Monday, January 5, 2009

Environmental Ethics?

I take a dim view of the notion of animal rights, not because I have any disdain for animals (we have 3 dogs, 7 cats, 2 ducks, and 3 burros) but rather because I have disdain for the notion of rights. A right is a moral axiom, a fundamental declaration that is itself not derivable from more fundamental considerations. In that sense, it's arbitrary; if you wish to declare that birds have a God-given right to have their nests free from disturbance, there's no argument that can be offered for or against it; it's just a declaration.

Nevertheless, I do not take an anthropocentric view of ethics; I do not consider the world as my domain that I may dispose of as I wish. I do consider that I may kill any animal that belongs to me, or even that I truly have possession of any animal. I am its caretaker, not its owner; it is my charge, not my chattel. 

So how can I reconcile these two apparently contradictory positions? The answer I have been groping towards for some time lies in two similar but still distinct considerations. The first is kin altruism. We all concede that there is a sound moral basis for treating kin with consideration, because they share genes with us. If I suffer some small loss that provides a substantial gain for somebody who shares some of my genes, then genetically, if the ratios are right, I am still genetically benefited by that action. This principle can then be extended to all life forms, and it even takes into account genetic distance. Wantonly killing a chimpanzee, everybody agrees, is worse than wantonly kill a sheep, and wantonly killing a sheep is worse than wantonly killing a fish. Our notions of genetic distance seem to neatly coincide with our notions of our responsibilities to other creatures. 

But there's a flaw in this line of thinking: do we consider relative genetic similarity or relative genetic difference? A chimpanzee shares something like 98% of my genes; does that mean that I owe him 98% of the same level of moral weight that I give a fellow human being? That seems wrong. I mean, does a chimp have a right to a fair trial? That seems silly. We don't even think of a chimp as having moral thinking. Besides, how do you cross-examine a chimp? 

So it doesn't seem right to base the consideration on genetic similarity. Instead, we should probably think in terms of genetic difference, which would be based on the recency of our latest common ancestors. Thus, my brother, with whom I share two immediate common ancestors, deserves a lot more consideration than a cousin who shares common ancestors two or three generations away from me. And with some other random human being my most recent common ancestors may be a thousand generations away. The chimp, then, appears to be much more distant than a random human being, because our common ancestors are probably a million generations away. 

That criterion seems at least rational, but there is another criterion, based on empathy. This is not so logical, but it is undeniable. The best example here is the baby harp seal. We look into the big soulful eyes of that mammal and feel lots of empathy, only because it shares some visual parameters with human babies. Yes, it's silly -- but can we deny our feelings? (By the way, I have a nice plush doll of a baby harp seal, for which I carved a little wooden club as a kind of accessory. It's good for my more nihilistic moods.) Still, the arbitrariness of this basis of evaluation leaves me unsatisfied. I just can't accept that koalas and harp seals are more deserving of our consideration than rats or opossums. Moreover, this device fails completely when applied to flora or invertebrates. How cute is a sycamore tree? The question is unanswerable. At least the genetic distance device can be extended to all living creatures. 

Conclusions? I have none. These are thoughts for your contemplation.


E. R. Dunhill said...

This is an issue I puzzle over from time to time, as well. Personally, I believe that most living things deserve the courtesy of a dignified life and death, owing to their reflection of their Creator.
I also wonder if living things enjoy some kind of proxy rights: You've raised the point that you regard yourself not as your animals' owner, but as their steward. If other people are likewise their stewards, then the rights of those other people bear upon our common charges. While this may have limited impact upon the "rights" of an individual living thing, it becomes important when we consider the rights of a species. Killing one bison doesn't appreciably affect other peoples' right to have bison around; killing the last bison, however, deprives all of our brothers and sisters and future generations of their rights to own/steward/enjoy/eat/conserve/ignore bison.

Pat Jenkins said...

chris would you hold an animal accountable if "it" kills a human?

Chris Crawford said...

No, Pat, I see no basis for assigning moral responsibility to animals, who, in my opinion, do not possess free will as we think of it.

E. R. Dunhill said...

PJ, Chris,
For whatever it may be worth to this discussion, in many jurisdictions, animals may essentially be held accountable. For example, if a dog mauls a person (or in some cases, another domesticated animal), the owner may be legally compelled to have the animal put down.

Chris Crawford said...

Interesting point, ERD. But is this a matter of justice, or of safety? If a great white shark starts attacking people, and we hunt it down and kill it, is that a moral judgement or a matter of safety? If a tree is dying and a limb falls from it, killing somebody, do we cut down the tree as a moral judgement or a matter of safety? There's an interesting gray area here between moral judgement and safety assessment.