Multispecies Ethics are Messy: Five Questions for William Lynn

A white canid and a human being lean on a rooftop balcony together

Ethicist and geographer William Lynn asks us to examine the place of science and ethics in sustaining the well-being of people, animals, and nature, now and into the future. The ethicist in charge of leading the first U.S. government agency-sponsored ethics brief, managing barred owls for the benefit of northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Lynn has a particular interest in the practical implications of public policy. His latest publications on the contentious issue of coexistence between humans and feral cats and “just preservation” employ an interpretivist approach that reveals the ethical presuppositions undergirding harmful practices in conservation and suggests a non-anthropocentric ethic is the only way towards deep sustainability.

Recently, the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment and the Department of Geography invited Dr. Lynn to give a series of lectures on animal studies, deep sustainability, ethics, and geography. After his visit to Madison, we spoke further and took a fascinating dive into how paradigms of ethics and science impact public policy.

1. Geography, sustainability, and ethics form the core of your research and your work. How do you understand these concepts, and what connections do you draw between them?

Some think of geography as map-making or memorizing place names, and that’s certainly an element of geography as experienced in grade school. But geography is really the elder tradition of environmental studies. It primarily looks at how humans make a home on the earth and how humans share that earth with other animals and nature. Geography is about two thousand years old and was the first interdisciplinary field of study in the academy.

William Lynn. Photo courtesy of Lynn.

I chose geography because I wanted to understand environmental studies in a very deep way: temporally, over time, and spatially, over the surface of the earth. That connects with sustainability, for me. By sustainability I don’t mean simply how we sustain economic productivity over time or how we adapt to the bad things we’ve done on the surface of the earth, such as climate change or the crisis of biodiversity. All of that’s really important. But I think of sustainability in a deeper, more ethically informed way as about sustaining all life—people, other animals, and nature—into perpetuity. It’s not just about adaptation or mitigation. It’s about thinking about how we ought to live on the surface of the earth in a way that allows all of us—people, animals, and nature—to flourish. This is what I mean by deep sustainability.

Ethics complements the other discourses of science and economics that are predominant in discussions of sustainability. Ethics is not about blaming or shaming, or rigid codes of conduct. It’s rather the study of the practice of “how we ought to live.” It critiques our way of life now, and it envisions a better way of life in the future. It’s also very practical. Angels don’t need ethics. Rather, human beings need ethics to help them understand and guide their actions through the world so they do right by others. Those others might be other people, but they also might be animals, wild or domestic, or nature, whether in a particular place or the global geosphere. You can’t think clearly about geography, sustainability, and our relationship to the world around us without thinking about ethics.

2. In your work on ethics, you advocate a particular approach to moral or ethical reasoning, an interpretivist approach. Could you explain what that means?

That’s a big question because it has to do with history and philosophy of science since ancient times. The long and short of it is this: interpretivism is a way of thinking about the world that believes that humans and many other animals are agents of our own lives. Thus, to causally explain what we do, you have to first understand how we understand the world, what it means to us, and how we interpret the world around us.

Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila. Photo courtesy of Santiago-Ávila.

This is very different from traditions of science such as positivism or genetic determinism which assume that we’re essentially biological automatons. It is also quite different from philosophical traditions which think of ethics as akin to mathematical formula, that is, universal, a-contextual moral truths, like the axiomatic manner in which utilitarian (i.e. aggregate welfare) or rights-based (i.e. a right to freedom or a right to life) ethical theories are sometimes employed.

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a growth of interpretive ethics, partly out of feminist ethics which welcomed questions of emotion and relationships. Another locus of growth was bioethics, which is the application of ethics to health care, medical research, and research on human and animal subjects. Overall, interpretive ethics started to push back against more narrowly conceived philosophical ethics. Now interpretive ethics has become one of the dominant ways in which we understand animal, global, and sustainability ethics alike. Two very important people who contributed to the interpretive tradition in these regards were Mary Midgley and Ronald Engel.

In all manner of ethics, context matters. You’re talking about issues having to do with individual rights, questions of social justice, differences in cultural interpretations, differences in understandings about whether animals have intrinsic value along with human beings, whether nature has intrinsic value along with human beings. It’s incredibly complex. What interpretive ethics does is welcome that complexity and that messiness of the world.

For example, interpretive ethics highlights the degree to which normative understandings are central to conservation ideas in practice. Wildlife management and techniques are undergirded by presuppositions about ethics. There are moral norms embedded there. Traditional conservation is anthropocentric and views human beings and human beings alone as the focus of what we should be doing with respect to conservation and wildlife management. Some alternative paradigms, like New Conservation and Social Nature, are capitalist or influenced by Marxist thought, and they aim for social justice. But you can see how that might resonate with the anthropocentrism of traditional conservation because of the focus on the human and human justice. Other alternative paradigms like Rewilding and Compassionate Conservation are intentionally and specifically non-anthropocentric. They believe that intrinsic value can be found in animals and nature and that our conservation ideals and practices should be adapted to that. So, interpretive ethics can help us wade through and understand this complex debate that’s emerging over what the right conservation paradigm can do.

3. Could you talk about the relationship between science, ethics, and policy?

I’m a big believer in science based public policy. But I’m also a big believer in ethics based public policy. And the two always have to go together. One model of public policy is the technocratic, which is essentially a positivist notion of science, that science can produce answers for us. We have the answers. We can predict what’s going to happen. Here’s this policy that you should implement.

