Search This Blog

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chapter 10A Again

I was unhappy with my previous posting, and so I decided to rewrite it and add to it the material I had planned to post today.



H.G. Wells said once that our choice is the universe or nothing.[1] And if the argument of this book is sound, he was not that far off the mark. The way humans look at the world, the way they interact with the world, gives them a panorama of problems and opportunities that will change as they strive to satisfy their curiosity: a dynamic science leads to a constantly evolving panorama. To grow is to adapt to a changing environment or to a variety of environments. Given the long-term prospects of the human species, to grow scientifically, into the cosmos, is to hedge our bets against extinction.

Two important questions come to mind at this stage. The first is: why should survival be a value? In particular, why should human survival be a value? If we justify space exploration by reference to survival and to the material improvement of human life, the social critics should be satisfied. Their objectives, in the long run, require that we go into space. But some of the ideological critics may prove more ornery. Thus Wendell Berry supposes that the abundance of resources in space will produce bad character, for good character requires the discipline of finitude.[2]

That the survival of the human species is a value may seem beyond question to most of us, although there might be some who prefer extinction to bad character (not that I wish to suggest here that Berry would go that far) or to decreased chances of spiritual salvation. But even overwhelming agreement on the value of survival might not satisfy some thinkers in their more philosophical moments. It seems that we value survival very highly, they might say, but why should we so keen on leaving behind imperfect creatures much like ourselves?

In such philosophical moments, questioning a value is normally taken as a demand to identify some other, more basic value from which the first one is derived. This is similar to how we presumably justify actions: "This is the right action because it will bring about X and X is a good thing." But the more basic value (or good thing) that does the justifying can itself be questioned, so we then look for an even more basic value (or good thing) until eventually we arrive at a good thing that is not merely good but good in itself, that is, whose goodness does not depend on anything but its own nature. Why do we work? Because we get paid? Why is money a good thing? Because we can use to buy food and clothes, pay the rent, etc. Why do we want to do those things? Because they make us happy. And in happiness, Aristotle thought, we find an end that is complete and self-sufficient.[3] The question “why do we want to be happy” makes no sense. Aristotle had in mind not transient happiness, but a happy life as a whole. He also thought it was obvious that the happiness of a society was of greater value than the happiness of a single individual. Of course, there seems to be a clear connection between human happiness and human survival.

Since this approach grounds ethical justification on a human value, human happiness, some may object that it is therefore relative to our own species. This objection seems to underpin the notion that we should not prefer the good of our own species to that of other living things in our planet, or even to the rocks of another planet. Oftentimes the objection is expressed as the view that ethics and other disciplines of value are "objective" only insofar as their laws are eternal and universal. As characterized by Peter Singer, who criticizes it, the view claims that "The laws of Ethics...existed before there was life on our planet and will continue to exist when the sun has ceased to warm the earth."[4] Moreover, eternal (absolute) laws of ethics seem to demand eternal (absolute) values. Thus a relative value such a human happiness (or human survival) cannot provide an adequate justification for our actions.

Absolute values, however, are not all they are cracked up to be. Conflict may arise between two or more absolute values. Or an absolute value may be of small significance in a particular context and thus should yield to relative values. Besides, absolute laws could in principle be derived from values that always depend on context or on subjective preference, i.e. relative. For example, consider utilitarianism (i.e., roughly, the view that the balance of good vs. bad consequences of an action--its utility--determine its rightness, given the utilities of the alternative actions). At least one version of utilitarianism would calculate utility in accordance with the values assigned by the individuals who would enjoy or suffer the consequences of the action being contemplated.[5]

I need not show that human survival is an absolute value, or that there must be an absolute law of ethics that gives survival a very high priority. I appeal to it in order to show that space exploration is in the interest of the species. When I point out that space exploration can save us from the dangers posed by asteroids and the sun’s becoming a red giant, I give a strong reason to pursue it.

