April 20, 2006

"A lot of birds are nesting inside the sarcophagus."

Chernobyl as paradise, for animals.
As humans were evacuated from the area 20 years ago, animals moved in. Existing populations multiplied and species not seen for decades, such as the lynx and eagle owl, began to return.

There are even tantalising footprints of a bear, an animal that has not trodden this part of Ukraine for centuries....

There is nothing to disturb the wild boar - said to have multiplied eightfold between 1986 and 1988 - except its similarly resurgent predator, the wolf....

[T]he benefits to wildlife of removing people from the zone, have far outweighed any harm from radiation.
Does this story make you ashamed of what human beings have done to the world? For the animals, a nuclear disaster is preferable to life with us.

66 comments:

Sean said...

Why would that make me ashamed? People are more interesting than animals. Culture is more interesting than nature. Etc.

Simon said...

Mainly it makes me wonder why birds, bears and boar would be immune to radiation where humans are not?

Perhaps they are not immune, and they are unaware of the need to leave, while we wring our hands about whether to interfere?

peter hoh said...

Or perhaps whatever one doesn't have is more appealing than what one has.

I don't find myself feeling ashamed by stories like this. I find them heartening in a rooting-for-the-underdog sort of way.

MadisonMan said...

I would say that the aftermath of a nuclear disaster is preferable for animals than life with humans. The animals died during the disaster, too. I don't think this story makes me ashamed -- it just underscores man's extremely large impact on local ecologies.

This is also a fascinating story of adaptation to mitigate the effects of radiation. What a treasure trove of data!

Here is the website from a lady who journeyed to Chernobyl. It is eerie

Bruce Hayden said...

Perhaps it isn't a question of the animals being more resistant to radiation than humans, but rather that we are willing to let them take their own chances with it, and we aren't willing to let our own kind.

In CO here, first it was the Rocky Mtn. Arsonel, filled at one time with chemical weapons. Then it was Rocky Flats, filled at one time with plutonium. Both have turned into wildlife refuges (ok, Rocky Flats is just getting started).

The Arsonel is located between Denver's old and new airports. They built the new one because they wanted a 4th (or 5th?) runway, and some were worried that landing over all that polution at over 100 mph might endanger the passengers. Well, today, all you see there is wildlife. A lot of it, as you drive by on the back way to the new airport. And, surprisingly, none of the deer you see have two heads.

There aren't a lot of preditors in the Arsenal, since it has a pretty good fence around it (to keep humans out). Rocky Flats may be better for that, and is right by some mtn. lion habitat - though both are more wolf (which are just reentering CO) than lion territory.

Sure, all that radiation may slightly increase birth defects. But the absense of humans in all these areas is even more important than that in allowing these wildlife species to flourish.

After all, how bad can a 1% increase in birth defects, or a month or so off the end of a life, be to animals where 50% attrition of the young is considered exceptionally good?

All those Russian swine running lose? They probably see 75% or better attrition their first year. Always have in nature. They just have big litters.

So, I think in the end, I don't feel guilty here, but rather a bit ambivalent.

Slocum said...

There are even tantalising footprints of a bear, an animal that has not trodden this part of Ukraine for centuries....

I have to say I'm skeptical. Hasn't wandered this part of Ukraine for centuries? Then how did they get to Chernobyl--did they fly in?

In general, I'm not sure how any of this different than any nature preserve -- given that the level of radioactivity has declined to low enough levels that the effects on the animals living there are minimal.

Icepick said...

Simon, the lower radiation levels present now (as opposed to during the disaster and it's immediate aftermath) might have less impact on animals with shorter life-spans than it would one humans. Also, since most animals breed more often than humans, the can probably deal with more birth defects and still maintain population levels, especially with the absence of the most successful predator.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Icepick said...

Slocum, large fauna that were extinct in New England since before Thoreau's time (1840s) have since returned to the area in force. Large animals can roam fairly widely, so it wouldn't be a total surprise if one bear wondered in from parts unknown.

Freeman Hunt said...

Sure we don't feel guilty now, but when all those creatures mutate into supervillians from the radiation and come to exact their revenge, we'll probably feel differently.

Icepick said...

And now to amswer Ann's question.

Does this story make you ashamed of what human beings have done to the world? For the animals, a nuclear disaster is preferable to life with us.

