Thoughts on Ethics

This morning I read a piece that is one of the most challenging I have encountered in a long time. Assigned for my ethics class by the instructor, it is a potentially devestating critique of my fundamental ethical values.

Rarely do such opportunities come along in life, so I am overjoyed by this prospect of finding myself to have been possibly completely misguided. I will try to share some of my thoughts as I myself formulate them.

The piece I refer to is merely an excerpt from a larger essay entitled "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," by one J. Baird Callicott. The section of the article I read was largely an explication of Aldo Leopold's "land ethic," a view of which I have been vaguely aware but also thoughtlessly dismissive.

Let us think of human history since the Enlightenment, for the sake of argument, as characterized by an ever-increasing scope of moral consideration.

We begin by considering only the interests of our particular in-group, gradually expanding to include more and more individuals. So, to take a well-known example, only rich white guys had full rights in America, but then all white men, all men, and finally all men and women.

Of course equality under the law is only a first step, and many other struggles have been waged to expand the range of principles of equality, liberty, respect, etc. For the sake of simplicity, let us think of this as increasingly inclusive determinations of full moral status, or "personhood".

Now, battles are being waged to extend personhood status to (some) nonhuman animals, to human fetuses, to corporations, and perhaps someday to robots, cyborgs, and their ilk.

Callicott characterizes this as a continuum from "ethical humanism" (all humans deserve equal consideration) to "humane moralism" (all [or some] animals deserve equal consideration) to "reverence-for-life" (all lifeforms) to "pan-moralism" (all beings whatsoever). Pan-moralism, as a limit case, seems an outright absurdity unless you are a pantheist or hylozoist (i.e., you believe that consciousness is omnipresent in the universe).

All of these views share a few assumptions. First, there is a hierarchy in nature (whether intrinsic or agent-dependent) such that some kinds of things have more value than others. (This categorization wouldn't have to be a simple person/non-person dichotomy, but could include a range or continuum of values.) This ranking of individuals is usually thought to depend on certain "morally relevant" qualities, e.g., agency, rationality, sentience, or life.

Part and parcel with this is the presupposition that the value of a whole is merely the aggregate of the value of each individual. In other words, to use a utilitarian example, the greatest happiness is conceived not in terms of some overarching entity which feels happy or sad, but as a sum of the pleasures and pains of individual persons. Thus, these positions are all individualistic or atomistic.

Now, as someone who as considered himself a utilitarian and an ethical hedonist, I have seen sentience as the most plausible morally relevant criterion. To put it crudely, pain = bad, pleasure = good. Thus, I am sympathetic to the plight of nonhuman animals of a certain neurological complexity.

Now, if one is a completely consistent utilitarian and takes it to its logical conclusions, in my view, one must embrace, as amateur philosopher Dave Pearce puts it, "the hedonistic imperative". You can read about it here. To quote Mr. Pearce:
The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.
The basic idea is that we take all of the chemicals that cause pain out of existence, and replace them with chemicals that still provide the necessary information that pain conveys, but without the sting, the phenomenological unpleasantness. In other words, we make it so that pain doesn't "hurt" anymore, starting with humans and then to the whole of the natural world.

This line of reasoning is largely why I'm such a huge advocate of psychopharmacology, genetic enhancement, and other future technologies that have the potential to revolutionize life as we know it.

As well, it has committed me to a number of interesting conclusions, for instance: 1) a life of suffering is worse than no life at all, 2) the survival of individuals is a moral concern, but not the survival of species, 3) painless killing is (prima facie) admissible in cases where the individual lacks concern for its future survival (this has applications to issues such as euthanasia, abortion, and the humane raising of some nonhuman animals for human consumption), etc.

Thus, for instance, the argument that farm animals owe their existence to our carnivorous tendencies is not the least bit compelling for me. It would be better if there were no cows at all if the only life possible for cows was one of intense torment and suffering on a factory farm. It is better to (painlessly) kill an animal than to torture it.

(A somewhat unpleasant conclusion is also thus: if the world has more suffering than satisfaction [which is extremely plausible], it would be better if there were no world at all.)

Now, I'm not of the opinion that pleasures and pains of more sophisticated animals can be so easily ranked: there are qualitative differences beyond the merely quantitative (I agree with Mill on this point). I think that something like "flourishing" is more than just, say, the constant stimulation by an electrode of the pleasure centers of one's brain.

OK, so far has more or less been a summary of (certain aspects of) my ethical opinions. Last semester, however, as a result of reading Nietzsche, I began to ask the question: is suffering really so bad?

The ethic of health and strenuousness that Nietzsche seems to advocate is almost the antithesis of utilitarianism--and he is quite fond of poking fun at them. This raised a fascinating question, but ultimately I returned to my old view.

To defend this, my inclination was to say that Nietzsche was glorifying suffering for the sake of alleviating some of his own psychological and physiological pain: if suffering is noble, it's not quite so bad. (This is a point he more or less makes in Genealogy, anyway: what people can't stand is meaningless suffering, not suffering per se.)

