plasmodium that cause malaria would be almost universally applauded; a human child dies from malaria on average every twelve seconds. Protozoans have zero consciousness or minimal consciousness, depending on one’s ultimate theory of mind. Either way, it makes no sense or minimal sense to speak literally of the “interest” of the plasmodium. Only figuratively do plasmodia have interests.

Plasmodia matter significantly only insofar as their existence affects the welfare of sentient beings. Our reverence for the diversity of life has its limits. More complicated than plasmodia are parasitic worms, locusts or cockroaches, which almost certainly do have at least limited consciousness. Yet that consciousness is still comparatively dim compared to vertebrates. Cockroaches have decentralized nervous systems. In consequence, they presumably lack a unitary experiential field. This is not to say that cockroaches should ever be wantonly hurt. Perhaps their constituent nerve ganglia in individual segments experience sharp pains; cockroaches retain rudimentary learning skills and live for up to a week without a head. Yet if the world’s 4000 species of cockroach were no longer extant outside a handful of vivariums, then their absence in the wild would be accounted no great loss on any plausible version of the felicific calculus. Nor would extinction of the swarming grasshoppers we know as plagues of locusts. A swarm of 50 billion locusts can in theory eat 100,000 tonnes of foodstuffs per day. Around 20% of food grown for human consumption is eaten by herbivorous insects. A truly utopian future world would lack even minuscule insect pangs of hunger, and its computational resources could micro-manage the well-being of the humblest arthropods - including the Earth’s estimated 10 quintillion (1018) insects. In the meantime, we must prioritize. On a neoBuddhist or utilitarian ethic, the criterion of value and moral status is degree of sentience. In a Darwinian world, the welfare of some beings depends on their doing harm to others. So initially, ugly compromises are inevitable as we bootstrap our way out of primordial Darwinian life. Research must focus on how the ugliness of the transitional era can be minimized.

More controversial than the case of tapeworms, cockroaches or locusts would be reprogramming or phasing out snakes and crocodiles. Snakes and crocodiles cause innumerable hideous deaths in the world each day. They are also part of our familiar conceptual landscape thanks to movies, zoos, TV documentaries, and the like - though a relaxed tolerance of their activities is easier in the comfortable West than for, say, a grieving Indian mother who has lost her child to a snakebite. Snakes are responsible for over 50,000 human deaths each year.

Most controversial of all, however, would be the extinction - or genetically-driven behavioural modification - of members of the cat family. We’ll focus here on felines rather than the “easy” cases like parasitic tapeworms or cockroaches because of the unique status of members of the cat family in contemporary human culture, both as pets/companion animals and as our romanticised emblems of “wildlife”. Most contemporary humans have a strong aesthetic preference in favour of continued feline survival. Their existence in current guise is perhaps the biggest ethical/ideological challenge to the radical abolitionist. For our culture glorifies lions, with their iconic status as the King of the Beasts; we admire the grace and agility of a cheetah; the tiger is a symbol of strength, beauty and controlled aggression; the panther is dark, swift and elegant; and so forth. Innumerable companies and sports teams have enlisted one or other of the big cats for their logos as symbols of manliness and vigour.

Moreover cats of the domestic variety are the archetypal household pets. The worldwide domestic cat population has been estimated at around 400 million. We romanticize their virtues and forgive their foibles, notably their playful torment of mice. Indeed rather than being an object of horror - and compassion for the mouse - the torment of mice has been turned into stylized entertainment. Hence Tom-and-Jerry cartoons. By contrast, talk of “eliminating” predation can sound sinister. What would “phasing out” or “reprogramming” predators mean in practice? Most disturbingly, such terms are evocative of genocide, not universal compassion.

