Is the Moral Landscape a Wilderness?

Around 12 years ago, I converted from vegetarianism to “ethical omnivorism”.

I made this change as I came to the conclusion that including some grass fed beef and lamb in one’s diet has a net positive effect on the environment, food sustainability, biodiversity, and potentially even an increase in net animal well-being (in the UK).

I think it’s very important to keep challenging your beliefs however, and so try to expose myself to as many counter arguments as possible. I was 100% convinced for many years while I was vegetarian that it was the best option for my health, animals and the planet. I now believe I was wrong, but must also be careful to entertain the possibility that I am wrong again now!

I recently listened to a few podcasts which gave me some pause for thought:

Intelligence Squared – The Battle for the Countryside: Britain Should Rewild its Uplands

Here George Monbiot argues that the British uplands, now predominantly used for grazing sheep and cattle, should be reforested, and repopulated with wild native species.

Incidentally, Monbiot was also a vegan who switched to ethical omnivorism, only to recently switch back again. Many have criticised him for “flip flopping” – I however take my hat off to him for his willingness to change his mind and admit it publicly. If more people would do this, the world would be a much better place. The question is, can his argument convince me?

The Infinite Monkey Cage – Invasion

This episode addresses the issue of “invasive species”, which you will learn are different to “non-native species”, and also suggestions for what, if anything, we can and should do about them.

The Joe Rogan Experience with Donnie Vincent

Donnie Vincent is a “biologist, explorer, conservationist, sportsman (aka hunter), and filmmaker”. In this conversation with Joe Rogan they discuss misconceptions and various debates related to the topic of hunting.

The Uplands of the UK are Unnatural

In my article about why I started to eat pastured meat, I asked the question – “What would we do with the hilly grasslands of the UK, if we stopped farming livestock on them?”

The answer, according to Monbiot (and many others) is to “re-wild” this land.

They point out (correctly) that the grassy slopes of Northern Britain are a man made landscape, and that the sheep and cattle that graze them are non native (or should that be invasive?) species.

They posit that sheep farming isn’t even profitable, and that it is only feasible thanks to government subsidies.

They argue that this land should be reforested, and repopulated with native species such as deer and wild boar, and perhaps even wolves and bears.

Could they have a point?

Grass Fed Aberdeen Angus Cattle
Unwelcome immigrants?

Send ’em back to the Middle East where they belong!

Sheep were probably first domesticated from the Wild Mouflon in Mesopotamia (the area we now refer to as “The Middle East”) around 10-12,000 years ago.

They have been farmed in the UK since at least Roman times, and by around 1000AD Britain had one of the highest sheep populations in the world.

Damn immigrants coming over here and eating our saplings, who do they think they are…

Sheepish looking invaders, comin’ ‘ere, stealin’ our grass!

When you can’t see the woods for the (lack of) trees

It was also (probably) around the time of the Romans, that we got to chopping all the trees down. You can’t just blame the sheep or the Romans though. It’s estimated that all the oak trees in Britain were cut down to build Salisbury Cathedral, another win for organised religion! 

By 1086, when the Doomsday book was completed, it was recorded that England only had 15% forest cover.

Over the following millenia, with wood running out, we started importing it from the newly discovered Americas. Despite this however, we still managed to reduce cover further to a tiny 5% cover by 1900. Doh!

A century later, and we’ve managed to get our coverage back up to 15%, back to where we were in 1086. This is still pretty low though. The majority of European countries have between 30-40%. Finland and Sweden have around 70%! Should we be looking to keep up with the Johanssons?

Forest Cover by European Country
Forest Cover by European Country

Why is Human Activity Considered Unnatural?

The landscape, flora and fauna of the British Isles is the way it is due to human activity.

Had we never arrived to the islands, they would by covered in forests, free from sheep and cattle, but teeming with deer, boar, beavers, bears and wolves, not to mention much larger and more varied populations of small mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates.

That these changes are due primarily to human activity is undeniable.

What is up for debate is the value judgements that we ascribe to these changes, and how we should continue to shape the landscape and wildlife of our homeland going forwards?

Personally, I take issue with the concepts of natural and unnatural, and more so with their respective conflation with good and bad.

Yes, we are different from the other animals on this planet in our ability to shape the environment to our needs (other animals do do this, just nowhere near to the extent that we can), but why does this make us or our actions “unnatural”? Surely we are products of nature/evolution ourselves? Beavers (the reintroduction of which is hotly debated) also cut down trees to shape their environment, are they unnatural?

Evidence indicates that there have been 5 mass extinctions on Earth throughout its history, during which between 75-96% of all species were wiped out. Were these good extinctions because they were natural, as opposed to the bad extinctions caused by unnatural human activity?

The Philosofosaurus was magnanimous about its fate

Let me clarify straight away, that my aim is not to justify, or encourage, human caused species extinction! For reasons to which I’ll get to later, I think biodiversity is a good thing that we should support, not put in peril.

Extinction is an extreme example of course, perhaps a more applicable comparison is the movement and distribution of plant and animal species across the planet.

