Thursday, January 7, 2010

Animals' desires

So there has been a small drama concerning a sea lion in my part of the world.  The short of it, it has a fishing line wrapped around its neck, cutting into its flesh and it doesn't want to be caught.  It was first spotted in San Francisco, then 70 miles south.  Three attempts to capture it have failed, but nobody is talking about giving up on it.

So, clearly, the sea lion doesn't want to be helped by humans. (It may want help, but at the very least not from humans.)  We want to help it.  Does it matter that it doesn't want to be helped by us?  My instincts say no it doesn't really matter if it wants to be helped or not, it would maximize utility for us to help it.

But then again, something nags at me that there is something wrong happening here.  I'm not just a plain maximize pleasure utilitarian, but rather a preference utilitarian like Peter Singer.  I want to satisfy things' preferences.  So if I want to say the right thing is happening by helping the sea lion, I have to say either that it really does prefer for us to help it, (which I think is clearly not true) or that it would prefer to live more than the cost of its aversion for our help.

But I'm not sure that the sea lion has a preference to live in the future anymore than a fly.  It simply doesn't have the intellectual capacities for it.  So to argue the second option, would require me to say that the sea lion can envision its future existence in some way.

Now normally, when I talk about animal suffering, I can easily skirt this problem, by simply saying that they prefer not to be suffering.  We can raise animals without making them suffer.  But this isn't a domesticated animal. Under factory farming conditions, we are inflicting suffering on animals.  The animal can clearly have a preference for not experiencing the pain we are inflicting on it, and it could have a preference for the domesticated life.  So I could be satisfying all of its preferences by raising it humanely.

In the case of the sea lion, I can't argue that it wants a domestic life.  I can't argue that it want our assistance.  I could argue that it wants to avoid suffering and currently it is suffering.  But just because it is suffering, is that enough justification for me to intervene against its wishes?

There is a third possibility, but I find it a little distasteful.  We could simply wait.  Eventually, the sea lion will weaken and then perhaps it won't run.  Then we could assist since its preference is more ambiguous, sort of like the presumed consent that doctors utilize when assisting unconscious people.  But this strikes me as allowing the animal to suffer simply "in service to our ideologies," much like what Jean has been discussing on her blog in regards to the abolitionist stance on animal farming.

Lets change the scenario slightly.  We find  a sea lion with shark wounds.  We could help it, but it doesn't want our help.  Should we chase it around the state until we can catch it?  I think it is arguable that we ought to just leave it alone and "let nature take its course."  There is a significant difference though: its injuries are due to human actions, or more specifically human negligence.  We bare responsibility for the sea lion's injuries.  We're the shark.  So even if it doesn't want the help, we still need to help it.  But if it were the victim of a shark attack, then perhaps we should just leave it be?  I don't like that conclusion.

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