Tag Archives: the human animal

Life in the Anthropocene

The conservative bioethics blog Secondhand Smoke just ran a piece by Wesley Smith called “Human Beings a Mass Extinction Event! So What?”, making this claim:

If we do cause a mass extinction and we thrive anyway–so what? What difference does it make if we kill off species if they don’t do us any material good?  It just means more earth for us.

The author goes on to defend the Dominion-as-stewardship thesis (itself defended by people as diverse as Matthew Scully and E.O. Wilson), but the question itself got me thinking about tactics, framing, and environmental activism.

While at the Fletcher School studying international environmental policy, I was struck by how often multilateral treaties danced around the issue of nonhuman animal worth – issues concerning conservation and biodiversity preservation are almost always framed anthropocentrically: rainforests are a reservoir of potential bioprospecting resources, aesthetic human value, carbon sinks, etc. In other words, delegates were being ‘utilitarian conservationists’ (read: Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt) rather than ‘biocentric preservationists’ (read: John Muir).

(I suspect that many of the delegates to the Stockholm Declaration and the Rio Summit believed in the inherent – rather than merely instrumental – worth of other animals. But they knew that they had to sell their negotiated language to publics and to politicians.)

This question of how to frame nature is hotly debated, and recently headlines seem to show that quantification is winning out. I’ve struggled with the quantification of qualitative and otherwise incommensurable or indeterminate goods. Asking ‘how much money is a pig’s preference to root worth’ is a different question from ‘how much money would consumer x be willing to pay (WTP)’. The second can be answered, albeit with various statistical caveats; the first can only be answered in the same way that an average American citizen’s life is apparently worth seven million dollars.

Does the cause of conservation benefit from such quantification? When we say that ecosystem services provide enormous monetary benefit (which they undeniably do, in the form of air and water purification, flood protection, etc.), are we reshaping the public discourse to the detriment of the nonhuman animal world? Or are we merely acknowledging the dominance of public choice-type thinking in our policy paradigm? I don’t know, but I do know the anthropocene is hurtling us towards a future where most of the animals we’ll see in zoos might be extinct in the wild.

I don’t understand why these questions of worth have to be all or nothing. But then again, I tend much more towards utilitarianism than deontology, and am skeptical of the very concept of inherent value.

The expanding moral circle

Marginal Revolution just ran a post on “Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle,” citing a passage by Irish historian William Lecky that is often quoted by animal advocates:

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity…

MR guest-blogger Alex Tabarrok goes on to question whether or not globalization contributes to this effect (focusing on Apple and the Foxconn suicides), but what caught my attention was what should have come after the dot dot dot above:

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world…

I can see why the author avoided this line of reasoning–it’s quite different from expanding the moral circle along purely speciesist lines, and the case for the benefits of economic globalization beyond species lines is much more difficult to make–but the casual slicing of the last line radically alters the original quote.

One of the commenters, seemingly drawing a page from Schopenhauer’s 38 Ways to Win An Argument, picks up on this obvious omission, albeit caustically:

If moral progress is “all about extending the moral circle”, then why don’t we treat rocks as moral agents and end the whole deal. Because it’s not that simple, idiot.

Argumention ad absurdem to the rescue (pace deep ecology). The idea that empathy skids to a halt at the species line is rejected not only by Sapolsky and Rifkin (as noted in my first post), but by anyone who plays a nonzero-sum game with their companion animals on a daily basis.

I’m teaching on Burke/Oakeshott tomorrow, and Bentham/Mill/Singer next week, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of moral boundaries. Burke and Oakeshott would reject what they perceive as the revolutionary/rationalist (animal abolitionist would fit here too) project under which “innovation is an activity which generates not only the ‘improvement’ sought, but a new and complex situation of which this is only one of the components. The total change is always more extensive than the change designed” (Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics). This is a far cry from Singer’s “equal consideration of interests”, speciesism or no. What’s curious to me is that welfare economists accept both utilitarianism and, usually, strict speciesism, without much of a justification of the latter.

In short, I can see why MR skirted the nonhuman animal wrench-in-the-works issue, but they should at least have the intellectual honesty to note the omission. Or, as Tyler Cowen recently put it, is the cow really just a silo of option value?

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/03/globalization-and-the-moral-circle.htmlAt one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity…

On Robert Sapolsky’s “Are Humans Just Another Primate?”

I watched this video late last night, and loved almost every minute of it. Sapolsky treads a fine line between the ideological defenders of human exceptionalism and those whose anti-speciesist leanings may be tampering with their objectivity, as Dennett claims. Sapolsky distinguishes where we are like our primate cousins from where we are not, using the following categories: aggression, theory of mind, the golden rule, empathy, gratification/anticipation, and metaphor. He then closes with a (quite sudden, but not entirely unexpected) critique of Kierkegaardian leap-of-faith Christianity.

In each of the above categories, Sapolsky shows that the Western tradition’s millennia-long anthropocentric shibboleths are groundless, but from that shattered ground we build up a newly unique human identity. Since Darwin–well, since Galileo, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, but especially since Darwin–the Thomist hierarchical view of man and Dominion have been under threat, but the past 30 years have accelerated the pace of the ‘assault’ on unthinking anthropocentrism.

Primatologists and others only had to look at the natural world (I could put many hotlinked youtube videos of Ravens, chimps, dolphins, etc. here, but am still new to this game…) to see that the old saw that ‘man is the tool-using animal’ doesn’t hold up. Not only that, but chimps engage in war (it doesn’t rise to the level of human destruction, but arguably that has more to do with their lack of technology, and its resultant destructive capacity, than anything else), cetaceans and others have varying degrees of a theory of mind, Sapolsky shows baboons empathizing, primates in behavioral research can delay gratification (the dopamine-related passages in Sapolsky’s talk, which include tangents on casino designers and ‘neuroeconomists’, are fascinating).

When we approach metaphor and the range of subjects with which humans can empathize and form complex networks of mutual knowledge, however, humans really are a species apart. Not only can we empathize with a picture of an injured dog, as Sapolsky demonstrates, but also with Picasso’s “Guernica” and abstractly visceral art.

In my political philosophy class at UMass Lowell, my students and I have been discussing the concept of human nature (as filtered, so far, through Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant). I was struck by how removed most of my students feel from the rest of the animal kingdom vis-a-vis humans (and they are by no means in the minority–Indeed, I’m pretty sure I am). There are animals (read: Lockean objects of property), and then there are people.

Descriptively, Sapolsky’s work help us to understand our primate natures. Normatively, we can use this knowledge to construct an increasingly empathic civilization in an age when, for a range of possible reasons, the young are less and less empathic.