Ashamed isn't the right word, not for me. Homo sapiens are just another animal. Our particular adaptations are such that we change the environment to suite our needs. And most of those that came before us couldn't be fully aware of the consequences of their actions. (I doubt that we are really aware ourselves. We're jsut more aware.) Frankly, if you move into a new area, killing all the bear before the bears kill you is a pretty damn good survival strategy!

But the greatest problem for other life has been the invention of agriculture, and all that that allowed. Agriculture requires large amounts of land, which means habitat destruction, which means the moose will flee the area even if you don't hunt them to extinction. And the arts of civilization, which occur naturally from agriculture, serve to further increase the population of humans, requiring more land, etc, etc.

And it's not just land. There are growing deadzones in the oceans too, which are linked directly to large agriculture.

Fortunately, as society's grow richer, they can afford better environmental policies. The return of moose to New England is a result of improved environmental policies. Another would be the improved air quality in places like Pittsburgh over the last 60 years or so. Unfortunately, most of humanity isn't wealthy enough to afford a better environment, and may never be so.

So I'm not ashamed. People are products of nature too, and they are doing what comes naturally. I am concerned, however, about the overall level of habitat destruction we have caused, and continue to cause. But eventually that will sort itself out one way or another.

Icepick said...

Freeman Hunt wrote: Sure we don't feel guilty now, but when all those creatures mutate into supervillians from the radiation and come to exact their revenge, we'll probably feel differently.

We'll feel differently, but we'll feel stupid instead of guilty. Why didn't WE move there? We could be supervillians too!

vbspurs said...

Does this story make you ashamed of what human beings have done to the world?

Not being a granola Vermont hippie, I would say the answer is a squishy "no".

Although I do very much hate that hunter who killed Bambi's mum.

Cheers,
Victoria

Dave B said...

I'd feel ashamed if the animals knew about the radiation and still chose to live there. But the animals just think they've found a cool place where no humans interfere with them. They're not making the choice between radiation and humans. They're making the choice between humans and no humans.

And even that choice is a stretch. Most of them probably don't even care.

AJ Lynch said...

This is gist for a good sci-fi movie... I can see it now- Bears and birds gone wild due to radiation combined with a bunch of good Russian vodka left behind.

SteveR said...

Do I feel ashamed? If animals were allowed to flourish without human intervention, they would be a lot more of them killed by other animals, dying for lack of resources etc. all that natural stuff, its not like a Disney movie where all the animals live in peace until man shows up.

That said we need to be good stewards and learn how to not waste resources yet allow for human progress. Its unrealistic to think we should abandon great swaths of land to the animals, however romantic the idea of millions of buffalo roaming the plains might be. (please ignore the Native Americans running them over a cliff, in the corner of your screen)

Kirk Parker said...

Victoria,

"Although I do very much hate that hunter who killed Bambi's mum."

Me too, but for different reasons: after seeing the devestation Bambi wrought on our young espalier apple trees, I think the guy shot the wrong deer! :-)

PatCA said...

"Does this story make you ashamed of what human beings have done to the world?"

Heavens, no! Sentimentalize nature at your own peril (See Grizzly Man, Open Water).

I think they have thrived because the after effects of the incident turned out to be less severe than we thought.

Marghlar said...

Does this story make you ashamed of what human beings have done to the world? For the animals, a nuclear disaster is preferable to life with us.

What is with everyone here? Is there no ability to step back and say, wow, as a species, we behave like a pretty nasty plague?

That's not to say we have to stop doing it...but an adaptationist species can be very scary, when it expands to occupy nearly every biome on the planet in a way that is pretty hostile to pre-existing ecologies.

I'm not anti-progress, and given the choice between starving a human or shooting a deer, the deer goes every time. I just think it is valuable, in the context of figuring out sane environmental policies, to reflect on such issues every now and again.

Meade said...

I do think Walt Disney should be ashamed... for traumatizing sweet little children like Victoria.

Meade said...

What kind of monster sets up innocent children for such anguish?

CB said...

Contemplating man's impact on nature is fraught with paradox. Scippiancottage wrote, "nature has no opinion." I agree, and add "nature has no morals." Floods and forest fires do not care how many living things they kill, beavers do not do environmental impact studies before building dams, predators don't feel bad about ripping their preys' throats out, and viruses think nothing of killing their hosts.
Obligatory Mr. Burns quote (from memory): "Mother nature started the fight for survival, and now that she's losing, she wants to quit."

