Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I think I'll cop the "temporary insanity due to caffeine intoxication" defense. Finally! I have an excuse..

This real life story reminded one of my always reliable Wikisources, of this hysterical SNL skit, to which I have just been introduced. The inimitable Chris Farley very much in the throws of caffeine intoxication. Behold:

The link, because the embed looks buggy:

which, of course, brings to mind an even older SNL skit:

Which features Teri Garr, who has had a long history of association with the devil bean...

Eliminate the Carnivores! (and the omnivores while you're at it?)

That's the basic thesis of this post over at "The Stone" the philosophy blog over at the NYT.

The gist of the post can be boiled down to some bullet points:

1. Although it is morally advisable to get rid of carnivores and omnivores, practically speaking, it would be inadvisable, given the present impossibility of being able to fully project the set of unintended consequences of doing so.

2. Be that as it may, we'd be well served in thinking out the principles we would follow in deciding if we should do so, just in case our knowledge base grows to the point that we seriously consider the course of action.

3. Assuming we decide to go through with the task of eliminating carnivores and omnivores, we can do it gradually, either through genetic engineering, or some variant of eugenics.

4. No argument that can be produced against taking such action is sufficient to show it is not morally advisable. Here are those arguments

a. it's not playing God in any way for which we cannot find unobjectionable analogs. Besides, there is no God anyway, so we wouldn't be treading on anyone's toes to begin with.

b. Saying it's against nature doesn't cut the rational mustard either. To say so is to cast Nature as something like another person. Nature is not a moral agent or person that has claims against us.

c. Species are not 'sacred', things (whatever that might mean) so eliminating some of them in order to prevent greater suffering by others is permissible.

d. Species come and go, and nothing of lasting value is permanently lost due to this.

e. Species are to a large extent inventions of human minds anyway. And because they are, getting rid of one or more, really is not all that objectionable, if by doing so you eliminate considerably more suffering than you cause.

Ok, starting from the top

1. Considering the vast complexity of the web of interactions in nature between species, it is likely that an immediate elimination of all carnivorous/omnivorous species would have very bad consequences for those left over. The same would hold if it were possible to wave a magic genetic wand, and turn all the carnivores and omnivores into herbivores. That much seems pretty certain. What is more, if changes were introduced gradually, I see no reason to anticipate anything other than unintended bad consequences. We humans have a track record with this sort of thing.

What is more, in a more strictly epistemological vein I think it's safe to say we can be sanguine in thinking that this point is permanently moot. Given the complexity of the biosphere, and its interaction with the inorganic environment of Earth, it seems pretty certain that we will never be in a position to adequately predict consequences. Heck, we cannot even pull that sort of prognostication off in the realm of the purely conventional and human created world of economics and politics. Yeah. I know....never say never...but come on.

2 & 3. Not sure that these points survive if what I say above is true. But, assume McMahon is right, that it is a good idea to think these things through anyway. Perhaps there will be some limited application of the reasoning, some limited way in which we can eliminate a source of suffering, maybe only a single species needs be removed or modified. So, having thought things through on the large scale, we will be better prepared to handle the small scale in that case.

Alright then let's play along: the primary moral principle McMahan seems to be relying on in his argument is something like this: Whenever one can eliminate the source of some amount of suffering without thereby creating more suffering by doing so, one should do so. Now, we can refine this principle, making reference to different qualities of suffering etc., but for now, put all that in abeyance.

So moving on and assuming the hypothesis that we reach the point at which we can confidently maintain that eliminating some number of carnivorous and/or omnivorous species will end up preventing more suffering than it will cause, then according to an application of that principle, we will be obligated to do so.

One can see here what I like to call the Singer stratagem: Cite what looks to be an elementary and self evident moral principle, one usually distilled from a non-controversial case, and apply it toward the end of making a very controversial argument. It's the Singer stratagem because..well..Peter Singer was the first to get famous by using it.

Singer's famous example, distills something like the above principle from the hypothetical example of a guy in a nice Armani suit passing by a drowning kid in a shallow pond. The distilled principle is then used to argue that each person in the developed world is obliged to give all of his/her disposable income toward food aid for starving human beings, wherever they may be.

