Wild Animal Ethics
AuthorKyle Johannsen
SubjectsAnimal ethics, environmental ethics, political philosophy, wild animal suffering
Media typePaperback, hardback, eBook

Wild Animal Ethics: The Moral and Political Problem of Wild Animal Suffering is a 2020 book by the philosopher Kyle Johannsen, that examines whether humans, from a deontological perspective, have a duty to reduce wild animal suffering. He concludes that such a duty exists and recommends effective interventions that could be potentially undertaken to help these sentient individuals.


Johannsen starts by examining the question of what is good about nature. He puts forward a number of arguments for why wild animals generally do not live good lives, such as the dominance of reproductive strategies which mean that large numbers of offspring are born, of which the great majority experience suffering and die before reaching adulthood. He also highlights different forms of suffering that these sentient individuals experience including predation, weather conditions, starvation, stress, injury and parasitism. Johannsen then explores the value of naturalness and the popularity of a positive view of nature.

In the following two sections, Johannsen asserts that humans have a collective obligation to intervene in nature to reduce the suffering of wild animals and evaluates the risks associated with intervention. He then explores the concept of editing nature, using technologies such as CRISPR and gene drives. The final section investigates how intervention relates to animal rights advocacy.



A symposium was held on the book in April 2021, hosted by Animals in Philosophy, Politics, Law, and Ethics (APPLE) at Queens University, featuring commentaries by Nicolas Delon, Bob Fischer, Gary O'Brien, and Clare Palmer;[1] these were later published in the journal Philosophia.[2]

Nicolas Delon's commentary argues that the book largely overlooks the issues of agency and freedom. Despite this, he gives Johannsen credit for considering liberty as an issue and for favoring interventions which minimize infringements of liberty.[3]

Bob Fischer's commentary challenges Johannsen's claims on habitat destruction in two ways. The first questions his calculation of the quantity of animals that experience overall positive lives. The second aspect acknowledges Johannsen's perspective on the balance between lives with positive and negative outcomes, but refutes the notion that this leads to his desired conclusion due to separate justifications.[4]

O'Brien's commentary takes exception with Johanssen's assertion that the non-identity problem has no effect on the reasons to intervene in nature. He argues that large scale interventions in nature will, in turn, change the types of animals that will come into existence and, as a result, enable harms experienced by and inflicted by these individuals. In conclusion, he asserts that "by causing animals to exist, knowing that they will inflict and suffer harms, we become morally responsible for those harms."[5]

Palmer's commentary questions Johannsen's claim that naturalness, or wildness, is not intrinsically valuable and the assertion that the majority of wild animals have terrible lives. On the latter, Palmer asserts that more evidence is needed and for the former she contends that Johannsen mischaracterizes the significance of the value of wildness which could lead to conflicts with his suggested wide-scale interventions. She concludes that if he wants to gain democratic legitimacy for such interventions, he needs to give more serious attention to such conflicts.[6]

Johannsen responds to the commentaries in his paper "Defending Wild Animal Ethics". He defends his arguments regarding intrinsic value and valuing of harmful natural processes, rejecting the notion of intrinsic valuing. Johannsen evaluates intentional habitat destruction as a response to wild animal suffering, contending that it is unjustified within a moderate deontological framework. The article also examines the role of agency in wild animal wellbeing, its connection to exercise of agency, and its impact on quality of life. Furthermore, Johannsen addresses the concept of identity-affecting actions and the potential generation of secondary duties, extending considerations of rectificatory justice to interventions aimed at mitigating harm to wild animals.[2]


Jeff Sebo describes the book as "an excellent book that makes a powerful case for reducing wild animal suffering".[7] Jeff McMahan asserts that: "The suffering of animals in the wild is a serious moral issue, to which this book is a sensible, well-argued, and humane response.[7]

Elizabeth Mullineaux is positive about the book in her review, asserting that it presents well-reasoned arguments that are accessible to readers regardless of their background in philosophy, ethics, or animal welfare and contending that the book offers a blend of agreeable insights and thought-provoking ideas, fostering a deeper understanding of wild animal suffering alleviation strategies and warranting a strong recommendation for readers interested in the subject.[8]


  1. ^ "Symposium on Kyle Johannsen's Wild Animal Ethics". APPLE. 2021-01-21. Retrieved 2021-09-30.
  2. ^ a b Johannsen, Kyle (2021-09-27). "Defending Wild Animal Ethics". Philosophia. 50 (3): s11406–021–00424–5. doi:10.1007/s11406-021-00424-5. ISSN 0048-3893. S2CID 244216354.
  3. ^ Delon, Nicolas (2021-09-27). "Wild Animal Ethics: Well-Being, Agency, and Freedom". Philosophia. 50 (3): 875–885. doi:10.1007/s11406-021-00421-8. ISSN 1574-9274. S2CID 239078550.
  4. ^ Fischer, Bob (2021-09-27). "Two Challenges to Johannsen on Habitat Destruction". Philosophia. 50 (3): 865–873. doi:10.1007/s11406-021-00416-5. ISSN 1574-9274. S2CID 239111840.
  5. ^ O’Brien, Gary David (2021-09-27). "Beneficence, Non-Identity, and Responsibility: How Identity-Affecting Interventions in Nature can Generate Secondary Moral Duties" (PDF). Philosophia. 50 (3): 887–898. doi:10.1007/s11406-021-00419-2. ISSN 1574-9274. S2CID 244250376.
  6. ^ Palmer, Clare (2021-09-27). "The Value of Wild Nature: Comments on Kyle Johannsen's Wild Animal Ethics". Philosophia. 50 (3): 853–863. doi:10.1007/s11406-021-00418-3. ISSN 0048-3893. S2CID 239162410.
  7. ^ a b "Wild Animal Ethics: The Moral and Political Problem of Wild Animal Suffering". Routledge & CRC Press. Retrieved 2021-09-30.
  8. ^ Mullineaux, Elizabeth (2023). "Wild Animal Ethics: The Moral and Political Problem of Wild Animal Suffering". The UFAW Journal - Animal Welfare. 32.

Further reading