Sanjay said...

Actually I gather the Korea DMZ is a natural paradise. Lots of mines, nobody walks around there, nobody wanders in ... it has become one big wildlife refuge.

P. Froward said...

For rabbits, Australia is preferable to places where things eat them.

What does that tell you about places where rabbits get eaten?

It tells you that somebody eats rabbits there, and not a heck of a lot else.


That having been said, if you're not having enough trouble sleeping at night, Mick Hartley found a photo essay on Chernobyl last month that'll make your hair stand straght up and quiver. The purpose of the essay is to scare people too silly to think straight about nuclear power, which is sad, but you can ignore that.

Jonathan said...

What is with everyone here? Is there no ability to step back and say, wow, as a species, we behave like a pretty nasty plague?

Absent human intervention many animal species experience population explosions when food is abundant, followed by periods of mass-starvation during which a lot of these same animals die horrible deaths. Man isn't the problem and anthropomorphising nature isn't a good way to understand natural events.


"homxm"

Marghlar said...

Contemplating man's impact on nature is fraught with paradox. Scippiancottage wrote, "nature has no opinion." I agree, and add "nature has no morals." Floods and forest fires do not care how many living things they kill, beavers do not do environmental impact studies before building dams, predators don't feel bad about ripping their preys' throats out, and viruses think nothing of killing their hosts.

Are you really suggesting that we have no moral or ethical duties via a vis other species? We are not nature, we are ethical beings.

I'd say that the amount of harm we are causing to other living things is something that should be factored into our decisonmaking.

Troy said...

Wolves??? Peter better watch out... I hear the distant, but growing rumble of Prokofiev's hunters.

Abraham said...

Are you really suggesting that we have no moral or ethical duties via a vis other species?

I'll suggest that. From where would such a duty come? Now, it may be prudent, in our own best intersts, for us to preserve flora and fauna. But an ethical duty? That's a stretch.

Marghlar said...

abraham: so, would you say there is nothing immoral or unethical about torturing a dog? How about an elephant, or a dolphin? A gorilla?

Do you really think that there is nothing wrong with deliberately harming higher animals, even where a human will not profit by it? I'd say that's a pretty extreme position.

Simon said...

Icepick - the lifespan point hadn't even ocurred to me. I think you're probably right.

AJ Lynch said...
"This is gist for a good sci-fi movie... I can see it now- Bears and birds gone wild due to radiation combined with a bunch of good Russian vodka left behind."

Or at least, if not a sci-fi movie, a recurring SNL skit. Perhaps the tile music could proceed thusly: "bear city / bear city / bear, bear city / bear city!"

Harkonnendog said...

Prefer implies choice, so there's some anthropomorphism at work. Really they prefer a nuclear disaster to humans the same way lichen does. They just fill a niche.

Also, some people say low doses of radiation can be beneficial...

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3642576.stm

Not too sure if that applies to this or is even true, but it is interesting.

Marghlar said...

Harkonnendog: I'm not sure of the basis on which you say that people have the ability to choose, but animals do not. Surely, my cat decides whether to play with a toy v. groom itself to the same degree that I decide between going to the store and going to the movies.

I'm not sure whether I'd agree that human beings make choices (in the sense of an uncaused cause, at least), but I'd say that to the degree that they do, it is hard to see why it would be a faculty limited to homo sapiens.

SteveR said...

I lived in the Marshall Islands for several years and a novel was written involving a mutated species with human/dolphin characteristics caused by all the nuclear testing of the early cold war. Not a great book but interesting for local interest. The real effect of radiation on the Marshallese is not so nice to consider. Of course we are talking about Hydrogen Bombs not a reactor leak, not to mention setting off the explosion when the wind would blow the fallout over inhabitants (and the weatherman!) instead of the open ocean.

Freeman Hunt said...

"... Dogs and cats, living together... mass hysteria!"

Troy said...

SteveR -- wasn't that the Man from Atlantis? tongue in cheek...

Robert said...

Does this story make you ashamed of what human beings have done to the world? For the animals, a nuclear disaster is preferable to life with us.