Appearances deceive. To get a handle on what is really going on in “predation”, let’s compare our attitude to the fate of a pig or a zebra with the fate of an organism with whom those non-human animals are functionally equivalent, both intellectually and in their capacity to suffer, namely a human toddler. On those rare occasions when a domestic dog kills a baby or toddler, the attack is front-page news. The offending dog is subsequently put down. Likewise, lions in Africa who turn man-eater are tracked down and killed, regardless of their conserved status. This isn’t to imply lions - or for that matter rogue dogs - are morally culpable. But by common consent they must be prevented from killing any more human beings. By contrast, the spectacle of a lion chasing a terrified zebra and then asphyxiating its victim can be shown on TV as evening entertainment, edifying viewing even for children.

How is this parallel relevant? Well, if our theory of value aspires to a God’s-eye perspective, stripped of unwarranted anthropocentric bias in the manner of the physical sciences, then the well-being of a pig or a zebra inherently matters no less than the fate of a human baby - or any other organism endowed with an equivalent degree of sentience. If we are morally consistent, then as we acquire God-like powers over Nature’s creatures, we should take analogous steps to secure their well-being too. Given our anthropocentric bias, thinking of non-human vertebrates not just as equivalent in moral status to toddlers or infants, but as though they were toddlers or infants, is a useful exercise because it helps correct our lack of empathy  for sentient beings whose physical appearance is different from “us”. Ethically, the practice of intelligent “anthropomorphism” shouldn’t be shunned as unscientific, but embraced insofar as it augments our stunted capacity for empathy. Such anthropomorphism can be a valuable corrective to our cognitive and moral limitations.

This is not a plea to be sentimental, simply for impartial benevolence. Nor is it even a plea to take “sides” between killer and prey. Human serial killers who prey on other humans need to be locked up. But ultimately, it’s vindictive morally to blame them in any ultimate sense for the fate of their victims. Their behaviour supervenes on the fundamental laws of physics. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner. Yet this indulgence doesn’t extend to permitting them to kill again; and the abolitionist maintains the same principle holds good for nonhuman serial killers too.

David Pearce is the author of the internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative, that details how the abolition of suffering can be accomplished through "paradise engineering." He co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998, and the Abolitionist Society in 2002.



COMMENTS

I believe that many environmentalists would oppose fiercely any abolitionist apprach. Environmentalism anyway is a profoundly flawed philosophy - and it does not take much to show its limits. It suffers from the chronic aesthetization of ecosystems. Environmentalists derive a great pleasure from contemplating landscapes that do not show human footprints, behavioral interactions of nonhuman lifeforms, and tribal human societies. But there lies the mistake. The environmentalist observer considers civilized humans as some sort of alien organisms, and his contemplative nature prevents him from being part of those beautiful ecosystems that nobody should touch. They like to watch, almost voyeristically, but they completely severed the bond between their individual existence, their own lifeform, and natural environments. If they were part of those ecosystems, they would see lions as enemies, competitors - and not majestic expressions of mother nature.

Predation is in itself immoral, no matter how sentient is your victim. We all know that is not right to steal in a second the treasure somebody took time, and labour to accumulate. When you eat a zebra, you are in fact consuming in few hours what the other organism took months to accumulate, and store in a compact form. It is dangerous to link morality with sentient life. Because then - anything you do to a fully sedated, anesthetized animal is perfectly ethical.

I do not understand anyway why abolitionists would like to impose contraception on unconsenting animals. It does not have anything to do with limiting suffering. Nobody gets hurt if more herbivores come into this world - and it would be frankly immoral to limit reproductive rights of other organisms (humans included).

André, we agree there is no place for predation in any civilisation worthy of he name. Yet unless we also use cross-species fertility control (immunocontraception etc) the price of phasing out predators in their existing guise will be catastrophic: an uncontrolled population explosion of herbivores leading to mass-starvation and ecological collapse. Cruelty-free “wildlife parks” are not consistent with unlimited procreative freedom. 

