The interest of a species

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that domestication of animals is beneficial to the domesticated species. He explains,

At least for the domestic animal (the wild animal is a different case) the good life, if we can call it that, simply doesn’t exist, cannot be achieved, apart from humans — apart from our farms and therefore from our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where the animal rightists betray a deep ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship — to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species. (320)

As I wrote recently, while the domestic animal would not have a good life in nature, animal farms leave less room for wild animals to live “the good life.” But Pollan also makes the case that human meat-eating benefits the domesticated species as a whole. He writes,

For the animal rightist concerns himself only with individuals. Tom Regan, the author of The Case for Animal Rights, bluntly asserts that because “species are not individuals . . . the rights view does not recognize the moral rights of species to anything, including survival.” Singer concurs, insisting that only sentient individuals can have interests. But surely a species has interests — in its survival, say, or the health of its habitat — just as a nation or a community or a corporation can. (323)

The suggestion that a species takes interest in the health of its habitat is surprising, given the factory farms that are the habitat of the overwhelming majority of food animals. How would we even begin to define the health of such a place? Less surprising, perhaps, is the idea that a species takes an interest in its survival. After all, we humans generally want to survive, so why shouldn’t a species want the same?

What’s missing from Pollan’s argument is any discussion of why such an interest should be assigned moral significance. To clarify this point, I think it’s instructive to consider the other examples of collective entities that Pollan says have interests.

Let’s start with a nation. We might say that a nation takes an interest in the health of its environment or its economy, for example. But these are things that are important because they affect the individuals that live in the nation. Polluted air and an unproductive economy cause individuals to suffer. Thus, I would contend that the interest of a nation in the health of its environment or its economy derives any moral significance from the interests of its inhabitants.

We might also say that a nation takes an interest in its continued existence, but I think it would be hard to argue that such an interest has moral significance. After all, I think that if a tyrannical regime were overthrown in a bloodless coup and replaced by a democratic government that improved the lives of its people, most would consider that an unqualified good thing. Nobody (at least, nobody outside of the old government) would lament that the old nation had to come to an end to save the people from oppression.

This suggests that the only interests of a nation deserving of any moral standing are the interests derived from the interests of individuals. Similarly, I would suggest that the morally significant interests of a community or a corporation are those derived from the interests of the inhabitants and the shareholders, respectively.

That brings us back to the interests of a species. This is a question that came up when I wrote about Pollan’s anthropomorphization of Zea mays. Back then I wrote,

There’s a certain appeal to talking about having large populations in many locations as being in the interest of a species. After all, these things increase the chance that the species will continue to exist in the future. But does a species really want these things in any meaningful sense? The will of a species to survive is certainly unlike the will of a human to survive (although the will of the individuals of some species to survive may be more comparable to that of a person’s)…

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about species in this way. After all, it’s far more pleasing to read about a “reckless-seeming act of evolutionary faith in us” (27) than “a mutation, which, resulted in our planting corn for food, but which, in the absence of humans, might have been fatal.” We should realize, though, that when we talk about a species having interests, the word “interests” is merely a shorthand way of expressing more complicated ideas. The same, of course, is true of individuals having interests, but the underlying complexities are very different in the two cases, even though we refer to both with the same word.

I think that the last couple of sentences (to which I’ve added emphasis) are particularly relevant here (in fact, I wrote them with this post in mind). If we say that a species has interests, those interests are not comparable to the interests of individuals. Whereas individual animals can experience forms of suffering that we know to be unpleasant, the interest of a species is something entirely different. A species doesn’t want to exist in any meaningful sense (but its members have an interest in a happy existence). As in the case of the nation, the community, and the corporation, any interest of the species should derive its moral standing from the interest of the individuals. Indeed, Pollan hints at this connection when he condemns factory farms even though they ensure the survival of certain species.

Of course, the idea that we shouldn’t care about species is one that would trouble most environmentally-minded people. Most of us believe that extinction is a bad thing. Pollan is ready to capitalize on this point, sharing with us the story of animal protectionists’ opposition to an ecosystem restoration project on Santa Cruz Island. Pollan’s exposition of that story is so slanted that I’ll be dedicating a lengthy post to it in the near future.

For now, I’ll just argue that the animal rights view doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t worry about extinction. On the most basic level, the interests of the individuals of a species deserve some consideration in the rights view, and a species can’t go extinct without the death of its members. Furthermore, wild animal species tend to occupy complex niches within their habitats. When a species goes extinct, it vacates that niche, which can lead to ecological instability and extensive individual suffering among members of many species. This suggests that supporters of animal rights should oppose human activities that decrease ecological stability, and this will tend to prevent extinction.

This attitude won’t prevent all extinctions, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Over time, ecosystems change even without human intervention, so the loss of some species is inevitable. If the utilitarian view compels us to minimize our ecological impact, that’s not nearly as troubling as the suggestion that extinction doesn’t matter under the rights view.

I should also point out that my comments about wild animals occupying complex niches don’t extend so well to domesticated animals. Even on Polyface Farm, the number of animal species is relatively small. The existing farm animals could be allowed to live out their natural lifespans with minimal suffering, and excess land could be left to wild animals. The rights view, it thus seems to me, should be generally supportive of preserving wild species, but provides no obligation to perpetuate farmed animal species.


  1. Mirkat said

    I think that Pollan’s “preserve the species” arguments fall flat when he is referring to human-engineered frankenspecies designed to fatten up and become slaughter-ready in the shortest possible time and on the least possible feed. What kind of “natural” life can he imagine these animals can have?

    It occurs to me that his book ought to have been called The Omnivore’s Weak Excuses.

  2. […] Pollan, predation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, vegetarianism After arguing that meat-eating serves the interest of domesticated species, Michael Pollan moves on to consider hunting in the wild. He writes, The very existence of […]

  3. […] in nature as we’ve decided it should be in human society?” What’s striking about Pollan’s discussion of the interests of species is the absence of discussion about how that might be derived from the interests of individuals. […]

  4. […] eventually argues for meat-eating on the grounds that it serves the interests of domesticated species, which would cease to exist if people didn’t eat them. He doesn’t do much in the way of […]

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