Wolf Stories: Sustaining the wellbeing of people, animals, and nature (Part 1)

There is a place in ethics for emotions and experience, as well as for reason and evidence. It's not something that is divorced from facts. It’s all very related.

PAN Works is a new ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. Drs. William Lynn, Kristin Stewart, Liv Baker, and Francisco Santiago-Ávila discuss the place of science and ethics in sustaining the wellbeing of people, animals, and nature. 

As a global platform for ethicists, scholars, and civil society, PAN Works cultivates compassion, respect and justice for animals, a reverence for the community of life, and a desire for people, animals, and nature to thrive together. Bill specializes in animal and sustainability ethics, exploring why and how we ought to care for people, animals, and nature. Kris explores boundaries and bridges at the intersection of people, animals, and nature, particularly through teaching and writing about animals and spirituality, animal ethics, and animal law and policy. Liv is a conservation behaviourist and an expert in wild animal wellbeing. Her research focuses on how individuals engage with their environments, and the roles individual, wild animals have in the health of their social groups, cultures, and populations. Fran researches and practices the application of nature ethics to our mixed-community of people, animals, and nature, with a focus on the promotion of worldviews rooted in non-anthropocentrism, an ethic of care, and justice. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is ethics? 

WL: Ethics is fundamentally the question of how we ought to live. It’s an old framing of what it means to live a good life, what it means to think about right or wrong, good or bad, value or non-value, justice or injustice, from Socrates in 5th century BC in Greece.

KS: I think a lot of people have this idea that ethics is a highfalutin concept, something that’s not connected to real life, something philosophical and maybe academic. That’s not how we view it. It’s a very practical endeavour and ethics is part of everything we do every day. We count it as among the most important things that we do. It’s just that a lot of folks don’t think about it consciously. That is one of the things that PAN Works is about: bringing language and concepts to help folks better think through their ethics. It’s not that ethics isn’t happening, it’s always happening, but how are we thinking about it? How are we able to articulate it? And it can be helpful to have a common language to speak about different ethical concepts, especially with regard to our relationships with other animals.

WL: Ethics is not for angels. Angels don’t need ethics. Mortal human beings whose actions have consequences for the wellbeing of others, themselves, animals, nature – those are the kinds of creatures that need ethics. And of course, other creatures manifest ethics as well. Marc Bekoff has a lot of work on this. Not in the terms of these abstract ways that human beings can think about ethics and think about ethics apart from their interpersonal relationships into larger societies, other species, global ecologies. But in terms of questions of trust, relationships, reciprocity, and play. Those moral sentiments are evidenced in other animals, especially the animals of our lives, animals that we’re familiar with, wolves in particular, with whom we see similar sorts of ethical sensibilities that we manifest as our own Homo sapiens.

FSA: There’s a practical, behavioural side of ethics, which is how do we contribute to or foster the flourishing of not only ourselves, but of the community as a whole and within the social relationships they’re embedded in. In that sense, we go from the ‘ought’ to the related question of the ‘can.’ That we ought to do something means inevitably that we can do it. Otherwise, there’s no ‘ought’ there. So, there’s no need to think about ethics as something unachievable. It’s always practical and it’s always something that you can apply and that you can strive to improve on as well.

LB: Ethics as a practice is very tricky. We all experience this because, as Kris was getting at, we’re all practicing and living ethics all the time. So at once it’s very informal and unarticulated because we’re making value judgments all the time. But humans aren’t great at self-reflection. So it’s this lived experience of ethics, but also interwoven with the formal discipline of ethics. Otherwise it just becomes, well, this is how I feel in the moment. And what that means is so variable, because it could be based on mood. So that’s why there is such an importance to the formal aspect of ethics and in building that ethical capacity across communities and across individuals, but also with the understanding that it is an embodied knowledge as well. 

FSA: There’s also a place in ethics for feelings. There’s a place for experience, as well as for reason and evidence. It’s not something that is divorced from facts. In fact, values are facts to the extent that you have them and they act in the world. So this dualism that you hear sometimes about ethics being one thing and facts being another is not really as accurate as people might want to think it is. It’s all very related.

