I am horrified at what goes on in philosophy departments, personally


A couple of vegetarian philosophers with no knowledge of biology are alarmed…no, horrified at what's going on out there in the wilderness.

The animal welfare conversation has generally centered on human-caused animal suffering and human-caused animal deaths. But we’re not the only ones who hunt and kill. It is true (and terrible) that an estimated 20 billion chickens were born into captivity in 2013 alone, many of whom live in terrible conditions in factory farms. But there are estimated 60 billion land birds and over 100 billion land mammals living in the wild. Who is working to alleviate their suffering? As the philosopher Jeff McMahan writes: “Wherever there is animal life, predators are stalking, chasing, capturing, killing, and devouring their prey. Agonized suffering and violent death are ubiquitous and continuous.”

They have a solution to this problem, though. We should humanely execute all predators. It's the most ethical solution!

By killing predators, we can save the lives of the many prey animals like wildebeests, zebras, and buffalos in the local area that would otherwise be killed in order to keep the animals at the top of the food chain alive. And there’s no reason for considering the lives of predators like lions to be more important than the lives of their prey.

To be fair, they consider other alternatives to killing predators.

…even if we care about preventing predators from killing other animals, it is surely better to do this humanely than to kill them. For example, we could take the predators out of their natural environment and give them good lives that don’t involve hunting prey.

Yes. The ethical thing to do would be to put all lions in cages and give them a healthy, nutritious diet made of soy protein.

They also recognize that other contributors to animal suffering are parasites and disease, so they think we should be treating wild animals for these problems as well. Apparently, the only suffering that counts is that of mammals and birds, so knocking off a lot of invertebrates has no ethical consequences, just as killing or otherwise neutralizing animals that eat other animals is acceptable, because they're causing suffering. We need to turn the world into a giant children's petting zoo, I guess.

It's weird. It's as if they are completely unaware of the fact that predation maintains and increases biodiversity, or that there's more to wildlife than mammals and birds, or that life is a complex web of interactions -- that bears killing salmon is a critical source of phosphorus for trees. Why do they hate forests?

This is a real problem, that dumbass ignorant philosophers can propose idiotic ideas in the guise of ethics -- ideas that, if they were even attempted to be implemented, would cause immense destruction and suffering in the non-human world.

Now normally, I wouldn't suggest this, since I'm usually sympathetic to the importance of philosophy, but when they threaten my biological world, there is only one rational response, and it's inspired by the MacAskill's essay. We need to kill all the philosophers. Or, at least, humanely pen them up with their own kind, throwing them occasional lumps of tofu and bales of sprouts, behind soundproof glass walls, so we can occasionally bring our children to the exhibit to watch. "See, kids, this is what will happen to you if you don't do your biology homework."

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"We need to...humanely pen [philosophers] up with their own kind, throwing them occasional lumps of tofu and bales of sprouts, behind soundproof glass walls, so we can occasionally bring our children to the exhibit to watch. "
Huh... I thought liberal-arts colleges already qualified as zoos for humanities majors?

Nothing wants to get killed. But only among humans are suffering and death so closely related to each other.

By Max Millhiser (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

Let's be fair. This is not the view of all or even most philosophers. It is just the view of a couple of people. Even most vegetarians don't hold this view.

By Karen Dougall (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

It is not philosophy, just "vegetarian philosophy". Farmers kill every day millions of pest animals to bring them the vegetables they need.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

Read as a criticism of the moral outrage against the killer of Cecil the Lion from the animal rights advocates (and more broadly, as a reductio ad absurdum of the more radical views among them), it's actually a pretty good article. ;)

Fairly sure that Jordan @5 has it.

Yes PZ, all of us philosophers are stupid enough to ignore science, and especially the natural sciences. It's not that naturalized epistemology is very big in philosophy right now...

By Angelo DB (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

And before anyone misinterprets my post and states 'he didn't say that', he didn't, it's about the lack of nuance.

By Angelo DB (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

Remain calm, PZ. What you have ahold of there is not what "philosophers" believe. You just have a couple of dummies who happen to have philosophy degrees. Many, many, many philosopher would vehemently disagree with them for just the reasons you put forward. Every discipline has its share (biology included).

By Cranky Old Prof (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

Their ethical analysis is not easily countered. If you'd bothered reading the article to the end you'd note that they address the issue with prey overpopulation. They don't advocate killing all predators, at least not without study of the consequences. Killing a few Cecils won't lead to prey overpopulation.

By Jonathan colvin (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

This is a good example of the hasty generalization fallacy. With your permission, I will use it in my class.

Looks like Mr. Swift is back to life in the guise of a couple of philosophers. There's is clearly a Modest Proposal. Get a sense of humor, folks.

#zebra lives matter

By Lucretius (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

I've always thought this was the logical endpoint of a strict utilitarian calculus that makes no moral distinction between the suffering of humans and the suffering of animals: if all you care about are fungible units of pleasure and pain for conscious animals, eliminating predation seems as much a moral necessity as not eating meat, all practicalities aside.