Quite without any human assistance, plants and animals managed to colonize every nook and cranny of the world. The Americas, Australasia and Antarctica were already home to numerous species long before humans arrived.

Yes, our arrival resulted in the extinction of many of these species and the introduction of many other new “invasive” or “non-native” species, but why label this as unnatural, when so many more species had arrived and gone extinct in these areas quite without the aid of human assistance?

In the Infinite Monkey Cage podcast, the expert on invasive/non-native plant species defines them as species that “didn’t arrive under their own volition” (I’m paraphrasing slightly, but the word volition was his).

A very strange definition, particularly for plants – not generally known for their agency

A seed that is blown to an area by the wind, or a coconut washed up on the shore wanted to be there? It belongs there? But a seed or coconut transported and deliberately planted by a human doesn’t?

Animals I suppose can be more accurately described as having volition. A bird flying south for the winter for example. Yes, it may be doing so out of instinct rather than under its own free will, but it didn’t arrive at random.

Does a bird have more or less right to nest in an area depending whether it was blown there in a storm, flew there deliberately, or was released by a human?

What am I doing here?

What about a rat – rats had arrived to new lands by chance on floating driftwood without any human assistance, but are now one of the most widespread mammals across the planet thanks to hitching rides on ships. Humans didn’t purposefully bring them on the ships, they boarded “of their own volition” (though it’s unlikely they were aware of their final destination).

Is the worldwide distribution of brown rats unnatural? Are humans to be held culpable for the displacement of native species that they have outcompeted? Was the black death our divine punishment for messing with the “natural order”?

We are now aware of the huge disruption to long established ecosystems, and potential unforeseen consequences that the introduction of a non-native species can cause, and take great efforts to avoid doing so. But could it also be argued that by protecting native species (and ourselves), we are potentially depriving other species opportunities from thriving and multiplying in new environments? Why not allow open borders for all species and let the law of survival of the fittest run its course?

If we do decide that preventing human facilitated movement of species is the best strategy, what about responsibility for existing invasive species? Should we be responsible for trying to reverse these invasions? If yes, overwhat time period? Within a week of its arrival? A month, a year, a decade, a century, millenia?

Are sheep and rats still invasive species, or can they now be considered native? Should we try to expel them from their “new” homes? Could we even if we wanted to?

Ought we Guillotine the Sheep?

The “is–ought problem”, as proposed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–76), states that many people make claims about what ought to be, based on statements about what is or what was.

He argued however, that these jumps between descriptive statements (regarding the way things are or were) and prescriptive or normative statements (about how things “ought to be”) were often, if not always, hard, if not impossible to justify.

This is-ought problem became known as Hulme’s Law or Hulme’s Guillotine.

Philosopher and Hat Enthusiast

Applying Hulme’s Law to this question, we can safely say that it is true that:

1) Britain used to be covered in forest, and populated with wild boar, bears and wolves, while being free from rats and sheep.

2) Britain is now largely deforested, free from wild boars, bears and wolves, with a high population of sheep and rats.

3) This change in landscape and fauna is predominantly due to human activity.

Hulme however (I would imagine), would take issue with any claims with regards to how the landscape ought to be, which species ought to populate Britain, or whether we ought to return Britain’s natural spaces to how they used to be.

The Moral Landscape

I find the topic of Moral Philosophy fascinating. How do we make decisions about what we ought to do, or how things ought to be?

Traditionally, religion has been the primary source of moral guidance for much of humanity – how we should act, and how things should be was dictated by God(s).

As we have advanced in our knowledge and understanding of the world, however, we came to realise that actually these rules were written by men, and need not be set in stone.

A good job too, as much of what is written in the Bible for example, we would now find morally unthinkable – infanticide, genocide, homophobia, sexism, slavery.

There are of course those that argue that morality is impossible without a religious underpinning – that without a supernatural standard of right and wrong that exists outside of the natural world, it is impossible to overcome the is-ought problem.

Personally, I don’t find this argument convincing however.

Thankfully I’m in good company…

Sam Harris is a vocal advocate of not only secular morality, but also that there is such a thing as objective morality. That is to say that we can come to some conclusions about what we ought to do, and how we ought to act via a rational analysis of the facts.

In his book The Moral Landscape he argues that science can be used to determine human values, using the objective measures of wellbeing, or “flourishing” of conscious entities as a guide.

I’ll do my best here to summarise Harris’s argument, but please take the time to read or watch some of his work directly as I probably won’t do it the justice it deserves!

Harris puts forward the extreme hypothetical scenario of two possible worlds –

  • World A where all conscious beings thrive, experiencing the perfect blend of pleasure, fulfilment, health, excitement, etc, free from pain, suffering, illness and depression.
  • World B, at the opposite extreme, is a living hell – where all conscious beings live in an eternal misery of pain, suffering and torment.

He argues that one can draw the rational conclusion that World A is what we ought to aim for, and World B is what we should strive to avoid at all costs.

Actions that result in more wellbeing and flourishing can be deemed morally right, those that result in more pain or suffering, or simply less wellbeing and flourishing, morally wrong.

