Consider the Hermit Crab

À la David Foster Wallace’s famous essay, “Consider the Lobster” — published in Gourmet of all places (August 2004) — new research shows that hermit crabs experience pain, remember it, can recognize and take steps to avoid future encounters of a similar kind (“Crabs ‘Sense and Remember Pain’,” BBC, 27 March 2009). The full research report is:

Elwood, Bob and Mirjam Appel, “Pain Experience in Hermit Crabs?,” Animal Behaviour, vol. 77, no. 5, May 2009, pp. TBD, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.01.028.

I’m a vegetarian so of course I find the practice of boiling crustaceans alive disturbing — and have since the first time I witnessed the gruesome spectacle at about the age of eight or ten. Nevertheless, I find Professor Elwood’s characterization of the practice as “potentially very large problem” to be bizarre. “Problems” have no objective existence. A “problem” is an issue of perspective. It would seem that, say, 5,000 years and trillions of boiled crustaceans into the practice of cooking arthropods alive, it’s a little late to declare it a “potentially very large problem.” An ethical lapse is only “a problem” if the perpetrator runs afoul someone who objects and is in sufficient a position of power to do something about it. Unless we wake up in the antechamber of the afterlife and it turns out that the correct answer was Hinduism, or unless it turns out that Yahweh takes seriously that bit in Isaiah about wolves and lambs lying down together (11:6-9), or unless we vegetarians establish a GULAG and declare universal jurisdiction for crims against animals then there is no problem here — at least not for the humans.

Machine Ethics

Two great new books on the future of robots, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong and Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century are out right now. I’m not going to have time for either, but in the meantime, the New York Times constantly runs articles on this subject, most recently “A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center” (Dean, Cornelia, 25 November 2008, p. D1). To the list of all the things that robots will be better at than humans, we can add that they will be more ethical than us:

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” said Ronald C. Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, who is designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the Army.

In a report to the Army last year, Dr. Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness, Dr. Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called “the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,’ ” which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.

His report drew on a 2006 survey by the surgeon general of the Army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior.

Troops who were stressed, angry, anxious or mourning lost colleagues or who had handled dead bodies were more likely to say they had mistreated civilian noncombatants, the survey said [Mental Health Advisory Team IV, FINAL REPORT, Office of the Surgeon General, United States Army Medical Command, 17 November 2006].

It is incorrect to imagine machines as behaving more ethically than humans insofar as it construes humans and machines as occupying the same ethical continuum. We may program machines to have human-compatible ethics, but that shouldn’t confuse us; the same ethical prohibitions that apply to us will not apply to robots.

Right and wrong aren’t something floating out there on the other side of the sphere of the stars. Right and wrong are derived from the characteristics of the human body, human tastes and tendencies as endowed in us by our natural history, the structure of the human lifecycle, our conceptions of the good life, shared human experience, and communal mythos. Creatures for whom these factors are different will have different ideas about right and wrong. As the last three items on the list — conceptions of the good life and shared experience, public reference symbols — differ among people, we have different ideas about right and wrong. A creature with a transferable consciousness won’t have an essentialist view of the relation of body to self and hence won’t take moral exception to bodily damage. A creature with a polymorphous consciousness wouldn’t disparage even psychic damage (though the question of identity for such a creature would be even more difficult than it is with us, as already elusive as we are).

Creatures with different conceptions interacting have to develop ethical interfaces. The minimalist limitations of rights-based liberalism and the law of nations are to some extent that: interfaces between differing moral systems — the former an interface for people within a society, the latter between different societies. What an interface between different species, or an interface between different types of life, would look like, I have no idea. Whether such an interface is even possible is perhaps more pressing: they only seem to hold up so well amidst humans.

Neil Sinhababu, “the Ethical Werewolf,” and Ramesh Ponnuru had a go-round back in 2006 that touched on the ethical status of non-human creatures, but I don’t think it really goes beyond the natural extension of liberalism to different physical morphologies, with which liberalism has an extensive history in the various rights movements. And different physical morphologies is all that aliens and other mythological creatures, as conventionally conceived, are (Sinhababu, Neil, “Mind Matters,” The American Prospect, 23 August 2006; Ponnuru, Ramesh, “Fear Not, Frodo,” National Review Online, 28 August 2006; Sinhababu, Neil, “More on Minds,” TAPPED, 30 August 2006).

American Ecumenicalist Pluralism

Charles Blow tells an amusing story about the essential ecumenicalist pluralism of the United States (“Heaven for the Godless?,” The New York Times, 26 December 2008, p. A25):

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

The full study results are here (“Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life,” 18 December 2008).

