August 14, 2006

More on animal uplift ethics

Here's my response to a recent (anonymous) posting on the Technoliberation list (I'm responding to the inset paragraphs):

> "One can recognize the "right" (a human-
> granted right) of sentient beings not to be killed, tortured and
> eaten, and the immorality (based, again, on human-generated moral
> standards) of keeping in captivity primates, cetaceans, cephalopods,
> etc., without imagining that they would want to participate in "our"
> democratic processes, religious practices, etc. It seems this latter
> sentiment is just a form of imperialistic paternalism.

Well, I'd like to think that "human-generated moral standards," which is a massive work in progress and has been steadily refined for the past 4-5 thousand years, has both objective and universal value. I strongly believe that uplifted nonhumans will want to tap into our collective body of knowledge and adapt certain moral codes as they see fit. Denying them this and/or having them reject this would be quite bizarre (and unexpected as far as I'm concerned).

Now, as for uplifted nonhumans potentially not wanting to participate in "our" democratic processes, religions, etc., that's a bit more complicated. My future vision sees an inter-species society represented by multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-religious, and multi-species groups. The idea of socially stratifying society even further based on species grounds seems somewhat anathematic to the whole thrust of history and the entire point of bringing nonhuman persons into technological and social modernity.

I'm not suggesting that nonhumans be coerced into joining human institutions. There are precedents already in some countries where distinct societies can seek social isolation (to a degree) within a larger nation state (e.g. the Amish & Mennonites, certain aboriginal groups, etc.). What I do believe, however, is that uplifted nonhumans should at the very least be encouraged to represent themselves within a larger democratic inter-species politic. But I think this is largely moot as they'll likely decide this of their own volition.

Which brings me to the next point: this isn't for us to decide -- it'll be up to them. If they want to join human society, and we don't allow them in, that would be a blatant instance of apartheid.

By the way, your term "imperialistic paternalism" is strikingly reactionary and very loaded. No one is talking about exploiting nonhumans and I don't think such a project should be considered patronizing. The impetus behind a potential animal uplift project should be compassion tied in with a sense of moral responsibility and stewardship. Moreover it's time to acknowledge that many nonhumans are already persons in their own right and should already be included in the social contract. We're currently playing catch-up with our moral obligations, but human speciesism is an obstacle that's hard to overcome.

As James mentioned earlier, we've got to stop creating these false dichotomies that separate human people from nonhuman people. Once we get over the species barrier and look upon these nonhumans as people in their own right, then we can start to construct some serious dialogue about how we should go about bringing them out of Darwinian jungle existence and into civilization--something to which I personally ascribe great value and moral worth.

> And just
> because some irresponsible humans can get credit cards or are given
> access to distilled spirits doesn't mean we should make these
> available to bonobos who indicate they like to get drunk or play
> with consumer goods. If these practices arise from their own
> societies, that's a different story.

Again, you're describing an "us and them" scenario. Just which practices and accoutrements, exactly, should we prohibit nonhumans from having and how could we ever reach consensus on this? Now *that's* paternalistic! It's an absurd suggestion--they should only be allowed to possess those "practices [that] arise from their own societies"? Spare me. It's not as if they would exist in a vacuum outside of mainstream society. Further, if we shouldn't give them our booze and credit cards, what about other things like medicine and fresh food? What about access to doctors and social safety nets? What about allowing inter-species relationships and work environments? Or are you suggesting that uplifted animals endowed with the cognitive capacity of a human would rather live an Amish like life in the deep jungle? I hardly think so.

> Concerning demotion from
> personhood, human societies are still at the beginning of dealing
> with who's in and who's out with respect to civil rights.

Nonsense. We're nearly at the tail-end of this process and about to embark on the most profound project yet: widening the social and moral circle to include nonhuman people.

> A great
> ape has more claim on rights than a brain-dead human, or than an
> organism whose brain is half-human half-rat. But the right of the
> ape is primarily the right to be left alone by humans. The rights of
> chimeras or genetically-deranged clones would be the right not to
> have further cruelties visited upon them consequent on iatrogenic
> physical and social dislocations -- that is the right to be life-
> long wards of their creators or owners."

You're describing negative rights, some of which are valid (like privacy). What about the right to a healthy body and mind? Or the right to participate as a full and equal member in the wider politic? It's interesting that this is brought up now because Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (an expert in bonobo language capacity) presented a lecture today in which she claims she has recorded the desires of bonobos. The list reads as follows:

1. A recognition of their level of linguistic competency and ability to self-determine and self-express through language by the humans who keep them in captivity
1. To travel from place to place
2. To obtain their own sustenance
3. To plan ways of maximizing travel and resource procurement
4. To transmit their cultural knowledge to their offspring
5. To be apart from others for periods of time
6. To develop and fulfill a unique role in the group
7. For the group to split apart and to come together to share information regarding distal locations
8. To maintain life-long contact with individuals whom they love
9. To go to new places they have never been before
10. To live free from fear of human beings attacking them
11. To have food that is fresh and of their choice
12. To experience the judgment of their peers regarding their capacity to appropriately carry out their role in the social group, on behalf of
the good of the group

Now, if this is what an unaugmented bonobo person can articulate today, imagine the greater insight that more advanced cultural and biological uplift will reveal.

Essentially, it's time to stop fixating on what humans think nonhuman persons need and actually take into consideration what they themselves would prer. Sure, we can get all perverse and cynical and mock human artifacts like "booze" and credit cards -- but you know what, I love a glass of cabernet and thank goodness I can finance my upcoming vacation on a piece of plastic. And why wouldn't a nonhuman person come to the same conclusion. Moreover, why shouldn't we let them come to the same conclusion?


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