Thursday, May 01, 2008

Speciesism For Thee But Not For Me.

So about a month ago I was a panelist at a local science fiction convention. Our panel’s topic was the ethics of killing. I guess they figured a lawyer would have something to say about that. I was the moderator so we did not discuss the ethics of killing lawyers. Which reminds me, did you hear the one about the difference between a dead skunk in the road and a dead lawyer? There are skid marks in front of the skunk. Ba da boom.*

One topic that day was genocide. A vegan panelist proposed --- “in jest,” so he said, "truth in humor," I said --- that it would be ethical to kill off all of humanity in order to save the planet. Surprisingly most objections to this plan from the other panelists and the audience were practical ones: "Who decides, how do we decide it's necessary, and who gets killed" not "it's wrong to kill most or all of humanity to save the planet." People accepted the premise that the rest of life on Earth had greater moral worth than humans.

I’m in the "it's just wrong" camp. First, because it's anti-humanist to elevate the environment to a level superior to humanity, and, second, because there's no way to know with sufficient certainty that such genocide would be necessary to save the planet. Anyway, I was struck at the willingness of people to be utilitarian about it and accept that it would be okay to do it.

Some will say that it's speciesist to give humans privileged moral status. So be it. The vegan panelist used the term when he explained why he believed it would be acceptable to kill off all humanity to save the planet. The irony is that humans are the least speciesist beings on this planet. There is no animal that even tries to look out for other animals or plant life in the way that humans do.

With some insignificant exceptions, animals look out for their own and that's it. Humans on the other hand often look out for nonhuman lifeforms. So why should humans step aside through an act of genocide or mass suicide to make way for creatures who don't look out for species other than their own? We don't deserve that fate and the rest of the biosphere doesn't deserve the benefit of that kind of sacrifice by us.

I suppose killing off humanity would save the planet. I'm sure the Earth would get along very well without us. But I don't think science can tell us it's necessary to kill off humanity to save the planet. Besides showing that the only future scenario is the worst case scenario, science would have to show there are no alternatives to human self-extinction in order to save the planet. If other options could save the planet then self-extinction is not necessary.

But I admit my main objection to the idea is the humanist one.

The fact that the idea of humans having less moral worth than the rest of nature seems so non-controversial to people surprises me. I've heard of the humans as virus notion before but I always figured it was a fringe view. Apparently, it's not.

I found a statement recently by ethicist Peter Singer, who refused to sign one of the versions of The Humanist Manifesto because he said the manifesto suffered from speciesism. He objected to the manifesto's language making the welfare of humanity the purpose of humanist ethics. He called this speciesism and said it was a remnant of Christian thinking because in his view, “[t]here is no nonreligious reason why the pains and pleasures of nonhuman animals should not be given equal weight with the similar pains and pleasures of human beings.” (Here.)

I wonder if the belief, espoused by people like Singer, that maintains it's morally wrong to privilege humans over animals is a greater threat to humanism than Christianity. Christians and humanists may agree on the primacy of human beings but their fundamental disagreement over the supernatural makes them more rivals than allies. People like Singer may fundamentally disagree with humanists over the primacy of human beings but they share humanism's rejection of the supernatural. Humanism is therefore more likely to be influenced by people like Singer than it is by religious people. I wonder if that's likely to cause humanism eventually to reject the moral primacy of human beings.


* Lawyer jokes are the price we pay for running the world. It's a small price to pay.

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