I suggest that this means that Americans are essentially communitarian, consequentialist and anti-foundationalist in their moral outlook.

For the fundamentalist religious person, right belief about metaphysical and factual matters is paramount and right behavior secondary. Right belief is often seen as being of such a higher order of importance that it alone is sufficient and gross moral deviance on the part of the righteous is perfectly acceptable, hence modern day religious fanaticist terrorism. But for most Americans it is the reverse. The conception of the good is primary and they bend the rest of their beliefs around this. The particular beliefs that lead to the right behavior aren’t all that important, just so long as the result is someone who is a good person. (I think here of Aristotle’s suggestion in the Nicomachean Ethics that for he who has “been brought up in good habits … the fact is a starting point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting-points.” §1095b)

But if Americans don’t believe that right and wrong consist in adherence to a particular book of maxims, then where do they think they come from?

People decide right and wrong prior to religion — at least logically prior, if not chronologically prior. Most people think religion an okay source of moral instruction for children, but eventually attain a level of ethical sophistication where they use their own standard of right and wrong to judge religious teaching, rather than vice-a-versa. It’s Daniel Dennett’s point that many more people believe in belief than actually believe. Chronologically, I imagine people probably go through something like Kierkegaard’s three phases of the slave, the knight of infinite resignation, and the knight of faith. People develop an idea of good from their upbringing, a host of stories in the culture, their moral exemplars, their conception of their own life, their own moral experimentation and so on. Moral discourse is an equal opportunity endeavor. Armed with that, they recognize fellow good people based on an intersubjective or commonly held standard — differing one person to another, but demonstrating “family resemblance.”

The Christian right attempts to bolster the case for its monolithic policy preferences by arguing that the United States is a Christian nation, that it’s becoming more religious or that religion is essential for morality. To the degree that any of these are true, it’s not in a way that helps the case of the right. Americans are essentially pluralist, tolerant, even polyglot, pragmatic and not particularly concerned with the finer points of principle — exactly what one would expect from a real liberal democratic polity.

Note on a Leftist Apologia for Military Studies

I’m a leftist, though sufficiently idiosyncratic of one that many others so identifying look askance at such a claim on my part. One factor in my intellectual homelessness is that one of my primary concerns is the martial.

America abounds in the sort of gear head who revels in military tech divorced of any consideration of the context in which it came to be, or the kind of person who believes in honor and thrills at tales of gory sacrifice. The entire business model of the History Channel is built around bring together these people with endless re-edits of stock footage of the Second and Vietnam wars. I am not a person who so thrills. At this point, I intend to devote myself to issues military, but if I could turn my life into something greater than a few thousand calorie-a-day contribution to the heat death of the universe, it would be the first principle of the Charter of the United Nations, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

But the question remains, why the obsession with war? Why the minutia and the machines and the faux generalship?

The left has eschewed any consideration of the nuts and bolts of military issues in favor of wholesale condemnation, no further consideration required. The outcome of this position is that having nothing to say that resonates with voters is an abdication to the military thoughts of less scrupulous elements of the polity. In the hurly-burly of politics, time is the most scarce commodity. Having a plan at the ready when the moment strikes is the better part of victory in politics. And in those last three principles, operative to the determent of the left, can be found the whole explanation for the present imbroglio of the United States in the Middle East.

To effectively shunt war aside, the left must possess a minimum of military credibility. We must be able to deal with war in its own terms.

I think there is a Hegelian unfolding of the world spirit in the political-military happenings of the world where there is no around, only through (the truth of the flower is as much in the bud as the blossom). War will not halt, it can only be dampened. It is not merely enough to condemn nuclear weapons. It will be a varied and arduous road between world-ending arsenals and total disarmament. It is a road that must be plotted in detail, traversed along the whole of its track. There is no substitute for the compromising and half-measures of disarmament. To hate and fear something so much, one must also love it, revel and writhe in it.

Most consider strategy and military studies an entirely instrumental practice, whether pursued for the ends of national power, or for the excise of war as a scourge of humanity. I think there is more to it than that. There is something, many things, profound in war and violence.

In so far as society and its precepts are not optional, there is a continuity between force and violence and civilization. War is everywhere, even amidst peace. War is the substrate of peace. War is natural and peace an artifice.

What has me thinking in this direction is the excerpting by James Marcus (“Turning a Page,” History News Network, 5 November 2008) of a few lines from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War:

It’s the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It’s the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice.