@ David Pearce

I’m confused, your comment to Andre says that phasing out predators would be catastrophic and yet your whole article seems to talk about doing exactly that (or I’m just interpreting it wrong sense I just did a quick read).  Concerning your reference to Isaiah, the Christian belief is that those things will come to pass when Jesus returns.  It certainly won’t happen by our means.  Besides, do transhumanists really feel the need to control everything, because that seems to just appeal to the wrong kind of ego.

Christian, André agrees that we should phase out the cruelties of carnivorous predation. But he argues against fertility control on grounds of non-consent. I responded by pointing out that the resultant population explosion of herbivores would actually lead to more suffering, death and starvation than merely preserving the status quo. This is the rationale behind the usual claim that compassionate intervention in the living world will do more harm than good. 

So if an ethic of compassionate biology (rather than today’s ideology of conservation biology) is to work in practice, then both behavioural-genetic tweaking of predators _and_ cross-species ferility regulation are essential.

Are tranhumanists control-freaks? Only to the extent that power brings complicity. Until recently, the outcome of, say, famine in India, or a drought in Africa (etc) might be described as terrible; but the tragedy couldn’t sensibly be chracterised as immoral. For they were events unfolding beyond our control. But a combination of the exponential growth of computer power combined with the breakneck pace of progress in biotechnology amounts to an ethical game-changer. Whether we let other sentient beings suffer and die will shortly become as optional as whether you let a small child or family pet drown before your eyes in a shallow garden pond. If you choose to let the child or pet drown, then you are complicit in the tragedy. By extension, later this century we’ll be responsible for monitoring and micro-managing every cubic meter of the planet.
( I’m not a Singularitarian, but perhaps see Kurzweil’s “law of accelerating returns”: 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerating_change )
So maybe the real question to ask is: will we be compassionate gods or callous gods?

@ David

No offense David, but you’re not much of an ecologist.  Predators are one of the main things that keep ecosystems healthy, namely by keeping populations of herbivores in check and singling out the weak, ill and injured which keeps the rest of the population healthy and promotes naturally selection.  A good example of this is the sea otter, which is considered a keystone species (a species that is critical for keeping balance in its ecosystem).  Sea otters prey on sea urchins which feed of the kelp forests that host a diversity of aquatic species.  When sea otters are removed from the scene (which has actually happened in some places), the sea urchins devour the kelp forests without pause which results in the sharp reduction and extinction of the species that once inhabited them, including the sea urchins themselves.  Another example is the relationship between wolves a beavers.  Though wolves occasionally prey on beavers, they also help the beavers habitat by controlling populations of elk which can make life more difficult for beavers by stripping trees of their leaves and bark.  This is what you might call a symbiotic relationship; the wolves improve the beaver’s habitat by preventing elk populations from growing to rapidly while the beavers provide a food source for wolves and create water sources for the wolves in the form of dammed up rivers.  Plants are as sustainable as you seem to think they are and converting every single organism into an herbivore would only severely stress plant sources and lead to a whole chain of events that would only result in more “suffering”.  Also, you seem to anthropomorphize animals in an inappropriate manner, e.g. calling non-human predators serial killers.  Predators kill/eat other animals just to survive.  Human serial killers, on the other hand, kill people for personal (and often demented) reasons.  One more thing, isn’t it severely unethical to impose a behavior on certain groups of organisms “against” their will (for the sake of the argument) just for a purely human view that doesn’t even govern them?  Another thing, the reason we are sentient in the first place is because we eat meat.  Protein is necessary for brain development and meat is the best source of it.  I should also add that their was actually an experiment done using human volunteers that tested if we could survive purely on fruits and vegetables for a week or so (can’t remember the exact length of time).  They found that even though the volunteers act the same amount of fruits and vegetables that people would normally eat in a day, they couldn’t obtain the proper nutrition required for good health.  Seriously, if you shared this idea with the mainstream scientific community you would get very little support if any.  As for the control freak thing, I would only support micromanaging the planet if it was to restore and maintain ecological stability, but it is unreasonable to think that we can prevent every freak accident or disaster that may happen (it it does you can’t really blame anyone for it).
“will we be compassionate gods or callous gods?”  Aside from how egotistical this question sounds, we seem to be leaning towards the latter.  If that’s the case, then we wouldn’t be gods.  We would be monsters, which, unfortunately, we already are in many ways.