A Morally Dubious Landscape

In essence, to me at least, this sounds very much like a version of consequentialism / utilitarianism, though these are terms with which Harris prefers not to identify with.

The key difference stemming from Harris’s acknowledgement that while science can guide us in the right direction when it comes to making moral decisions, it cannot give us definitive, categorical answers.

That is to say that there is not necessarily one single correct answer to every predicament, but there are certainly objectively better and worse answers.

The landscape metaphor likens the better ways to act as the peaks of the hills, the worse ways to the valleys. Though it might not be possible to say exactly which peak to aim for, one can be assured that it’s better to aim for any reachable peak rather than stay wallowing in the valleys.

Can we apply Harris’s model to the question of whether we should attempt to rewild Britain’s uplands?

Measuring Wellbeing

On a theoretical level, I am in total agreement with the idea that we should aim towards a greater level of wellbeing / flourishing within the world, for all conscious beings*.

*I am taking as an axiom here that other non-human animals are conscious, though of course there are still some who would debate this. How their conscious experience compares to that of humans, we may never know, but I am highly incredulous of the argument that they can’t experience some form of suffering or flourishing.

Despite its subjective, and highly variable nature, I also think that we can make some objective assessment of an individual conscious being’s wellbeing.

For example, looking at livestock – cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens – I can see no moral justification for intensive farming practices. Animals raised indoors, on concrete floors, in small pens, with no opportunity to express their evolved instincts are certainly not flourishing.

On the contrary, all available evidence would indicate that they are in fact suffering. Claims that these animals are not intelligent enough to require anything more than sufficient food and shelter simply do not hold water.

CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) therefore, I think we can definitely categorise as deep down in a moral valley, about as far from a peak as it’s possible to descend.

I sincerely hope that we can progress to a world where factory farming is a thing of the past that we look back upon with horror, just as we do at slavery and concentration camps.

Not all farms are created equal, however. As unconvincing as it is to claim that animals in a CAFO aren’t suffering, I think it’s equally unconvincing to claim that animals on a well-managed free range farm aren’t flourishing.

Farms where animals have ample space to roam, forage for their food, breed naturally, socialise, suckle their young – There is nothing more that these animals require to flourish. While I agree that a sheep can suffer or flourish, I don’t think that we have to worry about their need for self actualisation…

The counter argument of course is that the flourishing is all well and good until the animals are prematurely slaughtered to satiate human desire for meat – it is the act of killing that is morally reprehensible.

Utilitarian Chicken Arithmetic

When considering the well-being of conscious beings that are already in existence, this kind of consequentialist utilitarian approach is a no brainer to me.

If you rescue a battery hen from a factory farm and bring it to your allotment, where it can run around with other chickens and peck for bugs and worms, I think there’s a good argument that there’s been an increase in its well-being. You have increased “Individual Chicken Utility” or ICU.

If you had have intervened earlier, and rescued the fertilised egg so that the chicken hatched on the allotment, never experiencing the trauma of the battery cage, I think we could count this as an even greater gain in ICU.

But what if you intervened even earlier, before the egg was even fertilised? The chicken never exists. It never suffers in the factory farm, but it never gets to scratch around in the dirt for beetles with her hen pals either. Does this result in more or less well-being?

It’s when we start talking about overall utility, or potential utility, that the utilitarian concept starts to get a bit tricky (and I’d imagine probably one of the main reasons why Harris chooses not to identify as one), and also where we start to run into competing factions such as average or total utilitarianism.

Let’s try and do some hypothetical chicken utility calculations.

Say we have 1000 chickens in a broiler farm, and 100 chickens on an expansive free range farm that is far from full capacity.

If we move 100 chickens from the broiler farm to the free range farm it’s not too hard to argue that we’ve increased overall chicken utility (OCU – measured in henons?) The broiler will be less crowded with less disease and excrement, the farm’s fields are still a long way from their optimal carrying capacity.

Presumably, following this logic, we can continue to increase OCU by moving chickens from broiler to pasture, at least up until the point when peak utility is reached on the free range farm.

Too Many Henons?

Let’s say at this point we have 300 truly hedonic hens on Happy Farm, but sadly there are still 800 forlorn fowl back over at the CAFO. What do we do next? Do we continue to move chickens? OCU for the lucky cluckers over at Happy Farm will begin to decrease again slightly, but it will alleviate some of the stress and discomfort at the factory farm. Do we keep going until all the chickens have the same utility? Is one chicken with 90 henons of happiness and another with only 10 better or worse than two chickens with 50 each?

As if OCU wasn’t already complicated enough, it turns out that the McNugget factory aren’t too happy about you liberating their domesticated jungle fowl, so moving them to Happy Farm isn’t actually an option. So what are we to do?

If we breed more of our own chickens in order to increase the total number of maximally flourishing chickens to 300, have we not increased OCU, both total and average? What if we keep adding more chickens to the maximum number where all are still flourishing? Yet more up until the point where everything is not perfect, but generally pretty good… Is not every extra chicken that has an OK life an increase in OCU?

Or we could go in the other direction and perform some kind of mass mercy killing that results in the quick and painless end to all the suffering chickens. Surely less chicken suffering equals higher overall OCU?