We can see here that McMahon is doing something similar. He argues that eliminating carnivores and omnivores will eventuate in a world with less suffering than the world as presently constituted. What is more if we, at some time find ourselves technologically able to do this, and epistemologically on sound footing in terms of being able to project no untoward and unintended disastrous consequences, we would be obligated to apply that technology, eliminating those species.

Now, this raises some initial questions: Consider individuals of these species. They, like the individual herbivores, no doubt, if capable of communicating with us, would not consent to elimination. If they were asked, they would surely say they did not wish to be killed. So, assume that, on this basis we elect not to carry out the task in that way. Suppose we opt to gradually eliminate, either through genetic engineering or eugenic means. Would the first set of individuals object to that?

One might say, in the case of lions tigers and wolves that it doesn't much matter, because the consent we are talking about is only hypothetical. They are not mentally capable of giving consent, and do not have functional self consciousness anyway. So, why not go ahead with the modifications. No individuals are being changed except in minor ways, and none are being killed.

Ok, if we accept this concerning species like Lions, what say you about human beings? We are not dabbling in the realm of hypothetical consent now. Let's suppose that it is beyond reasonable doubt that we could pull off turning human beings into herbivores, either immediately or over some period of time, via small and accumulating modifications. Suppose we propose this for public approval. Suppose we make the case that we could eliminate a great deal of suffering by doing so, with no appreciable negative consequence. If we have consent to all this, there would seem to be no moral problem.

But, suppose we do not have consent. Suppose that humanity as a whole does not agree to be so modified (showing this either by some global plebiscite, or via some pronouncement of the UN or some such international body). Would it nevertheless be obligatory? Is it morally permissible to do these things to human beings without consent? Now..change up the story a bit. Suppose that a single democratic government decides to undertake the task, its representatives pass a law mandating submission to genetic engineering. Is it morally permissible for that government to force recalcitrant citizens into the labs? Absent that technology, would, or rather, should McMahan and others try to make the case that governments are morally required to legislate veganism, and outlaw omnivorous diets?

If..IF the benefits of doing all this far outweigh the negatives, I'm hard pressed to see how McMahon cannot answer anything but "yes" to these questions. If those fully in the know, as concerns the technology and the true impact of that technology as regards suffering and well being of the biosphere are convinced that the actions will be overall very much more positive than negative, can McMahan not make an argument that the experts would be in a position not unlike that of a wise parent vis-a-vis children, and have a paternalistic right or duty to contravene the wishes of the children, or rather, our analogs of children (the recalcitrant populace)?

What we have here is a moral argument for tyranny. An obvious conflict between the value of liberty and the duty to prevent preventable harm.

Or, perhaps, these wizened ones can simply manipulate the ignorant into behaving in the ways deemed best, over the long term, nudging them along using clever behavioral economics. That aint so bad is it?

But, if you are not comfortable in treating free beings in this way, what does that say about the simple moral principle being relied upon here? It either needs modification, or is in competition with some number of other moral principles, one of which concerns itself with the importance and value of freedom.

4. My first reaction to this disjunctive argument is that it does not present all the arguments that can be mustered against the plan. It sets up some, in some cases, contentious straw men. One at a time:

4a. A case can be made that by "playing god" at least some people mean to say "acting as if one is omniscient when one really isn't." Ask Stalin how that worked out. Once again, we have plenty of empirical evidence that playing God in this sense of that phrase is not only asking for unintended negative consequences, but can be morally reprehensible. But, even supposing one acts as if one is omniscient when one actually is, in any given sphere of influence, it does not follow that by so acting one is not doing something morally questionable, especially if by doing so, one is acting against individuals in a way that is truly against their wills. All of this stands even if their 'aint no God, by the way.

