Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Judge Nature

Now in Spanish! Thanks Daniel.

The extent of the suffering of wild animals is literally unimaginable.

We have a function in our minds for imagining suffering - remembering a dog bite, perhaps, or another nasty injury. And we have an abstract multiplication function in our minds as well. But this doesn't get us even close to understanding the amount of suffering that occurs in nature in a single minute.

What would it feel like to land on the surface of the sun? Answer: not like anything. You can't even approach the surface of the sun; even millions of miles out, shielded by a spacecraft, a human body would disintegrate. We are physically incapable of perceiving how bad the surface of the sun would feel.

Thus it is with the amount of suffering in the natural world (and, incidentally, its subset, the human world).

1. On The Ways In Which Nature Makes Andrea Yates Look Like June Cleaver

This photograph shows a Eurasian coot feeding its chick:

These coots may hatch up to nine chicks (so we learn from David Attenborough). But under normal circumstances, food is in short supply. The parent birds feed the baby birds on tiny shrimp for the first three days after hatching. Then, mama coot turns into Mommy Dearest. A baby bird begs for food, as usual - but, with no warning, the parents "punish" it, biting the chick hard on its tiny head. The parents do this to all the chicks in turn. Eventually, one chick is singled out for special torture, and abused until it stops begging for food and starves to death.

This process is repeated until only two or three chicks survive.

Pelicans hatch three chicks, but under normal circumstances, only one survives. Instead of the parent birds doling out death, it's the siblings - the two larger birds pluck at the smallest with their sharp beaks and knock it out of the nest. Then the conspirators turn on each other until only one chick is left.

Is that awful?

Is that tragic?

Is that . . . good?

Sir David himself acknowledges that this might be a bit cruel, by human standards. But, he assures us, it's all for the best - in especially good years, a pelican or coot can raise an extra chick or two. So torturing baby birds to death serves the purpose of increasing the genetic fitness of the parents by a little bit.

But does that really make it okay?

2. The Incoherence of Species-Relative Morality

We are taught as children not to apply human standards of morality to animal behavior. We do not expect macaques to be egalitarian, nor male lions to refrain from killing cubs sired by other males. We should not, this theory goes, expect animals to raise the babies they produce to adulthood; we should not be dismayed if they, in fact, torture their young to death when it is advantageous for them to do so.

Most people of our era have a strong, visceral inclination against cruelty to animals, just as we do against cruelty to human children. We judge animal suffering to be bad. Watching the nature special, we hope the impala can evade the lion, but we hope the lion cubs get fed somehow. But watch what your mind does when considering these two contradictory hopes. Does it come to a coherent resolution of the problem? Or does it just shrug its shoulders and spackle the problem over with some bullshit about the circle of life? Life must go on . . . end of thought.

Is it okay that the impala gets eaten? That the cub dies? What about an old lion slowly dying in the hot sun? How about that little chick pictured above, getting abused and starved to death by its parents? Genesis 1:21 (KJV) says: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good." (Emphasis mine.) According the the Judeo-Christian God, torturing baby coots to death is not just okay, but good. "God" gave us that whopper to swallow; can you swallow it?

Human morality, some may argue, applies only to human actions - not to the actions of animals. I agree with this. For the most part, animals are not agents, but merely robots - machines executing programs created by natural selection. However, morality must certainly also apply to human inaction, and especially our inaction in preventing harm, suffering, and awfulness. What is the moral justification for the "hands off" dogma regarding nature? We often interfere with nature for the good of humans and human industry. Why not for the good of individual animals? Bloody Nature is a machine for pushing genes into the future. Does it really "know best"?

3. Respect for Species?

Nature exists. We try to "conserve" ecosystems in their "natural" state (scare quotes because ecosystems evolve and change over time, in response to environmental pressures, including those from other species). But who is it good for?

Is it good for the animals themselves? Thomas Nagel considers the difficulty of this question in his essay "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life," in his important book The View from Nowhere (from which my blog takes its title). While teaching at Princeton in the 70s, Professor Nagel noticed a sad little spider living in a urinal in the men's bathroom. The spider appeared to Professor Nagel to have a crappy life, constantly getting peed on; "he didn't seem to like it," notes Nagel. He continues:

Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. . . . So one day toward the end of the term I took a paper towel from the wall dispenser and extended it to him. His legs grasped the end of the towel and I lifted him out and deposited him on the tile floor.

