- From the EditorsUnquestioned Assumptions
In a recent UK Parliamentary Committee on the "General licences for controlling wild birds," Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stated that "We believe, and all the evidence showed, that, in the absence of general licences, land managers were not able to exercise effective pest control" (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2019; our emphases). The claim belies twin unquestioned assumptions, namely that lethal control of animals is always possible or successful, and that humans have the moral right to control other sentient creatures. The language of "control," "management," and "pest" are profoundly question begging.
Let us first take the assumption that humans can regulate the populations of other species. It is commonly assumed that killing an animal will result in the population being reduced by one. But as our esteemed colleague and former co-editor Priscilla Cohn explains, "Such an assumption is mistaken, however, and reveals a lack of knowledge concerning population dynamics" (Cohn, 2013, p. 72). The population is reduced, but only for a moment because, taking the example of deer, "The following spring, the herd will contain the same number as or even more deer than before the kill because deer numbers, like those of every other animal, are primarily controlled by their food supply" (Cohn, 2013, p. 72). Moreover, killing a large number of animals may create a vacuum, which would encourage other animals to occupy the less populated area. In short, "hunting or 'culling' is not effective" (Cohn, 2013, p. 73). Nature is a self-regulating system. Animals breed in relation to the food and environment available.
Even if killing was an effective form of controlling the populations of other species, that does not address the issue of whether humans should control other animals. For example, it seems that in the case of "wild birds" there is very little oversight so that any bird deemed a nuisance or "pest" may be killed. Consider this astonishing claim: "Those who make use of general licences, almost by definition, are people who are well [End Page v] acquainted with the importance of exercising force in a responsible fashion in order to deal with pests and predators" (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2019). It is left to individual license holders to decide what is, and what is not, a lawful use of their licenses. And this most telling line of all from the Secretary of State: "Someone who is a farmer will know there are certain circumstances in which it would be legitimate to shoot and certain circumstances in which it would not be" (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2019). "Pest management" under this arrangement simply entails the discretion of someone to shoot or not shoot an animal they subjectively deem a nuisance.
What the Select Committee oral evidence lacks is an ethical appreciation that there are other animals on this planet that also need space to live, food to eat, and have interests of their own. By labeling other animals "pests" in need of "control," it assumes that our wants, needs, and convenience are always more important than their lives. It also assumes that we should manage other species, that human intervention into the environment is always a positive thing. There are a great many examples that indicate that this is not the case from the introduction of rabbits to Australia and their subsequent attempts to control their population (Ricklefs, 1979, pp. 632–633), to the hunting of beavers to extinction in the UK (Scottish Beaver Trial, n.d.).
All this of course is not to suppose that there are not real conflicts between humans and animals, especially in the areas of food and raising crops. But such conflicts need to be assessed and addressed using critical moral judgment. What cannot be right is the use of unquestioned assumptions as a bludgeon to prevent necessary critical evaluation or indeed any ethical reflection at all. Most of all, we need a searching rational discussion of the unquestioned assumptions that still, despite forty years of ethical work, prevail without challenge. Cohn led the way (see Cohn and Linzey, 2009; Cohn...