Sebastian Awatramani

In Response to Baril on the Predation Problem

In Equality, Flourishing, and the Problem of Predation [1] , Ann Baril argues that in the case that we come upon a prey animal in the midst of being attacked by a predator in the wild, we should refrain from intervening in the predator prey relationship. She bases our obligation not to intervene primarily on a eudemonist framework that requires we respect the autonomy of the prey animal, as not doing so would prohibit the animal from flourishing qua wild prey animal (WPA). The motivation for her argument stems from the “predation problem,” which poses two cases that seem to elicit contradictory intuitions because they focus on two categories of animal. In the first case, the subject is a human, and we are asked whether or not we should intervene in the case that the human is being attacked by a predator animal. In the second case, the subject is a WPA, and we are posed with the same question. If we accept that humans and animals are deserving of equal moral consideration, then all else being equal, our obligations should be the same to both categories of beings. Yet our intuitions in these two cases seem to differ, and hence Baril attempts to offer a solution that explains why we should intervene in case 1, but not case 2, while still accepting the claim that animals and non-human animals are deserving of equal moral consideration.

Problematically, however, Baril at the end of her essay answers a different question than the one which she set out to answer at the beginning. In the predation problem, we are tasked with explaining whether, and if so why, our moral obligations should differ in the happenstance of coming across a particular [2] animal at a particular point in time being attacked by a predator. By the end of her essay, however, Baril offers us only the general directive that we are obligated not to intervene repeatedly. Hence, it is the intent of this essay to provide an answer to the predation problem that argues (a) that we do in fact have different obligations, (b) and that our obligations apply in the happenstance of coming across a particular WPA in the midst of being attacked by a predator animal. Like Baril’s essay, this essay will utilize a eudemonist approach to the problem and accept Baril’s grounding tout court, but the argument contained herein will differ in two significant ways. First, rather than focus exclusively on the flourishing of the prey animal, this argument will take into account the flourishing of the predator animal. Second, this essay will delineate WPAs into three age brackets and argue that each bracket requires a different solution to the predation problem.


Let us begin by stating the predation problem as formulated by Baril, after which the relevant details of her argument will be presented.

1. If a predatory animal attacks a human, one is obligated to intervene on the attacked human’s behalf (providing one can do so without endangering oneself).

2. If a predatory animal attacks another animal, one is not obligated to intervene on the attacked animal’s behalf (even providing one can do so without endangering oneself).

Of course, the predation problem is only problematic in the case that one accepts both some measure of obligation to humans, as well as some measure of equality between humans and animals. While there may be something to be said on the former, it is outside the scope of this essay, and as such will not be discussed. On the latter, Baril offers us two principles in which she might ground these obligations, each following from a different ethical tradition. First, there is Peter Singer’s utilitarian based principle of equality, which states that “like interests should be treated alike, whether they are interests of humans or animals” [3]. But while it is convenient to derive from this principle the reasons that activities such as “farming, hunting, and [animal] experimentation” [4] are wrong, Baril notes that SPE seems to be problematic in the specific cases before us. For, if like interests should be treated alike, and if we would save the human in case 1, then strictly adhering to SPE would seem to require us to save the WPA as well. Another option Baril provides is for us to treat both cases alike by saving neither, but as she notes, this too is an unintuitive option. Second is Regan’s principle of equality (RPE), “all beings who are subjects-of-a-life possess equal inherent value, and thus all have an equal right to be treated with respect.” [5]

Like SPE, Baril argues that RPE leads to the same counterintuitive judgment: if non-human animals are deserving of equal respect, then our obligation in both cases must be the same. RPE differs from SPE, however, in that if what it means to respect one being against another differs, then our obligations will shift in response. This is precisely the line of argument down which Baril travels, and in the next section we will consider her attempt to demonstrate that respect for a WPA differs from respect for a human.