If killing is too extreme, how about somehow sterilising the less fortunate chickens, thus preventing the future suffering of the next generation? If we only allow happy chickens to breed, we might not bring about immediate changes in OCU, but in theory it should increase in the future, is this morally justifiable?

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Speaking of killing, now seems an appropriate moment to address the issue of the murder of chickens. Happy Farm is not a petting zoo after all – as idyllic as it may be, the idea is to kill the chickens and eat them at some point.

There are many out there who argue that the willful killing of any conscious entity is simply wrong.

There are various forms of this argument, its most extreme deontological form that it is always wrong to kill any sentient creature for any reason.

There are of course less extreme views (both deontological and consequentialist) that range from it’s wrong to kill for our own benefit, or wrong to kill for our own pleasure, through to there’s absolutely no problem with killing non-human animals whatsoever.

Perhaps for example, it might be morally acceptable to kill a chicken for food if you were stranded on a desert island with no other options, but if you’ve got access to bean burgers you should live and let live?

There is no food without death

Death and Taxes

I personally, am not swayed by the deontological arguments. I am a consequentialist, and though it may be rather blurry in many places, think that a utilitarian approach is one of the better road maps that we have.

My reasoning goes as follows –

The one certainty of life, whether you’re a chicken, a human, or any other living being, is death.

One might be able to debate whether we ought to die, whether we ought to pursue immortality, and so on, but as of yet, death is still not optional. We might be able to delay it, expedite it, ameliorate the associated pain and suffering, but we cannot avoid it (yet).

If the chicken is going to die anyway, why oughtn’t it be at the hand of a human?

Why is it preferable, better, or more natural that the chicken dies from old age, disease, starvation, exposure to the elements, or predation from a non-human animal such as a fox or badger?

From a consequentialist utilitarian perspective, I’d say there’s a compelling argument that in fact death by human is actually the best way to go, both in terms of the actual death itself, and the quality of the life that precedes it.

Say what?! Many die hard utilitarians reading this may have just choked on their fakon butties in horror at that claim.

A great number of vegans and vegetarians are utilitarians, a great number of utilitarians are vegetarians or vegans. Indeed, one of the most famous utilitarians Peter Singer wrote the book Animal Liberation which no doubt convinced thousands of people that meat was indeed morally inexcusable murder.

The utilitarian argument for veganism, as far as I understand it (please correct me if I am wrong / mischaracterise it in anyway, that is not my intention), is that if you kill an otherwise healthy and happy chicken, who was scratching around minding their own business, you have clearly reduced OCU.

Now, one can certainly contest this argument on various fronts – i.e. questioning the very concept of total or average utility, or whether perhaps the reduction in OCU is compensated by the increase in human utility brought about by a delicious roast chicken, but you probably won’t get anywhere. There’s not enough shared ground to have a reasonable discussion.

I however, would argue against the case for veganism by calling into question that killing chickens for food actually results in reduced OCU?

At first glance, it seems obvious that killing a healthy happy chicken results in less overall chicken utility. There was a happy chicken, now there’s a dead chicken. Had a human not intervened with an axe, it would have gone on to live a longer happy life. One less happy chicken equals less OCU. Simple.

But wait. First one has to consider why was that chicken healthy and happy in the first place? Why was it even a chicken?

The chicken only existed because humans had farmed it for food. So while it’s potentially true that not killing the chicken, or killing it weeks/months/years later could result in more OCU, one could also argue that one hatched happy chick equals more OCU, irrespective of how long or short that life is?

Bit of a mind boggler that one, so let’s take it for granted the chicken exists? Is it really fair to say it’s life was cut short by human intervention? By providing the chicken with food, shelter, medical care and fencing, humans have protected the chicken from numerous traditional chicken sticky ends.

A well cared for laying hen can live for over 10 years. Free range hens raised for meat are typically slaughtered at 3 months. That sounds like a lot of lost happy chicken years.

But again, it’s not that simple.

Left to their own devices, chickens will breed. A hen can typically raise two broods a year of around a dozen chicks. That’s about 24 new chickens per year.

Around 50% of these chicks will be female, and can have their first brood within 6 months.

If you believe that without human intervention, it’s natural for all chickens to live a happy healthy 10 years, then within 1 year, 1 happy hen will become 150. Within a couple of years a single hen would be great great grandhen to literally thousands of grandchicks.

One might argue that perhaps the reproductive rate of chickens is higher than it otherwise would be due to selective breeding by humans (I actually used figures based on heritage breeds which are lower than modern ones).

This could be true. Regardless however, even if the figures were much much lower, and a hen only produced two new fertile hens a year, the population would still increase at an exponential rate, albeit a slower one.

The point is that chickens do not employ birth control. Left to their own devices they will just keep multiplying and multiplying. Chickens, like many other animals low on the food chain, evolved this way to compensate for the fact that being a chicken (or at least being a wild jungle fowl, the chickens wild ancestor) was a dangerous affair.

Eggs get eaten by snakes and rats, chicks by small mammals, reptiles and other birds, and chickens young and old by felines, canines and a whole host of other predatory beasts.

