Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Anthropocentrism and the sentience hierarchy (part three of three)

 Wednesday 21 March 2012

This post originally formed part of my other post, ''Naturalness', semantic decay, anthropocentrism, hierarchy and veg(etari)anism (part two of two)'. Upon rereading it shortly after I first posted it, I decided it was really a separate issue and could be excised to make that post more readable. I hadn't gotten around to reposting it yet, so this is it, part three in my series of posts about veg(etari)anism.

In 'Miranda devine: enemy of the heart, the mind and vegetarianism' I argued that one of the central positions of Devine's piece – that we may as well eat meat because even if we only eat plants, we are still causing pain and death – was flawed because, among other things, it assumes that there is not a hierarchy in the capacity for suffering of different forms of life.
Positioning sentience as the sole criterion for valuing life is not without its problems. Viewed from the most objective, abstract perspective practically imaginable – say, that of an omniscient gaseous cloud which gained mass somehow from the dream of a fictional character imagined by a germ on the forehead of an alien* – it's arbitrary, biased, and it doesn't take into account forms of sentience we don't understand. But it's really all we have to go on. Like many things, it's an imperfect starting point, unstable ground upon which we have no choice but to build our more reasonable, moral theories.

*Suggestions for further abstraction welcome. 

Life is intrinsically valuable, but we can discriminate between the relative values of its different forms on the basis of sentience – the capacity of a lifeform to experience pleasure and pain, to have a 'preference', as Peter Singer explains in Animal Liberation, which David Foster Wallace calls 'more or less the bible of the modern animal-rights movement':

     It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a
     stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. A stone 
     does not have interests because it cannot suffer. Nothing 
     that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its
     welfare. A mouse, on the other hand, does have an interest in
     not being kicked along the road, because it will suffer if it is.

Others have argued that all life is irreducibly and equally valuable. The system of reasoning I'm outlining, however, contends, perhaps less radically, that human beings come out on top. Our lives are the most valuable and the most important. But there's a crucial distinction between the reasoning that brought me to this conclusion and the reasoning used by others that privilege human life over animal. If you've read my blog post, 'Positions on political correctness: towards a stratigraphical model of argumentation', which you almost certainly haven't, this situation might sound familiar. We have the base Position containing all those traditional justifications humanity gave itself to do whatever it wanted to animals – man is greater than beast, God gave men mastery over animals – which has been countered by the Position asserting universal equality of life. My Position seeks to occupy a third stratum paradigmatically above the other two, but syntagmatically between them. The 'mastery over animals' Position condones any violence that humans wish to enact upon animals, and the 'irreducible and equal value of life' one allows none, but mine (and many others') justifies the taking of animal life only when there is a direct choice between animal and human life: when, for example, a human must eat an animal to survive, or when an animal attacks a human.

The effective distinction between the three arguments, then, can be found in the points at which they locate the justification for the taking of animal life on a scale of necessity. Under Position 1, it can be almost anything – nourishment, pleasure, entertainment, convenience. Position 3 locates the distinction at a point beyond all of these, making them all violations of its rule, but some more extreme violations than others.

It takes a lot for me to dismiss the death or pain of a fellow human being, considering the importance I place on empathy as a characteristic, and it's usually the kind of thing I cringe at when I hear someone else do. I've found one exception, however, to be when humans kill animals for reasons that constitute more extreme violations of Position 3 and are themselves killed or injured in the process, as, for example, happened earlier this year when a hunter accidentally shot a protected grizzly bear thinking it was a black bear, or as occasionally happens to Spanish bullfighters:

Gustavo Cuevas's World Press Photo award–winning shot of matador Julio Aparicio being gored in the throat.

When a human is injured in this way, I can't help myself thinking good on the animal that did it. And no matter the sympathy I have for victims' families, my reaction is usually at least 'fair enough' when a person is killed in this way. If humans breed animals specifically for the purpose of killing them needlessly, or if they go into the animal's habitat with the same intention, and the animal is able to overcome the significant odds stacked against it, I simply can't help applauding it. It's not unlike the response evoked by the death of a mass murderer: certainly nothing like the mindless, morbid delight of the celebrations that ensued upon the death of Osama Bin Laden, but nevertheless a calm sense that justice has been done (in this light, another justification for killing a sentient being might be added to the argument – punishment for undoubtable, confessed, wilful, unrepentant mass murder of humans or other equivalent beings on the sentience hierarchy, by a human or other equivalent being on the sentience hierarchy).

The interesting and somewhat disturbing corollary of the sentience hierarchy as I have described it is that, if Earth was colonised by a race of aliens more intelligent than us, it would be morally acceptable for them to eat us if it came down to a choice between that or starving. The only defense would be an addition that asserts that the hierarchy plateaus at a certain level of intelligence, and all species beyond that point are equally as important as one another in spite of any differences in intelligence, and it is therefore universally wrong to kill any of them. But it would be fairly convenient to locate this plateau just below humans in the hierarchy. You'd at least have to include the great apes and the higher-order sea mammals, but humanity's actions hardly accord with this inclusion considering the damage we do to the habitats of both.

Which is unsurprising considering humanity's overall hypocritical, anthropocentric attitude to predation. You only have to look at popular culture television shows and films to see that we regard anything that hunts us as evil, but anything we hunt as an acceptable source of food. In Dragon Ball, Goku hunts wolves and giant fish, but dinosaurs and even other humans who hunt other animals are characterised as villains and are consequently attacked by the morally incorrigible protagonist. The same hypocrisy can even be found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's okay for Buffy to kill vampires and demons because, 'They're evil'. Why are they evil? Because they eat humans and they have no souls. But why discriminate against creatures just because they have no soul? They can't help it. They're just as intelligent as humans, and the show demonstrates they have the capacity to suffer, but killing them is acceptable because they need to prey on humans to survive. In this respect they're more moral than us; we eat animals even though we don't need to, but a vampire can subsist on nothing but blood (although pig's blood is a viable, more conscionable option for the program's re-ensouled undead). But stay your hands, Whedonites. I hasten to add that, to be fair, the show does engage with the Slayer/killer opposition.

'Yeah, I prefer the term 'slayer'. You know, 'killer' just sounds so ... Like I ... paint clowns or something. I'm the good guy, remember?'


Gustavo Cuevas's photograph, 21 May 2010.

Marti Noxon's television episode 'Buffy vs. Dracula', from Joss Whedon's television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5, Episode 1.

Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation, quoted in David Foster Wallace's essay, 'Consider the Lobster'.

David Foster Wallace's essay, 'Consider the Lobster', in Gourmet Magazine in August 2004.