“Protein is necessary for brain development and meat is the best source of it.”

Artificial meat would be far superior to meat-meat. Artificial meat could be available if there were a demand for it; unfortunately, the market wants meat-meat. It is impossible to communicate with a public which is so stuck in the past, the public becomes defensive and says:
” ‘First they came to take my cigarettes away, then they came to take my meat away, and then they came to take me away’ “

Christian, humans already interfere massively with Nature. So the issue at stake here is what kind of interventions we can justify.

1) Conservation Biology versus Compassionate Biology.
Exactly the same arguments against compassionate intervention can (and have) been made against aiding humans. Caring for the weak, the ill and the injured will reduce the genetic quality of the human population and allow deleterious mutations to accumulate. Providing famine relief in Africa will exacerbate the population explosion; accelerate habitat destruction and environmental degradation; and ultimately lead to complete ecological collapse. In short, more suffering. 

Thankfully, we no longer hear such crude eugenicist arguments or pleas for Social Darwinism applied to other (human) races - though Deep Ecologists favour massive human population reduction to stave off ecological catastrophe. Either way, are we ethically entitled to use identical arguments against future welfare programs for vulnerable members of other species yet discount them for members of other races?

Let’s start with the largest-brained animals first e.g. the 500,000 odd African elephants. Such prioritisation is non-arbitrary, not just because their cognitive capacities are most developed, but also because (subject to a number of plausible but contestable assumptions) large-brined mammals are also the most sentient. First of all, fertility control via immunocontraception is only one of a raft of healthcare measures involving e.g. protection of juveniles from lions, obstetrics, neonatal care, medical genetics, veterinary medicine and even orthodontics (because elderly free-living elephants currently die from slow starvation when their final set of molars wears down. The dying elephant collapses through inanition and may then be eaten alive by predators. Durable prosthetic replacements can prevent such horrors.) The cost? Several billion dollars a year. A worthwhile price? At the risk of stooping to populist rhetoric, compare the cost of another kind of welfare initiative, baling out the banks. 

Yes, running models and simulations is computationally intensive and will need input from professional ecologists, population geneticists, veterinarians, bioethicists (etc). Not least, pilot studies will be required in individual wildlife parks. No doubt compassionate intervention “lower down” the phylogenetic tree is orders of magnitude more computationally challenging. But if you accept the ethical core of the abolitionist project - and the transhumanist commitment to the well-being of all sentience - then these are technical challenges with technical solutions.  

2) Anthopomorohic? It’s not anthropomorphic to call lions, snakes and crocodiles “serial killers”. The term is accurate. For sure, its connotations don’t conform to the master native of voiceovers in our wildlife documentaries. But as David Attenborough remarks, some material is simply too horrific to show to the viewing public. 

3) Non-Consent? Imposing our will on Robinson Crusoe is ethically problematic. Imposing our will on rapists, child abusers and serial killers may be regrettable; but presumably it’s essential to a civilised society. By the same token, protecting vulnerable and often highly sentient members of other species raises all sorts of ethical issues. But these issues are neither more nor less challenging than the dilemmas involved in protecting vulnerable members of other ethnic groups.

