Sunday, June 06, 2010


Psychotic Morality

Ohh! This is bad.

Steve Stewart-Williams is at Psychology Today arguing, in "Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity," that "applied ethics, including suicide, euthanasia, and the proper treatment of nonhuman animals" is somehow tied to the "recalibration" we must make to "the value we place on the lives of human beings vs. other animals" inherent in evolutionary theory.

After noting that most everyone has abandoned "Social Darwinism" -- for the simple good reason that it was a crude and untrue view of what "natural selection" implies -- Stewart-Williams makes a logical leap that morality is a zero-sum game:

[James] Rachels identified an important trend in traditional Western moral thinking, which he dubbed the doctrine of human dignity. (Peter Singer uses the phrase sanctity of human life to refer to essentially the same thing.) Although the doctrine of human dignity is often not explicitly expressed, it is the heart and soul of the Western moral system, and provides the moorings for traditional morality.

The doctrine has two parts; the first pertains to humans, the second to nonhuman animals. The part pertaining to humans is the idea that human life has supreme worth - according to some, it has literally infinite value. A corollary of this view is that any activity that involves taking a human life (or at least an innocent human life) is utterly forbidden. This includes suicide, euthanasia, and abortion.

The flipside of the doctrine of human dignity concerns nonhuman animals. According to the doctrine, the lives of nonhuman animals have vastly less value than human lives. In fact, according to some commentators, such as the German enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, they have no intrinsic value whatsoever. This means that, although it would be wrong for someone to torture your cat (sorry to put that image in your head), this is not because the cat wouldn't like it; it is only because you wouldn't like it. Animals have no intrinsic value; they exist for our benefit and may be sacrificed for our purposes.
Say what? In what sense does human "dignity" (whatever the heck Stewart-Williams means by that) depend on the absence of "dignity" in other life forms? After noting -- correctly -- that evolutionary theory undermines both the idea that we are made in the image of God and the idea that we are distinguished in some morally significant way from other animals by our possession of rationality, this is as close as he comes to explaining:

By undermining both the rationality thesis and the image-of-God thesis, the Darwinian worldview undermines the doctrine of human dignity. It leaves it without intellectual foundations. This has important implications for many key issues in ethics. The idea that human life, and human life alone, is infinitely valuable has impregnated the ethical systems of the world, especially those of the West. Although the doctrine of human dignity has its origins in the religious conception of humankind, it has woven its tendrils into our secular codes of ethics. It is implicit in the ethical beliefs of many who doubt or even reject the various religious accounts of human origins, and who believe that right and wrong exist independently of religion. Thus, even though we in the West live in a semi-post-Christian world, in which the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis are widely dismissed, the ethical attitudes they inspired linger on. But what happens to these attitudes when we really get to grips with the fact that the foundations of our traditional morality have eroded?
Okay, we haven't really rethought our old ways of doing things in light of modern science. Is this supposed to be something new? How long did it take us to rethink slavery as an economic system or the burning of witches as treatment of plagues? The simple fact that we have built our old "moral" views on the utter subjugation of other forms of life doesn't mean that is a problem.

Why is our only means to "dignity" if we can indiscriminately kill everything else? Life lives off us too, from the fauna in our guts and those that eat us at death, to the "domesticated" dogs and cats that take advantage of our evolved traits to get us to care for them and much else besides. What possibly prevents us from building a morality that gives "dignity" to that life without saying that we're not all in this together and have to share?

It is a false conundrum.

Whenever philosophers bang on about (!) something a reality check derails some of the most logical, extreme, and incorrect ideas.

Human life has supreme worth (to some)? How much is spent on armaments rather than medicine or blankets? How many people choose to drive cars rather than risk killing a pedestrian? How many pogroms have been carried out for religious or political reasons over the centuries? How many people have chosen to feed their own families well rather than feed the poor?

It seems to me that the idea of the sanctity of human life has not been reflected in peoples' actions for thousands of years. Indeed you can argue that many philosophies, political regimes, and religions have included treating the 'not our group of people' as sub human as an integral part of their ideas.

So, not so much a decrease in the 'sanctity of human life' more of a (slow) increase in rationality. Sad for an earlier age of lip service to the idea of the sanctity of human life? Sounds more like a diseased nostalgia to me. a botanist, it always amuses me the extent to which "life" for many is implicitly "animal life". A bit OT, I know, but no one ever considers the dignity of a carrot.
Although I didn't go into it, I specifically mentioned "other forms of life" so as not to limit it to animal life.
(I did see and note that, and I eat carrots with equanimity, and I didn't include you in the "many", and nevertheless, the borderline(s) of life and dignity is an interesting topic to observe in the public discourse.)
ckc (not kc),

"no one ever considers the dignity of a carrot."

The Arrogant Worms share your solicitude for the noble carrot.
Oh, for Ramen's sake, they always bang on about value and ignore the obvious question of value to whom?

I don't need a philosopher or a theologian to give me grounds for a sense of worth. My life - and those of my cats and the people I care for - are valuable to me!

I freely admit I find myself unable to feel the same sense of commitment to a carrot - which I suppose, makes me a speciesist (or should that be kingdomist?) - and I also eat them without a qualm.

As a rule of thumb I believe we should not kill anything without good cause. Kipling summed it up the The Jungle Book when he described how a predator, when entering the territory of another, would call out "Give me leave to hunt here" and if permission were granted the answer would be "Hunt for food but not for pleasure".

Personally, I think dignity is a vacuous concept. There is courage, honesty, integrity and respect for the rights and persons of other members of society. That is what counts.
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