Reducing Wild Animal Suffering Literature Library: Introductory Materials, Philosophical & Empirical Foundations

These are reading module put together by the members of the group Wild Animal Welfare Project Discussion as part of the RWAS Literature Library Project.

This series of articles and essays together lay out crucial considerations explaining and underpinning the reduction of wild animal suffering (RWAS) as a potential focus area for effective altruists. These modules are intended to serve multiple functions:

Introductory Material

Brian Tomasik. The Importance of Wild-Animal Suffering

The number of wild animals vastly exceeds that of animals on factory farms, in laboratories, or kept as pets. Therefore, animal advocates should consider focusing their efforts to raise concern about the suffering that occurs in the natural environment. While in theory this could involve trying directly to engineer more humane ecological systems, in practice I think activists should concentrate on promoting the meme of caring about wild animals to other activists, academics, and other sympathetic groups. The massive amount of suffering occurring now in nature is indeed tragic, but it pales by comparison to the scale of good or harm that our descendants -- with advanced technological capability -- might effect. I fear, for instance, that future humans may undertake terraforming, directed panspermia, or sentient simulations without giving much thought to the consequences for wild animals. Our #1 priority should be to ensure that future human intelligence is used to prevent wild-animal suffering, rather than to multiply it.

Brian Tomasik. Should We Intervene in Nature?

I think we have an obligation to exercise our rare position in the history of life to do the best we can in replacing the consequences of evolution's singular focus on reproductive survival of species with a humane approach that values instead the emotions of individual sentient organisms.


Jacy Reese (2015). Wild animals endure illness, injury, and starvation. We should help.

Cecil the lion captured the world’s attention earlier this year when an American dentist hunted and killed him. People were justifiably outraged at this tragedy — so much so, in fact, that they turned against the entire practice of trophy hunting. Numerous airlines responded by banning the transport of a range of hunting trophies on their flights. In October, people were again infuriated when a German hunter shot a 40- to 60-year-old elephant in Zimbabwe. Although this hunt was legal, unlike Cecil’s, the unnecessary killing of wild animals continues to draw public outcry.

Our outrage and compassion shouldn’t stop there. Human exploitation of animals is horrific and needs to be stamped out, but we should consider taking action against another considerable source of pain and suffering for wild animals — nature itself.


Jordan Ross (2016) Why The Suffering of all Sentient Beings Should be Equally Considered

This line of reasoning explains why the suffering of all sentient individuals should be given ethical consideration.


Oscar Horta (2015). Why the Situation of Animals in the Wild Should Concern Us

In fact, there are reasons to think most animals have to endure lives which include more suffering than positive well-being. This doesn’t just happen out of some contingent circumstances. Rather, it’s due to evolutionary and ecological factors which have been researched in depth. To see this we can consider some very basic facts about animal population dynamics.


Oscar Horta (2012). Debunking The Idyllic View of Natural Processes

It is commonly believed that animal ethics entails respect for natural processes, because nonhuman animals are able to live relatively easy and happy lives in the wild. However, this assumption is wrong. Due to the most widespread reproductive strategy in nature, r-selection, the overwhelming majority of nonhuman animals die shortly after they come into existence. They starve or are eaten alive, which means their suffering vastly outweighs their happiness. Hence, concern for nonhuman animals entails that we should try to intervene in nature to reduce the enormous amount of harm they suffer. Even if this conclusion may seem extremely counter-intuitive at first, it can only be rejected from a speciesist viewpoint.

Tobias Baumann (2016). Wild-Animal Suffering Research: Mission

Society has become increasingly aware of the suffering that nonhuman animals experience at the hands of humans. Many are aware of the shocking realities of factory farming, or have seen terrible videos and images of animals being neglected, abused, subjected to violent and traumatic experiments, exploited for entertainment, or killed systematically in slaughterhouse lines. But what is even more neglected, and even greater in scale, is the suffering of animals in the wild.

