Saturday, November 03, 2007

Holmes Rolston III

I find that the bit in my original Spero document where I mention this fellow, he is only tenuously connected with the question I claim to be answering, so I will talk about him here instead.

He did me the valuable service, in 1996 or 1997, of stating clearly an untenable philosophy for me to react against. This was valuable because, in reacting against this untenable philosophy, I had for the first time to state clearly what I believed in opposition to it. This means that I need to apologise for inevitably misrepresenting his true position. I am not claiming the opinions I am going to attribute to him are a correct picture of what he really believed 1996/1997, or what he believes now. They are only what I perceived his opinions to be when he came to talk to us.

HR3 seemed to be saying that the universe may be split into two domains: the domain of culture, and the domain of nature. Morality, as we understand it, is restricted to the domain of culture. It is here that we should apply ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, or whatever. Where the domain of nature is concerned, we have one duty and one duty only: to leave it alone. Our ‘moral’ responsibility is to ensure that the parasitic wasps keep gnawing away at the entrails of their hosts, that a bison calf who falls through thin ice is left to drown, that beached whales stay beached, that wildfires started by natural means are allowed to burn unchecked, no matter what animal suffering results.

I asked HR3 a question about what determines whether a being is under culture, or under nature, and his answer was- I think- in terms of technology. We have the power to alter our environment, and this places us in the realm of culture: animals do not, and live under nature.

This seemed to me most unsatisfactory. What about most of the people who have ever lived, whose abilities to alter their environment were crude compared to ours? What about the representatives of those people today, leading ‘primitive’ lives in the wilds of South America or Africa? Do they belong to nature, or to culture? It seemed to me that, in the absence of anything like a ‘soul’ to identify who belonged to nature and who to culture, these unfortunate brothers and sisters of ours were condemned to nature.

I decided a while afterwards that the ‘technology’ answer would not be sufficient for the disciples of HR3, centuries from now, and that they would seek out and find some empirical touchstone for belonging to culture, some quantifiable ‘soul’ that they would all turn out to have. I decide it would be more interesting if not everyone we now consider human had this experimentally detectable soul, and ran a game where the player characters were un-souled low-technology dwellers on an Earth which had been lovingly restored as a nature preserve. The followers of HR3, who I called the ‘Zephron’, lived in high-tech orbital colonies and left the surface strictly alone according to their interpretation of HR3’s principles.

Against the Zephron, and in reaction against my (mis)understanding of HR3’s position, I therefore state:
The moral laws that are to be obeyed by humans are a manifestation of the same moral laws that are to be obeyed by bison, by electrons, and by sentient galaxies. We might not recognize them as such, but they are all rules that emerge from the same moral equation, the same ethical Theory of Everything.

Another thing HR3 seemed to be saying was that we had did not just have duties toward individuals; we had duties toward species; we had duties towards ecosystems; we had duties towards the Earth. These sound like trivial, innocuous statements. Yet, because- perhaps- I was in the mood to be contrary after the first bit of HR3’s talk, I reacted against these statements too. What happens, in practice, when ‘duties to an ecosystem’ conflict with ‘duties to the individual’? It is usually the individual that suffers. It is the individual who is poisoned, who is shot, who is uprooted, who is intentionally infected with disease. We all accept this as perfectly normal and praiseworthy. Yet it is wrong.

Only an individual can suffer. Only an individual can know joy. Only an individual can, in whatever small way, make choices that bring it nearer to or farther from perfection. It is wrong to make individuals suffer in order to protect an ecosystem. Our primary responsibility towards an ecosystem, and towards the Earth, is towards them as collections of individuals. We have real secondary responsibilities to preserve diversity, and to preserve beauty, but it is the duties towards individuals that are paramount. If we have an opportunity to replace an ecosystem where individual lives are nasty, brutish, and short with an ecosystem that is more pleasant for the individuals comprising it, we have a moral duty to do so. If we can only save the last five Neeble beasts by exterminating a thousand Meeble beasts, we have a moral duty not to do so.

Against the Zephron, and in agreement with Margaret Thatcher, I therefore state: ‘There is no such thing as a species.’

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You obviously utilize a comprehensive vocabulary to mask your lack of a point. Let's kill the world, then. See how long you, as an individual, lasts.

What a jest.