Bu then, doctrinaire utilitarianism is bunk.

By Patrick Harris (not verified) on 10 Sep 2015 #permalink

Criticism of hunters makes sense only from a judgement on humans getting pleasure from killing, and not by considering animal suffering. If animal suffering was the main issue, then one would have to consider the mass elimination of pest animals for the purpose of feeding people. So, if our vegetarian philosophers are serious, which I believe they are, they should also consider the protection of pest animals.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

If science evolved from philosophy, why are there still philosophers?

@ has #16
This is proof that God created scientists.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

I am seriously amazed that none of y'all have heard of an argument ad absurdum.

By Beverley Anger (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

@has : Philosophy is a nebulous subject, and has mothered various disciplines which are studied separately in our current society. Natural sciences, along with other disparate social sciences, were once included under the umbrella of philosophy. As these subjects gradually started adopting other independent methods of progress, namely other than pure theory, they were granted separation. One good example to understand this is noting the differences and similitudes between political science and political philosophy. Why do philosophers still exist? Because perhaps there are more areas of study we can extract from philosophy.


If God created scientists, who created philosophers? In the absence of predators in the wild, too much of flora and fauna will engulf the earth and it will be human-unfriendly. In any case, 'humane' killing of other species for food is to be enforced. Avoiding over-indulgence and adopting moderation are good, in all areas

By Narasimhan (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

As a philosopher and a veterinarian (and a vegetarian and sort of animal rights activist), I'm as horrified as you are at these two. They are NOT representative of philosophers, though. I'm part of a movement to bring empirical science, especially biology, into western academic philosophy; there are huge implications for philosophy from neurophysiology, comparative ethology, the One Health initiative, and other topics.

Anyone with any knowledge of ecosystems would know that predator cats kill prey quickly, unlike malnutrition in overgrown populations, incompetent human hunters, and so on. Predation isn't pretty, but it's by far the best system available.

By Barbara Goodri… (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

These views are more of a personal opinion NOT anything to do with Philosophy. This is coming from a vegetarian philosopher himself.

By Harsheed Chavda (not verified) on 11 Sep 2015 #permalink

While I disagree with the notion put forth of killing predators. I do find the ethical question of our relationship to other animals fascinating. I've sometimes wondered if we might in the future indeed be able to alleviate some suffering in the wild. What if we sent out drones equipped with sensors to detect animals in pain and with drugs to safely anesthetize them. Obviously it's far-fetched, but I like the idea of a sort of "fourth wall" of compassion being breached. We do it for pets because we've decided to value them. If, on balance of course, it could work, it would be an interesting project.

Daniel Corcos@17:

@ has #16
This is proof that God created scientists.

Are you sure? I thought it was proof that God created Tenure. Or was that Satan?

I'm a philosopher. And I did my biology homework. And I'm as pissed off as you are.

By Robert Skipper (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

There is a theory saying that tenures evolved from post-doctoral positions by selection. But it must be wrong too because there are still post-doctoral positions.

By Daniel Corcos (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

"overpopulation" of predators? It won't last more than 3 months without "correcting" itself, and assuming a static ration in any ecosystem is complete ignorance of any natural system.

Also implicit is the uniquely human hubris of referring to them as predators and animals, as if we are not.

Salad requires killing a furry creature per day for every 2-5 acres under cultivation, from my observation of groovy organic farms. And, we're not even considering displacement by habitat destruction to grow calories for a species without any more population regulation than the proverbial lemmings.

By R Schumacher (not verified) on 14 Sep 2015 #permalink

Clearly an argumentum ad absurdum, or snark, or something other than serious philosophy.

Why we need philosophers:

Because science does not claim to provide answers to questions of morality, ethics, and values. Because religion, which does so claim, is a hotly contested area that is often dismissed by secularists due to its nearly-but-not-quite-universal dependence on supernatural agencies (deities). Because politics is primarily concerned with the issues of power and policy.

Philosophy seeks to address morality, ethics, and values, in a manner that is accessible across the spectrum of secular and religious outlooks. As with anything else, some of it is brilliant and wise, some of it is utter crap, and most is somewhere in between. Occasionally philosophers write stuff they intend as inside humor but backfires when people outside the field read it. The current instance strikes me as the latter.

Now you know how non-scientists feel when reading commentaries written by working scientists.


As for predators & prey in wild nature: humans should seek to avoid tampering with natural ecosystems unless they have sufficient knowledge to accurately predict the outcomes of their actions and minimize harm. The fact that we have been doing it recklessly throughout history has finally caught up with us in no uncertain terms (climate change), underlining the point.

Re. lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), we can't expect species that lack the capacity for abstract reasoning to act according to human moral codes.

As for reducing human cruelty to other species, the prospect of "vat meat" on the horizon will enable us to largely cease the moral compromise of killing our meat.

But the most important moral issue of our era is climate change, and the overpopulation and overconsumption that are its root causes. Those are the issues that deserve our most urgent attention in these times.

All the people missing the argument ad absurdum is a good argument for more philosophy education, not less.

