Thursday, October 15, 2015


What is right? A friend recently challenged me on some of my moral positions, so I'm going to outline my thoughts here and try to weed out inconsistencies. 


Climate disruption threatens quality and quantity of life on earth. 

Sentience is a key criterion for determining rights, although it is not the only one. 

Noblesse oblige. 


Some results of this are that I no longer eat mammals, I care more about racism than about the poultry industry, I see zero moral wrongs associated with aborting a fetus whose brain has not yet developed, and I believe in sustainable development more than I believe in conservation. 


Known biases:

I am a secular and neurotypical human. I live and was raised in the Bay Area, which is notorious for (often blind) liberalism and technology worship. I'm training to be a civil engineer. I experience gender dysphoria. 


I rank species' importance by the maximum achievable sentience. Within species? I am trying to find a line that is not arbitrary (with scientific defensibility as a bonus) while also consistent with my moral intuition. For example: I don't believe that every organism of a species is made equal. I would rather deprive a fetus of life than an unwilling pregnant person of freedom. On the other hand, I don't believe intelligence is a valid measure of worth. 

Past a certain point of complexity, then, perhaps life has a set value. But that value can be forfeited by acts of evil. I took a class on evil last year and am still somewhat uncertain about what does and does not count. Slavery and genocide are unambiguously evil in my worldview; but what about complicity? What about ordinary murder? How much allowance can be made for circumstance?

The world has limited resources. That means that there is an optimal level of consumption that we probably have already passed. Is it moral for me to enjoy a lifestyle with adequate lighting and running water and food that is not all locally sourced and a university that holds investments in fossil fuels?

Is it moral for me to work on development projects that increase the quality of life and therefore the level of consumption in less developed regions of the world? I believe so. As I said above, sustainable development over conservation. I am probably too anthropocentric. 

All living things are important and valuable, but the highest priority for quality of life should be given to more sentient beings. Humans and other intelligent animals are capable of a larger magnitude of subjective, experienced suffering than less-sentient beings. Maybe I prioritize the mind over the body too much. (This is where my ace/nb bias comes in: I have no affection for bodies.) But our minds allow us to construct experiences, and we live not in reality but in the world our mind creates given inputs from the outside. 

Therefore, improving the lot of a human being is more valuable than improving the lot of an animal by the same amount. Getting killed for being the wrong species in the wrong situation is not, to me, of equal moral weight to getting killed for being the wrong nationality in the wrong situation--because to have a nationality that you can be killed over, you need to be part of a sentient enough species to come up with and ascribe importance to abstract concepts such as "nationality."

The numbers game makes a mockery of my ideals. Fewer humans are suffering than are individuals of all the other animals, and although I wouldn't call myself utilitarian, numbers do matter. This is a flaw in my reasoning that I cannot responsibly make an exception for, off the cuff. 


Criticism and discussion are very much welcome. Have a good weekend. 

1 comment:

  1. In my Environmental Ethics and Philosophy class, we have just read Arne Naess' 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement.' I think you may enjoy reading the Wikipedia article about deep ecology, which gives a a good summary of many key pieces of critical theory.