Now, we finally get back to Callicott. In his explication of Leopold's view, he presents an "holistic" alternative to the atomistic conception of ethics dominant in Western thought. The land ethic is not something like the reverence-for-life ethic mentioned above which is merely an extension of previous views, but is based on a radically different principle, originally formulated by Leopold: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

My first reaction to reading this was that it was preposterous. As a firm believer of the maxim "things are neither good nor ill, but thinking makes them so," I found it implausible that there was any good in such a thing. (Of course, if it were the case that this is what humans valued, then it would be a good, but then the question is, "why value that?".)

But then I began to see how this is the Nietzschean ethic in a different guise, one that sees organicity, health, wellness as morally good. What we want is a more "natural" life, w/o domestic animals but w/ hunting and meat-eating, one in which our primary concern is the ecosphere. This kind of view would regard humanity as a blight upon the earth, a cancer that has exceeded its appropriate place.

But still, why value organicity and wholeness and integration, especially if it has such radical consequences? Here, Callicott draws upon a number of analogies that are quite compelling.

First, he points out, consider the good of a human being. This is not simply the sum of the good of its individual cells. Some cells must "suffer" more than others, but if each cell was just fending for itself, it would probably be bad for the organism as a whole.

The same sort of consideration would apply to social contexts. One of the largest problems today w/ human societies is that individualism is destroying community. Each cares only for him- or herself, and the lot of us suffer as a result. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" just ends up giving us the finger.

This is a good point, I thought, although it could potentially lead to some sort of fascism. But it's not that Callicott denies moral significance to individuals. Rather, their value is determined functionally, by the role that they play in the whole. (This is still pretty fascist, but let's leave that aside.)

But, in his account of the function of pain and pleasure, he really got me. Pain serves the vital function of conveying information and adjusting behavior accordingly:
The idea that pain is evil and ought to be minimized or eliminated is as primitive a notion as that of a tyrant who puts to death messengers bearing bad news on the supposition that thus his well-being and security is improved.

Damn! I was floored by this analogy, but then he lays it on more heavily by pointing out that hedonism and other such views are "world-denying" and "life-loathing". Pain, fear, frustration, suffering, death: these are all parts of life. "If nature as a whole is good, then pain and death are also good."

Finally, even though he does not mention Nietzsche, he presents this very Nietzschean view:
Personal, social, and environmental health would, accordingly, receive a premium value rather than comfort, self-indulgent pleasure, and anaesthetic insulation from pain. Sickness would be regarded as a worse evil than death....

The hidden agenda of the humane ethic [espoused by utilitarianism, et al.] is the imposition of the anti-natural prophylactic ethos of comfort and soft pleasure on an even wider scale.
Now, these two statements struck me as remarkable. The first since it is so Nietzschean and the second because it's the very same conclusion that Mr. Pearce reached above--he doesn't hide that agenda.

OK, this post is massively long and should probably be broken up into parts, but I want to get it all down first. Where we stand we are presented with 2 radically different ethical worldviews, one of which is appealing to me since it's very Nietzschean (not too mention Spinozan [not "Spinozistic" b/c "Spinozism" is Hegel's awful bastardization of Spinoza]), the other of which coheres better w/ my scientific sympathies.

I am at an impasse. Nevertheless, I did come up with some criticisms to Callicott's view, which is really what I wanted to write about, but needed all that other stuff as preliminary.

So, Callicott advocates a sort of end to domesticity and perhaps even to civilization as we know it, b/c it is unnatural and artificial. It attempts to make the organic into the "mechanicochemical".

But, I thought to myself, why have this prejudice against the mechanicochemical? The biotic world is just one complex instance of it, even if it has certain interesting emergent properties. And if it's the emergent properties we like, then why advocate against technology, since it leads to even more interesting things.

In a nutshell, Callicott seems to view the human world as a "dominion within a dominion," to use Spinoza's phrase. On a more holistic view, everything is a part of nature, including the whole human world and all of its artifices. Strictly speaking, the human world is no less "natural" than any other part of the universe.

Moreover, why value things like stability and integrity? In essence, it's a sort of idealization of a particular state of affairs (even if it's one that is organic and dynamic). Even life itself will come to an end at some point. What happens is that we start to ask why anything at all in nature should be deemed good or bad. Everything is natural--what's so special about the organic?

And, I think that's true, strictly speaking (I agree with Hamlet and Spinoza here). But we can't live that way. Just because life evolved in a certain way doesn't mean that we have to like it. Why should we, as Callicott suggests "reaffirm our participation in nature by accepting life as it is given without a sugar coating"?

There are plenty of things that are "natural" that we reject. There is no intelligible sense of "natural" that makes it a coherent ethical category. Why shouldn't we view "nature" in the sense Callicott uses (the organic rather than the merely mechanicochemical) as something we should rise above?

Yes, there is an organicity in nature, but at what cost? Evolution is a blind process that works by trial and error. With animal life, the errors can be devestating. Evolution never "intended" something like torture to be possible; it's a nasty side effect of pain's informative function.