An Uncertain Future…

“Lucky” chickens that somehow end up in an environment free from predators end up experiencing a population explosion, followed by mass starvation due to overgrazing.

Either way, it’s impossible that under natural conditions, that the majority of chickens, or even a significant minority, experience a long and happy life.

Nature, evolution, and DNA may well be considered consequentialists, but they are certainly not utilitarians. The concept of morals, or the concern for the wellbeing of others (individuals or species), are uniquely human concerns. Nature itself is vicious, cruel and uncaring.

A farmed chicken’s days may be numbered, but at least life is good and death is swift.

Interspecies Utility?

Now, perhaps when it comes to just thinking about chickens and OCU, things aren’t actually that complicated. Let’s get rid of the CAFOs and ensure that any chickens that are raised for meat or eggs are done so in a way that allows them to thrive maximally.

But wait, we’ve got to think about more than just chickens. Happy Farm’s pastures could also be used to farm sheep or pigs, be rewilded into forest for boars and owls, or perhaps even developed into affordable housing for human animals.

How do we even begin to attempt some kind of interspecies utility calculation?

Chickens are pretty stupid animals. They can most certainly suffer or thrive, but whether they can flourish is another question. Pigs on the other hand are intelligent buggers (Just read Animal Farm or Babe), I’m pretty convinced that there’s a very broad spectrum of experience for them.

Does this mean we should kick all the chickens off Happy Farm and stock it with pigs instead?

Or is it better to farm chickens as their lower intelligence makes ensuring they thrive easier?

Or do we forget farming altogether and get to rewilding?

Can science discern an objective answer for us?

Lost in the Valleys

We ought to aim for a world where all conscious beings are flourishing and experiencing maximum wellbeing. I think it’s pretty hard to argue with that. One can argue against it semantically of course, but if you actually think we ought to aim for something else (or nothing at all), your moral compass may need some recalibrating.

Which species of conscious beings ought to be flourishing, how many of them, for how long, and how we ought to achieve this lofty ideal, however, are a bit trickier to discern.

Again, Harris is well aware of this, hence the many possible peaks in the moral landscape.

As someone who very much enjoys trekking in the mountains though, I’m also very aware that sometimes you may accidentally end up descending a steep valley while following a path you thought led to a summit!

Stalin and Hitler are rightly remembered as two of the greatest monsters of human history. What shouldn’t be forgotten, however, is that both were in theory aiming to create a world of human flourishing.

In their minds, and the minds of their followers, the pain, suffering and torment caused by their actions was justified as it would pave the way for a new world, free from such things. But these mythical peaks were never reached, and instead humanity was plunged into the deepest darkest crevasses of human misery that we may have ever known.

The Path to the Peak Isn’t Always Easy to Find

Do Unto Others?

Sterilising the chickens in the broiler farm to prevent future generations of suffering, and limiting the numbers of chickens transferred to Happy Farm in order to maintain living standards sound like reasonable ideas (well, at least to me, perhaps you’re rightly horrified).

But what if we apply the same logic to humans?

Rather than farms, we humans are confined to nations. We aren’t earmarked for the sausage factory, but like work animals we are expected to give our labour in exchange for protection against violence, starvation and disease by the government.

Over in the West we are on the rough equivalent of Happy Farm. We have to work hard to earn our keep, while a privileged few reap huge rewards. There are calls for reforms, improvements in conditions, and more equality, but overall the conditions are relatively OK.

While our society is far from perfect, many others have it far worse. Harder and longer working hours under terrible conditions, often still with the constant threat of hunger, disease, violence and repression.

If, as many utilitarians argue, all animals (human and non-human) should be treated equally, then surely the solution to both problems should be the same?

The big difference between chickens and humans of course is that we can ask the humans what they want – what solution would most enable them to flourish and thrive?

The ideal solution would be to improve the living conditions in all nations. Most people want freedom, opportunity, equality and security, not to live at a specific longitude and latitude.

As the first wish of those unfortunate enough to be born into a bad situation isn’t currently a feasible option, the next choice is generally to try and move to a better one, as evidenced by the mass migration of refugees from unstable authoritarian regimes to stable democracies (often to the chagrin of those who had the good luck to have been born there).

No one would choose to live in a refugee camp

Now I don’t want this post to turn into a discussion about immigration, it’s a complex issue to which I don’t pretend to have any answers. My point, however, is that if/when emigration from a terrible situation is not an option either, people don’t generally tend to opt for mercy killings or sterilisation.

A very small percentage may take their own lives, or opt not to have children, but the vast majority choose to keep on living and reproducing within the society, irrespective of how bad it may be.

In actual fact, in countries where living standards are objectively lower, suicide rates tend to be lower, and birth rates higher than in developed countries.

Note: This apparent paradox may be largely explained by higher rates of death from other causes, lack of education and access to birth control, and should be balanced by the fact that many people are willing to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, by making dangerous border and sea crossings to get to a better place.

Regardless of relative rates however, what is clear is a strong desire of the majority of people to go on living in conditions which are about as far removed from thriving and flourishing as one could imagine.