But every policy issue is a wicked problem. It’s a combination of both facts and values, and there is no silver bullet to solve the problem. So, we need to switch away from a technocratic model of public policy and move to an interpretive model that balances science and ethics together. An interpretive model recognizes that both facts and values are always present and that you need both science and the ethics to triangulate the best public policies, based on what we know scientifically and what we ought to do ethically.

You can’t think clearly about geography, sustainability, and our relationship to the world around us without thinking about ethics.

I was involved in the Barred Owls Stakeholder Group, which was the very first time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used an ethics review process in terms of making a policy decision. That this was the first time should alarm us, as the 1972 National Environmental Policy Act expressly envisioned “unquantifiable values” being part of environmental impact statements.

When I was asked to help organize and lead the Barred Owl Stakeholder Group ethics review process, I was personally profoundly skeptical that lethal management was the right thing to do. I have a deep appreciation for the intrinsic moral value of individual animals, wild or domestic, as well as people and nature as a whole. But as an interpretivist, I also recognize that that this is a particular issue in a particular context, and we’re looking for situated moral judgment, not a universal moral stance.

Two adult barred owls sit together on a branch

Barred owls like these are a threat to spotted owls and a challenging test case for multispecies ethics. Photo by Dennis Church, 2018.

I came to believe, through this process, that killing barred owls for the benefit of spotted owls was the right thing to do in context. Now I know I may be wrong, or if I was right then, later the context may change and the answer will be different. But I know I had to learn to be open and welcoming of other arguments and willing to change my mind. I found that was true with the vast majority of those who were part of the Barred Owls Stakeholder Group. They, too, considered positions that they hadn’t before and often changed their minds substantively.

4. You’ve developed several concepts in environmental studies and sustainability studies, like geocentrism, a worldview of intrinsic value, and your people, animals, and nature ethics (PANethics) for thinking through these human and nonhuman relationships. Recently you’ve also advocated for just preservation within conservation biology, which has a strong component of multispecies justice. What are you trying to do? And how did you come to these concepts?

I’m not the only one exploring these concepts. Many others, including yourself and Adrian Treves at University of Wisconsin–Madison, are pursuing these inquires. It also goes back to Mary Midgley, one of the most important animal ethicists and sustainability ethicists, as well as my grandmother who was a Democratic Socialist, a feminist, and an animal rights activist.

Both Mary Midgley and my grandmother taught me to see how the well-being of people and animals and nature matter, because they all have intrinsic value.  They taught me to see how their well-being intersects, because the well-being of one depends on the other, and how sometimes the well-being of one, even if it’s disconnected from the other, needs to be defended because of that intrinsic value. So, there’s an ecology of well-being between people animals and nature. This is what is meant by the term PANethics.

Geocentrism was the perhaps the first conceptual tool I developed. I did so to sidestep narrow and unproductive debates about whether intrinsic value is restricted to people, versus all living beings, versus ecological processes. Geocentrism recognizes the intrinsic value of the entire community of life whether it involves people, animal, or nature. Another feature of geocentrism is that it scales. Intrinsic value is found in individuals and communities, in human beings and nonhuman persons, in human societies as well as ecological communities. All of those are intersecting together in complex ways that Mary Midgley named mixed communities. The fundamental idea behind geocentrism as a paradigm of moral value is to allow for that intersection.

5. Are those mixed human-nonhuman communities part of the world you’re attempting to argue for when you advocate for multispecies justice?

Human societies are by definition mixed communities. Animals, wild and domestic, have always been with us. Because of this integration of social and ecological communities, we have simultaneous social and ecological relationships and obligations to consider when we think about what’s right to do.

Multispecies justice means you treat all individuals and species justly, or to put it another way, strive to be in a just relationship with them.

Ideally, you want to optimize the well-being of all members of your community, human and nonhuman. Sometimes you can’t do that. Sometimes you find yourself between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes rats pose a threat to public health and you have to grapple with that threat. Sometimes you have to privilege the well-being of dis-privileged human beings because their needs are so important, and that may mean that you develop a housing complex instead of protecting a wetland habitat. These trade-offs and balancing acts need to be considered in the open and with good faith and without prejudgment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a recording of the full conversation, click here.

Featured image: William Lynn with Atka, an Ambassador Wolf at the Wolf Conservation Center. Photograph by Henry Fair, 2003. 

William Lynn is a research scientist in the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University, a research fellow at New Knowledge Organization, and former Director of the Masters in Animals and Public Policy (MAPP) program at Tufts University. He is the Political Animals editor for the journal Society & Animals, former chair of the Ethics Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an International Associate of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies, and an author in many journals and books. Schooled in ethics, geography, and political theory, his interdisciplinary approach examines why and how we ought to care for nature and society. Some of the topics he addresses include wolf recovery, outdoor cats and biodiversity, barred and northern spotted owls, the Canadian seal hunt, cosmopolitanism, the Earth Charter, precaution, rewilding, sustainability science, and urban ecology. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He holds M.A. degrees in environmental public policy and environmental management from Duke University. As part of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab at University of Wisconsin–Madison, his research has revolved around the integration and application of environmental and animal ethics to coexistence with wildlife, the evaluation of the mortality impacts and functional effectiveness of policies, and interventions aimed at improving coexistence with large carnivores (focusing on the gray wolf). Website. Twitter. Contact.