A reason in matters of prudence, or of ethics, need not be one that appeals to an absolute ground of any kind. A reason must be a reason for action, and so it must be aimed to convince the intended audience. This is not to say that efficacy alone is sufficient to commend reasons. The fallacious reasoning of much advertisement may well appeal to the masses of the unwary but would be exposed to ridicule in less superficial disputes. In some polemics the stakes and the standards may be very high. This need not mean that some ideal is approached but that greater care must be exercised to take into account the sorts of considerations that may be brought up by all the parties concerned. And greater care must be exercised not because some of those parties are in possession of truly higher standards of reason or have a more direct line to the truth – they might or might not – but precisely because we have more perspectives in play, because their diversity demands a sharper, more comprehensive case if their potential objections are to be met.

To give ethical reasons to someone is then to give him reasons that take his concerns and interests into account.[6] In discussion with members of another society, we can hardly make way with claims to the effect that our customs are better than theirs because ours are ours, or because our customs appeal to us. A convincing argument would have to show them that, in some respect that they may come to see as important, our customs work better for us than theirs do for them. Or if what we really want is for them to adopt ours, we must show them that our customs will work better for them, too. If action is the intended goal of reason in matters of prudence and ethics, how can reason succeed if it cannot appeal to the audience? And what appeal can there be where the aims, desires, and interests of the audience are ignored?

In an important respect this view preserves an element of universality, although not the peculiar ground of objectivity of so many views in ethics. As the Oxford philosopher J.L. Mackie put it: "If there were objective values, then they would be entities of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe. Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else."[7] No. The element of universality depends rather on the realization that, as Singer says, "… one's own interests are one among many sets of interests, no more important than the similar interests of others."[8]

Where the only relevant difference between my wish and yours is that it is mine, I am generally not in a position to give you reasons why you should behave as I want you to. An intelligent being should presumably be able to detect what the relevant factors in a dispute are, and discard those that are revealed as arbitrary. Or else he would go ahead with the full knowledge that his case is also arbitrary and that he has no rational claim upon the behavior of those he was trying to persuade. Practical reasoning that will not treat impartially the interests of all parties will not succeed: It cannot motivate action.

These considerations lead Singer to conclude that all rational beings should come to this process of reasoning. If so, this reasoning would have an eternal and universal aspect. For according to Singer, "Wherever there are rational, social beings, whether on earth on in some remote galaxy, we could expect their standards of conduct to tend toward impartiality, as ours have."[9] This is not to say that all rational beings would adhere to the same specific norms of conduct, for those specific norms may have developed to meet entirely divergent constraints on behavior, as we already saw in Chapter 8. Nor is it to say that ethical behavior between all intelligent species is possible, since such behavior requires a possible commonality of interests that may not always be there (such commonality need not be of prior interests, since in new circumstances complex intelligent beings are capable of developing new interests; although there is no guarantee that new, appropriate interests will in fact be developed).

In this manner we can explain why the appeal to values is thought to provide reasons, for values themselves, as Singer points out, are inherently practical. "To value something," he says, "is to regard oneself as having a reason for promoting it. How can there be something in the universe, existing entirely independently of us and our aims, desires, and interests, which provides us with reasons for acting in certain ways?"[10] When I point out the connections between space science and survival, I consciously expect that my case will be successful because it does take into account what I believe are the aims, desires, and interests of my intended audience. I assume that most normal human beings care deeply about the consequences that I have outlined. Indeed, since what I am doing is trying to meet the objections of the critics, I ought to be on firm ground, for they very explicitly announce their concern for the welfare of all humankind (at least in the case of the social critics).

Should humans be interested in their own interests? The question does not even deserve to be called rhetorical. What often happens, though, is that reasons that presumably take our interests into account may be challenged on the grounds that they really do not -- that if we consider other relevant factors, or a long view of things, then we realize that what appeared to be in our interest really is not. But how can it be that survival is not really in our best interest?