He just sat there, not moving a muscle. I nudged him slightly with the towel, but nothing happened . . . . I left, but when I came back two hours later he hadn't moved.

The next day I found him in the same place, his legs shriveled in that way characteristic of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for a week, until they finally swept the floor.

Professor Nagel acted with empathy toward the spider - treating the spider how he imagined the spider would want to be treated. But did he do the spider any good? Would non-interference by Professor Nagel have done the spider any good? The spider might have lived longer, scrambling away from piss streams a hundred times a day, and may have eventually made more spiders. Would that be a good thing?

What do spiders want? Is there such a thing as a meaningful life for a spider? Does a spider's life do the spider any good?

There is a popular idea, born, I think, from applying the principles of liberalism where they do not belong - the idea that non-interference indicates respect for a species or animal, as if it were a person. (Where interference is allowed, it is to remedy some previous human interference.) This is also (idiotically) applied to human cultural systems, not just biological systems; in this context, it is known as cultural relativism. And it is just as incoherent applied to animals as applied to folks slicing off the clitorises of babies.

Let us for a moment suppose that we will treat individual animals as persons whose pleasures, pains, and desires we can identify and respect. In that case, empirically speaking, non-interference is a shitty policy. We could do more to make animals suffer less by intervention than by complete non-intervention.

On the other hand, perhaps it is the species that is our "person" - we should try to respect a species, or, perhaps, a whole complex ecosystem. But since species and ecosystems are not percipient beings capable of pleasure and suffering, by assigning them respect, we beg the question of the purpose of doing so. Who are ecosystems good for? Or are they perhaps mystically intrinsically good, as Jehovah would have us believe?

4. Is Nature Our Bitch?

To some degree, nature au naturel is good for humans. We need trees and algae and fish in order to live. Genetic diversity, developed over millions of years, ensures the longevity of our biosphere.

We frequently violate our supposed policy of non-intervention with the natural world when doing so benefits humans, in some cases actively seeking the extinction of certain organisms (like smallpox). I don't think this is wrong at all, because (a) smallpox doesn't do anyone any good by existing, including itself; and (b) smallpox causes untold suffering. But why draw the line at smallpox? It is my contention that not just smallpox, but all creatures, do not do themselves any good by existing - from spider to coyote to human.

Not only do we breathe oxygen and eat food produced by biological systems; we also appreciate the beauty of complex systems. Can we justify the suffering of baby coots because we think their ecosystem is interesting? Earlier generations of humans liked to torture animals for their own pleasure (and some still do). We now judge this to be evil. But is standing by while animals torture each other in "natural" ways, when we have the power to stop it, any better than actively torturing animals? Responsible people spay or neuter their pets. Why not spay Nature herself?

We don't even have to harm or kill animals in order to stop Nature from doing her evil deeds. We could simply prevent their reproduction, or even merely cease our current "conservation efforts" that involve breeding animals. Breeding wild animals and releasing them into the wild is doing the ugly work of Genesis all over again - and cruelly claiming that it's "good."

5. Is Being Human-Like Better?

We are touched by human-like (or ideal-human-like) characteristics in animals - nurturing young, monogamy, neighborliness, cooperation. Humans, although we commit parental infanticide at a rate higher than any other great ape (as would be expected from our relative immaturity at birth), at least attempt to raise most of our young to adulthood. But is "human" really more "humane"?

Compare the pelicans and coots to the rosella parrot. These parents feed "fairly" - that is, all chicks are fed equally, although they hatch at different times, so some chicks are larger than others. Large, older baby parrots even share their food with their smaller siblings! Aw.

Sound good? Nice parrots. However, they are merely postponing the point at which the red teeth and claws come into the picture. These parrot parents produce more than two offspring. What do you think happens to most of them? They go off and found happy egalitarian parrot families of their own? Maybe for a little while. But a species can't expand indefinitely. Most of these new parrots will get eaten or starve to death. The lucky few will go on to put dozens of new parrots into the world, for natural selection to claw apart and eat alive. r is evil, but K is not so great either.