I don’t think that one could rationally derive from objective observation that in order to increase overall utility that “These people ought not to exist / it would be better if they had never been born”.

Well, perhaps you might, but I think many of the people themselves would be inclined to disagree with you.

Now, realistically, I don’t think you can really compare the human experience with chickens or any other non-human animal, and certainly not the experience of a person living in poverty, oppression, physical insecurity, etc with that of an animal in a factory farm.

I bring up the analogy however to illustrate that perhaps it’s not even so simple as to say shut down all but the very best farms that allow the very highest standards of chicken flourishing.

Objective observation tells us that for the most part, conscious beings are very attached to being conscious beings.

On this imagined sliding scale of wellbeing, from optimal flourishing, down to unimaginable suffering, is there a point at which non-existence suddenly become preferable to consciousness?

How do we find a balance between quantity and quality? Should the aim be the maximum number of “just about glad to be alive” conscious entities, which presumably could be considerably higher than the maximum number of optimally flourishing conscious entities?

If we arrive to a point where the only way to increase the average wellbeing is to decrease the number of consciousnesses, should this ever be a solution?

Again, I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions, I’m just throwing them out there!

Would You Go Wild?

So enough of factory farms vs free range farms. I’m going to leap to the ought that we should get rid of all factory farms, and that if we do continue to farm animals for their meat, we should ensure that their lives are as optimised for maximal flourishing as is possible.

This still leaves us with the question, however, of whether we should keep livestock farms of any kind, or if pasture land should in fact be rewilded?

First, let’s start with another anthropic thought experiment based around the human civilisation as farm analogy.

Regardless of where you are reading this, you are not free. You have to earn money in order to pay for accommodation, food and taxes. In return you get health care, police protection, infrastructure, the judicial system, etc. If you don’t earn money and pay your taxes, you will be punished.

It’s a tradeoff, a compromise. The 99% work hard to make the 1% fabulously rich. It’s not fair, but it’s just the way it is. Or is it?

What if you had the option to go wild?

Would you exchange safety, shelter, health care and food security in order to be truly free, by going to live in the wild as a hunter gatherer?

I personally adore spending time in nature. I love nothing more than spending weeks hiking and camping in the mountains, foraging for mushrooms and wild asparagus in the woods around my house, and have learning to hunt on my to-do list this year (more on the ethics of hunting in a second).

I’m never truly wild, however, as I always have the safety net of the state. If I get into trouble – an accident or illness for example – I know that I can be rescued and taken to a hospital.

As much as I love the wilderness, I wouldn’t want a one way ticket with no return.

Of course, the deal for livestock is quite different. Rather than having to work to earn their keep, farm animals pay with their lives.

Perhaps this sounds like a rather raw deal – “We will give you a home, feed you and care for you, but then we will kill you and eat you.”

But is it really any worse than that of capitalism?

Humans may not be sent to slaughter, but the vast majority are required to sacrifice most of their waking lives to boring unfulfilling work that ultimately benefits others.

A great second home

Are years of consciousness lost at the end of a life worse than years of consciousness compelled to do someone else’s bidding during a life?

Would you consider swapping a life of work until 65+ followed by some potential years of freedom when you’re elderly (when you may or may not be able to enjoy them) for an entire life of leisure but with a fixed expiry date?

That may seem like madness if you’re lucky enough to have an interesting and fulfilling job that motivates you and gives your life meaning, but if you’re one of the millions of people who have boring, monotonous, and pehaps even stressful or demeaning jobs, it might not seem like such a bad option.

Regardless of what’s best for humans, I’m pretty sure that if I had to become an animal, and had the choice between:

  1. Being a cow happily meandering the lush pastures during the summer, protected from predators and disease, then fed and sheltered in the winter, followed by a swift and painless end.
  2. Being a wildebeest out on the African Savannah, at constant risk of being torn to shred by savage predators, or dying slowly of thirst, starvation, or disease.

I think I know which I’d pick.

No Moral Basis for Rewilding

Based on all of the above, it is my personal opinion that we have no moral obligation to stop farming animals for their meat, providing that all of their needs and wants are me, and we ensure that they flourish and thrive during their lives.

Neither can I see any compelling argument, scientific or moral, that says that Britain’s highlands should be forested and populated by dear and boar, rather than grassland populated by cows and sheep, nor that animals should die naturally (aka slowly and painfully), rather than at the hands of humans.

From a consequentialist perspective, rewilding highland farms could actually result in a decrease in animal wellbeing, and more animal suffering.

All that said, I AM IN FAVOUR of the rewilding/reforestation of at least some of Britain’s upland areas. I think that there are some convincing arguments, but that one should recognise/admit that these arguments are actually based on a very anthropocentric selfish world view.

Rewilding for Selfish Reasons?

I love nature, forests, wilderness. I find the incredible diversity of plant and animal species on our planet fascinating, and I love seeing, watching and learning all about the many different ways life has manifested itself on our small blue dot.

I’m not alone. I’m sure most if not all of the people promoting veganism do too, along with millions of other human beings from all different walks of life.

