You see a runaway train rush past you towards a fork in the track, and you’re standing right next to a lever that can change its direction. But if you send the train off to the right it’ll hit five innocent squirrels playing on the tracks. And if you send it off to the left there are… another five squirrels. Which direction should you choose? Which five squirrels should you save?
Yes, it’s another ridiculous version of the trolley problem, the internet’s favourite thought experiment. But there is a serious point here.
You might struggle to decide which direction you’d send the train. Or you might think it doesn’t even matter – five squirrels will die either way. But what if you can see that the squirrels on the left track are grey squirrels invasive and all too common in the UK, and the squirrels on the right are native red squirrels, endangered in the UK. Does that make a difference to your decision?
Conservationists deal with this kind of dilemma every day. Their aim is to conserve habitats and species, and sometimes that means getting rid of non-native species that threaten to overturn the balance.
In the UK, the RSPB culls crows to protect the endangered Eurasian curlew. In the Galapagos Islands, sharpshooters in helicopters killed 250,000 non-native goats to stop the decline of giant tortoises. They wouldn’t hesitate let the runaway train squish a few grey squirrels if it meant saving endangered animals.
But this practice is becoming more and more controversial. Some people think it’s just wrong to kill animals at all, no matter whether they’re common or endangered, native or non-native. This raises ethical questions that run through the heart of the conservation movement. Are some animals’ lives more valuable than others? Should we kill some animals to save others?
Let’s take a look.
Animal rights vs. conservation
If you want to look after nature and protect wildlife, what’s the best way to do it?
One way is to try and inspire more respect for animals. You could show people that animals aren’t so different from humans – they can have emotion, feel pain, suffer. You could campaign for animals to be given certain rights, to be treated with care, to be protected from unnecessary harm. You could raise awareness of humans’ terrible treatment of animals to show why we need to change.
Another way is to try and look after nature so humans’ destructive influence doesn’t upset the balance of nature. You could raise awareness of devastating biodiversity loss that we’re causing. You could intervene and manage habitats to give species the chance to thrive. You could campaign against destructive activity like logging and pesticide use that are driving species to extinction.
These two different approaches share many of the same concerns about humans dominating nature. And they target a lot of the same enemies: corporations polluting the air and sea, governments tearing down ancient woodlands to build roads, industrial agriculture crowding the land with livestock and pesticides.
So it might come as a surprise to find these two ways of looking after animals built on two completely incompatible ethical frameworks. They’re actively opposed to each other.
Two ethical frameworks
The first approach sees individual animals as the bearers of value. It takes the rights, feelings and experiences of animals as a guide to how we should act. On this view, it’s always wrong to kill animals – because it’s always wrong to violate these rights.
The second approach focuses not on individuals but on groups – populations, species or ecosystems. The goal here is to make sure these groups continue to exist, not the individual animals within them. The lives of individual animals don’t have as much value as the ‘life’ of the group. On this approach, it’s justified to kill some individual animals to make sure that the collective, the species, survives.
Environmental organisations emphasise this inconsistency. Take this example from US organisation The Wildlife Society:
The animal rights focused emphasis on individual animals fails to recognize the inter-relatedness of wildlife communities within functioning ecosystems and holds that protecting individual animals is more important than conserving populations, species, or ecosystems. The philosophy of animal rights is incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.
This is strange, because this conflict isn’t something that many of us really think about. Lots of people are members of organisations that take opposing sides on this question – plenty of people support both PETA and WWF.
So which is the right answer to this ethical question? Either we kill animals, or we let species die out. What should we do?