Res Publica

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 273–289 | Cite as

Rabbits, Stoats and the Predator Problem: Why a Strong Animal Rights Position Need Not Call for Human Intervention to Protect Prey from Predators

  • Josh Milburn


Animal rights positions face the ‘predator problem’: the suggestion that if the rights of nonhuman animals are to be protected, then we are obliged to interfere in natural ecosystems to protect prey from predators. Generally, rather than embracing this conclusion, animal ethicists have rejected it, basing this objection on a number of different arguments. This paper considers but challenges three such arguments, before defending a fourth possibility. Rejected are Peter Singer’s suggestion that interference will lead to more harm than good, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s suggestion that respect for nonhuman sovereignty necessitates non-interference in normal circumstances, and Alasdair Cochrane’s solution based on the claim that predators cannot survive without killing prey. The possibility defended builds upon Tom Regan’s suggestion that predators, as moral patients but not moral agents, cannot violate the rights of their prey, and so the rights of the prey, while they do exist, do not call for intervention. This idea is developed by a consideration of how moral agents can be more or less responsible for a given event, and defended against criticisms offered by thinkers including Alasdair Cochrane and Dale Jamieson.


Animal ethics Animal rights Predator problem Environmental ethics Moral responsibility Justice 



This paper was produced as part of a research project funded by the Department for Employment and Learning, Northern Ireland. Previous versions of the paper have been presented at the Association of Legal and Social Philosophy Annual Conference 2014 at Leeds University, the Queen’s University Belfast political theory workshop series and the Queen’s University Belfast philosophy society. My thanks to all who commented on these and other occasions, especially David Archard, Jeremy Watkins, Cillian McBride, Fabian Schuppert and Matteo Bonotti.


  1. Alward, Peter. 2000. The naïve argument against moral vegetarianism. Environmental Values 9: 81–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Cochrane, Alasdair. 2012. Animal rights without liberation. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. 2013. Zoopolis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Ebert, Rainer, and Tibor Machan. 2012. Innocent threats and the moral problem of carnivorous animals. Journal of Applied Philosophy 29: 146–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Everett, Jennifer. 2001. Environmental ethics, animal welfarism, and the problem of predation: A Bambi lover’s respect for nature. Ethics and the Environment 6: 42–67.Google Scholar
  6. Garner, Robert. 2013. A theory of justice for animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Gruen, Lori. 2011. Ethics and animals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hadley, John. 2006. The duty to aid nonhuman animals in dire need. Journal of Applied Philosophy 23: 445–451.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Horta, Oscar. 2013. Zoopolis, intervention, and the state of nature. Law, Ethics and Philosophy 1: 113–125.Google Scholar
  10. Jamieson, Dale. 1990. Rights, justice, and duties to provide assistance: A critique of Regan’s theory of rights. Ethics 100: 349–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Linzey, Andrew. 2009. Why animal suffering matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Machan, Tibor. 2004. Putting humans first. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  13. McMahan, Jeff. 2002. The ethics of killing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Miller, David. 2007. National responsibility and global justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Nussbaum, Martha. 2006. Frontiers of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Pemberton, Jo-Anne. 2009. Sovereignty. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  17. Regan, Tom. 1984. The case for animal rights. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  18. Sagoff, Mark. 1984. Animal liberation and environmental ethics: Bad marriage, quick divorce. Osgood Hall Law Journal 22: 297–307.Google Scholar
  19. Simmons, Aaron. 2009. Animals, predators, the right to life and the duty to save lives. Ethics and the Environment 14: 15–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Shriver, Adam. 2009. Knocking out pain in livestock: Can technology succeed where morality has stalled? Neuroethics 2: 115–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Svärd, Per-Anders. 2013. Animal national liberation? Journal of Animal Ethics 3: 188–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Politics, International Studies and PhilosophyQueen’s University BelfastBelfastUK

Personalised recommendations