Ashamed? Please. One good meteor strike and 90% of the ecosystem scythes off the planet like dandruff off a greasy teenager. If anything, we should be embarassed that our worst depredations have so little long-term effect.

On this planet, nature routinely exterminates the biosphere as casually as you clip a fingernail. Worrying about our impact on the environment for the environment's sake is a bizarre combination of arrogance and irrelevance.

We SHOULD worry about what we do to the environment - on the specific and sole grounds of our own selfishness and the pursuit of our own interests and pleasures. We enjoy clean air and fields to run through; therefore, let's keep the air clean and refrain from paving every last field.

Screw the birds and the trees, save as they are convenient to our interests.

SteveR said...

Troy, here's the description from Amazon of "Fish Heads' (and they aren't rolly polly fish heads)

In the peaceful waters of the Pacific Ocean near Bikini Atoll, a Marshallese fisherman’s motorboat suddenly strikes a mysterious object. Moments later, the horrified fisherman retrieves what seem to be human body parts. Back on shore, Jodi Larsen, a young American physician working in the Marshall Islands, tries to find a logical explanation for the fisherman’s grotesque find. After reporting what she suspects may be some unknown effect from American H-bomb testing, Jim Newell, a specialist in genetic disease research, arrives to assist in an investigation. Against a backdrop of their growing love for one another, Jim and Jodi are soon drawn into a dangerous web of cover-ups, murder, and intrigue that changes their lives forever.

SteveR said...

Robert to your point I give you the Manson Impact Structure in what is now Iowa from 74 million years ago. Anybody ever heard of it?

"In the fraction of a second that it took the meteorite to penetrate about one mile into the ground, the shock wave created by the initial contact with the surface reached the back side of the meteorite and its potential energy was transformed to kinetic energy, the equivalent of about 10 trillion tons of TNT. An electromagnetic pulse moved away from the point of impact at nearly the speed of light, and instantly ignited anything that would burn within approximately 130 miles of the impact (most of Iowa). The shock wave toppled trees up to 300 miles away (Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis), and probably killed most animals within about 650 miles (Detroit and Denver). The blast left a crater over 24 miles in diameter centered in an area of unimaginable death and destruction."

knoxgirl said...

"Is there no ability to step back and say, wow, as a species, we behave like a pretty nasty plague?"

Is this inspired by the "humans are a virus" speech from "The Matrix"?

Seriously, even if we have no particularly romantic notions of nature, it is in our own best interest not to go screaming willy-nilly over The Environment" with no thought to the consequences of our actions...

At the same time, past attempts by humans to positively effect the environment (by say, protecting a certain species, or stopping/starting forest fires), have themselves had unanticipated and sometimes negative long-term consequences.

Marghlar said...

knoxgirl:

I hadn't thought about that movie...my point is just that we are really, really good at moving into new ecosystems and destabilizing them. Because we are smart, adaptable and mobile, which most species are not.

I agree with you that it is in our self-interest to think carefully about our impact on ecosystems...I'd also agree that we need to think carefully before trying to postively intervene in such complex systems. Most of our interventions are negative, of course.

I think this is an area where our self-interest (think of too succesful pathogens which kill off too much of their host populations and suffer a die-back) meets up with our ethical duties not to harm other living beings beyond what is reasonably necessary to our survival and prosperity.

CB said...

Are you really suggesting that we have no moral or ethical duties via a vis other species? We are not nature, we are ethical beings.

Strictly speaking, yes. Any ethical decision we make regarding other species will be based either on self-interest or sentiment. It is good and virtuous to treat nature well, but I don't want to raise it to the status of a duty. There is much more to my argument, but that's the gist of it.

Besides, there's the thorny possibility that our sense of morals is merely a survival trick our genes have played on us.

knoxgirl said...

"beyond what is reasonably necessary to our survival and prosperity."

I agree--except that this is where people disagree! "reasonably necessary" is a very, very debatable phrase.

I was just kiddin' about "The Matrix," btw

Marghlar said...

CB: engage with my above thought experiment. Do you think we have no ethical duty not to beat a dog to death, when we are in no danger from it? Can I torture monkeys just for fun? Nature is very impersonal, but what you are saying would seem to imply that consequence.

I'm just not willing to say we owe no ethical duty not to needlessly harm sentient animals -- and I think the more sapient the animal, the higher our necessity ought to be before we hurt it.

Harkonnendog said...

