Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No lions, no tigers, no bears, Oh joy!

This first point is likely to seem irrelevant, but I wonder if it isn't revealing. McMahan writes that: "some of us, for reasons I have never understood, do go to the trouble to paint their vestigial claws a sanguinary hue." I.e. some people, overwhelmingly women, paint their nails. Am I alone in being annoyed by this? It seems to combine patronizing sexism with a failed attempt at Gradgrind-as-Socrates humour. The robot that does not understand human ways points out, with a kindly laugh, how foolish we all are. Are we really expected to laugh? Is anyone alive really mystified by decoration?

Later, McMahan writes that: "There is no reason to suppose that a species has special sanctity simply because it arose in the natural process of evolution." Yes there is. Evolution takes a long time. This time can be regarded as a kind of investment, an investment that will be wasted if the species in question is killed off or allowed to die out. That is, as Ronald Dworkin puts it, a cosmic shame. A species designed and created in a lab can be re-designed and re-created just as easily. This might not be much of an argument, but Dworkin is trying to capture widespread intuitions. I think he is at least partly successful. McMahan is here basically rejecting these intuitions, but moral dialogue becomes impossible if too many such intuitions are rejected or not shared in the first place.

Wisely, McMahan brings up the likely objection that our choosing which species get to survive and which die out would be "playing God." He has two responses to this:
One is that it singles out deliberate, morally-motivated action for special condemnation, while implicitly sanctioning morally neutral action that foreseeably has the same effects as long as those effects are not intended. One plays God, for example, if one administers a lethal injection to a patient at her own request in order to end her agony, but not if one gives her a largely ineffective analgesic only to mitigate the agony, though knowing that it will kill her as a side effect. But it is hard to believe that any self-respecting deity would be impressed by the distinction. If the first act encroaches on divine prerogatives, the second does as well.
I think this is wrong. A kidnapper who toys with his prisoner, reveling in the power to kill or not, plays God. The doing-and-allowing distinction need not come into it. To play God is, it seems to me, to make decisions that one has no right to make. Another example would be the Nazi officer played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List who enjoys shooting prisoners in his camp, deciding who lives a bit longer and who dies right away. This is playing God. Anyway, what about McMahan’s example?

Lethal injections are opposed by many religious believers because they believe that God has forbidden killing the innocent. Giving a lethal injection for reasons unrelated to its lethality would likely be frowned upon by such people too. McMahan seems to have the doctrine of double effect in mind here, so perhaps I should spell out what this doctrine says: First, do nothing that is forbidden. Secondly, allowed actions (such as giving an anesthetic) that have the same effects as forbidden actions are not necessarily forbidden so long as: a) neither the means nor the end is forbidden, b) the likely good effects outweigh the likely bad effects. Giving an anesthetic is usually allowed as a means, and relieving suffering is usually considered OK as an end, but whether the good of ending a patient’s suffering outweighs the bad of that patient’s dying is controversial. It is not clear to me what a theist should say about such a case. What they do say varies, of course. What any of this has to do with playing God or engineering the extinction of tigers is another matter. Let me try to figure it out.

The proposal, I take it, is that we choose between carrying on destroying species willy nilly and destroying them in a more thoughtful way. The obvious falseness of this dichotomy suggests that McMahan is kidding (and there can be no doubt that he is against the current destruction), but let’s assume for the sake of argument, or for the sake of his joke, that he is not. If someone opposes the targeted extinction on the grounds that this would be playing God in a way that falls foul of the doctrine of double effect, would they be right? Is logging, for instance, forbidden? No. Is the reason why people cut down trees (profit) considered evil by most religions? No. Does the rationally expected good outweigh the rationally expected bad? No. So according to the doctrine of double effect, it looks as though destroying the environment by cutting down lots of trees is not allowed. Willy nilly extinction is no better than targeted extinction. It is not the case, therefore, that targeted extinction is wrong on account of its involving playing God as McMahan understands this idea (as I understand his understanding of it). Targeted extinction and willy nilly extinction are wrong for the same reason.

