You would be excused for considering it a masterpiece of trolling. Exposed to it, people usually considered to be champions of rational thought became bags of livid, incoherent rage. Friends, on which I usually count for their lucid and precise capability of dissecting fallacies, were running in circles yelling non sequiturs.
The poison? This recent article by young philosophers Amanda and William McAskill, which finally brings to the spotlight a pet peeve of mine: the issue of predation in ethics – in turn, a simple summary of longer treatments such as The Moral Problem of Predation by Jeff McMahan. Let us assume you value animal life and suffering. Let us assume in particular that you follow an anti-speciesist perspective – that is, you assume that animal suffering is no less important than human suffering. This is not a fringe point of view: it is the basis of veganism, a relatively successful and expanding (if minoritary) cultural movement. It also starts from a very simple, general and honestly hard to disagree assumption: all suffering is bad, no matter who feels it. Now, animal rights movements and anti-speciesism usually focused on human contributions to animal suffering, e.g. by meat or dairy production, or by scientific experimentation. But is it the right focus? Amanda and William McAskill are just the last of a few who point a very basic truth: most animals suffer by predation and parasitism by other non-human animals. In the famous words of Richard Dawkins:
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.
If we care about suffering in non-human beings, predation and parasitism are not an issue, they are the issue: humans are just a specific case of the problem. We try to save humans from being killed by non-human creatures. Why not non-humans? What do you do in this case?
The McAskills’ answer is, to me, the only logical one: we should (humanely) cull predator populations, or coerce them to eat artificial, non-animal food (some propone advanced genetic engineering to “herbivorize” meat eating species). This may sound contradictory with concerns about animal welfare, since almost all predators are animals as well. To exterminate species or force them to a fully unnatural way of living seems at odds with all what we can naively think as “animal rights”.
However the ethical axiom at the core is not the love of animals per se: it is to eliminate suffering. In this view care about animals only because, presumably, many higher animals are entities capable of suffering. If tomorrow we could prove, beyond all doubts, that (say) kittens are incapable of suffering, mauling kittens suddenly would not have any ethical consequence whatsoever. Viceversa, if chairs were demonstrated to suffer, we should suddenly care about chair welfare. That also answers the typical “if you are anti-speciesist, what about plants or microbes?” knee-jerk objection: plants or microbes do not have nervous systems and therefore, as far as we know, they are incapable of suffering. Anti-speciesism, as far as I understand, does not mean “I care about all species no matter what”, it means “I care about suffering regardless of the nature of the suffering entity”. If we find out that, to reduce suffering to a minimum, we are forced to eliminate or coerce some animals, so be it. It is the total good that matters.
What made biologists such as P.Z.Myers froth at the mouth is that the elimination of predation would have catastrophic effects on the ecosystem. They have a point. Philosophers should be honest: Once you remove predation, you end up with no ecosystem whatsoever. There is no way to maintain a significantly complex, functional self-sustaining ecosystem on Earth without predators, period. What they do not understand however is that, unless the existence of ecosystems has a moral value superior to the suffering of billions of beings, this is entirely morally irrelevant.
This has profound consequences: Given the utilitarian, anti-speciesist assumptions, the only ethical way to sustain complex animal life on Earth is a fully artificial biosphere. It is conceivable that, with massive and constant human intervention (well beyond our current capabilities), you could maintain mock biotas, more akin to aquariums than ecosystems, where you give artificial nutrients to plants and avoid Malthusian overpopulation catastrophes by selective sterilization or genetic engineering. Predators could be maintained in zoos, by isolating them and feeding them artificial prey.
But should we stop there? There is a deeper issue, and it is that suffering is often an inextricable part of the living experience of many species. Octopus mothers die starving after caring after their eggs for months or years. Sexual intercourse can be traumatic in many species. In general no living being is free from disease or injury. Life is a war, against external and intrinsic factors. And the only way to win a war, often, is not to play.
In our case, this has resulted in the theory of anti-natalism. Breeding humans only generates more beings capable of suffering and that will live, more often than not, unsatisfactory lives. It follows that the most ethical and compassionate course of action is to stop reproducing, ultimately extinguishing humankind. But this applies perhaps even more to non-human animals, which often cannot choose rationally how to make their lives better. Wherever there is a nervous system, there lies suffering.
It follows that the only certain way to avoid pain, suffering and misery is to wipe out all life from Earth. Even keeping simple plant or microbial life does not make the cut, since in the billion year or so before Earth becomes inhabitable, complex life capable of suffering could evolve again. Humans perhaps could decide to survive, possibly immersed in virtual reality, where their lives could be finally be fully hedonistic, free of any undesired suffering.
All of this could look like a long reductio ad absurdum, but it is not the case. I am not anti-speciesist, not even vegetarian, yet the foundation of utilitarian anti-speciesist ethics are for me intellectually difficult to set aside. It is not what I do, but perhaps it is what we should do. As a biologist, the idea of wiping out the beauty of Earth’s life horrifies me: and yet is my intellectual horror worth the suffering of trillions of conscious beings?
Perhaps this line of thinking, unexpectedly, also explains partially the Fermi paradox. All sentient species capable of compassion should arrive at the conclusion that suffering should be avoided, and as such should unavoidably derive that they should wipe out, regrettably, their own biosphere (and perhaps others too). Living beings evolved only to guarantee their own replication, regardless of anything else – if this means pain and suffering, then so be it. Perhaps we should see life not as a magnificent supreme pinnacle of the Universe, but as a bizarre bug entrenched in the physical laws, ultimately infesting planets with a seething soup of self-aware horror. Perhaps the Cambrian explosion, where first evolved both nervous systems capable of pain and predation-based animal ecosystems, is the most terrible event in the history of the known Universe. Perhaps it is our moral duty to return the Universe to its true natural state: a barren, peaceful void, free from the dreadful curse of self-replicating matter.