There are cases where survival clearly does not override other reasons (or motives) for action, and where we may agree that it should not. Cases, for example, in which someone risks his life to save his child's, or a stranger's for that matter. Or cases in which principle takes precedence. But all these are cases worthy of admiration precisely because we recognize that the person's survival was in his best interest, but that he disregarded it for the benefit of a higher purpose.

Moreover, I would venture to guess that the reason we are willing to let personal survival be overridden is that this higher purpose is somehow involved with making life better for those that remain, or even to make sure that others do remain. As this purpose expands in scope, it will ultimately cover the well-being of all mankind. And here we should not speak merely of mankind as we may find it in a slice of history, but mankind as it extends through history into the future.

Religion sometimes demands the sacrifice of lives for rather obscure goals, or for goals that only the faithful find less than revolting. And political passion is often guilty of similar motivations. But it is difficult to see how a religion or a political ideology that demanded, or permitted, the destruction of the entire human species, that would deny the future a chance, could justify itself to the most general of audiences. Even so I am not inclined to say that no conceivable set of circumstances could provide a reason more pertinent than the survival of mankind. Still, such a strict requirement is not necessary. I presume to have given good, convincing reasons. Unless someone offers stronger alternatives, I would like to think that I have done enough in this respect.

The previous point is that the line of argument that culminates with a connection to our survival and the betterment of our material condition need not go to a deeper level of justification. This point was clearly aimed at a philosophical critic who might question the ground of justification I provide for the exploration of space. Nevertheless I have not yet earned the right to bring the discussion to an end. First of all other critics may wonder about the appeal to the interests of humanity, not because appealing to interests is not enough but because they may think that "humanity" is too elusive a subject to have interests. And second, some of the ideological critics may resist the conclusion that space science is necessary for the long-term survival of the human species.

The first objection is less powerful than one may imagine. Of course, our species is not some kind of super-organism of which individual human beings are the cells. There is surely no talking to any such "humanity". Humanity in a clear sense does not think what is best for it, nor does it recognize its interests, simply because there is no conscious subject there to think or recognize. Individual human beings do the thinking and recognizing. That is fair enough. Moreover, the interests of human beings are individual interests, what do they have to do with the interests of humans who may live several million years hence? How compelling can that appeal to the future be? How compelling should it be?

I would like to offer two responses, one rhetorical and the other philosophical. The rhetorical response is this. If my aim is to meet the objections against space exploration by the social and ideological critics, this particular point can do little against my case. For those objections cannot even get off the ground unless we assume first that it is not only possible but also our duty to do what is best for humanity. That is, we recognize that we should act not only so as to ensure our own well being but that of others. The audience, in a figurative but still important respect, are the people of the Earth. If that were not so, what would be the point of arguing that combating poverty is more important than observing the X-ray emissions from the vicinity of possible black holes? Or of suggesting that science is not wise because in the long run it will bring us to grief? The "us" here are surely not those of us who may hear the warning when first issued, but those in posterity whose world we may swindle by our recklessness of today.

And now we can move from the purely rhetorical to more general or philosophical remarks. The reason the objections of the social and ideological critics do have a leg to stand on, although they turn out to be ultimately mistaken, is that as a matter of fact we do decide for posterity to a great extent. We may plant the trees from which “our” descendents will receive nourishment and shade, or we may destroy what could have given them a fighting chance against drought and famine. It is for them to make their own decisions, but at least the initial situation in which they will find themselves is more of our making than of theirs. Nor should we think that a society is merely an aggregate of individuals, and the species an aggregate of societies. Even if there is no super-organism, the whole does amount to more than the sum of its parts. Society is not a mere statistical distribution of individual properties. An individual that belongs to a society has characteristics that he could not have by himself. An advanced scientific and literary society, for example, builds libraries, universities, and laboratories, which enable an individual to educate himself for a style of life that would not exist without those institutions. The choices and opportunities open to him are not those that we could have without the benefit of the past efforts of generations that brought about the world into which he was born. No one could choose to be a modern farmer without the technology this century has provided, simply because the things a modern farmer does would not be possible otherwise. Nor could one choose to be a goalie in a soccer team if the game did not exist. In a primitive society it is very difficult to become a scientist, or a movie actor, or for that matter an effective critic of technology, since he will have little acquaintance with it. And in some societies dominated by religion, the female half of the population do not have the right to drive a car, receive an education, or even show their faces.

