Ethics of Not Ruining Everything

Today I listened to the audio book of Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationship With Animals by Lori Gruen while reading the hardcopy of From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel Dennett. As a result I have been better able to empathize with Dennett’s obsession with the uniqueness of human consciousness, and I have been better able to marvel at the complex precision of Gruen’s theorizing. But I don’t seem to be any better off than I was before when it comes to knowing how to persuade or otherwise mobilize people to stop humanity from wrecking this planet or harming various life forms on it. In that and other senses, both books read/listen to me like eternal introductions that never get around to the tofu of the matter.

In the end I don’t place an emphasis on thinking about human consciousness. Once we’ve established that humans’ brain power is neither a reason to value nor a reason to devalue non-human animals, and rejected silly dualist conceptions of it as non-physical, the one thing we can be certain of — pace Descartes — is that thinking about our thinking is self-indulgent. Of course our thinking is interestingly unique and interestingly engaged with an accumulating cultural collection of knowledge and habits and verbal language — though that uniqueness may be eroded by computers. But either we’re going to stop rendering the planet uninhabitable or we are not, and how our experience of apocalypse differs from chimpanzees’ experience of apocalypse gains my interest less than whether we can prevent the apocalypse.

Dennett objects to expanding ethics to include those who suffer, because he says we do not know who suffers. We must — simply must — he insists, draw “the moral line” somewhere between microbes and humans. But we simply don’t know where to draw it. The clear conclusion is that we must do what we have no ability to do, which would seem to be a radically extreme failure as an ethical system.

On the other hand, Dennett’s demystifying of human consciousness seems to place it in greater proximity to the lives of at least some other beings — something that might be appreciated by Gruen, who proposes an ethics of empathy in place of, or in addition to, an ethics of justice or an ethics of rights. Certainly, empathy is a practice that greatly benefits human thinking as we relate to people and other living things — perhaps even non-living things. (If Gruen can feel empathy for trees, why can’t I for rocks?) And Gruen helpfully points us toward the need to engage in careful and respectful empathy that does not desire for other creatures what we would want if we were they. (Desiring that chimps never fight is probably harmful to chimps.)

But what I want is an ethics of not ruining everything. If I respect every bit of an ecosystem out of humility and enlightened self-interest, based on the overly well documented fact that arrogantly screwing with things often has extremely negative consequences, do I really have to worry about the mental state of rats or slugs or oak trees or humans?

I’m not just proposing this as an ethical system for broad public policies that fails to apply to small-scale interactions. I think it helps there too. Why not treat other humans with humility and respect? I often suspect various humans of lacking certain cognitive abilities: those in a coma, infants, admirers of one or the other of the two big U.S. political parties, etc. In fact, I often suspect various humans of something worse than lacking mental abilities; I suspect them of possessing evil ones, of scheming for greed or power or sadistic pleasure.

I don’t mean to reject the value of thinking in terms of empathy or rights or utilitarianism or any other valuable framework. And the fact that none of them is working does not necessarily mean that another could have. I just think they’ve all rather fallen behind the wisdom contained in the simple injunction to first do no harm. Combining that with proper humility about which actions risk doing harm to an environment understood as planetary and therefore containing all variety of mental capacities known to us seems of urgent importance.

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  • DiveshopinGoa

    Within the framework of mass extinction as it is playing out, thinking has little effect. Humans thinking think themselves superior but the measure of superior is survival first not thinking, language, writing etc. So you all just keep on thinking about how to avoid your death at the hands of who knows what just because you have not given it enough thought. I guess.

  • Zartan

    Mankinds thinking is a Pathological Abomination.

    Truely, the Animals “ALL” species ( even insects) rank above a degenerate, beastly and profane race of greedmongering, genocidal, wicked and profane FOOLS! Yes, mankind is a CURSE, and being ONE ( HUMAN) gives me Great Authority, to Say it, Spiritually. IF there is a GOD HE listens with great interest becuase I am not denegratiing anyone, but “EVERYONE,” includng myself. This is not an attribute of Human behavior. I am smart enough to reject “myself” and my feeble abilities. If the rest of you could do that I am sure GOD would Transform “ALL” into gods ( lowercase) capible os speaking to the animals and healing the planet with a THOUGHT!

