The (flawed) concept of “well being”

by nomeatbarefeet

This post begins with the whooping crane, which is at the center of a recent episode of Radiolab (Raising Crane).

A brief history lesson for the whooping crane uninformed: at one point the whooping crane population was less than 20 birds. Basically they were extinct. Through conservation efforts, however, the cranes have been brought back from the brink to almost 600 birds today.

The question that I am interested in, though, is one that Andrea Seabrock asks scientest John B. French in the podcast. After she has seen all the efforts to help the whooping cranes, Seabrock asks French why we should save them—despite all of the difficulties and the cost involved in helping reestablish the whooping crane community (sometime over $100k per bird) that sometimes end in the birds simply abandoning their eggs. French’s answer is, well, not really an answer at all but more like an assumption:

Well, it’s the right thing to do. And, what else are you gonna do, really? I mean, we’re not gonna give up. We’re gonna find a way to make it work better.

And, interestingly Seabrook ends with a similar assumption: that saving the whooping cranes is “an important undertaking in itself”.

But why?

Fench is not alone in this assumption. To be honest I hold it as well. We should help to save animals. But the deeper question many people don’t or are unwilling to ask is why some animals are bestowed with “worth” that affords them the level of protection like that given to the whopping crane? Why do we save some animals—employing legal, economic, and social tools to ensure their survival—but we kill other animals by the millions? What makes the whooping crane different, more special, more worthy of protection, than the cow or the pig or the chicken? The question I am asking goes beyond conservation and protection to question the status of “worth” that humans employ.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act gives five criteria an animal must meet to be considered for protection:

  1. There is the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range.
  2. An over utilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes.
  3. The species is declining due to disease or predation.
  4. There is an inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.
  5. There are other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

I could offer some comments on these specific criteria, but my focus is on what the document goes on to say. It says that species afforded protection are those which are deemed to have a “significant risk to their well being”.

[A few of the animals saved by the U.S. Endangered Species Act are: the American Alligator, the Whooping Crane, the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon, the Grizzly Bear, the American Grey Wolf, the Eastern Red Wolf, and the California Condor.]

All of these animals were deemed (in some way) to have a “significant risk to their well being,” and thus they were seen to be worthy of being protected. But what is well being? And what does it mean for an animal’s “well being” to be put at risk? Is it simply that an animal might become extinct, that it might cease to exist? Is that what makes it’s well being in danger, and thus warrants saving? That surely is a position taken by some:

“…we ought not to be picking and choosing between two endangered animals. Instead, we should be focusing on why both those animals are endangered and what is needed to recover them.”1


“Plants and animals hold medicinal, agricultural, ecological, commercial and aesthetic/recreational value. Endangered species must be protected and saved so that future generations can experience their presence and value.”2

This is the assumption that French makes, and one that Seabrock echos in hear closing comments. Saving animals that are facing extinction is just something we should do; their well being is at risk so they are worth saving. But the possibility of extinction cannot be the only criteria for a “significant risk to…well being”. (It is, of course, a criteria.) My well being can be at risk from a great many things, all of them much less risky than non-existence. But we are not talking about the non-existence of one animal; not even of a hand-full—we are talking about an entire species not existing. Surely that is a significant risk to well being.

Again, however, this fails as well: we can talk about the well being of humanity, or the well being of Americans, or the well being of Vermonters—all without having to resort to talk of non-existence. “Well being” encompasses a great many aspects of a being’s life, and continual existence is just one aspect. More pressing aspects might be things like health, happiness, and prosperity.

Perhaps by “well being” we mean something like “self-interest.” In this way we can say that an animal has an interest in being happy, healthy, prosperous, and…yes, existing (though I am not sure whether most animals, humans included, consciously go around maintaining their existence). Existence might be a by-product, and end result, of trying to maintain one’s self-interest. But if we take “well being” to mean “self-interest” then we have quite a multifaceted concept, and to say that we should protect an animal simply because of the possibility of extinction is to take into account only one aspect of what it means for an animal’s (and a species’) well being is at risk.

More importantly, if “well being” is understood as “self interest” we should take a hard look at how we are risking the well being of all animals—specifically, the countless millions of animals that are slaughtered every year for food. Why shouldn’t their well being be taken into account? I find it hard to believe that the well being of a dairy cow is not at risk when she has her baby forcibly taken from her, is continually hooked up to a milking machine that is painful and causes infections, and then is re-impregnated to begin the entire process again; only to be killed once her usefulness has run out. How is her well being being preserved? All such similar animals have their happiness, their health, and their prosperity continually put at risk—in fact, their very existence is continually put at risk.

The difference is found in this: for a cow or pig or chicken we ensure the “well being” of the entire species at the expense of the “well being” of individual animals.

The issue of extinction is assuage under the mask of our massive appetite. If well being is only understood as the absence of extinction, then the well being of the cow-species is not at risk; if well being is understood as being more complex (as being self-interest), then the well being of the cow-species is not only in a continual state of risk, it is being blatantly violated. We make more cows (and pigs and chickens, etc.) so they are in no risk of going extinct, but we make them to be killed. In a oddly twisted scenario we inhibit extinction while ensuring death. This must surely divorce the term “well being” from the notion of “continued existence.”

We save the whooping crane from extinction because it has a significant risk to its well being.

Saving the cow from extinction ensures a significant risk to its well being.

Please do not read this as a vendetta against endangered species. On the contrary, as I said earlier I believe that protecting these animals is important and something that we should do. What I have questioned in the rationale used to justify such protection, as it can equally justify protecting other animals: specifically, those animals used for food. I did not answer the question of why we save one animal as opposed to another (i.e., why do we legislate the preserved well being of the Grey Wolf rather than the Whooping Crane, or both of those rather than the cow, the pig, or the chicken?). I still do not have an answer to those questions. The colloquially inane answers might be that the former are “more special” or are “cuter” or “more majestic”…all of which have nothing to do with an animal’s well being nor their deserving protection from having that well being infringed upon. I do not have answers; I have more questions. But that is not a bad thing. Questions can irritate and hassle, and, at the very least, can be the impetus for exploration and analysis…and for further questions.