The Eudemonic Argument from Autonomy

What does it mean to be a good member of one’s class? In Nichomachean terms, Baril explains that what it means to live well, or to flourish, will depend on the nature of the being in question, as the nature of the being in question determines a set of characteristic activities that the being must perform well in order to flourish. Flourishing, hence, is the excellent and characteristic performance of one’s characteristic activities. As the life of a human differs from that of an animal, so too do the characteristic actions each respective class must perform in order to flourish. For the human, these actions might include the work one does, the relationships one cultivates, the arts or crafts one creates, etc. For the animal in the wild, the set of actions is, of course different, and include activities such as “hunting, avoiding predators, or both.”[6] Importantly, Baril posits that the characteristic activities in which a being engages forms a totality, a “web of activities,” [7] with one set of actions influencing other sets of actions, and in an inseparable manner. It is on the basis of these webs of activities that Baril believes we can find “a morally relevant difference between humans and animals, and ultimately … a justification [for] responding differently in” [8] cases 1 and 2.

Succinctly stated, her argument thus far is as follows: as the activity of avoiding predators is a set of actions exclusive to a web of activities which comprise the life of an animal; and as any set of actions within a web of activities influences and is inseparable from other actions; and as the flourishing of an animal depends on performing these actions well; to interfere in an animal engaging in “prey-evading activity” [9] then is an interference which limits the animal’s capacity to flourish.

This is the skeleton of her argument, to which she adds a strong defense of the need of a WPA to be autonomous in its decision making, which she argues is also integral to its capacity to flourish. That is to say, it is important that the WPA engage in its characteristic activities autonomously, “to develop [its] skills and instincts, and to confront the dangers and escape, or not, based on her own ability. Just as the academic’s life is less full to the extent that her professional success depends on her spouse writing her papers for her … so is an animal’s life less full to the extent that her successes … are not due to her own efforts, and ultimately, to the creature that she is.”[10]

From all this Baril concludes that we should refrain from intervention in case 2. Meanwhile, as the human life is comprised by a different set of characteristic activities—activities which do not include avoiding prey (in most cases)—the obligation not to intervene in case 2 doesn’t apply.

Baril anticipates here an objection: even if we accept the provided reasoning, we should still intervene because preventing an animal’s pain outweighs our obligation not to intervene in the WPA’s autonomy, and by extension its capacity to flourish. In response, Baril argues that pain is not in and of itself unvaluable. Some pain, she acknowledges, is debilitating because of the effect it has on the characteristic life of the actor (e.g. the repeated death of loved ones), but other pains are in fact constitutive of the characteristic life of the actor, and is “part of living the full life” [11] for that kind of being. As to whether death at the hand of a predator falls into the former or the latter category, she affirms it falls into the latter, and is better than the alternative for a wild animal, which she says is “a slow painful decline until death.” [12]

Pivoted Conclusion

Perhaps Baril is correct that death of the hands of a predator for a WPA in some circumstances is better than the “slow painful decline” she mentions, but is it always? At the beginning of her argument, Baril seems to set out to offer us guidance in the case that we should ever end up needing the make a decision in case 2, however rare such an occurrence might be. But at the end of the argument, are we really more informed on the correct course of our actions in any particular case? On this, the text of her conclusion, which she situates between the dichotomy of pains mentioned above, is telling. She writes, “The repeated rescue of the prey from predator would lead directly to the latter kind of pain”[13] (the slow decline previously mentioned). But to say that we should not intervene repeatedly is not the same as saying that we should not intervene in any particular instance.[14] Imagine, for example, that the animal in question is a fawn who temporarily wanders from her herd. Having not reached a mature age, and not yet having the chance to engage in many of the characteristic activities which make up her life, is it not better that she should live to die another day, than to die prematurely? Surely if given the choice, we can speculate confidently that she would gladly take the assistance. But even ignoring the animal’s hypothetical wishes, if we are focusing on a flourishing centered solution, then we must consider that a precondition of flourishing is that the animal must be alive, at least long enough to engage in its characteristic activities to some extent.