Antibiotics were not invented until World War II. Prior to that, any human parent faced the very real possibility of losing some or all of his children before they reached adulthood. Humans were visibly under the same selection pressures as the rest of the animals. However, for a couple of generations, we have managed to pretend that nearly all our offspring can survive to adulthood and bear children of their own. We must look to nature to remind ourselves that this is a temporary fantasy.



If you haven't read it, please take a look at this short, sweet, and effective piece on Evolution is Suicide: "Why end a life? Why begin a life?"

30 comments:

  1. The anthropomorphizing of animals is a big problem, as it leads to the imposition of human values onto animals as though those creatures can choose what to value in the same sense that humans can. Humans, as luck would have it, are presented with a decision when it comes to life; unfortunately, instead of making it wisely, they often look to the animal kingdom for advice: "They all WANT to live, so I WANT to live as well." This is clearly founded on faulty premises!

    No non-human animal has ever loved the concept of life, found beauty in a sunset, appreciated its circumstance relative to the circumstances of other animals, or been stupefied by the order inherent in the "design" of its environment. Most can't even mourn the deaths of their peers.

    Why should we keep our hands off of nature if it's incapable of understanding one way or the other? If it can't be properly anthropomorphized, then how could it ever make the decision to persist -- or any decision, for that matter? Justifying nature based on human values is akin to allowing the mentally handicapped, et al. to set up their own autonomous communities, complete with Presidential elections and a "functioning" political sphere.

    Something else to consider: In addition to murder, nature is a huge fan of theft (even a house dog would be thrown in jail, in some cases, if it were truly treated like a person). We have laws (or rules and principles, depending on the political philosophy you espouse); nature doesn't. Ignoring this immense differentiation is very much the same thing as cultural relativism, as you pointed out.

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  2. The relativism with which the 'Evolution is Suicide' post, commended by Sister Y, concludes seems to me to deprive the case for antinatalism of one its most cogent warrants: namely, that death is indeed a harm to the living, and that the likelihood is very slim that, once brought into existence, a person will be 'lucky' enough to regard benefits attaching to their death as outweighing its basic harm; or that it will in fact (in some sense in need of specifying) be the case that such benefits outweigh that fundamental harm.

    One of my favorite points in Benatar's book is how the argument against Epicurus contributed to the case for antinatalism, not least because it forcefully distinguishes the latter from the sort of pro-suicide view flirted with, if not espoused, in the 'Evolution is Suicide' blog.

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  3. Whoops, in the second paragraph I mean 'contributes' instead of 'contributed'.

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  4. I don't think he's arguing that death is not a harm - quite the opposite. The message I get from the post is: we have this visceral evidence for the badness of killing, which is the screams of the innocent. But those screams are also present at birth. Maybe the latter isn't so great, either.

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  5. See also Alan Dawrst:

    http://www.utilitarian-essays.com/suffering-nature.html

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  6. Yeah I linked to that on the first line of the post because the internet is a race and I won. <3

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  7. But yeah, that's what started me down this line of thinking. I hadn't really connected it up to the project before.

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  8. Jeff McMahan touched on some of this a few month ago, though in response to readers who suggested extinction of humans, as the non plus ultra (de)predators, he concluded (astonishingly to me, given the hedonic thrust of his argument for controlled extinction): "My own view, though I won’t argue for it here, is that the extinction of human beings would be the worst event that could possibly occur."

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  9. I have no respect for mother nature whatsoever.

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  10. This was an incredible piece of literature.

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  11. Rob, interesting - I love the structure of this line of inquiry. What it comes down to, I think, is this: the continuation of our system as we know it (whether on an ecological, organizational, or societal level) may preclude the reduction of the level of suffering experienced by those in the system.

    And the question, as I see it, is this: is the current level of suffering justified in order to keep the system going?

    In other words, is the system worth keeping around?

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  12. Leaving Society - well put. I largely agree with your final thought, except I think all social animals do have "laws" - instinctive behaviors, not chosen, that serve to maintain social norms. Our human "laws" are all derived from monkey behaviors. And game theory is behind everything.

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  13. Rob:

    His reason is presumably that human extinction will preclude countless future generations of happy humans (note that humans don't need to eat meat).