Wolf crossing a road.
Photo by Colleen Gara.
Coyote sitting on the edge of a walkway.
Coyote pup. Photo by Dianne Draper.

In your work on ethics, is there a particular approach to moral or ethical reason that you advocate for?

WL: Yes and no, in a sense that PAN Works is intentionally committed to heterodoxy, not orthodoxy. So we don’t pick one ethical theory or one family of ethics or one approach to thinking about ethics. We want to bring a lot of voices to the table because we know more together than we know alone. And those different voices can shed light on aspects of ethical problems and ethical issues that can be productive for all. At the same time, the family of ethics that tends to do that and welcomes those multiple voices, multiple theories, multiple perspectives to the table is called interpretive ethics1. This family includes hermeneutics2, casuistry3, principlism4, and ecofeminism5. There’s a whole variety of them that all have their own points of departure and their own strengths, but they welcome a plurality of insights. There’s another family of ethics, and this is more the traditional one that you find in environmental and conservation ethics, which is what’s called the axiomatic family. In this family there’s one moral truth and you apply that moral truth to all situations and it gives you the answer. And that might be consequential ethics6, duty-based ethics7, or virtue ethics8, but those tend to be much more siloed, rigid, abstract, and top down than the much more practical, interpretive family of ethics. 

All of us sit in the practical and the interpretive family side, but we have different trajectories in that regard. I was very influenced by a philosopher called Mary Midgley and ecofeminism, but there’s others of us who have been much more influenced by casuistry as practiced in law, for example.

FSA: That’s a great way to put it – we don’t subscribe to an orthodox approach at the same time that we see that this interpretive approach provides for pluralism, and that’s necessary to examine and analyse different points of view. And those points of view highlight different ethical concerns; they highlight different values, different relationships, different virtues, such as compassion and respect. To the extent that we can find a place for each of them, we can find why they’re highlighted, where they converge, and how they strengthen each other. As an example, I generally tie ethics of care with multispecies justice because I think that care, justice, and respect can not only promote each other, but they strengthen each other as well, in our consideration of other beings. That seems to be the goal, to what extent we can increase in others the consideration of otherness or of other beings.

LB: In that pluralistic approach, it is still challenging the anthropocentric nature of most frameworks.

FSA: That’s a good point because it’s a good question in and of itself, is non-anthropocentrism an ethical perspective? It’s not certainly one that has been identified in the ethical literature, but it is a worldview that puts particular limits on your ethical behaviour, if you take it seriously. So within that, I think we’re all in the same boat, but that seems more of a broader worldview than ethics, but extremely relevant.

KS: The two animal ethicists that most of us in the animal world are familiar with and have heard of are, of course, Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Singer takes this utilitarian consequentialist framework and applies it to animals, bringing to the world this concept of speciesism9. Regan takes a deontological Kantian approach and believes that animals have rights just as humans do. They both have this top down approach that Bill identified, but they really brought animal ethics to the fore. It was this flowering of new attention on nonhuman animals at that time. They also took a very formalistic and rationalist approach. No emotion. You’re not going to find emotion in their work at the surface level; you’ve got to dig for it. Empathy and emotion is, just in the past few years, really coming into vogue in the ethics literature. It really wasn’t present there with those two guys – Regan and Singer.

WL: At the same time as Singer and Regan, there were also people like Mary Midgley and Val Plumwood. My point here is there were folks like Val Plumwood, who was one of the efflorescence and early proponents of ecofeminism, and there were folks like Mary Midgley, who was much more of a hermeneuticist, who are ignored in this very male, very patriarchal philosophy in the conservation space. But they’re speaking at the same time and were offering a real alternative. 

To speak personally, when I was a graduate student, I was coming in 15 years after the birth, so to speak, of environmental and animal ethics. I’m reading Singer and I’m reading Reagan, and I’m reading various folks who adopt those perspectives. And then I happened to get introduced to Mary Midgley, and I am just like, wow, this doesn’t get caught in these silos. It’s not just top down. It does have a space for empathy. In fact, Mary Midgley bases ethics, the springs of morality, in empathy itself. It’s just remarkable stuff and fundamentally altered how I think about the ethical landscape.