Marghlar,
I think animals can make choices, like the example you gave, but not this particular choice. Animals will live where they can live, and won't where they can't.
Cheers!

CB said...

marghlar,
I believe that beating a dog to death or torturing a monkey is repugnant; I would never do it and would hope that anyone who did would face criminal sanction. However, that belief is based on sentiment, so I hesitate to bring in the concept of a duty. "Duty" to me is a more rigorous concept that involves rules and concepts that only work with humans. Granted, this is ultimately just wanky philosophy-major stuff.

Marghlar said...

Hmmm...I find it really disturbing that you think it appropriate to impose a criminal sanction on conduct you wouldn't think carried an ethical prohibition. The implications kind of scare me. Is mere sentiment enough for a criminal prohibition? I hope not.

What is it about animals that you feel makes it impossible for them to be the objects of ethical duties? Insufficient sapience? Communication skills? Would we have ethical duties vis a vis intelligent, communicating non-human aliens?

Just trying to get a handle on your position here.

SteveR said...

The modern use of the word ethics tends to how people treat eachother (e.g. a professional code of ethics) But going back to Aristotle it was about what was good for society, the common good. So it could be a differnce of what ethics means. To me what CB said is wrong about toturing a dog in our society, would make it unethical to Aristotle.

But then again, I could be full of B.S.

Icepick said...

Are you really suggesting that we have no moral or ethical duties via a vis other species? We are not nature, we are ethical beings.

What do you mean by moral or ethical responsibilities? You've mentioned beating a dog to death for the hell of it, or torturing a monkey.

But what about neutering or spaying a day? If you did that to a person, it would be a far worse crime than mere genital mutilation. But for a dog? These days you're considered a bad person if you don't!

And what about the problem of rabbits in Australia, to choose one example? Those rabbits should really be exterminated. Genocide if done to people, but a necessary step to restore the balance for Australia's native habitats.

And I haven't even gotten into medical experimentation, or raising animals for food.

If you want to talk about the ethics, fine. But you need to provide some sort of working definition of ethical behavior to start with. And I can guarantee that if it runs into strictly utilitarian problems, it will be shot down by humanity as a whole.

Johnny Nucleo said...

Marghlar said: "I'm not sure of the basis on which you say that people have the ability to choose, but animals do not. Surely, my cat decides whether to play with a toy v. groom itself to the same degree that I decide between going to the store and going to the movies."

You are anthropomorphizing your cat, Marghlar. Animals do not choose to do anything. When your cat feels like playing with a toy, he does it, unless he is overcome by another, more powerful urge. There is no gap between urge and act. No choice is made. Animals do not have free will. They only have instinct.

But I agree with you. Humans are morally obligated to treat animals humanely.

Marghlar said...

Icepick: my approach in this context is fairly utilitarian. I'd say that we need to be doing one of two things: we can harm other animals when it is offset by a significant benefit to our species (but not more than is fairly necessary); otherwise, we should act in what is essentially a guardianship relationship with non-sapient species.

Thus, if animals are likely to suffer greatly through starvation, or cause great ecological devasation through overfeeding, it might be appropriate to engage in population control measures. But such shouldn't be needlessly cruel, and we should never exterminate rabbits just for the fun of it.

This logic applies even more forcefully for the spaying/neutering context. It causes significantly less harm to spay and neuter, than would exist if we had a plague of starving dogs and cats in our cities.

And the comparisons with human beings fail, because I view autonomy interests as more important when humans come into the picture. I can guarantee you that it would cause me far more distress to be neutered than it did any of my cats, because I would understand the consequences of that in a way that they did not.

Summary: we have ethical duties to all sentient life -- but the degree of the duty runs in proportion to both the sapience and sentience of the lifeforms in question. The more like a person another animal is, the more we should treat it like a person.

Marghlar said...

Johnny: a gap between urge and act, eh? Is that what free will is?

I'd say that you are wrong in the descriptive sense -- my cats often desire to do things, but do not do so, because they know they will get into trouble for it. For instance, I can visibly observe the tension felt by my cat when I have the back door open -- he knows that he would like to go outside and play, but he also knows that he is likely to get squirted with water if he does so. That sounds like a gap between urge and act to me.

Throw in a higher-order animal, and the distinction breaks down even further. For that matter, there are an awful lot of people with very little gap between urges and actions.