    However, I have seen nothing out of mankind but WICKEDNESS, and MY ONLY HOPE, IN PRAYER, is that GOD evacuate all THE ANIMALS off the EARTH, and give MANKIND Three DAYS to LIVE IN FEAR, then END THEM. I can only say, YOU ARE ALL PLAGUE And DESTROY LIFE. I have to include myself because I am not a Hypocrite.

    Spare me your BILGE on Mankinds Empathy; because they have NONE, all they have is GREED, SELFISHNESS, and PERVERSION. I actually feel sorry for MURDERERS of MANKIND ( in some instances) because I see why –and how– they were driven to such Horrible Acts. Most people are so full of their own self-idolatry and cannot comprehend “anything,” but there is a REASON FOR EVERYTHING! Ask: Einstein, FOOLS!

    Mankind Respecting the Eco-System? Look, I know some people get depressed, delusional and start day dreaming, but NATURE IS IN GREAT PAIN because of MANKIND.
    Think More, Dream Less.

    GOD is the Only Solution …

    And, If you do not believe in GOD, well, than YOU are tragically LOST, because YOU are so lost in absolutely worthless in Intellect that YOU cannot even communicate to the RATS, TREES, or anything else for that matter. Simply, “YOU ARE GODS JOKE,” MANKIND, and if you only had the FAITH ENOUGH to get ANGRY AT HIM things might change? Simply, YOU CAN DO NOTHING BUT EVIL BECAUSE YOU ARE ALL LIMITED TO EVIL.

    If Mankind is Taken out of the Earth, only then, will nature Prosper. Otherwise, God has to intervine and give HIS IDIOTS 90-percent of their brains back that they still cannot even figure that HE TOOK From them in the first place!


    • Zartan

      And, I dare “anyone,’ or even “ALL of YOU” ( the material above is harsh but necessary) to try and Defend Yourselves, because my case is so easy to prove that I can beat the entire nation, easy. The Truth cannot Fail.

      See, You all support the US government, and it is YOUR representative, as it does YOUR WILL. A government by and for the People. You patronize and support it with voluntary tax.

      Good Luck when You face the Creator with US TAXPAYER stamped on your forehead. Oh, Jesus Christ … I would much rather be SATAN!!!


  • artguerrilla

    as per usual, ALL these pressing issues (except your idiotic, anti-human, evolution-contrary fixation on vegetarianism) are tied back to the existence of Empire…
    unless/until Empire is toppled, NONE of these related issues will EVER be compromised to our mutual satisfaction nor possibly resolved… NONE of them, as long as Empire is extant…
    what is Empire’s moral imperative ? profit uber alles ! ! !
    when you set up a system where PROFIT is the highest ‘value’/aspiration, then we can hardly be surprised when humanity is ground up to serve that end…
    simply a natural result of making that ‘choice’…
    oh, wait a minute, we 99% didn’t really get a choice, this UNnatural state of things is imposed upon us, somewhat out of ignorance, somewhat with tacit consent, and somewhat out of (reasonable) fear of the long tentacles of Empire’s vampire squid…
    Empire must fall,
    the sooner the fall,
    the gentler for all…

    • Adreng

      When evolution is used as an argument against taking suffering of all sentient being into account for the choice of food and other types consumption goods, this is a typical case of the naturalistic fallacy.

