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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