Monday, January 24, 2011

We Live In The Anarcho-Capitalist Utopia

In my previous essay, "Markets Are Ungrounded," I undertook to list some of the regulations that are necessary for a market to function. The idea of a "meta-market" is particularly tempting to those opposed to "government" regulation - the idea that we might not only choose our transactions, but choose the rules for our transactions. I think this is an impossible, incoherent fantasy.

In The Machinery of Freedom, David Friedman defines government as "an agency of legitimized coercion." Friedman believes that government should not exist, and that the functions currently performed by government either should not exist or should be undertaken by private individuals and groups.

He says:
The special characteristic that distinguishes governments from other agencies of coercion (such as ordinary criminal gangs) is that most people accept government coercion as normal and proper. The same act that is regarded as coercive when done by a private individual seems legitimate if done by an agent of the government. (In "What is Anarchy? What is government?")

Further, Friedman defines "coercion" as "the violation of what people in a
particular society believe to be the rights of individuals with respect to other individuals."

So how would these private groups work to perform functions now performed by government - for instance, preventing and punishing crimes? Friedman imagines that this would all be done voluntarily - that is, by individuals subscribing to protection agencies that use force to protect citizens from violations of their rights (as defined by the private, competing protection agencies). These protection agencies would then patronize private courts who would compete for jurisdiction.

Here is my problem with the Friedman model: it's exactly the system that exists today, and has always existed since the beginning of human kind.

At the deepest level, Friedman is not proposing any change to the current system(s) of government at work in the world today.

Friedman proposes not regulations for a market, but a system of markets and meta-markets, a system that resolves everything through voluntary transactions. However, this is an illusion. Ultimately, it can't be "markets all the way down" (or up) - competing protection agencies use force, and the balance of force is what supposedly protects citizens. The "free market" is at the deepest level founded upon force.

This is exactly the situation that we have today.

For instance, our Federal and state governments today compete with various forms of organized crime, which fill the institutional vacuums created by the "legitimate" governments denying contract enforcement to some transactions. These are perfect examples of competing protection agencies under the David Friedman model.

Let me repeat Friedman's definition of coercion: "the violation of what people in a
particular society believe to be the rights of individuals with respect to other individuals."

Friedman wants to eliminate this "coercion" thing, at least by governments.

But the protection agencies themselves define what coercion is, for their subscribers. And they enforce their definitions by force.

How is that any different from . . . all of human history? Are not all anarcho-capitalist protection agencies "agencies of legitimized coercion"?

There is no way to protect oneself from coercion (whatever one's definition of this is) without engaging in the coercion of others.

(In case it's not clear, I'm happy to be straightened out here - I'd much rather understand the dimensions of the problem than be "right.")

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The _____ Must Go On

Something Greater

Virtually everyone agrees: there is something that is extremely important, more important than the concerns of individuals—perhaps even universally important. The exact nature of this important something varies, but what does not substantially vary is the fact of believing something to be of all-encompassing importance. The importance of this something is often so self-evident to those who value it as to be axiomatic to them.

Forms of Valuing

There are many ways to value something, or to express its importance. When we value something, we may devote attention to it, as with a piece of music, a painting, a child, a lover, a novel, a sport. We may even suggest or demand that others devote attention to it, as we do when we write essays or make laws. If the valued something is an aware being, such as a dog, we may act to give it pleasure, or to prevent its suffering. If it is a conscious being with its own values, i.e., a person, we may express its own universal value by promoting what it values. This is what we do when we enable another to make a choice that we do not agree with.

Especially if the valued thing is NOT a conscious being, our devotion may rise to the level of reverence, as we might express toward a flag or a god. This may be expressed in protecting it from competition from other symbols, or prohibiting its symbolic desecration.

The _____ Must Go On

There is one way of acknowledging or expressing something's value, however, which is often mistakenly viewed as the only way to properly value something: to preserve it, to promote its longevity, to ensure its continuation into the future, as long as possible.

Maximizing longevity—the lifespan of a person, for instance, or of a political or ethnic group, or of a religion, or of a species—is not the only way to acknowledge that it has value. Why is so much importance placed upon a thing's position and duration in time?

In "A Right of Self-Termination?" (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628), J. David Velleman considers two of the forms of valuing that I list above: respect for the expressed values of a conscious being, and promoting longevity. He argues that the latter trumps the former; that is, we need not respect the stated value of a conscious being if that expressed value is the desire for the being to end. I claim (see Respecting and Erasing) that promoting longevity and continuation is only one of many ways of expressing something's value. Robert Rauschenberg, I note, expressed and highlighted the profound aesthetic value of a Willem de Kooning drawing by erasing it. A familiar story is that of a group disbanding, rather than compromising its ideals in order to continue. All those Aztec codices burned because of their enormous value—value that threatened to compete (symbolically) with new mythologies and political systems. They turned to cinders, yet still condors scream from them in our imaginations.

