Wolf Stories: Reflections on science, ethics, and moral practice (Part 1)

What people think about wolves, how to value them, how they think they fit into an ecosystem, is an exercise of social scientific inquiry. How ought we to value or think about wolves? – this is an ethical question.

Drs. Michael Paul Nelson, John A. Vucetich, and Joseph Bump share their insights on ethics and moral practice in conservation and how to think through scientific and ethical issues, particularly those related to the conservation and lethal management of wolves. 

Michael is an environmental scholar, writer, teacher, speaker, consultant, and professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University. John is a distinguished professor at Michigan Technological University, where he teaches population biology and environmental ethics. John co-leads and Michael is the philosopher in residence of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Project in Lake Superior, the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world. Joseph is a professor and the Gordon W. Gullion Endowed Chair in Forest Wildlife Research and Education at the University of Minnesota. He is one of the leaders for the Voyageurs Wolf Project and studies how wildlife interactions affect ecosystem processes and biodiversity. 

What is ethics and how does it differ from science?

MN: Ethics is a subdiscipline of philosophy. Philosophy is interested in these big questions about, who are humans? What is the world around us? We want to know answers to those questions, because ultimately, we want to figure out, what is the appropriate relationship between humans and between humans and the world? And once we’re in the prescriptive realm and we’re talking about shoulds and oughts, we’re in the realm of ethics

We don’t often reflect upon ethics, unfortunately. But ethical assumptions underpin nearly everything we do, every law we have, every policy we entertain.

JV: The way that I sometimes describe it is that science tries to answer questions about the way the world is and why the world is that way. Ethics is interested in answering questions about, in a sense, how the world ought to be, and they’re not always the same. When we say how the world ought to be, we’re mostly talking about how we ought to behave. I’ve appreciated that as a way to distinguish science from ethics. 

The other thing that I sometimes share with people about what ethics means is to say what it’s not. Ethics is not telling other people what to do, it’s not telling people how to behave. That can be an important activity – if you’re a parent, that’s an important activity for raising your children; if you are a religious leader, that’s an important activity for guiding your followers. But ethics is a little bit more about figuring out how we ought to behave. And if you already think you know how to behave, there’s an important aspect of ethics that you’ve apparently already done.

JB: If you make a convincing argument for how we ought to behave, people either don’t want to hear it or they feel compelled to change their behaviour. So there is some prescriptive halo that comes with good ethical arguments to open minds.

Wolf walking.
Trail camera photo by Chelsea Greer / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

How do ethics and truth relate? Can people have different ethics?

JV: I think the best way to answer the question is to dissect the question a little bit. For example, what does it mean for people to have different ethics? Can two good people come to different decisions about how to behave in the same circumstance? Yeah, I think so. The question that opens up is, why and how could that be the case? Can two good people come to different conclusions about how they ought to behave in the same situation?

JB: I’ll provide an example that John and I discussed at one point. If you value generosity, let’s say, and then you meet someone and you have shared values of justice and fairness, those two values can come into conflict. You can be overly generous, and that’s unfair to certain individuals. With conservation, you can have similar ethical values, you can have conflicting ethical values, and you can hold those values as an individual or across individuals.

MN: Another way to think about this is if you’re what we might call a morally mature person, you really are trying to be good and you’re trying to embody and manifest as much ethical thought and behaviour as possible. You’re inevitably going to be inviting conflict. You’re going to be trying to juggle a set of virtues, like generosity, empathy, and care, and you want to extend it as broad as possible; you want a big moral community. So I want to include a lot of things in my moral community, and I want to manifest a lot of qualities as I’m doing that. Think about it as juggling – you’re trying to juggle all those commitments, and with that many balls in the air, you are much more likely to drop some. The best way to be consistent is to only have one moral commitment to one individual. My own pleasure, for instance, would be one commitment to one individual, and I probably can be pretty good at manifesting that. Even though that person would be consistent, we don’t think of them as moral or morally mature. It’s the person who’s inevitably going to be dropping some balls who is morally mature because they’re trying to do so much.

