The principle that we should always act to prevent suffering seems intuitive as it seems that a world without needless suffering would be far better than one in which suffering occurred regularly. But on reflection there seem to be circumstances when preventing suffering is absurd, if not horrifying, and these cases suggest that preventing suffering is but one good among many, rather than the supreme good.
The example I will examine to reveal the way in which preventing suffering is not the supreme good is the thought that we might abolish predators (ie lions, sharks etc) in order to prevent the suffering that they create in the world. In our current world while predators cause much suffering to their prey, they are necessary as an element of many ecosystems and these ecosystems would fall into tatters without their presence. But if predators became unnecessary then their lives would simply be a source of suffering, without any countervailing value in terms of preserving balance within an ecosystem. Furthermore, it is certainly conceivable that in the future as technology develops we will be able to control the environment in such a way that we no longer need to accept the natural ecosystems of earth as a given; for example we might have the technological power to construct ecosystems that are most beneficial to us and to other living creatures. For example, it is not inconceivable or implausible that at a time in the distant future we could abolish predators, in the literal sense of the term. Through genetic engineering we could turn lions, sharks and other predators into herbivores or scavengers. If this feat of genetic engineering were to arise in conjunction with the ability to control the ecosystem such that we did not need predators as an element of any particular ecosystem, then according to the principle that we should always act to prevent suffering it seems that we should abolish predators. In this case suffering would be dramatically reduced if predators were abolished through genetic engineering, as once predators are transformed into herbivores or even scavengers prey throughout the world would be free of a source of suffering that has typically threatened them. And yet there seems to be something deeply perverse about the proposition that we might abolish predators. This proposal seems to stink of hubris and absurdity, but what lies behind our misgivings towards it?
It is not completely clear what lies behind our misgivings towards the abolition of predators, but I think there are two general concerns that can articulate the reasons behind our uneasiness towards this particular variety of abolitionism. The first concern is the notion that each animal species has a form of goodness that is distinct to them that must be appreciated and respected. For example, we might say that the goodness of a lion is in part defined by being a good hunter and predator, and while we may fear the lion we have to appreciate the goodness expressed in and through its predatory activity. Consequently, on this understanding of the goodness of differing species we are disrespecting the goodness distinct to different species of predators by trying to turn them into creatures that are not predatory. Thus while it is true that it is good for humans to act to end suffering, this principle needs to be balanced against appreciating the value of the goodness of distinct species, including predators. As a result, we see that, according to this perspective, preventing suffering is not the supreme good, but merely one good that needs to be considered and appreciated. This first concern may not be endorsed by everyone who is made uneasy by the proposal to abolish predator, but it certainly articulates a coherent and plausible account of what might be wrong with a proposal to abolish predators.
The second concern that might underlie our uneasiness towards abolishing predators is the notion that somehow the natural order is not simply an instrument to be used towards whatever purpose, no matter how beneficent. On this account while humans and other creatures may use the natural world as an instrument to some degree, the natural world cannot be reduced to a mere instrument that can be transformed in whatever way seems convenient or beneficial; rather we must somehow respect the forms of life that the earth produces. But in abolishing predators humans would clearly be rendering the natural world into a mere instrument, as through such activity we are saying that it is permissible to transform nature in any way provided that it prevents suffering. Thus, the abolition of predators clearly does not respect the natural order. So, this perspective also offers us a reason to reject the idea that predators ought to be abolished in the name of preventing suffering as such abolition will render the natural world into a mere object and consequently disrespect it. Thus, according to this perspective preventing suffering is at most but one good among others, rather than the supreme good. It should be noted that the two perspectives outlined above do not exhaust the possible grounds on which we can oppose the abolition of predators, but they do seem to offer plausible grounds for such opposition.
While it is not clear on what grounds we should reject the proposal to abolish predators in the name of preventing suffering, the abolition of predators example show us that in particular cases the path that prevents the most suffering seems horrifying, troubling and absurd, and there are other values that matter beyond the alleviation of suffering. Consequently, preventing suffering is but one good among many rather than the supreme good; suffering may seem to be one the greatest evils on earth, but we need to be careful not to fall into the illusion of thinking that the only thing that we are called on to do, from an ethical perspective, is to prevent suffering. Suffering is surely an evil, but the abolition of predators shows us that acts that prevent suffering can be nearly as disturbing as the most intense form of suffering.