But here’s the thing – aside from us humans, no one else cares.

Other species are concerned with their own survival, some (but by no means all) extend this concern to their offspring, close family, or extended group, but none are concerned with the survival or wellbeing of other species.

Chimps don’t give a monkey about owls, who don’t give a hoot about rats, who don’t give a rat’s whiskers about elephants. While we’re busy trying to save polar bears, there’s likely some male polar bear out there eviscerating a baby polar bear.

Within 50 years, all the individual monkeys, owls, rats, polar bears, sheep and cows that are currently living on this planet will be dead. That is a certainty.

As humans, we are in the unusual position of both being conscious of the fact that these individual animals may or may not be replaced by future generations, and having considerable power and influence over the planet to influence the outcome.

Undoubtedly, if it weren’t for humans the population of polar bears would be much greater right now, and it’s chances of facing extinction within the next century much lower. Conversely, the population of sheep would be much lower, and perhaps they may even have gone extinct centuries ago (indeed, sheep as we now know them would never had existed).

So goes the quote, but does it really?

As highlighted earlier, the planet has already been through 5 mass extinctions. If the dinosaurs hadn’t bitten the dust, we mammals would never have seen the limelight.

If we humans trigger number 6, most likely we will just pave the way for Earth.vii* – As far as the universe is concerned this is neither good nor bad. 100 million years ago there were no polar bears, in a 100 million years there will (most likely) be no polar bears. C’est la vie.

* Perhaps one caveat to that would be if humans really excelled in the mass extinction game and eradicated 100% of conscious life on the planet, thus resulting in zero utility (particularly if it does turn out that we are alone in this universe)

Again, all this is to reiterate that one cannot say that objectively there should or shouldn’t be polar bears or sheep or any other species on this planet.

Now, let me stress once more, in a most likely vain attempt to reduce the number of incensed comments below, that I am not in favour of human caused extinctions, mass or otherwise, of any species (well, except possibly mosquitoes).

Personally, I really like polar bears. They are super cool animals. I think the world is a more beautiful and interesting place with polar bears than it would be without them. I personally think we should do what we can to try and prolong their presence as a species on this planet. But this is a personal, subjective desire, not an objective fact.

I also really like sheep (Yes, I’m from Yorkshire, but not like that). Is a sheep as cool as a polar bear? Maybe not, but they are very cute, taste amazing, and you can make jumpers and socks out of their wool.

Quite possibly polar bears are delicious too, but they’d be far less practical to have roaming the British countryside. So for purely selfish reasons, I’d like to keep polar bears thriving in the arctic, and sheep grazing on at least some parts of the British highlands.

I would also, however, like to see at least some of Britain rewilded. Again, though I do not believe that we have any moral responsibility to do so, I personally think it would be quite nice.

Not only would rewilding more parts of Britain make it a richer environment for us humans to enjoy, the increased tree cover and biodiversity would also both contribute to maintaining a more resilient ecosystem for us to inhabit.

Deforestation doesn’t just hurt the species that lose their habits, it ultimately hurts humankind too – increased flooding and soil erosion, reduced carbon uptake and oxygen output. Trees are not just nice decoration to the scenery, but vital to our survival.

Our reliance on monocultures of just a few plant and animal species puts us at considerable risk from potential disease outbreaks. 80% of all plant foods are cereals from grasses (rice, wheat, barley, corn). Cattle, sheep, and pigs account for 60% of all mammals on the planet. If that doesn’t already sound like a lot, bare in mind we humans account for 36%. That leaves just 4% for all the other wild mammals combined (I’m not sure exactly where dogs and cats fit in). Chickens and other poultry (turkeys, ducks, etc) account for 70% of all bird species. These are ripe conditions for hatching catastrophic pandemics.

While there may be nothing fundamentally wrong with a catastrophic pandemic as far as the universe is concerned, from the perspective of humanity, it would probably not be much fun.

So while I don’t think one can say that we ought to or should rewild some or all of Britain’s uplands, I personally think it could be a good idea, from a purely selfish anthropocentric perspective.

Looks like the birds did OK

Practicalities and Responsibilites

So let’s for arguments sake say that we agree that 50% of Britain’s uplands should be “rewilded”, we then immediately run into more complicated questions such as what does rewilding actually even mean, how can it be achieved, what responsibilities does it bring?


  1. (of an animal or plant) living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated.”a herd of wild goats”synonyms:untamed, undomesticated, feral;
  2. (of a place or region) uninhabited, uncultivated, or inhospitable.”an expanse of wild moorland”synonyms:uninhabited, unpopulated, uncultivated, unfarmed, unmanaged, virgin;

Essentially, wild areas are those free from human intervention.

Would the approach therefore be simply to abandon half of the farmland and do nothing? Simply let nature take its course?

Are forests to be planted, or do we wait for them to appear naturally? If we plant them, what species? If we leave them, do we weed out non-native species?

Oh deer…

Currently, all of the above are pretty much mute points as far as the reforestation of Britain’s uplands is concerned.

Whether you leave the land unattended, or actively try to plant trees, no forest will grow.

