One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

We do (doodley-do) what we must (muddily-must).

"It's Just God's way of punishing them for being dumb?", Pt 2

Yesterday I took a swipe at Animal Rights. Today I'll try and say something about what I think constitutes a suitable foundation for ethics, based on a rationalist, human-centred viewpoint. Next time I'll be saying a bit more about what this means for the poor defenceless bunnie-wunnies.

I'll try and be as coherent as I can here...but note point 13.

  1. It's a cold, impersonal universe out there. God, Mother Nature or whatever don't give a flying fuck whether we live or die. Our survival, as individuals or as a species, is not guaranteed. In the grand schemelssness of things, our pain or suffering does not matter. It follows that 'good' or 'evil' are not transcendental or absolute concepts. There's no natural order to the way we must behave. We can't deduce it by looking beyond ourselves.
  2. Ethics relate only to how we behave as humans. A tsunami killing thousands or a dingo running off with a baby may be 'bad', but they're not unethical. As far as we know, non-human animals are incapable of making ethical choices about one another, but that's their business anyway. We can't change it. The only sphere we have any control over is our own behaviour.
  3. There are many different types of human, with vast intra-species variation and differences in physical function (young/old; sick/healthy). There is no basis for differentiation in the rights of any group. Further...there is no basis on which to judge the superior worth of any human, be it on grounds of ability to do sums, a good singing voice, height, girth, wealth or attractive breasts. The same ethical status should be applied to anyone with human DNA in their cells.
  4. Humanity is a biochemical phenomenon; we're bundles of DNA that got lucky. It is inherent in our nature that we will seek certain things (call these 'pleasure' or 'bad') and avoid others (call these 'pain' or 'suffering' or 'bad'). These are broadly related to gene tranmission since we tend to survive if we seek gthe things which are good for survival and tend to perish if we fail to avoid things that are likely to kill us. Pathology apart, this is how always behave. This isn't the same as saying that pleasure always equates to things related to breeding (although it often does!), simply that we have a pleasure seeking/ pain avoiding mechanism built in to us. All animals are the same, at least as far as avoiding injury or death. As any typesetter will tell you, Cicero put it well:

    Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit. (There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain)

    So I think it's reasonable to say that 'Good' = the things we like and 'Bad' = the things we don't.
  5. A significant human quality which affects our happiness is our ability to empathise. Certainly, while some can kill and feel no emotional trauma, a reliable source of pleasure is the company of loved ones (or, for some but not all people, animals, especially cute, fluffy ones that invoke nurturing responses). On the whole, a lack of empathy is 'A Bad Thing', so it is reasonable that we should be guided by our nature.
  6. As individuals we have a degree of choice (within environmental constraints) as to what we want to do. Granted it's a bit more complicated than this and sometimes involves long and short term tradeoffs (I want that chocolate vs I want to get slim; I don't want my husband to hit me again vs I'm afraid I won't be able to support myself without him; etc) . So it's reasonable to say that ethics should be based on a right to avoid pain and pursue pleasure as best we are able. (Although in a complex world we're not always able to make straightforward, reliable choices).
  7. So far, so Ayn Rand. But we are interdependent herd animals. In a community, it would defeat the pleasure/pain principle if we were all allowed to do whatever we wanted at any given time, regardless of the consequences for others. Imagine you were one of the weaker members of the community...or a strong member taken by surprise. So "Do as thou willt" shall not be the whole of the law. It needs to be qualified by accepting that just as the individual has the right to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, so has every other individual. Ethics requires this recipricocity.
  8. So, a judgement as to 'What is right' has to be based on some form of community consensus. At various times in history, such consensus has been imposed top down, democratically debated...or just simply is - but it's not important to talk about that here. In any case, Ethics is based on what we mutually agree is, by and large, on the whole, good for society at large.
  9. We can't always trust our own judgement, as individuals or as communities. Some problems need to be thought through rather than leaping to simplistic conclusions. It is useful to have specialists appointed - judges, ethicists - who have the intellectual equipment to do so.
  10. The consensus will always evolve. Leaving newborn infants on rubbish heaps? That was fine for the Romans. Imprisoning homosexuals? That was what we did in the UK until the 1960's. We might deplore the behaviour of those in times past, but there's not a damned thing we can do about it...other than behave differently in our own time and try to convince others to do the same.
  11. Ethics are situationally dependent. On the whole, it's probably not nice to cast the elderly adrift on an ice floe...but if there's not enough blubber to feed everyone...
  12. Sometimes we won't have a bloody clue what's the right thing to do. And sometimes we'll get it wrong. (See my previous comment on The Law of Unintended Consequences.) This should come as no surprise because a) It's a complex world and b) There are no set standards to guide us. So we just have to do our best. This does not necessarily mean that we can just follow our gut instincts or we can be lazy about thinking through alternatives. But sometimes we're going to just have to do what we do and not know whether we've done the right thing.
  13. At any given time there will be disagreement as to what is right and what is wrong, and on how to behave and structure society to deliver good. There's no way around that. One way out of it is to let the rules be defined by an arbitrary autocrat. It seems more sensible, though, to evolve towards a consensual, democratic system with a safety net of tolerated dissent. That's what gets my vote, anyway...even if the outcome isn't always what I'd want. There still remains a problem with those who might flout the consensus and behave badly. The best we can do is to grant democratic institutions the powers to deal with them.
  14. It will always be a bit of a fudge. Individual needs and opinions will differ. And we can't always be certain that we're doing the right thing...after all, there are no absolutes to guide us, and the universe doesn't give a fuck anyway (see point 1). We just have to do the best we can with our puny brains.