4) A recipe for insentience? (“we are sentient in the first place is because we eat meat”) i’m confused. Sentience i.e. the ability to feel or be conscious, predates the Cambrian Explosion ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentience ) Does the vegetarian and quasi-vegan dietary tradition of the Indian subcontinent make Indians any less sentient? This is a bold conjecture, to say the least. I’m guessing what you have in mind may be sapience.(?) But even here, the claim doesn’t work. Yes, from an evolutionary standpoint, the capacity in time of scarcity to eat human and nonhuman animal protein was genetically adaptive. So has a (conditionally activated) capacity for rape, warfare and infanticide. But this historical fact doesn’t justify such practices now. And though there are numerous confounding variables, recall that vegetarians typically have higher IQ scores than meat eaters. (One confounding variable is that intelligent people are more likely to give up eating meat in the first place: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6180753.stm . Another confound is that “IQ"is a lousy measure of intelligence.)

@ Intomorrow

you miss my point.  David talks about a global vegetarianism but I’m trying to say is that idea is unreasonable do to the fact that a diet exclusively of fruits and vegetables cannot provide all the nutrients we need to stay healthy (One thing I forgot to mention is that mental retardation is a result of this).  I have no problem with eventually eating artificial meat (beside we may have to), Its just we can’t survive exclusive on plants an changing every single predator into an herbivore would be a disaster, one that we intentionally caused.

Christian, I’m mystified. Vegetarians not merely tend to have higher IQs; statistically they live longer too. So any health deficit they suffer must be exceedingly subtle, to put it mildly.

I think you’d be on stronger ground if you were discussing just strict veganism. From a  purely self-interested perspective, it’s safer to be a lazy meat-eater than a lazy vegan. I can’t say I’ve noticed it causes mental retardation, and some of the oldest people on the planet live cruelty-free vegan lifestyles.
(cf. vegan Loreen Dinwiddie 
http://everydaythingsetc.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/108-year-old-vegan/ Loreen celebrated her 109th birthday earlier this month).
But mugging up on basic nutrition is prudent: strict vegans should take a B12 supplement. If you’d like to find out more, perhaps check out
http://www.veganism.com

More generally, for the foreseeable future asphyxiation, disembowelling and being eaten live will endemic to the living world. Likewise starvation. But if we retain such horrors next century, it won’t be because their abolition was computationally too difficult. Rather it will be because we choose to conserve them.

 

@David Pearce

I understand your defense of compulsory contraception, sure - but I still think that such practice is based on wrong assumptions and delivers immoral results.

Let me clarify.

First of all, predators do not work as harmony checkers of ecosystems. This is common misconception, a sort of fairy tale that we repeat to kids - so that they can rationalize, accept, and promote our carnivorous status quo. We might call it “the Circle of Life” thesis. But facts and logics can disprove it.  Take New Zealand for example. It has been a paradise for birds of all kinds, for thousands of years, they evolved in a marvelous variety of shapes and colors, enjoying the bliss of an ecosystem without predators. Then men, with cats and mice, came by. And a massacre took place. Because many of those birds had evolved into flightless organisms, or did not bother anymore to nest above the ground level, predators could have their way. Useless to say, mammals did not care much for the ecosystem balance, nor the purposefully attacked only weak and old birds (another popular fairy tale about predators). Now, on that island, many original species are extinct or on the verge of extinction.

Predation, like parasitism, is a marginal evolutionary strategy. Herbivores do not need predators, by any mean. Most lifeforms on this planet obtain their nutrients from the environment without destroying other lifeforms. If we removed macroscopic carnivores, it would take probably just few generations for their former preys to readjust their fertility rate to match the unchanged, limited resources they find around. Yes, pain, starvation, and death are involved in this adaptive process - but we should not intervene this time, I believe. A Malthusian mechanism is more than sufficient to speed up the transition towards a new equilibrium.

I think our compassion should know its limits. And we should intervene only when we know exactly what we are doing. And by “exactly” I mean really exactly, with scientific accuracy. There is an important difference between preventing known compulsive serial killers to harm their victims, and preventing potential victims to suffer any possible damage whatsoever. Also, defending your home from armed invaders, is not the same as sending a drone to kill potential future invaders. The difference is all in the lack of knowledge. When we cannot precisely foresee the consequences of our own actions (and of the actions of other subjects), we should abstain. Call it Taoist carelessness, if you like. But I believe that it represents a strong moral pillar.

