Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Abstract (Vargsymposiet 2016): "Marked for life – Ethical questions concerning management of and research on wolves"

The Norwegian title of my upcoming presentation at Vargsymposiet 2016 is "Merket for livet – Etiske spørsmål knyttet til forvaltning av og forskning på ulv". The English version of the abstract, finished yesterday, follows below.

Marked for life – Ethical questions concerning management of and research on wolves

Morten Tønnessen (academic blog: Utopian Realism)
Associate professor of philosophy, University of Stavanger

This presentation vil address ethical questions concerning how we treat the wolf. It will hopefully be of relevance for similar discussions about bears, wolverines and lynx as well. To study how we treat the wolf, we must first make a distinction between formal and informal wolf management. By ”formal wolf management”, I mean the official management, for which the authorities are responsible. ”Informal wolf management”, on the other side, refers to the public´s treatment of the wolf, whether it is of legal or illegal character (including illegal hunting).
Such conceptual distinctions make a difference, because our motivation for how we treat the wolf, according to many ethicists, can be seen as decisive for how our actions may be judged. This is a central theme within ethics of conviction. In this presentation I will therefor compare legal and illegal hunting, as well as authority-approved ”taking out” (“removal”) of individual wolves, based on two different ethical perspectives: a consequentialist perspective, where what is decisive is what consequences our actions have for the wolf. And an ethics of conviction perspective, where the motivation behind our actions is emphasised.
In this context, I will also use radio-collared wolves as a central example. In this case as well I will interpret current practices from a consequentialist and ethics of conviction perspective respectively. Here the relevant distinction to be made is not that between formal and informal wolf management, but a distinction between research purposes and management purposes. In what way is the researcher´s motivation different from the manager´s motivation for tagging a wolf and equipping it with a radio-collar? And to what extent can our need for knowledge justify such treatment of wolves? Seen from a consequentialist perspective, with an emphasis on the consequences for the wolves involved, it remains clear that GPS-tagging of wolves, possibly with the use of a helicopter during the chase when tagging is done and at later capture events, can involve a risk of traumas for the marked wolf. An important question is whether such traumas permanently changes the wolf´s relation to humans, and what this does to the wolf (and to the reliability of research data).
A measure of our formal management of wolves is to what extent our attempts to protect the wolf as a species, or population, is based on a willingness to sacrifice individual wolves. A sound wolf ethics must, in my opinion, presuppose that our treatment of wolves is compatible with attributing moral status to the wolf both on a species level and on an individual level. Here, further ethical traditions can be made use of. From a virtue-ethical perspective, our management of wolves should seek to realize good lives for humans as well as for wolves and animals in our care. From a deontological perspective, one often makes reference to the inherent value of living beings. If the wolf, too, has inherent value, then we have a duty to respect its inviolability, on a par with the inviolability of other living beings with inherent value.  

Acknowledgement: This work has been carried out thanks to the support of the research project ”Animals in Changing Environments: Cultural Mediation and Semiotic Analysis” (EEA Norway Grants/Norway Financial Mechanism 2009-2014 under project contract no. EMP151).

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