Accounting For Animal Welfare In Human Conflict
When is war justified? How is one country allowed to act towards a rival when engaged in war? How far can military action go in “winning?” These are a few of the questions humans grapple with when two countries fight each other. One toolkit for answering them is known as “just-war theory,” a doctrine that covers the morality of (a) when a country can go to war (“jus ad bellum”), and (b) when a country is in war (“jus in bello”). Deeper debates address whether other moral categories are needed, such as how a country should act towards its rival after a war has ended (“jus post bellum”), but perhaps unsurprisingly, little has been debated about the ethics of war taking into account the well-being of non-human animals, despite the massive toll wars take on them. Recently, two philosophers published an article arguing for a version of just-war theory that accounts for non-human animal suffering. Far from being excessively demanding, they say, an update like this will make the theory more humane.
Throughout the paper, the authors focus primarily on two of the criteria used in just-war theory in deciding whether and how it is permissible to go to war, and how a country should conduct itself when in war. Specifically, they zoom in on proportionality and necessity, or the ideas that (a) the harm caused by/within a war must be proportionate to the good it achieves and (b) that no less harmful options are on the table. As the authors explain, even without considering non-human animals, these criteria are not at all straightforward to evaluate. For example, are the “good” effects of a war those that achieve some desirable goal on their own, or merely those that avoid something potentially worse? While this may seem like academic hair-splitting, it can have profound consequences for how wars are waged.
Bringing animals into the equation, then, complicates things quite a bit, but not prohibitively nor in a way that should make us consider not taking into account their welfare. But, how best to measure the interests of animals? While moral philosophy has historically (if simplistically) been divided into raw well-being and rights-based approaches, the authors argue that there’s no need to establish a whole separate set of legal rights for animals—it’s enough to simply say that these are fellow sentient creatures who can suffer and therefore we, as humans, ought to act in a way that minimizes that suffering. Thus, they identify four “interests” that sentient animals might have that can be used to evaluate the impact of war on them, including: an interest in not suffering, an interest in having access to positive experiences, an interest in continuing to live, and an interest in having the tools to subsist independently.
Yet, the above criteria outline how we might track animal suffering in war, but not why we should. While animal welfare advocates likely need no persuasion, the authors go beyond mere appeals to anti-speciesism in arguing why we ought to consider the well-being of non-human animals in war. Specifically, they describe the following scenario:
Imagine a worker at a remote research station about to receive a painful but ultimately undamaging electric shock from an exposed wire. The only way that an engineer can prevent this is to briefly shut off power by redirecting the supply through a flooded field, electrocuting and killing a herd of wild horses. Intuitively, the killing of these horses is deeply disproportionate. Due to the conceptual and intuitive problems with such a view, we contend that there is no prospect of reasonable disagreement about whether animal harm could outweigh human harm. Reasonable disagreement is going to be about how to weigh particular human and animal harms… (italics added for emphasis)
Here, they illustrate two key points. First and most importantly, harm to humans has no special status above harm to non-human animals. Two, the reaction from the engineer is disproportionate to the harm they receive, therefore making their action impermissible, as would be the case if this were an act of war. Additionally, the authors make the case here that there is no legitimate reason to even partially discount animals’ interests relative to human interests on the basis of species membership.
Nevertheless, there may well be good-reasoned objections to the inclusion of animals in just-war theory. Namely, doing so may merely render the theory too demanding, thus creating “worse wars” for humans or not allowing wars that should happen in the name of some other ethical importance. To address the “demandingness” objection, the authors rebut in the following ways:
- Claiming that including animals is too demanding on the grounds that there are too many unknowns is unsatisfying as this is merely a matter of deeper and more research, and therefore not a compelling reason to continue excluding animals from just-war;
- If and when animals are killed in war, these scenarios are largely likely to be less bad than the scenarios in which humans would be killed (not for reasons of speciesism, but on more utilitarian grounds) and thus wouldn’t interfere with just-war; and
- Finally, the activities most likely to be harmful to animals are already disallowed in standard approaches to just-war theory.
In conclusion, there seems much to gain and little to lose by including the welfare of non-human animals in the ethical considerations of war and human conflict. Habitat loss, endangerment, and cruel and unusual deaths are but a few of the grisly ways we can impact our fellow sentient life through battle. By incorporating non-human animals into just-war theory, we can both protect their welfare and make war a more humane practice, noble ends for the reasons described above and by the authors. There may even be incidental benefits—perhaps fewer and less severe wars fought on the whole. Again, while these ideas are not likely to be difficult to swallow for animal welfare advocates, they are nevertheless worth preaching in the ongoing struggle.