FSA: Karen Warren was also writing around that time, and then you have Greta Gaard later on. But for Singer and Regan, they established this hierarchy of qualities that you need to have to be considered. For Singer, it was that you have to be sentient. For Regan, it was experiencing being the “subject of a life,” potentially self-awareness to some extent. But always comparing nonhuman animals with humans. And then you have all these women on the other side being ignored at the same time that they’re promoting a much more holistic ethical approach, a blending of reason and emotion. And it’s hard to not see so much patriarchy in the former. And to this day, a lot of folks within animal ethics and conservation don’t even know these names while they know a lot about, for example, “What is conservation biology?” by Michael Soulé; they know about a lot of male animal and environmental ethicists.

KS: And Reagan actually did comment at one point about leaving emotions out. It was very intentional on his part. He made the decision to not go there in order to be taken seriously. So many new disciplines coming up adhere to the hegemonic structure so that they are taken seriously and their voices are heard.

Wolf walking through an estuary.
Photo by John E. Marriott.

“Unless you learn how to live alongside wolves in your everyday life, you’re not living sustainably. We ought to allow wildlife to flourish from a scientific perspective and in terms of manifesting care and respect for individuals of other species from an ethics perspective.”

William Lynn

What does coexistence with nonhuman animals mean to you?

WL: I feel that the idea of coexistence in conservation means toleration for other beings in the landscape. But there isn’t full welcoming and integration of those others. So I’ve always felt that coexistence is a collectivist term. We coexist with species. We don’t see ourselves really living alongside and with other individual animals as members of a particular species. I don’t want to pretend the community doesn’t matter because it does. Yet I also think those individuals matter as well. There’s a way that coexistence can be used minimally – “Well, as long as there are wolves on the landscape, we’re coexisting with them,” Whereas for me, unless you learn how to live alongside wolves in your everyday life, you’re not living sustainably. We ought to allow wildlife to flourish from a scientific perspective and in terms of manifesting care and respect for individuals of other species from an ethics perspective. So that’s how I’ve always felt about coexistence – ambivalence.

FSA: At Project Coyote, we generally define it as living alongside humans and wildlife; living alongside one another, while having everyone’s wellbeing and needs generally met. In my research, I generally try to not use it without qualifying it or trying to see how I can combine it to get folks thinking about its relationship with other behaviours. For example, the question of: are coexistence and imposition compatible? And to the extent that they’re not, any imposition of interventions on other animals, and any harm from lethal interventions that are imposed, cannot be considered coexisting, at least ethically. In an ecological sense, if you want to draw right to the empirical matter, defining it as ‘living alongside one another’ might be accurate. But, the normative aspect is so much more interesting and useful for living. 

I try to explore the ethics of coexistence and if we’re actually doing it, because I know that I’m diving into the advocacy world, and that’s used a lot there. And some folks use it and are not against hunting wolves, for example. Then that begs the question, what do we mean? Is imposition something that we say is compatible with coexistence? Is lack of respect for someone something that we say is compatible with coexistence? And if we respect someone, that means that we consider their claims equitably. 

So I don’t see us having any type of actual coexistence at the moment. I don’t see respect – defined as equitable consideration, explicit in the process and outcome of the claims of wolves and all other animals – in any process that relates to any intervention that is going to affect their lives. Maybe to some extent when they are endangered. But we still see that even within those policies, there are loopholes for intervening in their lives to an extent that are harmful and lethal. And most of the time it is not justified, neither ethically nor scientifically.

Coexistence is not the only word that’s an issue here. Rewilding has its own pluralistic interpretations that are muddled in the advocacy world, despite it being a lot more structured in the philosophical literature that developed those terms. Conservation is another one, and its relationship to concepts like rewilding and coexistence. What are the relationships there? Are those compatible or not and to what extent?

So my view on coexistence is if it’s not ethical and it doesn’t involve multispecies justice, compassion, respect, then I don’t think it’s there. And I argue for moving that further along – the consideration of others.