What we are, what we may become obviously depends on our own efforts and talents. But it also depends on the range of choices, on the freedoms, and on the starting points that our society and culture make available to us. We do not become ourselves in a vacuum. But we also change the society by our choices, and thus we change the face of posterity, and sometimes its very substance. Some may wish to deny that our dialectical relationship with society imposes on us obligations of gratitude. But with a bit of attention, even they should realize that the present generation does decide for mankind, whether unwittingly or not. And they should realize also that the choices we face today are particularly important, more so perhaps than the choices most other generations of humans had to make. Nor is my case aimed strictly to the present generation. Now that space exploration has become a feasible alternative, these controversies have only been born.

Survival of the species is not a value just because it is in accordance with evolution. In the first place survival is not the goal of evolution. Evolution has no goals. And besides that, most species that ever lived are now extinct. Survival is a value to us because without it all the other interests of the species may become moot. And even though the interests of many individuals do not depend on the survival of the species, their collective actions often affect the species as a whole-- and when they recognize this, they care how it all comes out in the wash.

According to some important contemporary views influenced by biology, it is in the nature of human beings to care about the fate of their descendants. This tendency can be explained by the comparative study of life forms and their drive to insure that their genes remain in the world even after they themselves are gone, and especially by the mechanism of kin selection and its concomitant kin altruism. But even if some are suspicious of such sociobiological studies and would rather speak in terms of culture, it would be difficult to deny that survival is in the interest of the species, or that our actions today may affect that interest tomorrow. Knowing that, it is a pretense to argue, as some fanciful philosophers do, that since future generations are not yet born, they do not have rights (for they are not “real”), and therefore we cannot be said to have obligations towards them.[11] Were they correct, I could not be accused of mass murder if I were to leave a large bomb hidden under the floor of the newborn wing of a hospital, timed to go off in six months, since none of my future victims would have been born by the time I hid the bomb.[12] Nor can I leave the bomb there even if I did not plant it myself. Thus we do have obligations to ensure that CFCs no longer destroy the ozone layer so that our grandchildren will not suffer in large numbers from skin cancer. And we also have a positive obligation to put in place space systems to warn us of asteroid impacts and to deflect them, lest our descendants go the way of the dinosaurs.

This is not to say that we are always looking out for the interests of the species, few of us are. But then we are practically never looking out for the interests of a stranger, although if we see him collapse on the street many of us would feel a strong impulse to come to his assistance. Similarly, the appropriate time to recognize the interests of the species is when we become aware that they are threatened. And in any event, insofar as we accept the responsibility of deciding for the species, the argument that ought to work is that which takes the interests of the species into account.

[2] See Berry’s contributions to Space Colonies, ed. by Stewart Brand (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 36-37 and 82-85.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 1, Ch. 7, 2nd Edition, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000).

[4] Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981), p. 105.

[5] Many utilitarians, however, assign to pain and pleasure absolute values, positive or negative respectively.

[6] In this I follow Singer in his The Expanding Circle, op. cit.

[7] Quoted in Singer, ibid., p. 107.

[8] Ibid., p. 106.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 107.

[11] Robert M. Adams, "Existence, Self-Interest, and the Problem of Evil," Nous I3 (1979): 57. Derek Parfit, "On Doing the Best for Our Children," in Ethics and Population, ed. Michael Bayles (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, I976), pp. 100-102. Thomas Schwartz, "Obligations to Posterity," in Obligations to Future Generations, ed. Richard Sikora and Brian Barry (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, I978). For a discussion see Robert Elliot, “The Rights of Future People,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 6, no. 2 (1989): 159–69.

[12] Presuming that I time it so precisely that no nurses or visitors will be killed.

No comments: