Finding Nemo

Monday, May 16, 2011

Morality Part VI: Our Duty to the Earth

Click here for Morality Part I

In an earlier post on philosophy, I lamented what we humans, spreading over the face of the earth like a virus, were doing to our planet.  My solution was two-part: first, we have to return to the ancient view that all life is sacred and thus has intrinsic worth.  This means we must try to preserve nature for its own sake.  This is a spiritual argument.  The second part was rational in that it is in our own interests to preserve nature because not only do we derive benefit from it in terms of food, fresh water, and new medicines, but without natural resources we cannot survive.

Earth Human Virus

But is there another rational defensible argument that doesn't rely on spirituality or on a future that is uncertain (although getting more certain each year), that would compel everyone to treat the Earth and its creatures with respect?  This challenge is taken on by two essayists in Sterba's book.

Paul Taylor is the first contestant.  After page upon page of idiotic blabbering he finally gets to his main argument.  Our notion that we are a superior species, and that this gives us reason to do what we please with the natural world, is false.  By saying we are superior to all animals we are in effect putting a class system into place much like medieval Europe and India's caste system.  Both systems are morally repugnant to modern thought; that is, it is morally wrong to judge a person's worth based upon the circumstances of their birth.  Taylor then says that this is what we are doing with all of life.  We are saying we are a superior class and that all other life is inferior.  I was kind of digging what he was saying but needed to hear some more.

Hawk eyes
So Taylor then goes on to say that this notion of superiority is founded on old ideas which are false.  First, the Greeks claimed we were superior because we had rational thought.  But Taylor says that this is an arbitrary criteria.  Rational thought is not beneficial to a hawk or cheetah.  However, these animals have other qualities, such as incredible vision or great speed that humans do not.  (In the 2nd essay, James Sterba goes on to say that the reason rational thought is not beneficial is that these animals don't have hands or the ability to speak.  And if they did they certainly wouldn't be a mouse or cheetah anymore.  Only in Disney movies does rational thought help other animals.)

Sacred cows, why not?
The 2nd ancient idea was that humans have a "soul" which animals do not.  Even supposing that this is true, why does a soul make humans superior?  Animals live fine lives without souls and would not live a better existence if they had them.  So a soul only benefits humans and is therefore another human-biased criteria.  Personally, I think the soul is tied up with the 3rd reason, which is that ...

God commanded that men had dominion over the animals in Genesis.  This is a spiritual claim that cannot be proven or disproved, and therefore has no place in a rational argument.  Thus Taylor dismisses it as a valid reason.

The whole essay is kind of interesting after you get through all the crap in the beginning.  I guess I tend to agree with the Greeks.  We are a superior species because we do have rational thought, and it is our species that gives value and meaning to life on Earth.  A flea doesn't value us intrinsically, but we can value it as a sacred part of the great chain of life.  But then again, what if we weren't here?  Would life on earth still have value?  The answer is that of course it would!  Life is the very thing that makes the Earth so unique and special in the universe.  It didn't happen on any other planet in the solar system, and as far as we know (yet) it hasn't happened anywhere else either.  But the answer to whether life has intrinsic value can be found in your pet dog.  Even if you died tomorrow, you would still want your dog cared for and looked after.  You believe that its life is worth something intrinsically.

A very rare planet
So the answer I suppose is that even though we are a superior species, it doesn't mean that other life doesn't have intrinsic value.  It does.  This in turn forces us to realize that its worth protecting and valuing for its own sake.

So when I turned to Sterba's essay I hoped for something along these lines.  And he delivered, sort of.  Sterba says that it doesn't matter if you think humans are superior or not, it is still unethical to dominate other species.  He uses the analogy of a race.  Suppose a person finished in 1st place, the others finish in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.  Surely the person who finishes first deserves merit, and more recognition than the others.  But the fact that he finished first does NOT give him the right to order the others to his whim.  His higher merit does not allow him domination over the others.  Sterba also posits that all species do have intrinsic worth, and that alone means that they have some basic rights.  Their basic needs are less important than human basic needs, but more important than human luxury needs.

He concludes that the only ethical way to treat other species is the Principle of Disproportionality.  (Seriously?  You couldn't think of a catchier name?)

Actions that meet nonbasic or luxury needs of humans are prohibited when they aggress against the basic needs of plants and animals.

Its really not a bad principle.  It seems to strike the right balance of respecting nature and giving humans their due.

And, in fact, the USA, much-maligned these days in terms of climate change, actually used to lead the way on environmental protection.  The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 established the EPA, and its poetic language makes me feel that perhaps all is not lost.  Maybe our species really does have a chance.  Here are some excerpts:

"To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation."

" The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the natural environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and new and expanding technological advances and recognizing further the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality to the overall welfare and development of man, declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with State and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans."

"The oceans and the atmosphere are interacting parts of the total environmental system upon which we depend not only for the quality of our lives, but for life itself."

This landmark legislation argues exactly my original point.  We need nature for our own sake.  Without it we will perish.  And that is a reason I think anyone can get behind.

"I'm crushing you"

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