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Moral Communities and “Pests” (Part IV)

May 22, 2018

Welcome to the last post in our four-part series on “pests”! (You can find parts one, two, and three here).

We’ve so far discussed the mechanisms with which people frame animals as pests, vermin, or nuisances, but why do we bother in the first place? Framing animals as such can serve as a distancing mechanism to make it easier for a person to dismiss the agency of that animal, despise it, and perhaps even kill it (Jerolmack, 2008).

We can use the term “moral exclusion” as short-hand to describe this phenomenon. Moral exclusion is a process where:

…individuals or groups are perceived as outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply [emphasis original]. Those who are morally excluded are perceived as nonentities, expendable, or undeserving; consequently, harming them appears acceptable, appropriate, or just” (Opotow, 1990, p. 1).

On the other hand, moral inclusion: “refers to relationships in which the parties are approximately equal, the potential for reciprocity exists, and both parties are entitled to fair processes and some share of community resources” (Opotow 1990, p. 2).

So while some people include neighborhood wildlife (animals that are often labeled “pests”) in their moral community, others do not, using the “pest” label to distance themselves further from those animals so they can control them however they want (often including lethal control).

While traditionally in Western cultures only humans were included in moral communities (although some individuals would extend this at least a bit further to include pets and some other domestic animals), this assumption has been challenged periodically, especially in recent decades. For example, Peter Singer (1975) was an early proponent of the idea that cognitive awareness was more important than species when assigning membership to a moral community – most animals deserve fair treatment and the ability to live, he argued. Earlier yet, Aldo Leopold (1949) proposed that entire ecosystems – both the biotic and abiotic components – deserved inclusion in our moral communities.

Moral inclusion and exclusion are defined at least in part by culture. Let’s consider whaling. Currently, North Americans are by and large adamantly anti-whaling, and there are many campaigns devoted to decrying Japan’s continued whaling programs. However, whaling was until relatively recently a vital part of the economy in some regions of the United States. But over time culture (and the economy) changed, and today many North Americans include cetaceans in their moral communities (Opotow 1990).

photography of whale tail in body of water

Photo by Daniel Ross on

Opotow (2003) described the importance of moral inclusion when dealing with conservation issues in general. She found that feeling disconnected to nature, seeing it (or wildlife) as a threat, denial of harm, and denial of the rights of others (human and non-human) to resources (think back to our example of fish being “stolen” by seals) results in the moral exclusion of nature and wildlife. Also relevant to conservation issues (and certainly to many discussions of humans and urban wildlife), conflict tends to reinforce group boundaries and decrease concern for those outside the community (Opotow, 1990).

If animals labeled “pests” are typically defined as being outside the moral community, when human-wildlife conflict (both real and perceived) increases, individuals and the neighborhood or city at large will be less likely to consider the fairness of their actions towards these animals. Likewise, perceived similarity can shape moral inclusion and exclusion (Opotow, 1990).

This relates to our coyote example from part three. When human-coyote conflict increased in my study site outside of Denver, some people excluded coyotes from their moral community (or rather continued to exclude them, as it’s likely that coyotes were never part of their moral community to begin with!), and used the distancing mechanism inherent in the “pest” label to justify lethal control. On the other hand, people who did not think lethal control should be used included coyotes in their moral community, in part by embracing perceived similarities (coyotes belong in the area, they possess positive traits such as monogamy and sharing in family responsibilities, they are intelligent and adaptable, just like humans, and so on).

As we’ve seen, the “pest” label is very powerful. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful, and that next time you hear terms such as pest, vermin, and nuisance animals you’ll stop to think about it a bit! If you’ve enjoyed this series, I hope you’ll stay tuned to this blog for more.

Literature Cited

Jerolmack, C. (2008). How pigeons became rats: The cultural-spatial logic of problem animals. Social Problems, 55(1), 72-94.

Leopold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Opotow, S. (1990). Moral exclusion and injustice: An introduction. Journal of Social Issues, 46(1), 1-20.

Opotow, S. (2003). What makes people care? Moral inclusion and conservation psychology. Human Ecology Review, 10(2), 166-167.

Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York, NY: Harper.

This series was in part based on my dissertation, Social Conflict and Human-Coyote Interactions in Suburban Denver. You can find my full dissertation (all 232 pages of it!) here.

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