Michael Pollan concludes the section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma on animal happiness with a paragraph summarizing his argument against applying human morality to nature. He begins,
The fight over the pigs at Santa Cruz Island suggests at the very least that a human morality based on individual rights makes for an awkward fit when applied to the natural world. (325)
It’s my hope, that at the very least, my lengthy post about the pigs of Santa Cruz Island will convince you that Pollan hasn’t adequately demonstrated this.
Pollan goes on to ask, “Is the individual the crucial moral entity 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. Pollan has cited three examples of collective entities which he says have interests, but all of these (I have argued) derive their morally significant interests from the interests of individuals. Why should the interest of a species not be determined similarly?
Pollan has 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 satisfying individual interests — might also have troublesome consequences. It might, for example, obligate us to perpetuate existing transgenic organisms or to prevent extinctions due to natural causes.
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to tell where Pollan’s argument for preservation of species might lead because he doesn’t do much in the way of building up the argument. He merely suggests that a species might take an interest in its survival or the health of its habitat, but he never settles on a more precise definition. He also never addresses the issue of how we might prioritize the individual and collective interests. If this argument of Pollan’s is difficult to refute, it’s not because it’s a strong argument. It’s because it’s not much of an argument at all.