Abraham Rowe (2017). An Ethic of Intervention


Our focus is on wild animals, because they bear the brunt of suffering on Earth at present. And, to that end, the only acceptable action for us is the one which reduces their suffering the most. We must explicitly endorse an ethic that is in direct conflict with wilderness conservation. The wild that is conserved through these efforts has preventable suffering, so we have an obligation to prevent it. Nature holds no value in and of itself, and no value at all outside of humanity’s personal attachment to it. And while the loss of something humanity is attached to certainly causes suffering for humans, it seems safe to say that this suffering is minimal compared to that of animals in the wild. The moral crisis of nature is not that the status quo is threatened, but that the status quo is terrible.

 Philosophical Foundations (epistemics, ethics, meta-ethics, etc.)

Brian Tomasik - Caring about Animal Suffering

The importance of animal suffering seems to be one significant lacuna in the ethical views of most elite thinkers. It's helpful to expand people's hearts and minds on this issue, although we need to make sure to do so in a way that actually helps suffering animals in nature rather than reinforcing some of the other ideas of the animal-rights movement, like that we should "leave animals alone in all cases."


Brian Tomasik. Intention-Based Moral Reactions Distort Intuitions about Wild Animals

Intuitions about the intentionality of harm are relevant for moral judgments, but in the case of animals, intentions don't generally bear on how bad the harm feels to experience. It seems plausible that intuitions about the moral reprehensibility of intentional harm cause people to overamplify the raw badness of intentional harm relative to unintentional. If so, this has the unfortunate side effect that people downplay the immense amounts of unintentional suffering in nature. Personifying nature's cruelties is one strategy we could test for dealing with this.


Jeff McMahan (2010). The Meat Eaters

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. This hidden carnage provided one ground for the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, who contended that “one simple test of the claim that the pleasure in the world outweighs the pain…is to compare the feelings of an animal that is devouring another with those of the animal being devoured.

Jeff McMahan (2010). Predators: A Response

There are certain responses to the arguments in my post, “The Meat Eaters,” that recur with surprising frequency throughout the comments.  The following four objections, listed in the order of the relative frequency of their appearance, are the most common.

Torres, M (2015). The Case for Intervention in Nature on Behalf of Animals: a Critical Review of the Main Arguments against Intervention

If we assume that all sentient animals deserve equal moral consideration and, therefore, that their interests are morally relevant, what should be our attitude regarding natural phenomena like predation or starvation which are harmful for many wild animals? Do we have the prima facie moral obligation to try to mitigate unnecessary, avoidable and unjustified animal suffering in nature? In this paper I assume two main theses: (1) Humans and (many) animals deserve equal moral consideration; this implies that (2) We have the prima facie moral obligation to try to mitigate unnecessary, avoidable and unjustified animal suffering. Based on these assumptions, I argue that we are morally obligated to aid animals in the wild whenever doing so would not originate as much or more suffering than it would prevent.

Eze Paez (2015). Refusing Help and Inflicting Harm. A Critique of the Environmentalist View

Due to a variety of natural causes, suffering predominates over well-being in the lives of wild animals. From an antispeciesist standpoint that considers the interests of all sentient individuals, we should intervene in nature to benefit these animals, provided that the expectable result is net positive. However, according to the environmentalist view the aim of benefiting wild animals cannot justify intervening in nature. In addition, harmful human interventions can sometimes be justified. This view assumes that (i) certain entities such as ecosystems or species have intrinsic value, and that (ii) at least sometimes these values are more important than nonhuman well-being. In this article I review the arguments in support of this view advanced by three prominent environmentalists (Albert Schweitzer, Paul W. Taylor and J. Baird Callicott) and show how none of them succeed at grounding these assumptions.


Tyler Cowen (2003). Policing Nature

Utility, rights, and holistic standards all point toward some modest steps to limit or check the predatory activity of carnivores relative to their victims. At the very least, we should limit current subsidies to nature’s carnivores. Policing nature need not be absurdly costly or violate common-sense intuitions.