By Colorblind Chris (not verified) on 15 Sep 2015 #permalink

How can any professor of philosophy not know of evolution and its demands? It was Malthus before Darwin who recognized the waste and struggle of overpopulation. Is not understanding the goal, not obfuscation based upon, one assumes, fatal ignorance of common cultural issues. Break out the E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and, if possible, John Maynard Smith. Philosophy without science here is an absurdity.

By Bill Graham (not verified) on 16 Sep 2015 #permalink

Colorblind Chris@30:

All the people missing the argument ad absurdum is a good argument for more philosophy education, not less.

Alas, the fact that it's an absurd argument does not automatically make it an argument ad absurdum. Animal rights fundies really do say this stuff in absolute seriousness.

At best, we've been immaculately Poe'd by bored academic trolls with way too much time on their hands. At worst, the authors are paleo vegan koolaid drinkers and honestly believe this rot themselves. Without absolute evidence, we simply apply Hanlon's razor. Welcome to ScienceBlogs, you must be new here.

To echo Bill Graham@31, it's philosophy without science that's the absurdity. Leave the self-congratulatory circle-jerking for the theologists; there's useful work to be done.

That is such a stunningly idiotic premise that I find it hard to believe that it isn't satire. However, being posted here, I trust that it is - sadly - serious.

By R. Andrew (not verified) on 17 Sep 2015 #permalink

Of course. "Scientists" don't get how fallacies work, like generalizing vegetarian *ideologies* (not philosophies) to philosophy in general. Just because someone has a thought and publicizes it doesn't make it philosophy. Maybe take Logic 101 and learn to differentiate philosophy from ignorant ideologies, then you act like these idiots are relevant. This isn't philosophy. It's ideology. Learn to differentiate. Again, stick to your biology, philosophy is too complicated for you. Educate yourself because you're just as ignorant as the ones you condemn.

By projectrevo (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink

projectrevo - The title says he's horrified at what goes on in philosophy departments. Both of the authors of the post he's complaining about are in philosophy departments.

Why don't people think this is satire? It may not be the best satire I've seen, but it sure reads like someone mimicking Swift.

By the time this gets to Fox News and the WSJ , the headline may read:


By Russell Seitz (not verified) on 18 Sep 2015 #permalink

With modesty, I suggest:

Combine predators and vegans in a wild, yet securely fenced setting. Enforce gun control, prohibit knives, but allow the vegans to create stone tools, or bronze if they can find a suitable mine. Add cameras, guard the perimeter fence, showtime!

Debate: To fund the park with pay-per-view, movie rights or by game & gear licensing?

yasıyonmu la sen

Combine predators and vegans in a wild, yet securely fenced setting. Enforce gun control, prohibit knives, but allow the vegans to create stone tools, or bronze if they can find a suitable mine. Add cameras, guard the perimeter fence,

Debate: To fund the park with pay-per-view, movie rights or by game & gear licensing? Dekorasyon

By Dekorasyon (not verified) on 20 Sep 2015 #permalink

Is it satire?
These guys (mrs and mr. MacAskill) wrote similar stuff before:

"So if you're eating a fish that would otherwise have gone on to eat 10 more fish, maybe it's a net benefit for you to eat that fish. You're saving more fish in doing so. Obviously there are fish that would've eaten that but would've died of starvation, but I think it's plausible that some cases where you can eat carnivorous animals and it's a net benefit for animal welfare."


By hampel M.A. (not verified) on 20 Sep 2015 #permalink


I think you missed the boat here, and maybe your reflexive prejudices against vegetarians and philosophers (I'm neither) are getting the better of you. I think this was a bit of an exercise in critical thinking *directed at* animal rights activists and vegan zealots, not a logical treatise in support. These bits should tip you off:

" So the options that seem to be on the table for the animal activist are: reduce the number of predators to improve the lives of prey, or increase the number of predators to put prey out of their misery. "

"And we can’t blame animals for behaving in accordance with their nature. (Of course, hunting behavior in humans is also natural, but people have not offered this as a defense of Cecil’s killer.) But a behavior may be natural—and may even be required for survival—without thereby being good. If a species emerged that had to viciously torture humans in order to survive, we would not conclude that their torture of humans is morally OK"

"Given the facts, therefore, it seems hard to see why animal welfare advocates would be in such uproar over the killing of Cecil. Walter Palmer killed one animal, but in doing so he saved dozens of others.”

By Ian Douglas Rushlau (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink

I want somethings FLESH!!!!!

Animals have rights because we consider ourselves moral. We have the fundamental obligation to not harm them, including not killing them for meat as meat is not necessary to sustain human life or health. Rights are the corollary to the obligations of moral beings to all other sentient beings, regardless of our perceptions of them. However, rights do not exist between amoral beings, such as predator and prey because amoral beings do not consider themselves moral and by definition are incapable of determining morality, although many have evolved a sense of right and wrong.

We can discuss this and they can't. We can know better and we can't determine whether they can as they can't communicate with us.

By Jeff Biss (not verified) on 22 Sep 2015 #permalink