Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ethics Beyond Sentience

I've mentioned EKU's Chautauqua Lecture Series before. The new director of the series, my colleague Minh Nguyen, is launching a journal, to appear annually, that will complement the theme of each year's series, and contain articles by many or most of the (often big name) speakers and other invited essays, fiction, photography and art on the theme. This year's theme is "Nature's Humans," and I was asked to contribute a piece. With that preface, and with some trepidation, I post here a draft of my essay, "Ethics Beyond Sentience." I've worked through this a few times, enough to have hidden all its most unacceptable flaws from my own view.

In it, I work out, mainly by example, rather than systematically, a critique of the idea that sentience is the foundation of ethics--a claim most obviously associated with Peter Singer (one of this fall's speakers) and reiterated (multiple times) by another speaker in this year's series (science writer Jonathan Balcombe). I focus on two cases where respect and consideration often already are, and where it makes good sense that they are (or should be), extended beyond the limits of sentience: the dead and the mountains.

Part of my trepidation is the concern that my inner hippie gets too much free rein at the end. (And is the distance between the beginning and the end insufferable?) Thoughts about that or other aspects of the essay are much appreciated.

Ethics Beyond Sentience


  1. I think this is great. Some people will probably be inclined to ask what of a practical nature follows from your argument: what, then, should we do? But I think you answer this well enough by saying that you are identifying a starting point rather than a conclusion. I can only think of two other things you might still want to think about.

    One is that you talk about experience of mountains doing us good (humbling us, etc.). Might someone think that playing with a dead baby does a kind of harm in a similar (but opposite) way? And might they then think that this is why playing with corpses is wrong? Some people might want to say that the soul is benefited or harmed in these cases, but others will not be satisfied with anything so vague. They might want to know what the good of humility is, or the bad of corruption. Does being awed make people perform more good actions? If not, what kind of good is it? I don't mean that your thought is wrong here, but there are connections and lines of thought I can imagine people wanting to pursue that I don't think you address.

    Secondly, and finally, what seems to strike you most about the "Little Brother" case is the wrongness of playing with a corpse. That is understandable. But I think it's also possible to be struck by how awful this family's life must be: no toys suggests little food, and the children's and mother's indifference to the dead baby as a dead baby suggests that they are living at a pretty degraded level of existence. So the wrongness might seem to lie more in the whole situation than in the treatment of the corpse in particular. It took me a paragraph or two to realize which horrific aspect of the story you seemed to be treating as the relevant (or perhaps even the only) one.

    I mention these things just in case they haven't occurred to you. I don't think any changes are needed. If you were to change anything in light of these comments, I wouldn't add more than a sentence or two.

  2. Thanks, DR. I did indeed have the same impression about the Hodd family as you mention; I tried to be careful, in speaking of a wrong, not to insist too much on blaming, for precisely the sort of overall degradation you mention. (The horrible condition of this family is really clear in the story.)

    I see your point about playing with the dead baby; I thought I addressed something like that thought in connection with the more general discussion of who might be harmed when a person's remains are desecrated, but I'll look at it again.

    As for the first question about what follows, practically speaking, that IS a good question. Philosophers who take similar lines on the value questions usually have some salutary discussion of this, but I've been thinking that it would be good to try to write a whole paper that just focused on the "what follows?" question--which doesn't just wind up being a set of deep ecological grandiose claims (long-term, distant future ideals) and which also doesn't just make what some would think of as "precious" recommendations to help forlorn worms find their way back into the earth (Schweitzer has examples like this). Maybe someone has tried this.

  3. You probably did address those concerns--I just read the paper through and gave my impressions, or what I imagined a less sympathetic reader might say. So I certainly could have missed things or even just got some things wrong. As I said, I don't think you need to change anything.

    A paper on what follows practically would be hard to write, I think, but very nice to be able to read.