It looks as though McMahan needs his second response, therefore, which he regards as: "simple and decisive. It is that there is no deity whose prerogatives we might usurp. To the extent that these matters are up to anyone, they are up to us alone."

I agree that there is no deity. But it does not follow (that I am right or) that there are no limits on what we may do or on what decisions we may take. So if we reject the concept of playing God on the ground that there is no God, we can always instead use the concept of "what used to be called ‘playing God’" and get the same results. My argument for this concept is an appeal to intuitions. Not a strong argument, but ultimately the best we can ever do in ethics. Or so it seems to me.

Back to McMahan:
Another equally unpersuasive objection to the suggestion that we ought to eliminate carnivorism if we could do so without major ecological disruption is that this would be “against Nature.” This slogan also has a long history of deployment in crusades to ensure that human cultures remain primitive. And like the appeal to the sovereignty of a deity, it too presupposes an indefensible metaphysics. Nature is not a purposive agent, much less a wise one.
This is obscure. McMahan’s apparent meaning is that people who complain that this or that is against nature (or Nature) believe that nature is a wise and purposive agent. But no one believes this. Some believe that nature expresses God’s will, and that God is a wise and purposive agent. If we take this idea to have been refuted by McMahan’s assertion that it is false, then we are left with some speculation to do as to what people might mean when they say that something is against nature. Some just mean they don’t like it, some mean it is artificial (and they don’t like artificial things, perhaps because they don’t trust them), and some mean simply that it is wrong. For some people, “against nature” means “contrary to human nature,” which means “in violation of the laws governing how human beings ought to live,” which means “wrong.” It is hard to see what the metaphysics here is supposed to be, let alone why it would be indefensible.

Finally, McMahan’s conclusion:
Here, then, is where matters stand thus far. It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, and I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment.
The key sentence here is this: “The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species.” Where we draw the line between lions and tigers is arbitrary, so (?) lions and tigers as such cannot be sacred. I’m not at all sure that this is what he means, but it’s what he seems to be getting at here:
the idea that individual animal species have value in themselves is less obvious. What, after all, are species? According to Darwin, they “are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.” They are collections of individuals distinguished by biologists that shade into one another over time and sometimes blur together even among contemporaneous individuals, as in the case of ring species. There are no universally agreed criteria for their individuation. In practice, the most commonly invoked criterion is the capacity for interbreeding, yet this is well known to be imperfect and to entail intransitivities of classification when applied to ring species. Nor has it ever been satisfactorily explained why a special sort of value should inhere in a collection of individuals simply by virtue of their ability to produce fertile offspring. If it is good, as I think it is, that animal life should continue, then it is instrumentally good that some animals can breed with one another. But I can see no reason to suppose that donkeys, as a group, have a special impersonal value that mules lack.

(The superiority of donkeys over mules is evident to me, and I do not mean that I prefer donkeys (although of course I do). But I should leave that aside.)

Artificial combinations made for convenience can still be convenient, so I see no reason to discount them. And then why can’t we regard such a grouping as sacred, especially since ‘sacred’ is being used here to express an intuition, not in a very technical or literal sense? Is it irrational to love donkeys but not mules? Why can’t the members of an artificial category be sacred (in Dworkin’s sense of the word)? Indeed, Dworkin counts works of art as sacred, and that is a notoriously tricky category.

Three points in conclusion: 1. McMahan seems to want to be impersonal (his preferred term for ‘sacredness’ is ‘impersonal value’, he claims not to get nail polish, he is dismissive of great literature and religious impulses, etc.), 2. He makes some arguments that seem rather weak, 3. His article has the potential to be a great work of satire, but it seems not to be intended this way. The second point is neither here nor there, since both bad arguments and disagreement about which arguments are bad are very common. What interests me are the first and third points, which make me feel that McMahan and I are almost members of different species. Disconcerting and depressing. But if it is satire, then I applaud the idea, if not the execution.

No comments:

Post a Comment