Indeed, I'm not even sure that such a description of free will is coherent. Why does the deliberation gap necessarily imply a choice? Maybe its just processing time, needed to reach the result that I, in my present state and given my history, would have reached no matter what.

Johnny Nucleo said...

Your cat wants to go outside - urge one. But he does not want to get squirted with water - urge two. Sometimes two urges of equal strength will temporarly paralyze an animal, but one urge will eventually win out. But the animal will not have made a choice. To make a choice requires will outside of instinct.

If, as you suggest, human behavior works in the same way, moral imperatives evaporate.

Marghlar said...

Johnny: I'm not sure that you can't have moral imperatives without having uncaused causes. We can still say that certain actions, for certain reasons, are wrong to undertake, on the basis of external judgments about what makes for good or bad behavior in a society. Those judgments then become part of the behaviorial influences on any decision.

Calvinists dealt with this at great length -- it essentially underlies the predestination problem. Just because we do something inevitably, doesn't mean that what we did was necessarily proper.

Ultimately, I am agnostic on the free will question -- I have no idea how we'd tell the difference. I'm just not sure that there is any principled way that you can just automatically declare that animals do things because of "insticts" but we do them because of "reasons," which are different, somehow. They both seem like propensities to me. They both can be changed and modified by experience. Whether or not they are predetermined, I still don't see the basis for such an arbitrary distinction.

Do apes ever do things for reasons? How about dolphins or orcas? By contrast, do profoundly retarded human beings (the kind who can't use language or function above a pretty basic animal level) act based on reasons, or based on instincts?

Can you give me any way to distinguish between reasons and instincts, other than by reference to the species of the animal engaging in the relevant behavior?

Johnny Nucleo said...

"Do profoundly retarded human beings (the kind who can't use language or function above a pretty basic animal level) act based on reasons, or based on instincts?"

Ultimately, this is the question isn't it? Otherwise who cares? Who thinks animals are humans? Other than PETA wackos?

Free will is will outside of instinct. It is free, unbound. Reason has a lot to do with it, but it isn't the main thing. The main thing is the human spirit. That's corny, I know, but what do you call it? Or do you deny it? Do you know what it means to deny it?

And perhaps I was unclear. The gap I refer to is functional, not temporal.

Marghlar said...

Um, I don't think the question is whether animals are human...it's whether they are people, or quasi-people. Put like that, it's a harder question. I would be willing to say that some animals are sapient enough that I want them to be considered as people -- that is, we shouldn't arbitrarily kill them, or hurt them, or take away their liberty.

As to the severely disabled, I think there personhood may in fact be questionable. As for your question, I am a materialist, so I don't know what a "spirit" would be.

Johnny Nucleo said...

Quasi-people? Good God.

Harkonnendog said...

"some animals are sapient enough that I want them to be considered as people -- that is, we shouldn't arbitrarily kill them, or hurt them, or take away their liberty."

Does that mean we can't eat them? does that count as arbitrary?

Also, what if they would eat us if they could? Are we allowed to eat them then. Like lets say a Kodiac bear.

Also, does that mean you think zoos and aquariums should not exist?

Marghlar said...

Harkonnendog:

Yes, I think it is wrong to kill very intelligent animals for the purpose of eating them -- e.g. dolphins, great apes, bears, elephants -- unless it is a crisis situation for the human, where the choice is between starvation and killing. Then, our needs take precedent.

No, I don't think that the mere fact that such an animal might eat me (and most of these don't hunt and kill humans) would affect the calculus. I could of course kill it in self-defense if need be, but I don't generally think that I can go out and freely kill other people, just because people occasionally kill and eat other people. The same holds true for higher animals.

I have no problem with either hunting or killing less sapient animals, such as large herbivores, etc. There is a threshold of intelligence, beneath which I think it ok to kill other living creatures, as long as it isn't needlessly cruel and as long as it serves our interests. However, I would still say that torturing such an animal, or killing it for no reason at all, is unethical.

And finally: I have no problem with the existence of zoos per se, although they do often depress me. I do find it questionable to keep great apes, etc., in zoos, unless it is necessary to ensure their survival (b/c of habitat destruction, for instance). I think we should only lock such creatures up if it is in their interest, not just because we think they are pretty and we'd like to stare at them.