In the dichotomy of pains with which we’re presented, the problem is simplified such that we are given only two options: the animal can be saved, and thus deprived of its autonomy, and by extension its capacity to flourish, or the animal can die a sort of honorable death, one which partly comprises the characteristic pains of its life. As the fawn example above shows, the problem may be more nuanced. Admittedly, Baril simplifies the cases in her argument in order to come to as general a conclusion as possible, but that may not be prudent in this case. For, if we require a principle to guide us in the case that we come upon a realization of case 2, and if our realized version includes a being such as the fawn we describe above, we would in fact be making the wrong decision, as our inaction, on balance, would lead to a reduced capacity to flourish for the animal.

One means of solving this conundrum would be to delineate animals into age brackets and consider the predation problem with respect to each bracket separately. We could stipulate, for example, that we should always rescue a young animal in the happenstance of coming across case 2, but that we should not rescue older animals, for the reasons Baril provides. It is often difficult to speak of “our” intuitions, as intuitions differ among people, but my personal intuitions would not lead me to a counterintuitive position in the case that the cases in this essay focused on the rescue of a human and an adolescent animal. Said another way, in such a case, the argument from flourishing for the sake of exploring counterintuition becomes meaningless, as the predation problem ceases to be a problem when we consider an adolescent animal. What of older animals then? Although Baril concludes that we should not save animals repeatedly, when we consider an older animal which has had the opportunity to flourish over the course of its life, it seems as though Baril should be able to make the conclusion that she originally intended to make. That is to say, her dichotomy of pains applies in the case of an older animal, for surely its choices truly are either a death in the throes of her prey-evading activity, or a slow, painful death. To intervene in such a case would then result in a reduced capacity to flourish, as to do so would be to deny the older WPA a characteristic pain, while not denying it a characteristic future. This leads then us to consider a middle of the road case: an adult animal who would be better off not dying with regard to its capacity to flourish. In this case, it seems that the conclusion that we should not repeatedly rescue the animal is the strongest conclusion Baril can make, but this conclusion, as noted, leaves much to be desired. However, with a small adjustment to Baril’s argument, we may be able to locate a harmonious solution.

Consider that in Baril’s essay as well as this essay, the formulation of the predation problem explicitly acknowledges three entities, but only focuses on the flourishing capacity of two entities, a human and a WPA. For the sake of the human, we are permitted to intervene for one of two possible reasons. First, simply because it is our intuition to do so, and second because we should not not intervene, as the flourishing centered solution defended in Baril’s argument is predicated upon intervention being problematic because to intervene would disturb a set of characteristic activities—activities in which most humans do not engage. As the WPA’s life is defined by these activities, we are not permitted to intervene. But what of the third entity, the predator? Are there any good reasons why the flourishing of the predator should not be taken into consideration?

One might approach this question from a utilitarian perspective and argue that the pain and loss of life a WPA would experience at the claws of a predator would outweigh the satiation experienced by the predator from killing and eating its prey, and hence outweighs the predator’s interest in its flourishing. This objection mirrors arguments by Norcross [15], wherein he demonstrates through gruesome detail the abject pain suffered by animals, and concludes that meat eating is morally unjustifiable. However, there are salient differences between the case of human and non-human predator meat consumption. The first is simply that utilitarian obligations cannot fall upon animals, as they lack the capacity to make such calculations. But secondly and more importantly, even accepting that in any given instance in which predator and prey meet, the predator will benefit less from its kill in pleasure than the prey will suffer from death in pain, the relationship and the resulting suffering is (a) an ecosystematic prerequisite, and (b) a necessary consequence for the continued existence of the predator.

Let us discuss the latter first. That it is a necessary consequence for the continued existence of the predator simply means that if a predator is denied its food, then it cannot continue to survive. It may be the case that any particular intervention in case 2 would not lead to the death of the predator, but a utilitarian approach requires that we generalize our moral conclusions and consider aggregate utility, not merely the utility of any particular encounter [16]. Said another way, if we are to intervene in case 2 on grounds of aggregate utility between only those two entities, then we must intervene in all feasible instances of case 2, but to intervene in all feasible instances of case 2 would lead to the extinction of the predator species. Perhaps a utilitarian would accept this and argue that the extinction of a predator species is a good because doing so would maximize aggregate utility with respect to the predator and prey species, but this would be a mistaken move, and one that will lead us to our discussion on ecosystematic prerequisites.

The extinction of a predator species has two salient potential consequences for our purposes. First, that the biological niche it fills is filled by another animal upon its extinction. That is, if predator A is the primary predator of prey A, then upon prey A’s extinction predator B will fill the niche. In that case, intervening in case 2 repeatedly will be essentially meaningless with respect to the whole of the species of WPA. The second possibility is potentially dire. In the case that no predator B exists to fill the niche left by predator A, the WPA, which will likely be a member of the second trophic level, with its numbers not kept in check by a predator species, has the potential to seriously damage its environment by overgrazing, which in turn, if left unchecked, may lead to ecosystem collapse.[17]

These problems are offered here only as preliminary considerations, and a full discussion of their potentiality is beyond the scope of this paper. It will have to suffice to say, for our purposes, that ecosystems are dependent upon a series of relationships between predator and prey, and that a consistent intervention in these relationships would not lead to aggregate utility, and hence the utilitarian objection is without merit.

Let us return then to our discussion on the flourishing of the predator. Like the WPA, the predator animal’s life is comprised of a “web of activities” that define its life. Like the WPA, the predator animal can engage in its activities well or poorly. And like the WPA, the predator animal requires some measure of autonomy to maximize its capacity to flourish. The difference between the predator and prey is merely the role in the relationship that the predator plays. The predator prey relationship is integral to the life of both: one is defined by the other, and so when considering whether to intervene in our restricted version of case 2—a middle of the road case—to respect both animals, in Regan’s sense, is to refrain from intervention.


In this paper we considered Ann Baril’s flourishing centered solution to the predation problem, taking issue with her pivot in the conclusion to a more general solution rather than the specific solution she sought to provide. In order to rectify this problem, we considered a solution that accepted her grounding tout court, but one which differed significantly in two ways with regard to its execution. First, we delineated age into three categories, and argued that the problem ceased to exist when considering a young WPA; that Baril’s sought after solution applied in older WPAs; but that in middle of the road cases, Baril’s eventual conclusion was the strongest she could make. Second, we considered the flourishing of the predator animal in addition to the prey animal in middle of the road cases. Having found no relevant differences between the two, and having responded to a utilitarian objection which weighed the pain of the prey higher than the flourishing of the predator, we concluded that in middle of the road cases, we should refrain from intervention, as intervening would interfere in the capacity of both prey and predator to flourish.

[1] Baril, Ann. 'Equality, Flourishing, and the Problem of Predation.' The Moral Rights of Animals. By Gary Comstock and Mylan Engel. Lanham: Lexington, 2016.

[2] Baril does not use the particular term “particular,” but the way she formulates the problem heavily implies that she seeks to find a solution in particular cases (see background section).

[3] Singer in Baril, 82.

[4] Baril, 82

[5] Regan in Baril, 88

[6] Baril, 90

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Baril, 91

[10] Baril, 94

[11] Baril, 96

[12] ibid

[13] Ibid, emphasis added

[14] Moreover, how would we know that the animal had or had never been rescued before, so as to avoid repetition?

[15] Norcross, Alastair. “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases.” Philosophical Perspectives 18 (1):229–245 (2004).

[16] Else the level of utility we’ve chosen to reach is chosen arbitrarily. That is to say, it is not maximized in any general sense, only with respect to that encounter, but why only that encounter?

[17] For an example of ecosystem collapse in action due to a lack of predators, see Terborgh et al. “Ecological Meltdown in Predator-Free Forest Fragments.” Science, 294.5548 (2001): 1923-1926.