Let us say - all we have in mind is to maximize herbivore welfare. Well - we do not know how many individuals should be allowed to reproduce, we do not know which individuals should reproduce, we do not know in advance which new adaptive alimentary strategy might appear in the new generation to cope with unexpected nutritional challenges. All we know is that we are purposefully limiting other organisms to express a crucial function. And it is bad.

Compulsory contraception is just an extreme violation of one of the three main features of life (growing, feeding, reproducing). No organism should be harmed like that, unless it first displayed dangerously aggressive behavior. We started as compassionate supervisors of creatures that surround us - we should not end up running an artificial zoo, populated with semi-sterile toys.

André, first, permit me to set out a little background.

An unargued assumption throughout the text is that our long-term ethical goal should be to phase out the biology of (involuntary) suffering. If you don’t share this ethic, then everything else will seem fanciful, perhaps absurd. If, on the other hand, you endorse the transhumanist commitment to the well-being of all sentience (cf. http://humanityplus.org/philosophy/transhumanist-declaration/ (1998, 2009) then the policy implications are radical, to say the least. My paper’s target audience is researchers who accept that (in principle) it may be feasiible to phase out suffering in humans (cf. http://www.reproductive-revolution.com), but who assume that extending the abolitionist project to the rest of the living world will be impossible owing to the thermodynamics of a food chain.

More specifically, could you clarify one point? Why do you believe “our compassion should know its limits”? Why must our benevolence be race- or species-specific? You argue that we shouldn’t intervene to help (nonhuman) animals until we completely understand the implications of what we are doing. In terms of predictive accuracy, this will probably never happen - though predictive accuracy is presumably greater in the case of nonhuman animals lacking an advanced capacity for reflexive self-awareness (cf. the various “paradoxes of prediction”). Either way, the best that policy-makers can do is estimate crude risk/reward ratios. Thus should we have wiped out smallpox? What if the human population explodes even further leading to ecological collapse? How about doing the same with malaria and the Anopheles mosquito? The ramifications in each case are potentially immense. Even the most uncontroversial acts of kindness can have unforeseeably catastrophic consequences (cf.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2082640/How-year-old-Adolf-Hitler-saved-certain-death—drowning-icy-river-rescued.html ) All I’ll add here is that unlike, say, trans-Planckian physics, the basic principles of ecology and the thermodynamics of a food chain are scientifically well understood. In common with e.g. the heliocentric model of the solar system or the germ theory of disease, they are about as well established as science can ever be. For sure, advocacy of cruelty-free ecosystems must be carefully distinguished from any prediction that (post)humans are going to bio-engineer anything of the kind; Not least,.the dominant paradigm right now is the explicitly normative discipline of conservation biology. Yet compassionate biology is neither more nor less normative as a discipline than conservation biology - and scientifically, there is no technical reason why we can’t abolish the molecular signature of aversive experience in our forward light-cone.

@David Pearce

“An unargued assumption throughout the text is that our long-term ethical goal should be to phase out the biology of (involuntary) suffering” Agreed. And, as an irrelevant personal appendix, I completely endorse this ethical horizon, including nonhuman lifeforms of all kinds, no matter their level of sentience. I am not a professional researcher, so I probably should not be writing here in the first place. But I do care for ideas, and I believe that our future, the future of our advancements, depends entirely on the moral codes we decide to embrace today.

“Why must our benevolence be race- or species-specific? You argue that we shouldn’t intervene to help (nonhuman) animals until we completely understand the implications of what we are doing.”
I have never stated that our benevolence should be race/species/phylum specific. I am also against unwanted human sterilization/contraception. The examples I made to explain my point were all about humans. I admit I tend to be a little cryptic - but I do not want to bore everyone with a long treatise. Now, I will try to be as clear as I can.

When you want to help someone against his/her own will, you need to absolutely sure that what you are doing is in the best interest of that individual creature. Otherwise, you are just performing an aggression. And people can perfectly be compassionate and aggressive at the same.

My 2 yo daughter was protesting and suffering after I removed a sharp knife from her hand - she found that shiny tool and the kitchen table, and she was really enjoying to play with it. By taking the knife away from her, I purposefully gave her a painful experience (even if, my goal was not to administer her pain) - but I did it in her best interest, no doubt. I could demonstrate it, step by step, with absolute certainty. It is not a matter of perspectives - she would agree with me, if she had my knowledge of knives, cuts, and pain. Compulsory contraception is something totally different. That is an act of aggression. Some individuals will not be allowed to reproduce - and so, they will not be able to pass their genes. That is not a benefit. If they “knew”, they probably would not like it one bit. Other individuals will benefit from that - those who will be able to reproduce and have more food for their calves. Who decides which individuals can reproduce? Who decides the optimal number of offspring? Our knowledge, given the complexity of any ecosystem, cannot but be inadequate. We are not helping anyone like that. We are just making creating a pet zoo for ourselves.

Sorry for the reductio ad hitlerum - but if you subtract consent from compassion, you get Aktion T4. I remind you that Aktion T4 was (1) based on a compassionate biology, (2) the criterion of elimination/sterilization was the level of sentience. I give you another example - historically closer. Mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women was based on similar, compassionate assumptions. Authorities did not want people to starve on the island. Anyway, I hope you agree with me on condemning both those programs.

I insist that no organism can be limited in the expression of its most essential functions (growth, feeding, reproduction), unless the behavioral patterns of that organism represent a threat to the very same functions of another organism. If you think about it, here I am trying to defend nothing but the ancient golden moral rule.

André, I agree with many of your points. However…

The use in our wildlife parks of immocontraception for fertility control - rather than starvation, parasitism, disease and predation as now - does not entail the recipient being coerced “against his/her own will”. I guess a remorseless succession of pregnancies and subsequent loss of most of her offspring might equally be described as “compulsory” at present. For they are ecologically inescapable under a regime of natural selection.

That is my worry about your use of the expression “compulsory contraception”. It evokes images of Aktion T4 - with its coercive sterilisation, the covert “euthanasia” program, and later the horrors of the Holocaust as Aktion T4 personnel extended their gruesome expertise elsewhere. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the nascent discipline of compassionate biology.

For sure, I’d favour sterilization for Anopheles mosquitos. But no maternal instincts will be thwarted in consequence. Elephants are another matter. Reversible contraceptive technologies such a immunocontraception can promote the well-being of mother and calf alike without leading to ecological collapse - and trauma for all concerned. Perhaps see e.g.
http://www.nature.com/news/2000/000914/full/news000914-12.html
though future cross-species fertility regulation will be far more sophisticated and non-intrustive.

Thank you very much for your explanations, and for the patience it took you to answer me.
The example you showed me appears to be rather innocent, and - if it represents the only viable alternative to culling elephants, I have nothing to object. I cannot but notice anyway - the author of the article mentions it en passant - that those fertility vaccines were first designed for human subjects. That reminded me how we always have to be vigilant. We must evaluate carefully each and every application. There are many risks. Those who perform the injections, those who have the medical technologies, exercise a great power, and power tend to expand itself.

So, while I still retain my doubts about contraception, I really wish that compassionate biology will become the mainstream ecological attitude of next human generations. Possibly, we can all live in a world where pain is a thing of the past, like scurvy.

André, you’re surely right to urge vigilance and rigorous risk-assessment. All sorts of well-intentioned ideas can have disastrous unforeseen consequences. And we’ll never understand
Nazism, for example, by assuming that the Nazis set out to be evil. But one day I think the discipline of compassionate biology - though not necessarily under that title - will seem as uncontroversial as does conservation biology today.

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