Why Longevity?

If something matters in and of itself, not just instrumentally—if it has value not only in the positive feelings it gives to existing beings, but inherently—what does it matter when or for how long it exists in time? Why should we care so much about duration and continuity only, to the exclusion of the intensity, integrity, or other qualities of the valued thing's existence?

This question, I propose, has an answer: we express the value of our "important somethings" in terms of preventing their extinction because we wish to—but cannot—prevent our own individual extinction.

This psychological explanation is not arbitrary; it is empirically grounded in the robust results of the field of Terror Management Theory.

Judges and Prostitutes: An Introduction to Terror Management Theory

In 1989, a small group of psychologists decided to subject some of the claims of Ernest Becker's influential-but-fuzzy Denial of Death to empirical testing. Becker's model proposes that "human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality." Okay. How do we test that?

The scientists, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg, decided to test whether a reminder about one's own death (a "mortality salience induction," in TMT jargon) would change a person's behavior. They chose as their experimental subjects a group of judges, who are culturally expected to be fair, impartial, and unmoved by emotional matters such a fear of their own deaths.

Both the experimental group and the control group were given packets of questionnaires to fill out. However, tucked among these many pages of questions, the experimental group was given a mortality salience induction: the judges were asked to describe, in as much detail as possible, what they expected to happen to their physical bodies when they died, and the feelings this aroused in them. The control group was given a control question instead.

Both groups were then asked to make a very simple (simulated) legal judgment: to set bail for a prostitution charge. Would there be a significant difference between the bail set by mortality-salience-induced judges and control judges?

Yup. Big time. Like, an order of magnitude.

The control judges set the bail amount for an average of $50. The judges who were asked to contemplate their own deaths set the bail at an average of $455.

Why Do Death-Reminded Judges Pick On Prostitutes?

Terror Management Theory posits that the judges, reminded of their own extinction, unconsciously engaged in the psychological practice of worldview defense. Reminded of their own eventual extinction, they reached for something eternal to attach themselves to, in order to achieve symbolic immortality. The "important something" they chose was the traditional idea of law and order, violated by this hypothetical prostitute. The death-reminded judges, the theory goes, punished the prostitutes for their violation as a way of protecting the institutions of law and order and traditional society, allowing the judges to attach themselves to something eternal-seeming, and hence symbolically prevent their own extinction.

Prostitutes threaten law, order, and traditional morality. Judges reminded that they themselves are under threat of death were willing to do more to protect these "eternal" values.

From this one colorful, evocative experiment sprang a field of study whose results have been replicated and expanded worldwide. It would be impossible to even touch on the variety of experiments that have been conducted. It even works when the death reminder is not explicit, and may not even register consciously - as when one group of experimental subjects was asked to report to an experimental site located near a funeral home, and control subjects to another site. Imagine how many death reminders each one of us receives daily, without even realizing it.

And it's not just ordinary physical death that triggers such responses, although they do so extremely strongly. It can be a reminder of social death as well—the threat of losing one's place in society, which, in the EEA as in modern times, frequently contributes to actual death.

What Must Go On?

What else do we cling to when reminded of our own eventual extinction? Religion is a big one—occasionally promising actual immortality to believers, although this need not be the case. Political and ethnic groups, symbols, and ideas form powerful targets of worldview-defending attachment: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Nature and endangered species work well as Something Higher.

As my title suggests, the cry of an entertainer is that "the show must go on." As vacuous as entertainment culture may be, it does have its Something Higher that trumps the individual needs of the performers. Art is a powerful worldview defense.

And then there's having babies.

Children offer the closest thing to physical immortality. Our genes, if not our bodies, may live on after us; this is a major reason why people are willing to beggar themselves in order to have genetic children. But even raising non-genetic children allows people to pass their stories and information into the future, or imagine that they do so: to imagine that they have an effect on the future, rather than extinguishing completely.

Aside from personal survival through one's own family, there is a nearly-universal feeling that the human race should go on. This is perhaps the ultimate remedy for mortality salience. Without humans (or at least conscious creatures), there can be no stories. We must be able to imagine the world continuing after us, and we can only do so through stories.*

Must The _____ Go On?