Ole Martin Moen (2016). The ethics of wild animal suffering

Animal ethics has received a lot of attention over the last four decades. Its focus, however, has almost exclusively been on the welfare of captive animals, ignoring the vast majority of animals: those living in the wild. I suggest that this one-sided focus is unwarranted. On the empirical side, I argue that wild animals overwhelmingly outnumber captive animals, and that billions of wild animals are likely to have lives that are even more painful and distressing than those of their captive counterparts. On the normative side, I argue that as long as we have duties of assistance towards humans suffering from natural causes, and we reject anthropocentrism, we also have duties of assistance towards animals suffering in the wild.


Ben Davidow (2013). Why Most People Don't Care About Wild-Animal Suffering

Various intuitions prevent people from taking wild-animal suffering as seriously as it deserves, including status-quo bias, just-world hypothesis, and lack of intentional harm. Fortunately, most progressive movements have successfully overcome deep-seated bias, so hope remains for the wild-animal movement.


Kyle Johannsen (2017). Animal Rights and the Problem of r-Strategists.

Wild animal reproduction poses an important moral problem for animal rights theorists. Many wild animals give birth to large numbers of uncared-for offspring, and thus child mortality rates are far higher in nature than they are among human beings. In light of this reproductive strategy – traditionally referred to as the ‘r-strategy’ – does concern for the interests of wild animals require us to intervene in nature? In this paper, I argue that animal rights theorists should embrace fallibility-constrained interventionism: the view that intervention in nature is desirable but should be constrained by our ignorance of the inner workings of ecosystems.

Though authors sometimes assume that large-scale intervention requires turning nature into an enormous zoo, I suggest an alternative. With sufficient research, a new form of gene editing called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) promises to one day give us the capacity to intervene without perpetually interfering with wild animals’ liberties


Catia Faria (2016, doctoral thesis). Animal Ethics Goes Wild: The Problem of Wild Animal Suffering and Intervention in Nature

In this thesis I claim that, on the assumption that we have reasons to assist other individuals in need, there are decisive reasons to intervene in nature to prevent or reduce the harms wild animals suffer, provided that it is feasible and that the expected result is net positive. Moreover, I claim that these reasons are as strong as those we would have to intervene in order to help human beings that were in similar circumstances. This is because: (a) all sentient individuals, including nonhuman animals, are morally considerable, irrespective of their species or other alleged species-specific attributes; (b) the interests of wild animals are systematically frustrated by different natural events, so that most of them have lives of net suffering; and (c) the various objections that may be put forward against intervention in nature ultimately fail to show that our reasons against intervening are sufficiently strong.


Jozef Keulartz (2016). Should the Lion Eat Straw Like the Ox? Animal Ethics and the Predation Problem


Stephen Clark’s article The Rights of Wild Things from 1979 was the starting point for the consideration in the animal ethics literature of the so-called ‘predation problem’. Clark examines the response of David George Ritchie to Henry Stephens Salt, the first writer who has argued explicitly in favor of animal rights. Ritchie attempts to demonstrate—via reductio ad absurdum—that animals cannot have rights, because granting them rights would oblige us to protect prey animals against predators that wrongly violate their rights. This article navigates the reader through the debate sparked off by Clarke’s article, with as final destination what I consider to be the best way to deal with the predation problem. I will successively discuss arguments against the predation reductio from Singer’s utilitarian approach, Regan’s deontological approach, Nussbaum’s capability approach, and Donadson and Kymlicka’s political theory of animal rights.

 Yew Kwang-Ng (1995) - Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering

Welfare biology is the study of living things and their environment with respect to their welfare (defined as net happiness, or enjoyment minus suffering). Despite difficulties of ascertaining and measuring welfare and relevancy to normative issues, welfare biology is a positive science. Evolutionary economics and population dynamics are used to help answer basic questions in welfare biology: Which species are affective sentients capable of welfare? Do they enjoy positive or negative welfare? Can their welfare be dramatically increased? Under plausible axioms, all conscious species are plastic and all plastic species are conscious (and, with a stronger axiom, capable of welfare). More complex niches favour the evolution of more rational species. Evolutionary economics also supports the common-sense view that individual sentients failing to survive to mate suffer negative welfare. A kind of God-made (or evolution-created) fairness between species is also unexpectedly found. The contrast between growth maximization (as may be favoured by natural selection), average welfare, and total welfare maximization is discussed. It is shown that welfare could be increased without even sacrificing numbers (at equilibrium). Since the long-term reduction in animal suffering depends on scientific advances, strict restrictions on animal experimentation may be counter-productive to animal welfare.