Johnny Nucleo said...

Marghlar said: "However, I would still say that torturing such an animal, or killing it for no reason at all, is unethical."

As a materialist, where did you get your ethics? Didn't you just make them up? Or was your source "various smart guys" who made them up?

Let's say I too am a materialist and I make up my own ethical system which, like the ethical systems of all materialists, amounts to this: What I dig is good. But let's add a twist. Unlike smart guy materialist ethicists, I don't give a shit about the greater good. I dig torturing and killing dolphins for fun. I also dig having sex with them. (Dolphins can't say no!) Explain to me why my ethics are wrong and your ethics are right. We are both materialists. We both made up our own systems. You made up a system that suits your taste and I made up a system that suits my taste. What is the difference?

Also, are dolphins capable of immoral behavior? Are there evil dolphins? Can dolphins consent to sex? Can one rape a dolphin?

Also, if a building was on fire, and you had to choose, who would you save, a dolphin or a retarded person? If you had to eat one, who would you eat? (Mmmmm, retarded person.)

Abraham said...

To clarify my position: I do not believe we have any ethical or moral duty not to beat a dog or some such, because ethics and morals are the exclusive domain of humans. The very concept does not exist for animals, despite our best attempts to anthromporphize them. They would exterminate us if they could, and feel not a twinge of remorse.

Now, I do think that a desire to do such harm to animals speaks poorly to a person's character, and suggests they harbor similar attitudes toward people, to whom they do owe a moral duty not to injure unnecessarily - and by way of desensitization, it can probably lead to a degradation of human-human socialization, so I guess I have no problem making it a misdemeanor crime. But I don't think there is any duty to the animal.

Marghlar said...

Sigh...if you want to do materialism or not, this is going to take a lot more space than we have on this thread. There is a lot of writing (and I mean a ridiculous amount) on ethics that doesn't presuppose souls or such things. You can take your pick between Kant's categorical imperative, a utilitarian approach or Rawls's veil of ignorance as a source for ethics in a materialist society where no one gets the trump card of truth. The commonality one usually sees between all such approaches is the need for generalizeable principles -- that is, I can't call a principle legitimate unless it can be applied to all persons equally.

What I would say makes your ethical approach wrong is that it arbitrarily subjects beings with few significant distinctions from humans to pain and suffering. I am generally a quasi-utilitarian, in that I find it very hard to imagine that a society that permits such sadism as you describe could ever be happier, overall, than a society that doesn't. So I'd say that your principle isn't generalizeable in a useful way.

Overall, your tone makes me not want to talk to you. You accuse me of just "making things up," but what source of ethics exists that isn't just somebody making things up? I would broadly include religious ethics as having been made up, either by humans, or by a hypothetical more-powerful entity. That's still just making it up -- it's just a different source of authority. It still all comes down to persuasion in the end -- which is the only power of any ethical system.

Do you really want serious answers to the questions at the bottom, or are you just trying to be a sarcastic jerk? Let me know. If you do, I can try and parse out those issues. But I'm not interested in going through the effort if this conversation can't maintain a civil tone.

Marghlar said...

Abraham: I just can't go there with you. It seems that such a position would imply that we no longer owe ethical duties to people who can't or don't share our ethics. I think we still owe ethical duties to criminals, to the insane, and to the severely disabled. Ergo, I think we owe limited ethical duties to highly sapient animals as well.

By the by, I don't really believe that most of the type of animals I am describing would "exterminate us if they could...." Generally, most mammals don't kill for no reason, and none of the species I would describe as highly sapient subsists even in significant part upon primates. Regardless, I'd say that even if what you alleged was true (that they would seek to exterminate humans when there was no immediate benefit to them), I'd still say we have ethical duties to the animals (which wouldn't preclude us from preventing any such animal-on-human atrocities).

As for your criminalization explanation -- I don't know, a lot of conduct that doesn't affirmatively harm others might be viewed as an inidicator of anti-social tendencies that could lead towards more traditional criminal behavior. I don't like the door it would open to say that such behavior can be appropriately criminalized -- I'd prefer to keep a larger space of liberty than that. Thus, I'd generally like to posit an ethical duty before I permit the state to criminally punish conduct.

Marghlar said...

To clarify: the 11:09 comment is to Johnny, not Abraham. I didn't see the additional post until after I had posted, so I didn't realize that the lack of salutation would be ambiguous.