    -Jesper Östman

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  14. Jesper, I would agree with you were it not for the relativistic stuff at the end of his post which, unless I'm simply misreading it, seems also to submerge the normative into the descriptive, removing the rug from under any normative claim.

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  15. Why am I not surprised that the end game for antinatalism is the belief that the complete destruction of the planet and entire biosphere is the best possible moral outcome.

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  16. You mean because we are all crazy?

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  17. Matthew-

    Your comment seems to imply that advocating the extinction of the human species is one thing, but advocating the extinction of every other species for the exact same reasons is just ridiculous.

    I think that's kind of funny.

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  18. Life is suffering. I think you would agree that the optimal outcome in utilitarian morality is the trival solution of no life.

    Sure, but it's impossible. Also it's boring.

    That it's impossible (or unlikely, or not a solution that is we can practically promote) leads utilitarians to be pragmatists. Instead of seeking out the optimal solution, just using moral reasoning to solve smaller problems within the constraints of the world as presented to us.

    But that it's boring! That's the interesting part. That the optimal solution, even if it were possible, is not appealing (to most), leads many to reject utilitarianism. Or even the concept of morality as a whole.

    But if those are rejected then what do you have to write about? Well, maybe time is better spent going outside and riding bikes or something anyway.

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  19. Sister Y, great post. Thank you.

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  20. Using nature as our ultimate guide is conditional at best. Humans have have a whole host of other traits besides intelligence (language, opposible thumbs, arms that can throw spears, verbal and symbolic communication of VERY high precision compared to mere barks and growls, etc). This allows us to transcend nature at the same time we are part of it.

    In fact, we are nature thinking about itself on levels orders of magnitudes deeper than animals could. This allows us at least an intermediate-level awareness of how nature operates. Therefore, we should use our knowledge to eliminate as much suffering as we can - namely by REFUSING TO BE NATURE'S TOOL. We know that our DNA is the shackles that bind us to the very thing that makes our misery inevitable. Playing nature's game is for lower animals, NOT for beings as highly advanced as we humans are.

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    1. If life just can't work any other way than to be predatory and hurtful, it could explain why no evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations have been detected. They may realize how innately bad their world is, and then annihilate life on it when they become capable.

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  21. A really nice and thought-provoking article!!
    Just on a side note, I think your interpretation about Genesis 1, that for the "Judeo-Christian God, torturing baby coots to death is not just okay, but good." is flawed. Theologically speaking, the whole playing field changed after the "fall of mankind". Good before (without death), not so good after the introduction of death...

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  22. Anonymous - I don't feel the need to seriously concern myself with the idea that Jehovah designed a bunch of animals with big sharp teeth and predator bodies and digestive systems, but then until humans were bad, they only ate arugula.

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  23. This is why I have always said, there can either be an evil god, or no god. Looking at the world, there is no way there could be a good god.

    None of this suffering is the fault of humans or the fault of the animals. If their is a god, he created the world this way.

    And don't forget the chapter of the Bible called Leviticus. Just a whole chapter of God demamding animal sacrifice.

    If this god exists, it would be better for all of us that we were never born.

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  25. "There is no good or bad, only thinking makes it so"
    Shakespeare?

    Does anyone here think that as the universe goes about it's business, it gives a frogs anal aperture about some little tiny bug's (us) views on what it's all about?

    We are very much like the spider under the seat on a 747 flying at 30,000 feet. I suppose she could philosophize and wonder about the why and wherefor of her place on this object flying thru space. She could make up little spiderly stories and write spiderly religious books about what is good and bad in a hopeless attempt to find the answer. But she, like us, can only rationalize and reason to the best of her evolved ability.

    As dumb as you might think this metaphore is, how much more advanced are we really, than the spider. What scale do we use? Where are we on the ultimate intelligence scale if one exists somewhere. I suspect we might not be as smart as we think we are. How many here could make a spider web? None!!

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    1. Humans, like spiders, suffer for no reason. No more point to a human life than to a spider's. That's kinda the gist of my argument here - not sure what you're disputing.

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    2. I'm not sure either now. Perhaps I responded to the wrong post. You and I seem to be in agreement. These forums can be a little tricky to newbies. :>) I'll catch on.

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  26. I have long thought of nature as a tyrant.

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