Justice for All
An Interview with Dr. Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila on multispecies justice, moral imperatives, and the idea of mixed communities in conservation ethics
This is Part III of an interview with Dr. Francisco Santiago-Ávila, a researcher and policy analyst with expertise in large carnivore conservation and nature ethics.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
Kim Hightower: Can you tell us about the role that metaphysics plays, within these models and for you in your work?
Dr. Francisco Santiago-Ávila: I see metaphysics as essential. Midgley says in Can’t We Make Moral Judgments? that discussing metaphysics is not a luxury when addressing ethics and animals. We can’t go over these debates without addressing the central issue, which is: What is our worldview? That’s essential for ethics, which is how you behave toward others. Metaphysics gives you a conceptual and experiential structure of the world. It gives you knowledge of your place within that structure, and provides a map to orient you. It can be both a critique of how it currently is and a vision of how it could be. Through that, you can forge your identity and, through your identity, you also consider ethics: Who am I; who are others; how do I behave toward others; and how do I live with them — human and nonhuman? Why do we live with humans this way and with nonhumans that way? Everything starts with metaphysics.
It is not imperative that everyone shares the same metaphysical views, but there needs to be fundamental agreement on certain aspects of those views with respect to who we are and who nonhuman animals are; what intrinsic value is; and how we relate to other animals. In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls says that the place of animals within the theory of justice would depend upon a metaphysics that is suited particularly for that purpose. If justice is fairness among humans, then it must also be so in terms of our relationships to other animals.
Rawls is also saying that metaphysics urges us to clarify our relationships to other animals. That is the central delineation between the Ojibwe and the Euro-North American ‘management’ of wolves here in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes. There’s a metaphysical difference in who they see when they see wolves. The Ojibwe see a ‘who,’ whereas the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) sees a ‘what.’ And in between the two views there are animals who we still — for metaphysical reasons — consider to be expendable. We need people to understand that science is merely a tool at the service of your metaphysical view.
KH: How do we apply these notions, in a practical sense, to pressing ethical issues?
FS: If what matters to you is how many wolves you can kill legally while maintaining a sustainable population, that question is driving your science and your interpretation of that science — and stems from your metaphysical worldview. That is the metaphysics that dismisses wolves. In contrast, the Ojibwe wouldn’t even ask that question. It would be, from their metaphysical view, akin to asking how many children we can kill while having a sustainable population. That’s what I try to help folks understand. It goes beyond ethics to exploring: What is our place in this universe? Who are we? Who are others and how do we relate to them? Any explanation for behavior boils down to metaphysics. If we don’t discuss this and come to agreements, we’re going to see what we see with wildlife ‘management’ in the US: some folks advocating for individual nonhumans to be considered, respected, and cared for while others respond with: “What are these people talking about? We’re just talking about animals here.”
KH: And how does this translate to your own work on wolves and other carnivores?
FS: Following these attempts at discussions on worldviews, what usually happens is the conversation eventually breaks down. We enter into lengthy debates over minutia, over the science around the percentage of wolves that we can kill. Certainly, there must be recognition that there is a limited gradient of potential ethical alternatives given real differences in metaphysics. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t foreground these discussions and alternatives, that we shouldn’t challenge people for an actual explanation and justification of the behavior that they’re promoting, rather than throwing our hands up and falling into relativism for animals.
This discussion can genuinely be had without imposition. Asking someone to justify their view and explain their behavior is not imposing anything. I feel that if you can’t agree with a type of behavior, especially when it’s harmful toward others, you must at the very least ask for a justification for it. And if that explanation is not convincing, you have to take a stand.
KH: What you urge is so important: that worldviews must be challenged and the accompanying conversations need to happen. Switching gears a bit, your projects continue to be dynamic and timely. What insights or lessons have you learned in your time as a researcher and expert in nature ethics?
FS: There is a lack of focus on what should be the main discussion, which is a discussion over metaphysics and ethics, rather than one over the details that value-laden science provides. We have advocates foregrounding ‘science-based management’ and managers denying a lot of science with ethical implications. I wonder if either of these sides understand what’s important, because I don’t see anyone in the conservation community involved in foregrounding the ethical conversation. We’ve been doing that recently.
Another big insight is this resistance to change — ecological change, ethical change, metaphysical change. People are not wanting to even have a discussion about it, or are dismissing the calls for explanation and justification from individuals who really want to engage in those discussions. It’s rooted in anthropocentrism and human supremacy over animals. They simply ignore the discussion altogether and revert to allowing individuals to exploit animals. Again, they are falling back on relativism because many people aren’t even clear on what they think of animals or can’t justify their viewpoints and behaviors. The lack of ethical training within conservation professionals, even though they’re dealing with and affecting wild lives, is a huge issue. It’s very unnerving.
That ethical ignorance, scientific bias, and resistance to change is expressed as gatekeeping in public agencies, science, academia, and even the leadership of civic organizations — including some nonprofits that also refuse to engage because they hold similar views or due to concerns over: “How is revising my views and challenging some practices going to impact my funding?” Merely posing the question to these individuals and entities is sometimes enough for folks to disengage immediately. It is a shame because it shows a lack of motivation to learn or change.
Those conversations, as long as they’re sincere, hold the potential for true engagement and change, especially because a lot of people are distant from wildlife issues. According to surveys of America’s wildlife values, about a third of the population are ‘mutualists,’ which consider wildlife as an extended social network. But that doesn’t translate to higher protections for wild lives. Another big portion are classified as ‘pluralists,’ which seem more akin to ‘relativists.’ So, we try to have these conversations and see if they encourage some ethical or behavioral change. I recognize that there are a lot of good intentions here, even by a lot of these same people that are gatekeeping. They’re feeling the pressure and the challenge and resisting it, and I can empathize with them because change is hard. Still, this doesn’t justify lack of engagement. If you are being challenged about something, then the best you can do is explore how and why you may be wrong in a particular argument or behavior and proceed accordingly.
We all have to start from where we are, and I tell myself this about my experience with the dusky rattlesnake. I wasn’t willing to look into why I was wrong at that moment. I wasn’t there when that happened… I had to start from where I was when I decided to look into it. That experience makes me better because I seriously reflected upon it and because I keep it with me. A lot of folks feel that even the conversation is an imposition, but it’s a call in: we need to talk about this if we want to get to a point where we’re respecting and caring for everyone and everything.
KH: How have you seen these dynamics impacting your work — and work focused on animal wellbeing in general?
FS: Conservation is only concerned with wild lives. There is a concern among conservationists about going beyond the focus on wild lives to the lives of other oppressed nonhumans, such as those subject to animal agriculture. That’s a big no-no for a lot of advocacy organizations, because a lot of these individuals and their supporters partake in subsidizing animal agriculture. It’s inconsistent to be concerned only about wild animals, as if there’s something inherently different about them relative to commercially-bred animals.
This dynamic repels many animal advocates from conservation issues because they see that these organizations don’t have their ethics straight. That inconsistency within advocacy organizations ends up devolving into an argument along the lines of: “Well, we want to protect wildlife because we like wildlife — but for humans.” It turns into a selfish, anthropocentric argument again. And I often wonder if that is why some of these individuals and organizations are situated in the spaces that they are now, where they’re finding it increasingly hard to engage people on these issues. It’s because they’re not speaking to other people’s values, and because they can’t explain their own. This is a point that Midgley makes in Beast and Man: even if someone wants to just save humans, we’re not going to save ourselves without trying to save other beings alongside us.
KH: It seems the realities of these insights serve as your fuel, your motivation. On that note, what are you currently working on that energizes you?
FS: I am doing research and working on a few papers about wolves — all related to affecting policy. I’m working on reviewing the different methodologies that are used for estimating wolf populations — and showing how the scientific assumptions and biases used there are not justified, are arbitrary, and play into increased harm for wolves.
In addition, I’m trying to publish a paper about the gatekeeping issue I mentioned earlier, and another one problematizing some normative aspects of conservation ethics. I am also questioning how agencies approach conservation in terms of the arbitrary scientific evidence they put forward and the other scientific evidence they exclude when justifying certain interventions. For example, we know that wolves are conscious and sentient, that they communicate and value each other based on their affect toward one another, that they have emotions, that they have values and even their own morality and ethic. Yet, when you look at ‘management’ plans, there’s never any inclusion of this science of who wolves (or any animals) are or what they value. The science that agencies focus on is the science of ‘what humans want.’
We’re also continuing research on a particular question, which is: What are the effects of certain policies on wolf mortality, on how they experience periods of reduced protections? Based on the conclusions of those studies: Should we be reducing their protections or not? We see that, potentially, what we get from liberalizing the killing of wolves is more killing. The entire community of life is harmed by us not protecting these individuals. So, we are continuing to explore that.
We have a lot of good initiatives coming up for Heartland Rewilding, as well. We have an upcoming webinar series on different beings in the Midwest. We will focus the latest science within the Midwest, along with showing how these beings help us rewild through their autonomy, through us protecting them from harm.
And I continue to promote justice, compassion, and wellbeing through PAN Works. It’s a huge part of what I want to continue doing.
KH: Where can readers find you and follow your work?
FS: PAN Works, Project Coyote, and The Rewilding Institute are pretty good at showcasing what I do. These would be pretty good bets for folks finding out what I’m up to. Occasionally, I post what I’m up to on twitter — @FranSntgoAvila.