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

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Ethics of Kitten Strangling.

or It's just God's way of punishing them for being dumb, Part 3.

Agesandages ago, I had a pop at 'Animal Rights'. Then I rambled a bit about what might be a more sensible basis for ethics. This second part was inevitably disjointed. I don't think it's straightforward answer. There's no answer 'out there' and whatever we struggle towards is bound to be as complicated as we are human.'s the long awaited (?!) Part 3, dealing with why we might conclude that it's acceptable to use primates for medical research but look upon kitten-strangling with revulsion. I've said pretty much what I want to say in a posting on Dan's Samovar, which I'd like to repeat here:

In Catholic superstition, life begins at the moment of conception. It thus follows that abortion, stem-cell research, certain forms of contraception (eg IUDs - but not, surely condoms?) are immoral. An atheist argument (or, at least, a non-Catholic one) against this is that small clumps of cells donot have a consciousness - but see the arguments above concerning neurones and thermostats.

However, isn't there a hint of vestigial superstition in affording special consideration on the basis of consciousness? Consider that consciousness does not appear to have a special place in the universe. There is no grand scheme in which stars may explode, but conscious entities are not be wiped out by tsunamis. Indeed, the very idea of consciousness may be 'Explained Away' as simply the combined effect of neurological pathways that give certain organisms the control mechanisms that maximise the probability of certain biochemical processes occuring. So let's remember our place.

On the other hand...we do tacitly acknowledge an ethical hierarchy which seems to correlate with consiousness. At the higher end, we (mostly) agree that (avoidably) killing people is (usually) wrong. (and, by the way, this might include humans who are as yet 'merely' collections of cells incapable of unsupported cells: any potential parent would regard the involuntary abortion of a wanted foetus as an outrage). At the lower end, we're happy to disassemble thermostats without qualm. Somewhere in between there's a continuum, and there are individual disagreements about whether it's reasonable to kill fish, chickens, cows, dogs, bonobos. There are endless arguments along the lines of 'Can lobsters feel pain?' and I recently discovered that the rules for halal slaughter include that animals must be transported kindly, fed beforehand and not killed in the presence of other animals (presumably so as not to worry them).

But is this really an argument about Consciousness? I suggest that really it's about our own empathy. We regard as ethical that which we feel broadly comfortable with. We don't think we'll feel comfortable in a society in which human slaughter is tolerated (especially if we're the ones up for slaughter). We don't much care about lobsters, fish or thermostats - but as one gets higher up the mammalian hierarchy, animals get cuter and cuter.

So let's be honest Atheist Fundamentalists here. A 'scientific' basis for morality is just as superstitious as a religious one - it's making a god of new discoveries in the philosophy of neuroscience. All we actually know about morality is what we will or will not collectively tolerate. Which - alarmingly - seems to be 'quite a lot'.

So clearly there is a certain degree of (biologically natural) sentimentality in our attitude towards non-human animals - and that's OK. That's why we're mostly happy to step on earthworms but less comfortable with kitten-strangling. But that's not to say that human ethics must be determined by the most nauseatingly sweet common denominator. Ethics is a continuing conversation. Some people are OK with killing chickens for food, others are not. Some people are uncomfortable with animal experimentation - and they might ethically be opposed by those who see the benefits to humans and can handle the necessary detachment. (How many of us could handle cutting open a human skull?). Others may feel more distress about the disposal of a collection of human cells than the woman in whose body they are growing - but that's their problem, not hers. There are no fixed answers.

I leave you with two quotes. One from a friend:
"Ethics is a bit like free doesn't really exist, but it's useful
to behave as though it did."

The other from Mark Vonnegut, quoted by his father Kurt in his 'A Man Without A Country':
"We're here to help each other to get throug this thing, whatever it

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