Nate asked:

Given the current situation of increased shark activity and unprovoked attacks in Australian waters, is it possible to argue the culling of sharks, with ethical theory, in order to protect human lives? How would a utilitarian, Kantian approach this?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I sympathize with those who are arguing for a shark cull. In the UK, we have a problem with badgers. There’s overwhelming evidence that badgers carry tuberculosis and pass this to cattle, presenting a very serious threat to human health. Herds are regularly tested for the tuberculin bacillus and if the test is positive then it can be a disaster for farmer to see their cows and bulls slaughtered and burned.

You can imagine writing a children’s story about friendly, cuddly badgers. It would be more difficult to do this with sharks, so perhaps there is less opposition to culling sharks in Oz than there is to badger culls? On the other hand, sharks have feelings too, if any non-human animals have feelings. And, of course, there is also the conservation issue.

It occurred to me, however, that a small change in the wording of your question produces something rather more controversial. (This is relevant to Mill and Kant, as we shall see in a moment.)

“Given the current situation of increased religious extremist activity and unprovoked attack on the European continent, is it possible to argue the culling of religious extremists, with ethical theory, in order to protect (innocent) human lives? How would, etc. etc.”

What would Kant say? Kant has no objection to the death penalty, as deserved punishment for a crime such as murder. However, to preemptively kill a person or group of people on the grounds that they are likely to murder other people would be ethically wrong, because it would transgressing a person’s fundamental rights as a ‘lawmaking member of the kingdom of ends’. They have to do the murders first, then you can go after them.

On a Kantian view, non-human animals do not have ethical rights, so any moral obligations that we have towards them would be consequent on the value they have for human beings. Sharks have a value, on this reckoning (e.g. we wouldn’t like to see any species of shark made extinct) but it is a value to be weighed against other values.

Mill’s case for the ethical theory he calls ‘utilitarianism’ is based on the maximization of happiness/ pleasure and minimization of pain, with the rider that some states of pleasure are ‘higher’ than others. The characteristically human pleasure of studying philosophy or listening to classical music would be preferable to more ‘animal’ pleasures such as dancing in a mosh pit.

However, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has controversially argued for a version of utilitarianism according to which there should be no distinction between human and non-human animals when we calculate the total amount of pleasure or pain. Under certain circumstances, it would be right to allow a human infant to die in order to save the life of a mature gorilla. The quality of states of consciousness is all that counts, regardless of what creature is enjoying them.

What one can say, tentatively, is that Mill’s case for culling sharks, if valid (under appropriate circumstances) is also a valid case for culling religious extremists. There is an issue about the negative utility of perceived ‘injustice’ — as Mill argues in his book Utilitarianism — but one could argue that the point about injustice, although valid, would be overwhelmingly negated by public sentiment in the wake of terrorist killings.

You can take this either as a reductio ad absurdum of utilitarianism, or not, depending on whether you are more sympathetic to Kant or Mill.