Sunday, December 31, 2006

Higher Beings

I have another question from the studio audience – from M

Alonzo, have you written anything on how morality applies to beings that are outside the familiar band that humans characterize? If we encounter or develop (or some of us become) more intelligent, conscious, or complex entities, how should they treat us? How then should we treat animals and other less complex replicators? Equality is an important assumption in most moral philosophies, but are all beings on the very broad scale of complexity equally entitled? I find this a most troubling question. What are your thoughts?

I love questions from the studio audience. They save me a lot of effort trying to decide, “What am I going to write about today?” In fact, recently, I have had to ask myself a different question. “Which comments/questions shall I address today,” regretting the fact that I have not been able to cover all of them.

This question, I think, is a particularly interesting question.

Intrinsically Higher Beings

Now, let us begin with the proposition, “There ain’t no such thing as an intrinsic value.” What this means is that there is no property (intelligence, consciousness, or complexity) that makes a being intrinsically more valuable than another being. If we here humans assign extra value to a more intelligent creature, it is because we have a preference for more intelligent creatures over less intelligent, or we find them more useful.

Value, in all cases, consists in relationships between states of affairs and desires.

Beings Without Desires

It seems reasonable to conclude that viruses, single-celled animals, and plants, all lack desires. It does not appear reasonable to explain their behavior in terms of ‘beliefs’ and ‘desires’. Desires require a somewhat more complex brain structure.

How complex? This, I do not know. If anybody asks me to identify what I think to be the major weaknesses in my own theory desire utilitarianism, I point here. I point to the fact that, when we start to ask what a desire really is, we have a lot of questions left to answer.

In the mean time, I hold that it is reasonable to believe that large families of “less complex replicators” have no desires. Thus, no ‘relationship between states of affairs and desires’ exist. They do not recognize any value difference among different states of affairs. So, we may do whatever we want (whatever fulfills our desires) in dealing with these non-desiring ‘less complex replicators’.

We may also freely abort a fetus that has not grown sufficiently complex to have desires and aversions, or use them in medical research, the same way we may permissibly use blood cells or skin tissue. That which has no desires cannot be harmed. Though, if a mother or father’s desires are tied in with the well-being of a zygote (they want this child), then a consideration of their desires argues for protecting the relevant zygotes, where the strength of those desires (emotional connections) determine the appropriate strength of those legal and moral protections.


Okay, what about ‘less complex replicators’ that do have desires? The presence of desires means that they have ‘reason for action’ for avoiding certain states of affairs. When we force them into states of affairs that they have particularly strong ‘reason for action’ to avoid, then we do them harm.

Here, it is important to keep in mind just what these ‘less complex replicators’ actually desire. I argue that a being cannot have a desire for or aversion to that which it cannot comprehend. On this matter, I have adopted my own personal cliché that, “The antelope does not run from the lion because he is afraid of being eaten and killed. The antelope runs from the lion because he is afraid of lions.” The antelope cannot comprehend death, so the antelope cannot fear death. The antelope can, however, comprehend lions, so it is possible to program antelope brains so that they are disposed to run from lions.

I have written a post, “Animal Rights: The Predator Problem,” that addresses some of the implications of this view. One commenter to that post wrote that not all animal-rights activists are utilitarians. However, I would argue that anybody who makes reference to intrinsic values or other types of ‘reasons for action’ that do not exist in the real world have their own problems.

Anyway, animals certainly have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting within us desires that fulfill their desires and inhibiting within us desires that thwart their desires. We have ‘reasons for action’ for promoting in animals those desires that fulfill our desires and inhibiting desires that thwart our desires. However, we are more efficient at altering the desires of animals than they are at altering our desires. It requires human intervention to get another human to have desires compatible with the fulfillment of the desires of animals.

The Nature of Moral Behavior towards Animals

So, do humans have ‘reason for action’ for promoting such desires and aversions?

Actually, yes, to a large degree, we do.

Before I go any further, I would like to remind the reader that intrinsic value does not exist. As much as one may want to argue that cruelty to animals is intrinsically wrong, that argument is going to fall flat on its face. The only reasons for action that exist are desires. Though animals do have reasons for action that exist for making human desires compatible with their own, in the real world they substantially lack the ability to do so. These are the real-world facts of the matter, and wishing they were different does not make it so.