“Coexistence, as it plays out, is just humans permitting others to exist…[but] whether we permit or not is a misdirection. Those beings exist and have the right to be there.”

Liv Baker

LB: Right. Because coexistence, as it plays out, is just humans permitting others to exist. I find coexistence to have become, and maybe it always was, fairly empty because it’s typically in practice very poorly defined. And when it is used to describe something, a way of being with others, it usually is just, oh, we’ve stepped aside. We’ve permitted this to be. And it doesn’t include what Fran was talking about, which is the fact that whether we permit or not is a misdirection. Those beings exist and have the right to be there. They exist without us. They exist without us thinking about them. And that’s, in my mind, what coexistence should be, it is that completely shared place.

FSA: What Pablo (Castello) and I point out in our work, and also in my recent talks, is this issue of human sovereignty over animals. If you’re not considering others’ claims and values, then you are basically imposing your own claims and values on other beings. If we were talking about only humans, I don’t think we would define that as coexistence. So why would that not be the case with non-human animals? Imposition and coexistence are not compatible when we’re talking about two human communities. But suddenly, lethal management and coexistence for nonhuman beings are compatible. It begs the question of anthropocentrism.

Maybe a more critical question is, ‘what gives us the right?’ Who gave us the right to decide that we can kill animals in the name of species diversity? What Pablo and I are doing in our work, including ‘Conservation after Sovereignty,’ is posing those questions. For example, conceding that species diversity and species have intrinsic value, why are they more valuable than the social and affective relationships and claims that these nonhuman animals have, so that we take it as our prerogative to just do anything we want with them, breaking those relationships, for that particular purpose.

And does that also imply human sovereignty over nature? Over us imposing our views of what nature should be, starting with cats to other feral animals and immigrant (so called ‘invasive, non-native’) species. We’re seeing that human imposition being challenged more and more, not only from perspectives like compassion conservation and its critique of collectivism, nativism, and instrumentalism, but also from Native American views. Recently I read an article from an Anishinaabe perspective on ‘invasive’ species, and the perspective was one of considering these individuals as immigrants to those communities, as accepting this dynamism of nature. And accepting the fact that these beings are here now, that we should try to establish respectful relationships with them. And having a perspective that allows us to be open to learning from these beings, how we’ve done with the beings that we consider native or that ‘belong.’

WL: This is a fascinating sketch. This is the first time I think I’ve heard us talk about coexistence in this way. I really appreciate Fran bringing up this question of sovereignty, because when you’re talking about individuals and communities, so much involves ecology, involves ethics, but it’s also politics and political metaphors and concepts like sovereignty that really can inform that. 

The opposite of religious toleration in a political sense is religious liberty. We might understand liberty in this sense as the ability to flourish, not to just be accepted over there, but the ability to flourish. When we talk about coexistence and frame it as toleration, it is reactive and passive. It’s not the proactive way that we like to think about people, animals, and nature flourishing together. Taking these political metaphors seriously can be really helpful.

A wolf stands in the distance in the intertidal zone, with the sun setting pink in the background with an eagle flying low.
Photo by Michelle Valberg.

PAN Works serves as an acronym for People, Animals, and Nature. How does this describe your work and what are you trying to do?

WL: We’re an ethics think tank. We’re dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. Wellbeing is very important to us, because once again, it’s a proactive way of thinking about how animals can flourish in the world and flourish in the context of people, other animals, and nature. So animals are kind of the lynchpin when we think about the wellbeing of all three.

FSA: A central component of what we’re trying to do is converge on what, for us, should be the appropriate relationship between science and ethics to affect policy, which we think is missing right now. And I see our places in that as highlighting the appropriate place of science and the appropriate place of ethics. The appropriate place of science – providing the right information for us to make the decisions that we need to make and consider what the consequences of those decisions are going to be. And the appropriate place of ethics – doing the work of identifying the moral values that are at stake within that empirical reality, and devising rules for how we can go about considering others and ourselves. 