Brian Tomasik - Medicine vs. Deep Ecology

Ecosystems are extraordinarily complex and require care to understand well. However, other systems are complex too: Macroeconomies, national political structures, and even the human body. Complexity has not stopped us from rightly aiming to improve those systems by careful scientific investigation, so why shouldn't we apply a similar attitude toward intervention in nature to reduce wild-animal suffering?


Brian Tomasik. Applied Welfare Biology and Why Wild-Animal Advocates Should Focus on Not Spreading Nature

Applied welfare biology involves assessing how environmental policies affect net wild-animal suffering. This research is important and should be pursued, and I outline some interesting questions in this field for people to study. That said, applied welfare biology has some risks, including encouraging policies that are unpopular and whose implementation could slightly increase international conflict. Therefore, I think the first priority of animal advocates should be to argue against future projects to spread wilderness into space or computational systems. Not expanding wild-animal suffering is an easier case to make and is ultimately more important in expectation.


Michael Plant (2016). The Unproven and Unprovable Case for [Net] Wild Animal Suffering

I’ve been surprised to learn recently that so many people I know in the effective altruism community believe there is more total suffering than happiness in the lives of wild animals. Brian Tomasik appears to be the main current proponent of this view, developing the work done by economist Yew-Kwang Ng in the 90s. Tomasik has taken his concerns with wild animal suffering (WAS) to its logical limit, arguing we should consider destroying ecosytems so that fewer animals exist. This cuts against the popular intuition, frequently promoted by nature documentaries, that wild animals live enjoyable, if somewhat barbaric, lives and are best left to their own devices. As the number of animals in the wild is so vast, WAS is therefore potentially of huge moral importance. Concerned that I had overlooked the area, I investigated. After some consideration, I think the arguments in favour of there being net WAS are unconvincing. I decided to write this essay to explain why others should be similarly unconvinced.


Ozy Brennan (2017). “Fit and Happy”: How Do We Measure Wild-Animal Suffering?

In order to understand wild-animal welfare, we must be able to measure it. To target the most important causes of wild-animal suffering, it is important to understand which animals suffer the most and what causes their suffering. In this paper, I begin by reviewing theoretical arguments about wild-animal suffering, then move to discussing various empirical strategies for assessing the welfare of wild animals. I conclude with a brief discussion of how to reduce the time and expense of assessing wild-animal welfare.


Georgia Ray (2017). Parasite Load and Disease in Wild Animals

This piece looks at the scale of the parasite load on wild animals, and the effects of parasites on wild-animal suffering. There is an appendix on ways in which researchers measure parasite and disease load and the challenges associated with these measurements.


Brian Tomasik (2017). How Many Wild Animals Are There?

This page offers some rough estimates of the numbers of wild animals on Earth. Collectively, wild land vertebrates probably number between 10^11 and 10^14. Wild marine vertebrates number at least 10^13 and perhaps a few orders of magnitude higher. Terrestrial and marine arthropods each probably number at least 10^18.


Georgia Ray (2017). How Many Wild Animals Are There?

For such a straightforward question, the answer to how many individual animals exist is surprisingly unexplored in scientific literature. A variety of reasonable estimates have been made for the number of animal species, but means of gathering data on animal abundance in different environments are so varied that the actual number of individual animals is relatively unexamined. Here, we discuss some estimates that approach this number, and assess their accuracy.