JV: To make the conversation not so ethereal, we can think of a wolf example. A question that arises from time to time is, should wolves be restored to the northeastern part of the United States? And a good person could think, yes, that’s the right thing to do, because we extirpated wolves from that region for no good reason and we have an obligation to bring them back. If they believe that kind of reasoning, I think you’d say, yeah, that seems to be a good person making what would be a fine judgment. 

But another person could say, oh no, I think that conditions in the Northeast are not suitable to bring wolves back right now; there’s too much hatred of wolves, and it would just lead to so much poaching and that poaching would be sufficiently undesirable. This person might think, “I’m for the restoration of wolves in the northeast in principle, but I don’t think it’s a good thing to do at this point in time.” 

That would be an example of two people exercising really wonderful virtues, but they came to two different views. I don’t think that has to be the end of the story, but that can just show how two people can come to different judgments.

MN: And another way to think about the question is what’s the difference between how we behave and how we ought to behave? How we behave is, in some ways, a descriptive exercise, and it belongs in the realm of social science. What people think about wolves, how to value them, how they think they fit into an ecosystem, is an exercise of social scientific inquiry. How ought we value or think about wolves? – this is an ethical question. 

It is important to recognize that ethics are ideals, they’re goals. Individually and collectively, we strive for these things and we make progress, even as we inevitably fall short. But we keep trying to make progress. Maybe I realize that to manifest my ethical commitments, I have to realign my life somehow. And so that’s a bit of progress. And sometimes the falling short isn’t in our control. 

I think about my students who all want to eat organic food grown locally, but they’re not always in a position financially to be able to do that. It doesn’t mean they don’t have that ethical aspiration or ideal, but they don’t get to manifest it in all cases. Remember that an ethic, at the end of the day, is an ideal. It helps us to cut ourselves some slack.

Family of wolves in a forest.
Photo by John E. Marriott.

JB: To loop back, because I’m thinking of the first question as well – there are some scholars and some thinkers that would argue, in addition to all the kind of deep thinking that philosophers do and evolutionary theory psychologists do, that our ethics come from a little bit of biology, from being a social species. And that muddies the question of, what is the difference? There’s an intersection of scientific reasoning and the manifestation of ethics. And that has probably benefited and persisted groups who are cooperative, have shared goals, and take care of each other. So I just wanted to acknowledge that there are some thinkers in the field that don’t see as much of a difference between ethics and science.

JV: In the two kinds of questions that you were just mentioning there, Joseph, never is the question taken away, how should I behave? At the end of the day, no matter how much you think your ethics are rooted in evolutionary history, we’re still left with the question, how should I behave? And that’s the ethical part that never goes away.

One of the questions that we were speaking about a moment ago was how are ethics and truth related? I’m not sure what “the truth” means in this context, but a little reframing might help with that. One of the things that is sometimes challenging for folks is they recognize that there are different cultures around the world and different cultures living at different times. And they intuit or observe that it seems like these people have different values and those values end up manifesting differently in terms of their behaviours. And so that leads a person to think, oh, well, these different cultures have different ethics. And if these different cultures are all equally valid, then there must be different truths. That’s not an uncommon sort of thinking. 

It can be a little disorienting because then you’re like, well, I guess that means anything is okay, right? And a couple of antidotes to that kind of thinking include when we answer the question, how should I behave? Or probably more importantly, how should we behave if the four of us here have to agree on something about how we’re going to behave? We can consult with what the ancient Greeks had to say about the matter, but they’re not here with us anymore. And so they can inform us in whatever way we choose to be informed by them. But at the end of the day, if it’s a decision made by the four of us, it’s up to the four of us to work through it. I don’t have to necessarily account for how every culture on the planet, at every point in history, would have tackled the problem.

MN: And can people have different ethics? One of the things we sometimes find is that what looks like a difference, if you peel back a layer or two, isn’t really a difference. We’re both trying to manifest respect, but it just turns out differently. Or we did the cost-benefit, utilitarian calculation in slightly different ways, but we’re still trying to manifest good outcomes. One of the things that we have found in our social science work that uses ethical typologies is that not only do people in a given debate, a given question, have different ways, different theories that they use to arrive at their prescription for action, but individuals are pretty morally pluralistic themselves. 