Now, I see us as filling that gap at the same time that I see us as shedding a brighter light on the importance of the ethical discourse within all these issues, because it’s what gets the most dismissed. There are huge misunderstandings of ethics when it comes to animals and the environment as a whole. But as we’ve written in pieces before, there’s a dual misunderstanding here of both science and ethics. There are troubles on both sides. As I mentioned, if science provides the empirical reality of what’s happening and the consequences, the fact that we’re not considering the empirical reality of who these beings are, that is, an empirical reality that documents that they do have values, their own perspectives, and their own claims, then that’s a scientific failure as well as an ethical failure. We’re not seeing that highlighted by many conservationists either, that these are actual beings with their own claims that we’re intervening in. 

And then marry that with the fact that, along with the dismissal of that scientific information because of its ethical implications, there are more caring ways to relate to both individuals and nature. We acknowledge the tensions, but we try to work through them, rather than acknowledge one side of it, animals or wholes, and dismiss the other. And that’s where the work is because there’s always going to be tension. But we’re not going to solve it all with science or with dismissal.

“Ethics helps keep our values transparent and accountable. Science helps keep our facts transparent and accountable. Both can serve as guiding stars when you’re trying to find the best public policy and the best route forward to improving the wellbeing of people, [other] animals, and nature.”

William Lynn

KS: Part of what we aim to do is to be in conversation with empirical science and scientists, and to highlight the things that empirical science cannot do. It can tell us what is, but we still need to ask the questions, what does it mean? Why does it matter? And then what we ought to do, which folds into law and policy. It’s this kind of hermeneutic circle – one ought to inform the other, which ought to inform the other, and not get all tangled up in the process. 

So from my perspective, PAN Works is about bringing people, animals, and nature together, science, ethics, and policy together, and taking a heterodox approach to inform these conversations so that we can help in a very practical way and further the conversation.

LB: Speaking to ethical capacity building, part of that is getting people comfortable with thinking and talking about these things. And that means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable about who we are and what we think about our convictions, and being able to reevaluate those convictions and be ready to reposition ourselves. That’s how I also see a mission of PAN Works – to welcome people into the conversation and into the discourse. But part of that welcoming is like, you’re going to get dirty and you should want to get dirty.

FSA: And you’re going to be wrong. You’re not going to be perfect because, as Bill mentioned, we’re human, we’re not angels. So it’s going to be messy. To emphasize what Donna Haraway has written: stay with the trouble. There’s always ethical trouble. And we can’t just ignore it, come to a decision, and forget about it. Stay with the trouble and grieve. Grieve for what is lost with any decision you make. Then, when you can’t avoid making a decision that might harm others, you’re being respectful and caring to the extent that you can. 

WL: To wrap up this discussion of policy and ethics using a metaphor, we like to think of ethics as one of two stars. There’s ethics and there’s science. And they help triangulate on the best public policy. Why? Because politics is always ethics writ large, and public policy is always driven by facts we find on the ground and values that people bring to the interpretation of those facts and what we ought to do. 

The ethics helps keep our values transparent and accountable. We have very little of that in our politics. The science helps keep our facts transparent and accountable. Both can serve as guiding stars when you’re trying to find the best public policy and the best route forward to improving the wellbeing of our lives, improving the wellbeing of people, animals, and nature.

Footnotes

  1. Ethical theories that believe that humans and many other animals are agents of our own lives.
  2. The study of meaning and understanding, whether conveyed in writing, speech, objects, or action.
  3. The application of moral laws or rules to specific cases (i.e. case-based reasoning).
  4. An ethical theory that uses the four ethical principles – respect for autonomy (self-determination), nonmaleficence (do no harm), beneficence (do good), and justice (fairness) – as a standard for judgement or resolution.
  5. A movement and ethical framework that makes explicit the links between the oppression of women and the oppression of nature in patriarchal cultures.
  6. Ethical theories that emphasize the consequences of our actions.
  7. Ethical theories that stress moral duties behind our actions (also called deontology).
  8. Ethical theories that cultivate virtuous habits in pursuits of a moral life.
  9. Discrimination or unjustified treatment based on an individual’s species membership.

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