Wladimir J. Alonso and Cynthia Schuck-Paim (2017). Life-fates: meaningful categories to estimate animal suffering in the wild


The study of wild animal suffering and design of putative strategies to mitigate suffering in the wild can greatly benefit from the development of analytical and conceptual tools to measure the irregular distribution of suffering within species and natural populations. To this end, we propose a new concept, that of life-fate. A life-fate is a unit that operationally aggregates individuals from the same species based on the similarities of critical life events and hazards befalling them. The analytical framework based on this concept is thus one focused on categorizing major differences within the diversity of experiences that sentient individuals are exposed to during their existence. Such a framework forces a focus on the investigation of at-risk groups, or hotspots of individual suffering within a population. Additionally, the approach can provide insights into  potential biological adaptations evolved in response to subsets of hazards individuals are exposed to, enable the description of the diversity and distribution of suffering within species in a systematic manner, and inform the public about a widespread, yet neglected, aspect of life in the wild (suffering) based on the notion of individual life experiences and stories – concepts easier to empathize with than mortality and morbidity figures. Finally, the concept of life-fates should also prove useful to reveal commonly hidden sources of suffering in other contexts, including those involved in the production of animal-derived products and services.


Comments (5)

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 05 May 2018 02:38:05PM *  2 points [-]

Based on a suggestion from Michael Plant, I'm collapsing the few posts I made on the EA Forum on this topic to one. Since a comment made by user Ronja_Lutz will be deleted alongside the post it was under, I'm reproducing it here for ease of response later.

Thank you - this sounds like it will be very valuable for our local reading/discussion group! In previous discussions, we were struggling a bit with the term "suffering", since we couldn't find a clear definition for it (we read Thoomas Metzinger's paper, but didn't find it very useful). Do you have any recommendations for that, too?

Comment author: stijnbruers 06 May 2018 09:52:50PM 1 point [-]

just to add for completeness (or as a way of self-promotion): the "psychological" foundations of WAS (in particular the cognitive biases that lead to an anti-intervention attitude): https://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2016/07/20/moral-illusions-and-wild-animal-suffering-neglect/ https://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/on-intervention-in-nature-human-arrogance-and-moral-blind-spots/

Comment author: Jamie_Harris 03 July 2018 07:52:48AM *  0 points [-]

Finding this list very useful personally, so thanks for that!

I am also planning to use it to help create a discussion group on the topic. There is a shorter version from EAF, but here are the questions for discussion I'm thinking of discussing:

  1. Suffering: a. Are we convinced that K-Selecting species have net negative lives? b. Are we convinced that R-Selecting species have net negative lives? c. Are we convinced that wild animals, in total, have net negative lives?

  2. Prioritisation: How far should we prioritise work on reducing WAS compared to: a. farm animal advocacy, b. other EA cause areas?

  3. Potential crucial considerations: a. Should we still focus on WAS if we believed that animals had net positive lives? i. Would this change how far we prioritise the cause over other cause areas? ii. What effect would this have on the actual interventions that we favoured? b. Should we still focus on WAS if a scientific consensus emerged that most insects were not sentient (but other r-selecting species, like many fish, small mammals or birds etc, still were)? i. Would this change how far we prioritise the cause over other cause areas? ii. What effect would this have on the actual interventions that we favoured?

  4. How far should we prioritise each of the following steps: a. Spreading anti-speciesism and concern for all sentient beings, including those living in the wild. b. Raising awareness of the very bad situation in which wild animals are, and spreading the view that we should be prepared to intervene to aid them. c. Doing research regarding the situation in which these animals are and the ways in which the harms they suffer can be reduced, rather than increased. d. Supporting those interventions in nature that are feasible today and present them as examples of what could be done for the good of animals in the wild at a bigger scale.

  5. What are the different actions and interventions we can take for each of the above steps: a. As a community? b. As individuals?

  6. Can we come up with 1 single personal goal to do more in this space? Create a timeframe and feedback loop or commitment device for this?

Comment author: DavidMoss 03 July 2018 03:14:05PM 0 points [-]

Is this from EAF, not LEAN?

Comment author: Jamie_Harris 04 July 2018 09:22:17AM 0 points [-]

Yes, you're right, I got mixed up because I found it from the database of useful EA organisers' resources. I've edited the comment!