  • ICFubar

    I agree. Getting involved in extending the concept of human rights to species in nature, humans having removed themselves from nature through advocating law as our social order as defined by various protocols, will simply immerse us all in a great deal of effort in a forest of issues. This when a simpler benevolent attitude towards the whole of planetary well being cuts to the chase. That being said the plutocracy that runs this place has a solution that enables the present human economic system to remain intact, with them still occupying the top positions running finance and capitalism, while starkly lessening the impact of the human economy on our planetary ecosystem. Their solution is to reduce the human population by up to 90%. However, with that mentally ill or deranged crew still in charge I don’t believe too many humans see this as a solution benefiting the human experience. In the meantime the whole place is suffering from economy of scale and a debt based financial system that demands more and more growth to sustain its ponzi status. This mandates that more planetary resources, mineral, plant, animal and life supporting systems must be turned into product and then trashed, called growth on a yearly basis. This has to be enabled on a compounding exponential yearly basis to sustain the human economic paradigm presently in place and owned under human law by the human apex elites. It comes down to changing the current human economic paradigm and removing those running it in their own interests or allowing the plutocracy to carry out its planning for a reduction of current human systems impact and harm by simply reducing the numbers of human beings.

    The solution to me seems to be in riding ourselves of a debt based financial system and in acquiring a simply non polluting means of energizing human civilization so that humans no longer need to ravage nature and true conservation can take hold. A planet filled to the brim with humans and devoid of nature would to me be a hell on earth. I can’t imagine living in a mega city over populated with only humans, like an over population of rats in a closed environment, turning on each other under this intensity. This when on my daily dog walking excursions I often run across other species, bears, deer, turkeys , marmots, eagles and others and enjoy their existence as separate to my own, knowing we as humans hold their world in the palm of our hands. We must change our behaviour and systems or the natural world is done for and we will have committed genocide on a planetary scale as our lasting posterity to the future, for once it is gone, it is gone forever.

  • Don Sanderson

    A suggested more apropos reading list:

    A good introduction: Martha Beck’s “Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to
    Create the Life You Want”, and then the meat:

    “The Master and His
    Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” by Iain

    Any of the later books by Michael Gazzaniga on split brains,

    “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths
    Among Us” by Robert D. Hare, and

    “Subtle Activism: The Inner Dimension of Social and Planetary
    Transformation” by David Nicol.

  • Todd Millions

    A fraught vexed and rich subject but-
    You may want to put some seemly distance between your points and Rene Descartes. Seriously,as much as possible.
    As merely one instance(there are several-big items,perhaps not his fault-I’ll explain later on)-
    Rene’s “Seat of the Soul”, which he catholicly cartographed to(wait for it) The Pineal gland!
    O.K-As good a seat as any but the follow up-(Para);
    “Pain is caused by knowledge of separation from God, since animals are unaware of this separation…
    they Can’t feel pain.” !!
    Pardon moi french-What an ASSHOLE!
    This was Not the only example-But it was the counter reformation and several wedges were being driven betwixt thinkers and though.
    Rene was the romish response to the non trinitarian Newton and all truth and light .
    See: gravitation verses vortices(Voltaire mentions it).
    Guess what holy dogma is still with us in labs and feedlots by the bye. Its Not vortices holding the solar system together.
    You may want to look up Blaise Pascal for his thoughts and outlook on these matters-Don’t use Vatican approved sources.
    The same could be said for studying criminal bank fraud , money laundering ,pedophilia and Opus Dei.

    While I have always being aware of the sardonic humour of horses-since one didn’t fire my endaipered butt through the opposite barn wall when I ran up behind him and grabbed him by the back legs(I live since I shouted his name just before I grabbed him)- It took me some decades too learn that (some) cows have a sense of humour as opposed to vast pure bloody mindedness.
    A small dog I inherited decided to take our meanest lead cow.Getting in her face,growling and barking.
    The cow-looked down at Her(of course)-considered the stand off,turned around and did a low speed tail raised parody of running off in a panic.
    Herons also have a sense of humour and thought to plan pranks.
    Forethought and consequences -beyond food and reproductive needs and drives.

    A year before the isreali security(read;Stuxnet Blackmail) caused blow up of a plutonium separation facility and the nuclear powerplants camoflauging and powering it(Before the wave hit.),it was announced that electrical currents travelled across the pacific thru the bacterial mat covering the ocean floor.
    There may have being a nervous system that spanned an ocean.
    Was it capable of thoughts?
    Hard to say-given the fallout and dumping since then.
    Its probably dead.
    Reduced beyond the Absurd-See more than Rene D.