Friday, March 04, 2005

Cousins and consequences

A detailed examinition of the recent hominid remains found on the Indonesian island of Flores last year have confirmed (or at least very strongly suggested) that "Hobbits" were indeed our cousins, rather than being modern pygmies. But the real question still remains unanswered: what happened to them? Stories of the Ebu Gogo date to the post-European contact era; have they died out, or are they still there? And if so, what could they tell us about ourselves?

Coincidentally, I've just read an essay in A Devil's Chaplain ("Son of Moore's Law") in which Richard Dawkins argues that the effects of meeting a surviving (or recreated) hominid species would forever undermine our present moral distinctions based on absolute but essentially morally arbitrary species barriers. He revisits this argument in a post-Hobbit article in the LA Times:

[T]o meet another human species would be a soul-building experience. Besides, the live discovery I wistfully imagined would turn human complacency on its head. Our speciesism accepts a vast moral gulf between Homo sapiens and every other animal. Nice people will unquestioningly value the life of a human embryo above that of an adult chimpanzee. The chimpanzee thinks and feels, enjoys love and suffers fear, yet moral absolutists feel no unease at the killing, or selling, of a captive chimpanzee. Simultaneously, they see an infinite moral objection to the "murder" of a brainless, senseless human embryo.

What would become of such a double standard in the face of a living - and perhaps suffering - Homo floresiensis?

And if Flores Woman indeed belongs in the genus Homo, she might be capable of interbreeding with us - and therefore of shaking absolutist morality to its ill-considered foundations. (Please, somebody, go out to Flores and search.)

But simply the knowledge of H. floresiensis's recent existence should have the same effect. Few people could hear the news of their discovery without considering, even for an instant, whether they were "people". But even asking the question undermines speciesist moral thinking; it no longer becomes a question of "can I theoretically breed with you" (which, spelled out, seems an exceptionally poor basis for morality) but one of recognition of shared traits which don't necessarily follow species boundaries. And once that is acknowledged, speciesism crumbles; you can't include all humans without also including some animals (particularly other primates), and you can't exclude those animals without also excluding some humans (such as embryos, the mentally retarded, and even young children). Our old moral boundaries are left looking disturbingly similar to the National Front's: based on something essentially arbitrary and irrelevant.


Posted by Muerk : 3/04/2005 10:52:00 PM

The fall back position I guess is brain power. there is a yawning gulf between an average human and the smartest chimp such a gulf does not exist between races (even if there are average differences). One can look at a chimp and with only the knowledge that he is a chimp make a sound assumption that he is less intelligent than a average adult human or even a well below average human (although of course he would be ahead of some humans but I think we can overlook that). That makes speciasm where intelligence is important pretty much 100% rational not just 99% but 100%.

Posted by Genius : 3/04/2005 11:02:00 PM

Genius: This may have escaped you, but not every human is an adult. In particular, we assign moral rights both to very young children and to the severely mentally retarded. The average chimpanzee seems to fit in around here on the intelligence scale. So, in order to be consistent in excluding chimps from moral consideration, we must also allow infanticide. Needless to say, this clashes with people's moral intuitions...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/04/2005 11:27:00 PM

Muerk: interesting, but saying we have moral worth because we are "made in the image of god" simply begs the question of what that image is. And a little bit of thinking about what supposedly makes us so special leads us straight to the sorts of theories based on personhood and suffering which undercut speciesism (except to literalists, of course - but they have other problems)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/04/2005 11:34:00 PM

I know that there is a huge body of academic theological work as to what is our 'image of God'. Although in very quick lay understanding, it is the ability to be free moral agents and to have a relationship with God.

However all human life, no matter how constrained, is considered to to be made in God's image, so an individual functional determination isn't the point here.

I guess this is where I point to the soul, and it's ability to form a relationship independant of the facilties of the body or mind.

In the Catholic tradition, animals aren't ensouled, and thus unable to form that relationship with God.

I guess my point is that our humanity isn't based on our mental or physical abilities, and thus any comparison with other species' abilities is a moot point.

Posted by Muerk : 3/05/2005 11:04:00 AM

Muerk: "we're just special", in other words. That's a giant cop-out if ever I saw one.

I should also point out that assigning moral worth on the basis of something undetectable is simply begging for trouble. If there's no independent way of determining the fact of the matter, then anyone or any class of persons for whom a remotely plausible argument for soullessness can be made is fair game.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/05/2005 11:37:00 AM

It’s only a cop-out from your 21st Century perspective. It’s hardly appropriate to gift modern sentiments onto something that took hundreds of years to develop several thousands of years ago. When the concept of a soul became normative it wasn’t a cop-out at all, it was in fact a way for people to explain and experience their distinctly different abilities from the flora and fauna in their environment.