I am not arguing that art, nature, family, justice, humanity, or the Green Bay Packers are not important. What I wish to demonstrate is that our most strongly-held values arise through a non-conscious, irrational process to which we have no access. This is, I think, reason enough to look at our most strongly-held values with uncertainty and suspicion. We do not arrive at our deepest values by reflection and reason. To a large degree, our values "just happen"—like our brains. When our values conflict—the value of preventing suffering versus the value of preserving the human species—we are tempted to choose the latter because it feels axiomatic to us. But that is a reason to treat it with extra suspicion, not to treat it as axiomatic.

That we feel something is of all-encompassing value is not evidence that the something has such value, as much as it is evidence that we are driven to see things as valuable. The "must go on"-ness is primordial to the valued thing itself.



Readers who find this familiar will note that I wrote about this a long time ago.

For that, please read the information-dense, highly entertaining, incredibly well-written In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, written by the scientists themselves. (The book has almost nothing to do with 9/11 or terrorism, except that terrorist acts are highly visible death reminders that may be exploited for their capability to arouse worldview defense.) For an introduction that requires less time investment, watch the documentary Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, which is awesomely available to watch instantly on Netflix.

* I do so when I imagine someone reading an essay of mine after I am dead; not even a suicide is immune to this phenomenon.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Markets Are Ungrounded

There is no truly free market, in the sense that it is absent from state regulation. State regulation is inherent in the notion of a market. The absence of state regulation is anarchy, in which markets do not function.

The idea of a free market is a popular one. It's a nice idea - it allows us to lay all kinds of complicated ethical questions at the feet of consent. But, as I have mentioned in the past, it's not "consent all the way down." A market must have regulation to exist, and regulation by any means but unanimous consent is inherently non-consensual.

So what does the state have to do in a market economy?

1. The state must define who is a market participant.

In other words, the state must decide whose choices and property rights must be respected.

Who may participate in the market? Who may buy and sell, or refuse to buy or sell? Who may own property?

Are men and women both proper market participants? Are children? Adolescents? The elderly? Deceased people (through documents or proxies)? Unborn people (perhaps through imaginary proxies)? Future people? Possible future people?

Are animals? Dogs? Chimpanzees? Cattle? AIs?

Are people with severe developmental disabilities proper market participants? People with moderate developmental disabilities? People with thought disorders? People with mood disorders?

Whose welfare or utility are our rules designed to maximize?

To some degree, the state must also define the unit of a market participant. Is it a single individual? Can it be a family? A business partnership? Is a single individual over his entire lifespan a market participant, or are young and old versions of the same person separate market participants?

2. The state must define what counts as property, and what belongs to each market participant.

Is one's labor one's property? Does one own one's genetic endowment?

Can people be property? Are our children our property? Our spouses or sex partners? The sexual services of our sex partners? The promised future sexual services of our sex partners?

Are animals property?

Does one have a property interest in one's feelings?

Are our bodies our property? Our organs? Blood? Semen? Ova? The years of our lives? What about antibiotic resistance - is the capacity for antibiotics to prevent infections our property? Is our appearance our property? Are the feelings that we produce in others our property?

Do we own our attention?

Is our general good behavior (not stealing, not raping) our property? Are things we have been promised our property?

Do we have a property interest in having enough air to breathe? Water to drink? Food to eat?

Can land be owned? If so, does a land owner own the wild animals on his land? The air above his property? How high up?

The related issues of (a) who is a market participant and (b) what is property are especially convoluted when we consider that some entities may be classified as either a market participant or a piece of property - or have elements of both, as with the current position of children and the historical position of women.

3. The state must define appropriate remedies for enforcing property rights.

Once the state has defined who may own property and what property may consist of, it must define what may happen when a property right is violated. Money sanctions? Specific performance? Self-help? Death or loss of a member by the breaching party? Imprisonment?

This is an especially complicated question, as the state may define different sanctions as appropriate remedies for different sorts of property violations.

4. The state must define what requires consent.

The state must define what counts as a transaction requiring consent. This is related to the above questions about what counts as property, what belongs to a person, and who is a market participant. If my money is my own, taking it from me requires my consent; but if it is not my own, it may be taken without my consent. And if I am not a market participant, my consent is not required in any case.

What counts as consent? Is affirmative consent required, or merely a failure to opt out? Must we consent to be advertised to? When can consent be presumed?

When can a substitute for consent be used? What substitutes are appropriate?

How far into the future may consent operate? Can it operate into the past?

When is apparent consent not real consent?

5. The state must define cheating.

There are many flavors of cheating that tend to undermine the market. Open up an introductory contract law text book to get an idea of the issues that must be regulated.