Anyway, humans do have ‘reason for action’ for promoting in other humans those desires that are compatible with the fulfillment of the desires of animals. We are safer ourselves in the company of neighbors who are so adverse to causing others pain that they seek to avoid even causing pain to animals; whereas those who could not care less about the suffering of animals could probably care more about the suffering of humans. We certainly have reason to use cruelty towards animals as a reason to believe that another person does not have the desires we have reason to promote with our tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

Now, once we use our moral tools to promote an aversion to causing animals to suffer, then we have a second, reinforcing reason to promote compassion towards animals. I (along with my fellow humans) begin with an aversion to pain – so we create in our community an aversion to causing pain to others. We argue that we are safer among neighbors whose aversion to causing pain is so strong that they are adverse to causing pain to animals, so we use our moral tools to promote an aversion to causing pain to animals.

Now, we have two reasons for action for promoting kindness (or the absence of cruelty) towards animals. The first is our continuing aversion to pain ourselves. The second is our learned moral sentiment to care for the welfare of others that we have come to hate cruelty towards animals. With both of these, we have even stronger ‘reasons for action’ for promoting an aversion to cruelty to animals.

"Higher" Beings

Next, some other “higher beings” come along. They visit earth, and are considering the possibility of harvesting us for food, performing painful medical experiments on us, using us to test the effects of their beak gloss, scale polish, and other cosmetics.

We could say that it is intrinsically wrong for them to treat us cruelty – for putting us in situations we have ‘reasons for action’ to avoid. However, we would be mistaken. Furthermore, it would probably be foolish for us to use this claim, since we may assume that these higher beings are aware of the fact that this intrinsic wrongness does not exist. (They would, of course, also laugh – to the degree they are capable of laughing - at our assertions that we are under the protection of a God who will punish those who transgress against us.)

What we would need to do, if this type of situation actually arose, is to get our heads into the real world and think of real-world solutions.

In order to protect ourselves, we need to find some way to mold their desires so that their “reasons for action” are most compatible with the fulfillment of our own desires. We would need to start to look for cause-and-effect relationships such that, “If be do X, this will promote within these aliens an aversion to doing Y. Given that we have reason to promote an aversion to them doing Y, we have reason to be doing X.”

Hopefully, they will come to us with desires that are compatible with the fulfillment of the desires of others. After all, if they have formed a society that has grown to such complexity that they are traveling among the stars, then we have reason to hope that they have the science of promoting desires compatible with the fulfillment of other desires down to a science. They would, hopefully, be far better than we are at promoting kindness and inhibiting intellectual recklessness and cruelty.

They would, perhaps, take pity on our poor understanding of these topics (a poor understanding made even poorer by having huge segments of the population insisting that perfect moral knowledge comes from the books called ‘scripture’ created by substantially ignorant tribesmen) and teach us these techniques.

If not, then we have some work to do. We either need to find ways to modify their desires so that they are compatible with our own (and, also, to recognize the cruelty and selfishness of refusing to modify our own desires, where possible, to be compatible with their most serious needs), or we need a way to defend ourselves. Or we will suffer the consequences. In the real world, these are the only options.

Perhaps they are out there right now, waiting for us to ‘grow up,’ and end this nonsense of thinking that morality comes from primitive texts or ‘intrinsic values’, and recognize that morality involves making real-world ‘reasons for action’ compatible with the desires of others. Once we become truly moral beings, they will have reason to talk to us. As long as we remain bound by primitive superstition on matters of morality, they have reason to leave us alone. (Note: I doubt that there are beings out there watching us, but I sometimes find it interesting to imagine that there are.)


This leads us finally to gods. Our obligation to obey a God (and its right to command) is no different than our obligation to become a food supplement to a particularly advanced alien race, and their right to enslave us. There is nothing about might and intelligence that creates a right to rule and a duty to obey. We may be forced to obey by a race we lack the power to resist, but a power to extract obedience is no more a right to command, then the power to rape a person in a dark alley implies a duty on the victim's part to consent to sex.


Simen said...

Value is a subjective concept. Things can have value even though they have no reasons for actions because things can themselves be desires. Even though a dead item such as a photo or a car have no intrinsic value, we hesitate to destroy them even when it would be beneficial to us because they have value to others.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Look around and you will find arguments that suggest that all concepts are subjective.

Also, more importantly, the idea of 'value' being unrelated to 'reasons for action' such that a person has a reason to pursue something he has a reason to pursue is absurd.

Yes, photos and cars can have value - but only insofar as they are able to fulfill desires. The fact that something has value to others (fulfills their desires) does not imply that it has value for us unless we desire that the desires of others be fulfilled (or desire those things that tend to fulfill the desires of others).