That's enough rambling for now. Some applied examples:

  • Allowing homeowners to shoot people for trespassing on their lawn leads to a dangerous, fearful and unhappy society. It shouldn't be allowed.
  • Killing the infirm shouldn't be allowed. You or I might get sick too. Plus by routine killing we reduce our empathy.
  • Abortion is troubling for some but not for others. Those who wish their fetuses to mature into viable humans should be helped to keep them. Others are perfectly capable of disposing of an unwanted fetus without becoming hardened by it.
  • In my subjective judgement, some perfectly tolerable, decent, humane people eat steak. No matter how they're reared, moo cows don't like being slaughtered


Polonius said...

The first problem with philosophy is that philosophers don't agree on premises.

The second problem is that those of us who have a life outside of philosophy don't really have the time to rationalise our beliefs. We can try to argue our gut feelings until a philosopher proves us inconsistent, and he can go away the victor with all the smugness of someone who's just spotted a misplaced apostrophe.

I suspect that ethics can't be consistent. Even if it were based on pure logic, it would eventually come up against Gödel's incompleteness theorem. But it isn't: it is based on concepts that are abstract and, ultimately, subjective. But let's not despair. We can hope that the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Who has been fairly consistent in giving the appearance of evolution, has been fairly consistent in giving us those gut feelings, so that some consensus is possible.

I think evolution via gene transmission (your Point 4) presents an interesting starting point for a discussion of ethics. It is right that I should hold my family's interests above those of human society as a whole, and right that I should value a human life higher than that of a cow - it's in my genetic interest. Evolution also gave me the digestive tract of an omnivore, and I'm not in the least ashamed of my omnivorous diet. But I'd rather not inflict unnecessary suffering on a cow. A fish is a more distant relative, so I can accept the economics of allowing them to flap their way to asphyxiation on a trawler's deck.

Reducing the aggregate suffering of cows is a difficult thing to measure. One obvious approach is simply not to eat them, wear them, etc. That'll reduce the number of cows slaughtered, but it'll do less than bugger all for the welfare of the ones that are. Like political parties, farmers and slaughtermen aren't remotely interested in your wishes unless you're a marginal constituency. So to improve the welfare of farmed animals, we should insist on buying produce that has been ethically produced. It's a market that's only just opening up, and I'm in favour of it.

Edward the Bonobo said...

I suspect that ethics can't be consistent

Got it in one, Polonius. You're not so green as you're cabbage looking.

And I was going to add a point 14: "Quite often, we're wrong. Quite often, we haven't a bloody clue."

But actually I'm not really concerned that much about animal suffering - as I shall explain in pt 3. Oh, OK...I'm a bit concerned.

Dan (aka Dogster) said...

Hey Ed, nothing interesting to say about animal rights just wanted to say hello. Lots of h2g2 blogging going on these days, I've just got one myself.