So if you ask a straightforward question and then you ask why should we do it that way, sometimes individuals will be consequentialist 1 and rights theorists 2 and natural law theorists 3 and virtue theorists 4 all at the same time. They’ll evoke all these things at the same time and they’re not always compensable with one another. 

We have to recognize that ethical truths have a certain amount of subjectivity to them. I would suggest that scientific truths have probably more subjectivity to them than we sometimes pretend they do. But much like science, ethics can be arrived at thoughtfully and systematically or sloppily and casually. So one of the things that we do often is use argument analysis, the sort of formal process of analyzing arguments to analyze thorny questions like, should scientists be advocates? Should we hunt predators in the Pacific Northwest? Should we kill barred owls to save spotted owls

All of those things can be rigorously looked at by laying out premises, laying out conclusions, analyzing the premises, asking, are there missing premises? So ethics and ethical analysis can look a lot like scientific analysis, which totally makes sense given that not that long ago, we were a collection of moral philosophers and natural philosophers, and we thought of them as a single pursuit. We have the same disciplinary origin, ethicists, and scientists.

JV: We can contextualize that with the example, is it a good thing to reintroduce wolves in the northeast? First, should we continue on with that story of two people, the one who thinks yes, we should restore wolves and offers a reason why, and the other who thinks no and offers a reason why. First of all, you see nothing but difference.

“Do you restore wolves to the northeast?,” would seem to be a yes or no question. And one person said yes and the other person said no. So you’re struck in the face by, wow, there are differences. But again, to use the metaphor that Michael used a moment ago, you can peel back the layers and find out there might actually be some common ground with these two people. And the person who thought that, no, you should not bring wolves back, it might seem that their view is just contingent. It’s contingent on the fact that people there are not ready for it. 

And so that takes this yes or no question, should we or should we not restore wolves to the northeast? and turns it into a different question, which is should we be doing things so that people become receptive to wolves being back in that area? On that account you might find that those two people actually agree on that. And so in many cases, finding common ground on ethical issues, where it seems like there isn’t, can be found by just digging a little deeper. And digging deeper is to find out where the common values are.

Four young wolves sniffing.
Photo by Voyageurs Wolf Project.

What role do emotions play in ethical decision making?

JV: This question about emotions and ethical decision making, it’s easy for a person to answer that question, but then for the answer to be misconstrued, because maybe we’re thinking about different things when we think about what possible roles emotions could play in decision making. So instead, I’d like to just imagine a somewhat specific scenario, very realistic, and then we would just have a conversation wrapped around that. So if you’re at some kind of a public commenting session about how wolves should be managed and somebody gets up to make their claim about how they think wolves should be managed, and they’re just clearly exuding all kinds of emotion, there’s sometimes a tendency to dismiss that person because they’ve just expressed so much emotion. And so when I describe that scenario, mind you, I never said what the view was about how wolves should be managed, right? It could be, we should kill wolves. I hate them, I can’t stand them, and they’re horrible in every way. Or it could be, I love wolves and we should never kill them. The point is that emotions can be attached to any view. And so I wonder if we could all have a conversation about that specific scenario. Do we discount that person because they were so emotional?

“To deny our emotions is to deny our humanity.”

Michael Paul Nelson

MN: If we’re talking about conversations within wildlife management, that’s exactly what happens. How often have we all heard one group of people dismiss another group of people and their justification is, well, their arguments are all emotional, which implies that we’re rational beings. And it also implies that rational is good, emotion is bad, which is, if you think about this from a psychological standpoint, a pretty profound false dualism. 

These are not separate things from one another. We are not one or the other. To deny our emotions is to deny our humanity. Ethical experiences are prompted very often and guided by our emotions in conversation with our reason. But this is a really powerful and influential approach that we see in natural resources, and certainly in wildlife issues, because we’re talking about animals that are more like us than trees.

JB: For the case in point, if you agree with the position, then you’re left wondering, well, I totally agree and that’s right, but I wish they would express it a little more rationally. As Michael was saying, you lament the delivery and not the content necessarily. The emotions often get things started. And then good, clear thinking distills what is in logic and argument analysis to get to the point of stuff that gets to policy. 