Why? Those pesky indigenous wild animals that’s why!

With no other natural predators aside from humans (of which in the UK only a tiny percentage still eat venison), the deer population has exploded, with a current estimated population of around 1.5-2 million.

Not only do the deer prevent the growth of new forests by stripping the land bare of any newly sprouted saplings, in their current numbers they are also putting at risk some of the few remaining heritage forests as they can actually kill trees by stripping them of bark. It’s also been found that the variety of bird species in woodlands overpopulated by deer are reduced by up to 50% as they strip out the shrub layer.

Currently around 350,000 deer are culled every year, but numerous environmental groups and conservation experts are calling for this number to be significantly increased, with some scientists believing we should attempt to halve the population.

As you’d imagine, the practice of deer culling has been met with ire and fury from animal rights activists. But while this sentiment is certainly well meaning, it is born from a total lack of understanding of the situation.

If we leave aside the themes of reforestation and biodiversity for a second, and return to a consequentialist utilitarian approach considering only deer utility, the only logical conclusion is that we should continue to hunt, kill and and eat them – we have a moral responsibility to do so!

Who ate all the trees!

How do I come to this conclusion? As far as the deer population in the UK is concerned, we essentially have 3 options as far as I can see:

  1. Leave it unchecked – The population will expand exponentially until it strips the land bare, at which point there will be a mass starvation and a population crash. This cycle will most likely repeat ad infinitum.
  2. Reintroduce natural predators such as wolves and bears (as if humans didn’t count). These wild predators would do the culling on our behalf naturally. The deer would die much more slowly and painfully, and the numbers culled would be much more unpredictable, but the blood wouldn’t be directly on our hands…
  3. Hunt the deer ourselves – ensure the quick and relatively painless deaths of a specific number of deer from specific demographics, and use the meat as a sustainable source of high quality nutrition.

Now, perhaps there could be some kind of 4th option that somehow reduced the reproductive rate of deer to perfectly balance the death rate from accident, disease and old age via selective sterilization or genetic engineering.

Even if this is/were possible and feasible however, I’m still not convinced that death via human is objectively worse, or results in reduced deer utility than natural causes – If anything I’d say the opposite.

While options 1 and 2 may be considered the natural options favoured by many animal rights activists, 100% of the deer I interviewed agreed that they suck.

While they appreciated the well meaning efforts of PETA etc championing their rights to starve en masse or be ripped apart and eaten alive by savage beasts, they’d prefer a bullet given the chance.

We ought to eat meat?

We (as in human animals) are obligate omnivores – that is to say that our bodies evolved in such a way that we need to eat some animal based foods in order to be healthy and fertile. This is an incontrovertible scientific fact.

It’s also an objective fact, however, that we need these animal products in much lower quantities than we currently consume them, and that we are now technologically advanced enough to produce these foods artificially in a factory, consciousness free.

To say that we ought to eat real meat (i.e. that which has come from a dead animal) because we have to, or because it is natural are both clearly faulty arguments.

Equally irrational however, is to argue that we ought not to eat the meat from (previously) living animals – that we ought to either let the animals starve and their bodies rot, or literally feed them to the wolves, then build factories and use valuable resources to try to reproduce the meat synthetically.

To me, that just sounds like utter madness!

It appears to me that the rational, ethical solution, would be to hunt the deer, sticking to careful quotas and being highly selective over which animals are killed, ensuring the minimal possible suffering, in order to maintain a healthy population that can live in balance with the rest of the flora and fauna.

It would then of course follow that the only rational and ethical option would be to eat the hunted deer meat.

If we ought not to eat meat, why is it so damn delicious…


I’m going to try and wrap this up, as I’ve been waffling on for far too long.

To summarise I personally think that:

  • We should rewild up to 50% of Britain’s Uplands – Replanting forests, and potentially reintroducing animal species such as boar and beavers.
  • We should license the controlled hunting of these animals, thus making these “wild spaces” a source of sustainable food and generating revenue with which to maintain them.
  • The remaining uplands we should keep as pasture land for 100% grass fed sheep and cattle, thus maintaining Britain’s traditional iconic countryside, and again producing sustainable food on otherwise non-arable land, and keeping the uplands economically viable.
  • Intensive/Factory farming should be consigned to the dustbin of human history’s worst achievements. Meat consumption should be reduced to what can be provided via the above methods, plus potentially via synthetic alternatives if these can truly be produced sustainably.

While the idea of killing animals for food and profit makes many people squeamish, the reality is that refusing to do so would most likely actually result in increased animal suffering and reduced biodiversity.

Huge Conflict of Interest

I feel it only right to point out that I have a huge conflict of interest in this debate, as I earn commission on the sale of grass fed organic meat farmed on Britain’s uplands at

I set up Green Pasture Farms to promote ethical, sustainable, pasture raised meat and wild game because this is what I believe in, not the other way around.

The views I have expressed in this article are 100% genuine, and I would like to believe that I would be open to changing my mind were someone to point out genuine flaws in any of my arguments.

3 thoughts on “Is the Moral Landscape a Wilderness?”

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