Animals didn’t create works of beauty, nor were they bloodthirsty and cruel. Yet humans were capable of both great good and evil. We were given that aspect of divinity that allowed us to be moral agents - the soul in the image of God. We became as gods, able to create and destroy at whim.

You need to read your Genesis and do some hermeneutics and apply it to a bronze age civilization before you cry cop-out so freely.

And if you want to beg for trouble, how about assigning moral worth to something on the basis of something as changeable as human desire? At least in theory, the Revelation of God is unchangeable and objective. An immutable “law” of God. I’d rather have my worth determined by a transcendent unchanging Creator, than by the whim and fashion of the latest intellectual movement.

Posted by Muerk : 3/05/2005 04:41:00 PM

> In particular, we assign moral rights both to very young children

If you kill a child you kill the adult he would have become.

> and to the severely mentally retarded.

It is very difficult to define the moral standard by which these people deserve more rights. But the law needs to be consistant we are talking about a sort of discrimination and so these peopel in a sense get rights because you get rights. Otherwise there is an "out" to reducing your rights or a confusing line that must be drawn between people. Just like how with speeding tickets we dont go and test the guys car we jsut give them the ticket morality also needs to simplify.

Posted by Genius : 3/05/2005 06:26:00 PM

Genius: while killing a child is indeed killing the adult it would become, that can't be the whole story - otherwise we would regard it as acceptable to kill or abuse children who we knew would die before reaching adulthood, or who (for developmental reasons) would never reach it.

As for your position on the mentally retarded, you're right: denying them moral protection would be gross discrimination (not to mention simply monstrous), and consistency demands that we extend to them the same protection that we would demand for ourselves. But then that same consistency also demands that we include all those with similar cognitive abilities, which would include the higher primates.

So, consistent or inconsistent? Which do you prefer to be?

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/05/2005 07:14:00 PM

Muerk: while the past may help us understand why people thought the way they did, it doesn't excuse their errors in any way. Inconsistency is inconsistency, and a cop-out is a cop-out, no matter who thought it up or when.

And who said anything about human desire? Personhood theories are based on shared and objective traits, such as the ability to suffer and make long-term plans (or "brainpower", to use Genius' first approximation). These are things we recognise in human beings, and intuitively recognise as valuable (in that the first recourse of anyone asked why we don't extend moral rights to animals is that "animals can't think"). But consistency then dictates that we recognise their value no matter what species they appear in.

As for your "transcendent unchanging Creator", frankly I put it in the same class as the tooh fairy. So please excuse me for not regarding it as a sufficient basis for assigning moral worth.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/05/2005 07:58:00 PM

Without an immutable transcendent concept of personhood, of course it is relegated to human desire.

- Grandma is old and rich, and the family want a new house… A woman’s pregnant but doesn’t want to go through with it because she already has two kids. Those annoying ‘non-combatants’ in Gitmo. -

Already we as a society are showing that personhood is based on functional categories, such as an ability to think higher thoughts or to feel certain things, and so you are seeing the euthanasia of premature babies in the Netherlands and the elderly pretty much in all Western countries, whether legal or otherwise and of course, the termination of foetuses.

“But consistency then dictates that we recognise their value no matter what species they appear in.”

That’s the point though isn’t it? By creating personhood out of functional abilities then you have to extend it to all those who possess them, and deny them to those that don’t. So Cocoa the gorilla gets to be a “person”, but an 18 week old foetus or a person in a coma, is not. It’s consistent, but absurd, because it denies human personhood to actual human people, and applies it to very intelligent animals.

Of course, we can see now that certain prisoners are denied personhood and thus basic human justice - such as detention without trial or even charges. Why? Because someone can rationalise the desire for it.

Posted by Muerk : 3/05/2005 09:52:00 PM

> otherwise we would regard it as acceptable to kill or abuse children who we knew would die before reaching adulthood

Doctors do this all the time.

> But then that same consistency also demands that we include all those with similar cognitive abilities, which would include the higher primates.

the problem is - what is a "higher cogntive ability" and when did we conclusively proove that a lower primate (or a crow or a dolphin)doesn't have them? I find it rather specesist the way we assume humans are special and are amazed when chimps have the same traits - when these same traits are often also shared by hundreds of other animals.

> So, consistent or inconsistent? Which do you prefer to be?

you cant be consistant. at some point you have to have an arbitrary line.

Posted by Genius : 3/06/2005 09:36:00 AM

anyway what is the solution? extend full human rights to every animal?
If we inclue a man in a coma on a intelligence scale then for consistancy we have to also include everything else much more intelligent than a worm.
There is no consistant and practical position in regard to morals.

Posted by Genius : 3/06/2005 04:14:00 PM