The predation debate

(Updated 10/24/10 to correct a typographical error and 11/21/10 to fix another.)

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 predation in nature, of animals eating animals, is the cause of much anguished hand-wringing in the animal rights literature. “It must be admitted,” Peter Singer writes, “that the existence of carnivorous animals does pose one problem for the ethics of Animal Liberation, and that is whether we should do anything about it.” (321)

Pollan doesn’t bother to tell us what Singer’s answer to this problem is, and that’s probably because it wouldn’t have suited his argument. Instead, he moves on to another writer who better allows him to make his point:

Matthew Scully, in Dominion, a Christian-conservative treatment of animal rights, calls predation “the intrinsic evil in nature’s design. . . among the hardest of all things to fathom.” Really? Elsewhere, acknowledging the gratuitous suffering inflicted by certain predators (like cats), Scully condemns “the level of moral degradation of which [animals] are capable.” Moral degradation? (321)

As a conservative Christian, Scully is hardly representative of the animal rightists. (How many animal rightists can you think of who write speeches for a candidate who supports shooting wolves from helicopters?) This doesn’t stop Pollan from stuffing Scully’s words into the mouths of other animal philosophers. He writes,

A deep current of Puritanism runs through the writings of the animal philosophers, an abiding discomfort not just with our animality, but with the animals’ animality, too. They would like nothing better than to airlift us out from nature’s “intrinsic evil”—and then take the animals with us. (321)

To Pollan, it apparently isn’t important that Singer doesn’t call predation nature’s “intrinsic evil,” and that he doesn’t say that we should “airlift” the animals from it. Reading Singer’s rejection of the idea that we should eliminate carnivores, I can’t help but think that Pollan misrepresents the philosophical discourse. Singer’s treatment of this question is not “anguished hand-wringing” but a matter of philosophical rigor. Rather than arguing that we should end predation, Singer is addressing what Charles K. Fink explains is sometimes called the “predation reductio”:

The predation reductio is an argument which attempts to refute ethical vegetarianism by deducing from it an absurd consequence involving the abolition of natural predation.  “Among the most disturbing implications drawn from conventional indiscriminate animal liberation/rights theory,” writes J. Baird Callicott, “is that, were it possible for us to do so, we ought to protect innocent vegetarian animals from their carnivourous predators” (258).  This charge, in one form or another, is often leveled against ethical vegetarianism.

If Singer had to answer the predation question in the affirmative, that would be a serious problem for his ethical theory. The question has to be asked precisely for this reason; Singer must be able to justify a negative answer for the ethical system to seem reasonable. Pollan seems to miss this entirely, instead mocking Singer for raising the issue: “(Talk about the need for peacekeeping forces!)” (321).

Pollan goes on to tell us why predation is a good thing. He explains,

But however it may appear to those of us living at such a remove from the natural world, predation is not a matter of morality or of politics; it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. Brutal as the wolf may be to the individual deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Without predators to cull the herd deer overrun their habitat and starve — all suffer, and not only the deer but the plants they browse and every other species that depends on those plants. (322)

Pollan would have us believe that the animal rightists’ focus on individuals would lead wild animal species to extinction. But the value of predation might also be explained from a more individualistic point of view. Indeed, the fact that the wolves allow for the continued existence of the herd of deer necessarily means that some individual deer benefit from predation.

When Pollan says that the wolf is “brutal” to the individual deer, he’s only telling us half the story. Certainly, when a wolf eats a deer, the deer that is eaten experiences brutality. That benefits not only the herd but the deer that remain alive. The deer that aren’t eaten face reduced competition for food, and this decreases the chance that they’ll starve to death.



  1. […] also noted that the focus on the individual can lead us to consider disturbing questions, such as that of whether we should eliminate carnivorous species. Yet his argument for preservation of species as an end in itself — rather than as a means to […]

  2. […] moves on to a discussion of animal rights philosophy. He claims to be debating Peter Singer, but he’ll quote Matthew Scully when it better suits his point, never acknowledging any significant difference between the writers. […]

  3. […] if it isn’t itself logically consistent. This an instance of the reductio ad absurdum, which I’ve written about in another context. Such an argument, it should be noted, has nothing to do with whether the person making the […]

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