We have foresight. We can institute our own designs, improvements on nature's blind development. Shouldn't we do that? Shouldn't we remake the world in our own image?

From the perspective of the whole, whatever happens is equally "natural". And what then are we left with but the perspectives of individuals? So, let us give conscious beings consideration since they actually have a perspective, and to hell with the natural world except insofar as it aids our projects!

Perhaps this is my distaste of the outdoors speaking, but I would love to live in an "unnatural" world in which pleasure was more prevalent than pain. Pave over nature! Let's build domes over our cities! Why not? To whom does it matter?

And this is probably why I won't embrace something like a "land ethic." I don't particularly care for trees or rocks or rivers; I find a cityscape far more beautiful than a bunch of dumb old plants and dirt. Nevertheless, this has significantly challenged me, and I still have a lot more reflection to do about the subject.


Nathan said...

"If nature as a whole is good, then pain and death are also good."

This is the clearest example of the fallacy of division I have ever seen outside definitions of the fallacy of division.

Perhaps it's because it's set up like a syllogism, but missing an important premise about all parts having all properties of the whole or some other ridiculous assertion.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Yeah, seriously. That quote is somewhat taken out of context, but the general point still stands. Even if we endorse nature as a whole, that doesn't mean we'll endorse every part of it.

I mean, isn't that the very meaning of valuation? Callicott may be against an ontology that "ranks" different parts of nature, but even he is suggesting that some states of affairs are better than others.

That's why I think the position is ultimately unintelligible, based on a less-than-totally-reflective definition of nature.

anotherpanacea said...

Great post Dom. Looks like your ethics paper is already half written.

Personally, I suspect there's something to Nietzsche and Hamlet that you have yet to consider. This has to do with the role of language in valuation and meaning, rather than the facts of the matter that go for language-speakers and non-language speakers alike. I'm minded of Lawrence: "I never saw a wild thing/sorry for itself/A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough/without ever having felt sorry for itself." (Alas, alack, GI Jane has ruined it for us.) But anyway, he's a poet, not a primatologist.

Another space for the equation of meaning and valuation is the voice. There's a tradition coming out of Merleau-Ponty that makes this claim: it's only in the worldless cry, as distinct from the articulate complaint, that we see why the suffering of an animal or a human may be wrong. (I've done some work tracing this out in Levinas, Lefort, Derrida, Nancy, etc.) This preserves the primacy of language and sensibility while also suggesting that the voice that speaks may be concretely distinct from the its words: this explains why the call of conscience never says anything in particular.

Jeff said...


Interesting stuff. I have two comments. The first is technical: while it's clear that Nietzsche values health over comfort, it's not so clear that he values health over sickness--rather, he would view them dialectically (as Descartes says: every mountain has its valley). Utilitarianism is to be mocked because it intends to eliminate valleys--and will therefore end up eliminating mountains as well.

My second point is polemical: isn't the view you advocate at the end of the post strict ethical solipsism--the moral good is what I want? Perhaps this is a consistent view, but it certainly makes some unwarranted assumptions about the possibility of knowing what we want. If I understand you correctly, you want to say that because you like cities more than nature, we should dome over the world and make it a city. For someone so scientifically minded, you seem to be indulging in quite a fantasy: "Let's build domes over our cities! Why not? To whom does it matter? Pave over nature!" Now, you are the one using the term "nature" rather carelessly and certainly not as Spinoza would use it. Who will be the workers who venture outside the dome when it breaks? Presumably not you. Will the air conditioner run on gasoline? Vegetable oil? Human waste? You ask: "Shouldn't we make over the world in our own image?" Perhaps "we" are in the process of doing this. But who is the "we" you refer to, and what is "our own image?" This careless re-making of the world in our image sounds like the ideology of the cancer cell; or, equivalently, the ideology of the democracy exporters currently in control of our country. Perhaps the power to institute our own designs, which you laud in this post, might be used to reflect carefully about the images of ourselves which we do indeed construct in the world. Your own certainty expressed here about the proper image denies precisely what you most admire about human capacities.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Thanks for your comments, Jeff.

I was hoping it would have been obvious that the whole "pave over nature" stuff was a joke, at my own expense no less.

You know how I always say I hate nature? It's just silly.

Anyway, your point about Nietzsche is a just one. I wasn't being particularly careful here, but I felt as though there was the potential to develop a sort of Spinozaesque/Nietzschean version of the land ethic.

Actually, recently I've been thinking about a synthesis between utilitarianism and those other views (along w/ some good old fashioned Aristotelian eudaimonism).

I'll post about it later. Gotta run to class!

Jeff said...

Sorry I misread your joke, but it did get me riled up enough to post! I would be interested to hear about a synthesis along those lines. There is a productive tension operative here to my mind as well, though I think an absolute synthesis of these two ways of thinking is quite impossible. (Which doesn't mean that one is unable to approach an issue strategically using each style of thought).

Also, you're totally right to insist on the "naturalness" of the mechanicochemical--when people say something is "natural" it is usually just an excuse not to consider another point of view.