4b. Something similar can be said about the phrase "against Nature". Despite the capitalization, it is probably the case that at least some folks do not intend to treat nature as some sort of person. What they probably mean is that one is tinkering with something the complexity of which renders claims of knowing what the frick you are doing to be the most dangerous form of hubris. Therefore, one should probably not undertake the course of action unless one is willing to take responsibility for unintended bad consequences. What is more, even if one is willing to shoulder the responsibility, in this sort of case one can ask what gives that person the right to put others at risk by acting as if he/she is omniscient when in fact he/she is not? And what say you if we assume competent knowledge. Does that fundamentally change this concern? Can, indeed should one (or some body of experts) self-appoint to the status of an active, interfering God or demigod?

4c. I don't like the word 'sacred' in this context. It seems like it doesn't fit the intuitions it is trying to communicate. What are those intuitions? As near as I can tell it has to do with the value, and irreplacibility of the uniqueness of the particular.

We are all familiar with this: Each individual human being is unique. Trivial, and trite as it sounds, that is a fact, and accounts for the deep and abiding sense of permanent loss we all feel when loved ones shuffle off this mortal coil. Well, species are constituted of individuals, and if species disappear, (understating things here), chances are vanishingly small that anything like them will ever appear again in the universe. If Lions as a whole were to be killed, or modified into hemp eating vegan pseudo-cats, we will have lost..well...Lions, for crimeny's sake. It is not clear to me that a passive world of veggie munching animals that includes no Lions, but only hemp eating vegan pseudo cats is a better world than is the world that contains the Lion. I say this recognizing the suffering of the gazelle.

4d. See 4c.

4e. The points made in 4c seems apropos, and the relative artificiality of the lines drawn between species seems beside the point.

Some further random thoughts about the piece.

1. It seems uncomfortably close to advocating either removal of the human species, or enforced modification of the same, by an enlightened despotism.

2. Aside from medium sized beasts that prey upon others, what should we do about small ones, like predatory wasps, or fly species, what with their propensity to lay eggs in wounds of living things?

3. McMahon believes the existence of animal suffering is hard to square with traditional theology. Why would God allow parasitic wasps to do their grim business, given that it does no good for the host caterpillars to suffer. They don't develop character as a result, which is the usual way to explain why humans have to suffer. And, guess what, a whole host of this bad business is going on all day every day.

A possible response: If it is not logically possible for God to create a universe of the sort he wants without allowing this sort of suffering, then, assuming that it is better, all things considered that a universe of the sort he wants does exist, as opposed to any other, or as opposed to a universe-less state of affairs, then this objection to traditional theism loses some force. What is more, if one abandons traditional theism, and moves toward a conception of a limited God, one limited in more ways than by the logically impossible, one can square the facts with the existence of that God.

McMahon is convinced that the only conceivable reason for which we eat animals is for taste. This is also Singer's position, as well as some other vegan/vegetarian philosophers. That is not obviously true. Physiologically, we are omnivores. Dentition bears this out, as does our gut. On the micro nutrient level, there are some nutrients we need that our bodies do not efficiently manufacture, and which find no plant sources. One such is retinol, good old vitamin A. We, unlike herbivorous species, do not manufacture it very well, from vegetable sources of its precursors (like caratin) We need to take it in fully formed. The only fully formed sources; Tasty animal products. In this connection, one cannot forget that developmentally, consumption of animal products is medically recognized as being key to early stages of human life. Vegan mothers are strongly encouraged to eat animal products during pregnancy. If eating animal products were merely a luxury, and unnecessary, one would be hard pressed to explain this caution.

McMahon cautions us against our own rapacity, with regard to mother Earth. We are causing the extinction of thousands of species. One wonders if it is possible to construct a picture of the rate of extinctions over the span of geologic time. I suspect that the rate is not that much increased during the relatively brief period of our alleged dominion over this globe. I fully admit I have no hard evidence one way or the other on this, but I have my doubts as to the gravity of our impact on extinction. What is more, I suspect that, given the realities of our technical and epistemological limitations, one could argue that the very course McMahon advocates here would in all likelihood lead to a much larger scale mass extinction that any amount of our self-centered "rapaciousness" could ever hope to achieve. He admits as much.

Which brings me to my final point, which is simply to reiterate my first point. This whole discussion seems mooted, and permanently so.