Is fraud okay? Accidental misrepresentation? How careful must an assertion be? What disclosures are required to make a transaction consensual?

What about coercion? Undue influence? Mutual mistake?

Is exploiting the cognitive biases of one's contract partners "cheating"? Exploiting the naivety of a contractual partner? Exploiting his illiteracy? His poor understanding of the contract's language?

Do the motives for putative cheating matter? What are the relevant states of mind?

And perhaps most importantly . . .

6. The state must define the procedure (if any) for changing the rules of the market.

As I hope I have shown, social norms affect and are affected by market rules. But social norms - and material circumstances - change, and with them, perhaps the rules of the market should change. How can this be accomplished? Majority rules? Unanimous consensus? Should there perhaps be . . . a market for establishing market rules? (And, if so, what are the rules of the meta-market?)

The State Has A Lot Of Work To Do

It's not simple. It can't be "free." And it can't be based on pure consent.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pareto, Kaldor-Hicks, and Deserving

In my recent post, I argued that our received notions of not applying human morality to the natural world are wrong, and that we should judge Nature - and judge it very bad indeed, and worthy of being stopped.

In doing so, I acknowledge that the actions of animals are not up for moral judgment; but their experiences are proper subjects of moral concern.

This framework of considering beings as moral objects whose experiences matter, but not agents whose choices "deserve" reward or punishment, is properly applied not just to animals, but to small children, the insane, and other "near persons" who lack the faculty of rationality.

This is nearly the opposite of Kantian "respect for persons" as I understand it, which accords the mysterious quality of "dignity" to all those with rational faculties. This "dignity" - this human-like rational function - is why we should respect the wishes of others, why what others want should matter to us.

I find it obvious from inspection that the pain of other experiencing beings should matter to us even if the others have no rational faculties at all. And I see the path from conscious-experiencing to conscious-choosing to be a continuum, rather than binary categories, with humans not even fully embodying the rational/choosing end of the spectrum.

I am concerned with suffering. Justice often concerns itself with suffering only so far as the suffering is "undeserved." I do not think any suffering is deserved. The notion of desert is entangled inside the context of a particular system.

In the bad old days, academics in criminology frequently wrote about victim-precipitated rape. Menachim Amir writes, in 1967:
We are accustomed to believe that forcible rape is an act which falls upon the victim without her aid or cooperation, but there often is "some reciprocal action between perpetrator and victim" in such cases.

Once the victim and the offender are drawn together, a process is set in motion whereby victim behavior and the situation which surrounds the encounter will determine the course of events leading to the crime. If the victim is not solely responsible for what becomes the unfortunate event, at least she is often a complementary partner.

"Victim Precipitated Forcible Rape," in The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science 58:4 (1967). Citations omitted; bolded emphasis mine.

I think victim-criminal interaction theory is a fruitful and interesting field, especially with an evolutionary psychology orientation. However, I also agree for once with mainstream academic feminists: nobody deserves to be raped.

The fact that a victim contributed somehow to cause a crime does not imply that the victim is a deserving victim. Rape is simply not an appropriate sanction for any behavior - even rape itself. Not even a rapist deserves to be raped.

But why should this be? To see this, we need to ask ourselves: what justification is there for saying a rapist deserves to be raped? Or that a thief deserves to have his hand cut off?

Considering the classical theories of punishment (justifications for a society imposing criminal sanctions), most of them - general deterrence, specific deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation - justify punishment on the grounds that it is good for someone, or good for society as a whole. Punishment is justified in order to create the proper incentives, to maximize the happiness of everyone at the expense of the suffering of a few. Only the retributive theory of justice - vengeance, punishment for its own sake, spite - is compatible with a notion of desert on the part of the suspect. The rest justify punishment only on utilitarian grounds, and might equally justify punishment of the innocent!

The vengeance motive - the retributive theory of justice - is not explicitly utilitarian. It is the deeply-felt human idea that harm simply deserves harm - an eye for an eye. Under the framework of vengeance, it's a bad thing when a criminal dies before having the opportunity to be punished, even though everyone is made better off by his death. But there is a great deal of evidence that this spite function - the desire for revenge even when it doesn't make anybody better off - is an adaptation for realizing the most effective, versatile game strategy in social animals. A social animal that allows others to get away with defection unpunished encourages more defection, and meanwhile does not compete as well as a social animal programmed to follow tit-for-tat. In this light, we can see vengeance as evolution's tool to get a social organism to cooperate the optimum amount to maximize its fitness. I would argue that the justice of vengeance stands or falls with the justice of the utilitarian theories of punishment.