P. Froward said...

Marghlar, you wrote...

I can't call a principle legitimate unless it can be applied to all persons equally.

Why not?


I find it very hard to imagine that a society that permits such sadism ... could ever be happier, overall, than a society that doesn't.

So what? What does a happier society have to do with the price of tea in China? Can't be because it's the ethical thing to prefer; that'd be circular.

There have been very popular and successful ethical systems which didn't give a crap about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In fact, I suspect they've been in the majority, overall. How would you argue for the superiority of your ethical system over that of the Romans, without bringing essential parts of your system in as axioms?


(Heck, I'd go further and suggest that greatest-happiness ethical systems are unique to dying cultures, if that weren't off topic and, for all I know, gratuitously inflamatory as well).


I assume Rawls et al. have standard answers to these questions, but I figured it's easier to annoy you than to do all the reading.

P. Froward said...

I think what I'm driving at here is that it's meaningless in principle to talk about ethics other than in terms of personal preference. You can talk about the practical utility of given ethical systems in achieving certain goals (appeasing the volcano god, rural electrification of the Ukraine, you name it), but the goal-selection is just a matter of whatever floats your boat.

That's true even if you go with religion: God's personal preferences are likely to be enforced more spectacularly than mine (if He exists), but I fail to see how that makes them "more true". He's just got heavier artillery.

Marghlar said...

PF: Well, I'm afraid I don't have a great answer to the "why generalizeable" question...that is often taken as an axiom of political philosophy, or defended on purely rhetorical grounds. At root, the best I can offer is that I can't expect another to conform with a restriction that I wouldn't impose on myself in the same circumstance. To a large extent, political philosophy concerns itself with creating rules of generalized applicability, presuming that such rules are better than others.

I can offer, if you like, a utilitarian defense of such an idea (that people are generally happier if they live in a society that treats them equally than in societies that treat them unequally, for a variety of reasons) but that presupposes that utiltiarianism is the correct way to analyze the question, which I grant you is entirely circular.

As for your second question: it is asking a lot to make a coherent defense of utilitarian theory in a comments thread. I'll try to sketch in an outline, but I guarantee you that it will be inadequate. So, keep reading at your peril.

Utilitarianism proceeds relatively straightforwardly from the prospect that we would rather be happy than not, and that likewise other people would rather be happy than not. (Happy here is standing in for a deep philosophic debate about what a "utile" truly is -- whether what matters is pleasure, or happiness, or preference-satisfaction, but that is too much to go into here.) Proceeding from a premise that assumes no access to philosophic truth apart from this sort of mundane observation, utilitarism posits that a good measure of the sucess of any legal or ethical regime is whether people benefit under it, or not. Utilitarianism eschews the concept that we can tell people what ought to make them happy, and instead seeks to define and justify principles which are likely to improve the utility of the most people.

Why ought we to endeavor to make people happy, rather than some other goal? Mainly because it is hard to further any other goal without having access to a criteria by which to tell other people what is good for them. Bentham and his heirs largely eschewed notions of natural law, and hence did not feel that there were objective answers to those questions (or at least did not presume that they or anyone else had privileged access to such answers).

I can't answer your question about how utilitarianism compares with Roman ethics, unless you are willing to sketch out what you feel are the key components of that ethical system. I know little about Roman (as opposed to Greek) ethics, and I certainly don't know of any coherent single system that can be described as "Roman" ethics. Do you mean stoicism? Something else? Fill in the gaps, and then we can compare and contrast.

Lastly, I'd just note that Rawls wasn't any kind of utilitarian philosopher -- rather, he proceeded more from principles of fairness and hypothetical contract. I cited him as a modern, and influental, version of a non-religious or natural law political philosopher (in contrast to both Kantian and utilitarian ethics, which are other such philosophies, but which proceed from different premises).

As to your more recent post: ethics generally seeks to determine what we feel we ought to do, in different situations, given certain premises we feel we can prove or agree on. It is not fundamentally about power or about goals (although goals certainly are one way to justify an ethical principle). Thus, I'd disagree that ethics is merely personal preference -- rather, it is the search for, and discussion of, normative philosphical principles.

Now I have to get back to actual work...which is sad, I know, at midnight on a Friday night. But such is my life, for the moment.