An ethical hypothetical around animal cruelty

It is the year 20X6 and you’ve struck it rich somehow and now own a large plot of land in rural Colorado. Apart from a relatively small access road and ranch house, you’ve decided to leave the rest of your property completely undeveloped, as pristine, unspoiled nature.

30 years earlier, scientists developed a small device that, when implanted surgically into animals at birth, would continuously monitor neural signals and stress hormone levels in blood and transmit them wirelessly to a recording device. By using this data, it was possible to develop an objective measure of the amount of suffering an animal was subjected to over the course of their entire lifetime.

Companies like Whole Foods immediately announced purchasing policies that required all of their suppliers to use this technology and an animal suffering rating was to be prominently displayed on each label. Other companies quickly followed suit and meat processors started offering verified humane meat at a premium price point. Soon afterwards, the USDA enacted mandatory suffering labels and set maximum allowable suffering standards for both food production and animal testing.

Recently, scientists have developed an updated version of the device that works through skin contact instead of invasive surgery. Mounted on tiny micro drones the size of a bumblebee, it’s possible to seek out and tag every single living animal within a certain radius. They approach you at your ranch to test out this new invention and you agree to let them try it.

After a 6 month trial, they return with the data along with a computer generated report. At the top of the report, the data points out that there’s a particular patch of uneven rocks near the top of a waterfall that is incredibly slippery and dangerous. Several deer have slipped at this spot and the fall into a crevasse that is just high enough to fatally maim them without killing them outright. Deer which slip at this spot spend several days in absolute agony from multiple broken limbs before slowly dying of starvation. In fact, this spot alone contributes to enough net suffering for your entire ranch that it would be considered above maximum limits if it were a farm. The report also points out that installing a simple plastic guardrail, at an estimated cost of $30 would completely eliminate this problem.

Now, my question is, what would you do with this data? Does the simple fact that you own the land provide you any obligation to the suffering of the animals on it? Does your obligation change in any way based on whether an animal is domesticated or wild? If something as simple as a $30 guardrail could quantifiably ease a huge amount of animal suffering, would it be immoral not to install it? If so, where would you draw the line? In fact, as you look down the list of suggestions, you realize that in order to completely minimize the amount of suffering being inflicted on animals on your land, you essentially would have to turn it into a best practices farm. Does this mean that this is what should be done, not only for your land, but for all of the unspoiled wilderness in the world? Also, although this technology is futuristic, some crude version of the findings it presents could probably be generated now. Does this mean our current generation has any obligation towards reducing suffering of animals in the wild?

I don’t think $30 is a high enough metric to test people’s willingness to help on behalf of animals…

Put up a guardrail, no, no, yes, no idea, no, no. I think I got them all in the right order.

I like your idea about warning labels on meat. I’d probably eat a chicken raised in a chicken house but I wouldn’t eat a piece of chicken if I knew it had spent it’s whole life in a 1’x1’ cage. Similarly, if I made over 50K a year (no dependents) I’d probably eat only free range chicken. As it is now at around 24K a year it is a bit hard to afford.

Falling off of cliffs is part of natural selection. If you’re going to screw with natural selection, you create a whole new set of issues. What happens when retarded deer start walking into trees?

Furthermore, we have to assume that the fallen deer provide food for other wild animals like coyotes, foxes, vultures, etc. I suppose a few fallen deer a year is not going to significantly disrupt these predators and scavengers, but the wilderness is a giant web of these interactions

So, if we’re just talking deer dying, I feel like the ethical thing is to let them fall, pick up the animal-in-pain signal and go shoot them. You put them out of their misery, but you also allow natural selection to get them out of the gene pool and keep them available as part of the ecosystem.

That said, I’d probably install the railing. Not for the sake of the animals, but because something killing that many deer is virtually guaranteed to kill a person eventually. Waterfalls are a big attraction for hikers, even if they have to trespass to get there. $30 is low enough to be worth protecting the occasional hiker. (But, to be honest, even $300 might be high enough to change my mind.)

First of all, $30 isn’t going to get me a well-secured guard rail, much less one that doesn’t mar the landscape. I would put up an aesthetically pleasing wooden one, which I would make myself, because I like doing that kind of shit. I prefer to prevent animal suffering as long as it doesn’t cause cost me much or require too much work. I wouldn’t say it’s immoral not to install it, but I personally would be more comfortable not worrying about injured deer suffering at the base of my pretty waterfall, and would also prefer not to have their bloated corpses wash up downstream.

The other items I would have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

I pretty much agree with dracoi. While we may adopt a veil of cognitive dissonance, the fact is that most animals in the wild suffer absolutely miserable and painful deaths. It’s really hard to try to grasp the scale of suffering that goes on every single day in nature. The reality is that in this future hypothetical world, the deer that were saved from the waterfall would probably still die miserable lives at the hands of a painful disease or in the bloody mouth of a predator. I don’t think we have or will have for an extremely long time the resources to ensure every living creature than can feel pain is shielded from it.

There’s also the fact that we would be messing with forces beyond our control if we ever decided to implement such a policy on an institutional scale. Ecosystems are complex and we don’t fully understand them, and there’s a chance that putting up the fence drives extinct a species of fungus that was feeding on the dead deer or something similar. One fence won’t make a difference, but putting up fences at every place of danger would. Now, I will (and have) put down an animal that was suffering rather than let it slowly die. But that was more for my own comfort and that of those around me than any feeling that I was actually doing a good deed.

ETA: I would, however, have to talk with a lawyer before installing the fence. The last thing I want is getting sued for a ludicrous payout because some hiker slipped and the existence of the fence conclusively indicated that I was aware of the hazard.

I have no responsibility for nature hurting nature on my property. I’d stop doing something that was causing harm but there is no reason for me to protect retarded bambi from feeding the other critters. Who knows that fence may increase net suffering as the family of foxes at the base of the waterfall now starve to death.

So I decide to erect the guard rail to protect poor, stupid Bambi from himself. I hire a local company to build and erect the barrier. While carrying the rail to the site, one of the workers is spooked by a sudden noise in the bushes. Leaping blindly off the path, he…
wait for it…

you know what’s coming…

…steps on a butterfly!

Now what happens to all those stupid deer? :smiley:

The deer would be falling off the cliff if I didn’t own the land. Some of them, anyway; I’d be shooting and eating others.

This actually highlights the pitfalls of pure utilitarianism. What if the device said you had a flock of endangered condors who were terrorizing the other animals on your land? Being slowly disemboweled by talons and gnawed to death by a giant bird certainly causes more suffering than a quick death by gunshot. So should you kill the endangered birds to minimize suffering on your land? Should you just humanely kill all the predators in order to minimize wild animal suffering?

Or the classic argument against utilitarianism: If the vast majority of life (human or otherwise) consists of suffering, shouldn’t we just kill everyone to minimize it? Certainly a barren, lifeless planet has a suffering level of zero, so is that what we should aspire to?

I agree with utilitarianism for the most part, but I’m pragmatic about it (you could even say “utilitarian” :slight_smile: ). When it is taken to extremes and breaks down, I stop using it. I don’t believe that it is the basis of morality, even if it is a very useful tool sometimes.

In the OP’s scenario, I think I’d put up a $30 guard rail. But in general, I’m not worried about wild animals suffering naturally. For example, if the only option was to pave the waterfall and turn it into a concrete water slide for $50,000, I wouldn’t do it.

Assuming I can confirm that Colorado law allows something similar to smacking one with a car in most states I’ve lived in - keeping the deer is possible. I rig up a sensor instead of a fence. The deer suffering is mostly reduced from days to hours. Natural selection continues to work. Tasty venison ends up in the freezer.