All the utilitarian justifications come down to this: we must punish people, make them suffer, so that overall, people in society suffer less. What this assumes is that we have a right to make people suffer against their will for the greater good. This assumption is wholly unsupported, and can never, in my view, be supported. How the unconsented suffering of some can be justified by the happiness of others is something I have never understood, and something that concerns me a great deal. I have argued that this is the same as the move in economics from "humane Pareto efficiency to ugly, realist Kaldor-Hicks efficiency."

Pareto efficiency is the idea that a transaction is just (and we should encourage it) if it helps someone and hurts no one. Any fully consensual transaction should have this characteristic, so a contractual exchange would be a Pareto improvement. (However, the justice of any transaction relies on the justice of the initial distribution, which is, in reality, totally unfair.)

Kaldor-Hicks efficiency comes from a recognition that consent is hard to do. With Kaldor-Hicks, we jump from requiring a transaction to help someone and not hurt anyone - that is, to be fully consensual - to allowing the transaction if the gains for some outweigh the costs to others, so that theoretically the losers could be compensated. (It doesn't matter if, in reality, the losers are compensated.) Many non-consensual transactions can be justified under Kaldor-Hicks; the good for some just has to outweigh the bad for others. For instance, rape is never a Pareto improvement, but if the rapist enjoys it more than the victim suffers from it, it could be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement. It is my contention that Pareto has a shot at being just, but Kaldor-Hicks is churched-up evil.

What is missing in any sort of justification for why it's okay to make some suffer so that most of us can be better off. And what's especially fascinating is that although in general in economics we do not compare utility functions of people, Kaldor-Hicks thinking essentially requires us to compare utility functions of different individuals. Why is it okay here and not okay in other places? There's no market here, by definition, so we're not using revealed preference as a guide.

But even a market based on actual consent is not grounded or justified in any way that should make us ethically comfortable. A market or social system may provide for individual choice in any given transaction, but a participant cannot decide whether to be part of a market economy. It's not consent all the way down, you might say.

Having a baby might be a Kaldor-Hicks improvement, but it cannot be a Pareto improvement. We need to pay more attention to this type of unconsented transaction, and our primary concern should be for its victims, rather than for the rights of agents making these harmful decisions for their own benefit.

George Bernard Shaw: Children Are Slaves

On the whole, whatever our theory or no theory may be, our practice is to treat the child as the property of its immediate physical parents, and to allow them to do what they like with it as far as it will let them. It has no rights and no liberties: in short, its condition is that which adults recognize as the most miserable and dangerous politically possible for themselves: namely, the condition of slavery. For its alleviation we trust to the natural affection of the parties, and to public opinion. A father cannot for his own credit let his son go in rags. Also, in a very large section of the population, parents finally become dependent on their children. Thus there are checks on child slavery which do not exist, or are less powerful, in the case of manual and industrial slavery. Sensationally bad cases fall into two classes, which are really the same class: namely, the children whose parents are excessively addicted to the sensual luxury of petting children, and the children whose parents are excessively addicted to the sensual luxury of physically torturing them. There is a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children which has effectually made an end of our belief that mothers are any more to be trusted than stepmothers, or fathers than slave-drivers. And there is a growing body of law designed to prevent parents from using their children ruthlessly to make money for the household. Such legislation has always been furiously resisted by the parents, even when the horrors of factory slavery were at their worst; and the extension of such legislation at present would be impossible if it were not that the parents affected by it cannot control a majority of votes in Parliament. In domestic life a great deal of service is done by children, the girls acting as nursemaids and general servants, and the lads as errand boys. In the country both boys and girls do a substantial share of farm labor. This is why it is necessary to coerce poor parents to send their children to school, though in the relatively small class which keeps plenty of servants it is impossible to induce parents to keep their children at home instead of paying schoolmasters to take them off their hands.

It appears then that the bond of affection between parents and children does not save children from the slavery that denial of rights involves in adult political relations. It sometimes intensifies it, sometimes mitigates it; but on the whole children and parents confront one another as two classes in which all the political power is on one side; and the results are not at all unlike what they would be if there were no immediate consanguinity between them, and one were white and the other black, or one enfranchised and the other disenfranchised, or one ranked as gentle and the other simple. Not that Nature counts for nothing in the case and political rights for everything. But a denial of political rights, and the resultant delivery of one class into the mastery of another, affects their relations so extensively and profoundly that it is impossible to ascertain what the real natural relations of the two classes are until this political relation is abolished.

— George Bernard Shaw, A Treatise on Parents and Children (Emphasis mine.)

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?"
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