All of us have been on research permits where we’re going to do much more than inconvenience the day of a wolf, if we capture it and put a radio collar on it. And that is scrutinized by review committees that are motivated by minimizing suffering or only doing it to the minimum number of individuals. So there is ethical consideration in a lot of what we do, but it starts with a relationship that is emotional with other species saying, well, let’s be fair and considerate of study animals. The emotional and the rational are intertwined right there.

JV: If you’re human, you’re emotional. There’s no escaping it. If you are a mammal, you have emotions. So much of what we know about affect, which is the psychologist’s way of talking about emotions, actually comes from studying nonhuman animals. And so it’s a really extraordinarily basic feature of most kinds of mammals. You have emotions. You have to live with them. And so whether you like them or not, doesn’t matter much. 

The next two things that help me think through problems like this is that when I see somebody being especially emotional, I just think to myself, that person really cares deeply about what it is that they’re saying at that moment. That’s all it is. It doesn’t mean that it’s a high-quality idea or a low-quality idea. It doesn’t mean they’re rational or not. It just means at that moment they’re very excited about what they’re saying. And so it just helps me move on to the more important question, which is, why do they think that? The other thing that is helpful is to know what psychologists have said about the relationship between emotions and judgments. 

And this is a little bit of a tangent, but it seems as though humans have two modes of thinking. One is a fast, intuitive mode of thinking, and the other is a slower, more deliberative kind of thinking. And what psychologists seem to have discovered is that we have a tendency to make ethical judgments with the type of thinking that’s fast and intuitive. Secondly, we go back and find the rationale that may or may not support that. And so I think it’s just to acknowledge that we’re human, that many of your ethical judgments are going to come from intuitions and emotions first. To leave it there is the problem, to not then reflect on and say, oh, is that a well-considered view? That’s when it’s a little bit troublesome. 

Even in my own case, if I have an emotional reaction to something that is tied to an ethical judgment, I just hope that I follow that up with, is that really the right ethical judgment? and think it through more carefully and thoughtfully. And if it is, stick with the idea. And if it is not, change one’s mind.

“Empathy, in many ways, is the cornerstone of ethics.”

Michael Paul Nelson

What role does empathy play in ethical discourse?

MN: In some ways it’s too often that empathy doesn’t play a role. We are not always very good at empathy, and it’s partly because we struggle with the goodness and badness of emotion versus reason. We’re a little confused by that. So empathy is lumped in with the emotional category. But empathy in many ways is the cornerstone of ethics. And without ethics, without that attachment to certain levels of social organization, those levels of social organization don’t last. You have to have an ethic that corresponds with the level of social organization that we’re talking about. And so if we think about empathy, we think of it as it’s a vivid knowledge-based understanding of another’s perspective or experience or circumstance, which means that anything that we can make sense of as having a perspective or experience or circumstance can be empathized with. 

The world to which we can empathize is really quite large, actually. And the cool thing about empathy is that it is trainable. We can learn to become more empathetic and hone our empathy in certain ways. And that’s why the work that people like John and Joseph do as wildlife biologists is so important. 

We learn about the lives of wolves and other animals because of the work that scientists do. And then it informs my empathetic sensibilities. And just that point shows that the realm of science and the realm of ethics aren’t always that distinct. Much of the moral progress we’ve made over the last 100 years – animal welfare ethics, social justice – are often rooted in things that biologists discover. We discover more and more about the nonhuman world, and we’re like, those are relevant qualities, those are things that can be empathized with. So in some ways, biological discovery often drives ethical expansion.

JB: And it’s super fascinating to think of how we operate, as psychologists have demonstrated and John highlighted on this quick versus slow processing, and then where does the quick come from and how has that developed in young minds? Because I think the work that’s done in the areas of conservation with young children, and with ecology and natural history exposure, it certainly has to develop at some point. It’s learned and flexible.

Coastal wolf on a beach.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.

JV: And again, to think of empathy in these scenarios that are often associated with thinking about wolves, I think that sometimes people who are advocates for wolves and then maybe don’t always exercise their advocacy in the most sensitive way. They can be especially empathetic towards the life of wolves, but maybe not so empathetic towards the circumstance of, say, a rancher who lost livestock. And then people who are from a ranching community and maybe don’t like wolves at all are quick to empathize with a livestock owner’s perspective and are not very equipped to empathize with the wolves’ perspective. And so what happens next is what we see so often, we’re just not equipped to have the language to talk about these things. I think the word sympathy is useful to have sitting right next to the word empathy. 

At least if we can have a somewhat special meaning of the word sympathy, where it’s to not only understand the other person’s perspective, but also agree. And if you keep those two ideas separated, it’s important to understand empathizing and agreeing with the perspective are not the same thing. Take a call for killing a wolf that’s killed somebody’s livestock as an example. It’s extremely important to empathize with both parties’ perspectives: the wolf that might get killed and the livestock owner who is very upset about the animal lost. And I think that there’s no end to a wolf advocate thinking as deeply and as hard as they can about the perspective of that livestock owner. 

They don’t have to agree with their judgment at the end of the day, but to really deeply understand the anger and upsetness that they have. To understand that will go a long way towards helping wolves, because in some ways, if that anger and judgment that comes from it are misplaced, the best way to properly place it is to be able to empathize with that rancher in the first place. And so anyways, empathy cuts in a lot of different ways and can be distinguished from sympathy, and that sometimes has been helpful for me to work through some of the complexities.

MN: One of the challenges we face as a species, we face some of the most profound ethical and environmental challenges in the history of the world. And I don’t think we’re going to navigate them successfully by being callous or sociopathic, denying our humanity, denying empathy and emotion. But the flipside of that is that you train your empathy, you become empathetic, you try to juggle all those moral balls and it can be overwhelming. And we’re hearing about variations of grief and anxiety.

My students are suffering from great anxiety over climate change in ways that we don’t really recognize. It dominates their thinking and their sense of doom. And I think one of the things we need to understand is that we face a future where there aren’t wins. There are losses and some are better and some are worse. And we have to find ways to navigate that and think about how we train ourselves and how we train young people to navigate that, and how do we live in a world where grief and anxiety are our constant companions because we’re paying attention? And I don’t think we have very good answers to that right now in conservation. In fact, I can imagine a whole field of conservation psychotherapy, and in a sense, that would be really beneficial to a lot of us.

JB: I observe ethical overload. Eco-anxiety was the other term in the students as well. And it’s a challenge as an instructor and as a researcher, they’re looking for, what do I hang on to? Why do you do this? Why haven’t you burned out studying wolves or conservation in general? John and I have had conversations about how, at the end of the day, being a witness is not a bad role to be in.

JV: There are always times when we’re principled and there are always times when we’re pragmatic. I’m going to do the practical thing, which is to say, I’m going to do the thing that leads to the good outcome. The thing is if you look at the world and you see, oh my goodness, there is one catastrophe after the next, the outcome couldn’t possibly be good, and I don’t want to participate in that. That’s to be a consequentialist in that moment, that’s to say the value of my actions depends on what I think the ultimate outcome is going to be. 

But that’s the wrong time and place to be thinking consequentially. This is the time to be duty bound 5 in which case you look at the world and can be honest and say, oh my gosh, there’s a lot of tragedy in the world, there are a lot of bad things in the world, but there’s good things too and I have a duty to play in all this. And the duty that I play doesn’t actually depend on the outcome, it depends on what’s the right thing for me to do. The purpose of my life comes from doing the right thing, not being too worried about the outcome. And so the way that I get by is to not worry about the consequences. It’s not on me how it turns out. 

What’s on me is how I behave and that has allowed me to be quite facile with staring straight in the face genuine tragedies without calling them anything but; and also looking at other cases like, wow, that is a remarkably hopeful story that I just heard, that is an amazing person doing great stuff. So I think the answer to those questions is about knowing when to be a consequentialist and when to be duty bound, and to let the purpose of your life be filled by that duty and not worry about the consequences.


  1. Ethical framework that emphasizes the consequences of actions.
  2. Ethical framework that states everyone has rights arising simply from being born.
  3. Ethical framework that states human beings possess intrinsic values that govern their reasoning and behaviour.
  4. Ethical framework that urges people to live a moral life by cultivating virtuous habits.
  5. Ethical framework that emphasizes duties or rules (also called deontology).

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.