Our thoughts on morality and justice, taken amidst the consolations of society, are pat and facile, so unfamiliar with the whole gamut of relevant circumstances of life are the majority of us. It is only from this side of the wall separating civilization from nature that someone could assert something so stupid as a right to life. Forces of the universe assert otherwise. Very few of us have been caused to fundamentally doubt this. And not merely to doubt in the abstract, but in the concrete of concrete: do I have a right to my life?

In the martial is more than machines and terrain and maneuver. There is a weltanschauung to be found there. It ought to be explicated.

Relativism and Conflict

Ezra Klein references Nickolas Kristof’s column yesterday as bringing “striking clarity” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the clarity is all in Mr. Klein’s interpretation (“Tough Love for Israel?,” The New York Times, 24 July 2008; “The Dual Realities of Israel / Palestine,” TAPPED, The American Prospect, 24 July 2008, respectively):

But he [Kristof] offers a counter-fact: “B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, reports that a total of 123 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces.”

When Jews talk about the ethics of the Israeli response, they tend to emphasize the recklessness and cruelty of Palestinian terrorists. The words most often heard are “target civilians.” The Israelis are right, in other words, because they carry out limited military operations against discrete targets, which sets them ethically apart from members of Hamas who murder innocents because it’s an effective tactic. That is indisputable.

Palestinians, by contrast, speak of the war in terms of absolute costs: They have suffered more, buried more, seen more of their freedoms and land and dignity taken from them. To them, it seems insane to condemn Palestinian tactics when the Israelis have killed so many more innocent children. That too is indisputable.

Both sides are right. There’s a passage in Aaron David Miller’s excellent book The Much Too Promised Land that makes this point elegantly. “The prospects of reconciling the interests of an occupied nation with those of a threatened one seemed slim to none,” he says. In many ways, that’s the essential truth of the conflict: The two sides don’t judge themselves similarly. The Israelis see themselves as threatened innocents, not oppressors. The Palestinians see themselves as an occupied and humiliated nation, not aggressors. The Israelis see themselves as inexplicably under attack, and acting only in defense. The Palestinians see themselves as losing a war against a much stronger, and demonstrably more brutal, occupier.

This is all true of Israel / Palestine and an important point to keep in mind when trying to understand the claims and counterclaims of the parties.

What Israel needs is, as Mr. Kristof calls it, tough love. What that means at a more operative level is the U.S. needs to provide Israeli moderates with additional reasons they can point to in opposing Israeli extremists (messianic Jews, settlers, etc.). The Palestinians aren’t the only ones whose country is being destroyed by the extremists in their midst.

In addition to pointing out some salient facts about the nature of the particular dispute in question, this is a perfect real-world example of relativism. Most people think of relativism and think it means amorality, or moral capitulation, or a dispensing-with of any notion of the facts of the matter. But what I think this explanation shows is that relativism is compatible with an objective account of things — or that relativism as an ethical theory is well compartmentalized from any particular metaphysical substratum. And relativism is a theory that provides a very good account of many disputes in the world. People aren’t necessarily in dispute over what is true and what false, or the proper moral criteria. For instance, no one in this situation is necessarily disputing the numbers killed or whether killing is right or wrong. The facts of the matter or the morality of any individual act considered in complete isolation is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the proper context in which to weigh the facts and adjudicate the contending claims of moral priority. It’s a question of interpretation. Different sets of acts of violence become at least plausibly justifiable depending on which gestalt narrative one adopts. Change total narrative and the moral weight of the various acts shifts around.

This is the way it is in almost all disputes. The rhetoric that people deploy usually very quickly leaves behind particular matters of fact or the morality or immorality of specific acts and it becomes a contest of dueling grand narratives. A conversation about a particular environmental harm becomes one about the tragedy of the commons and evil corporations versus the road to serfdom. A conversation about a reproductive decision becomes one of recidivist patriarchy versus the suicide of Western culture. The fact of the matter is that no one can quite see individuals as individuals and consider their actions as such. Everyone sees all people as deeply embedded in social structures and patterns and duty-bound to speculative forces of society and history.

Sensuous Knowledge

The current issue of The New York Review of Books has an enjoyable essay on Indian eroticism (Dalrymple, William, “India: The Place of Sex,” vol. LV, no. 11, 26 June 2008, pp. 33-36). Alas, everyone prior to a certain era it would seem was possessed of the anti-life of Platonism and the sky cult:

… there has always been a strong tension in Hinduism between the ascetic and the sensual. The poet Bhartrihari, who probably lived in the third century AD, around the time of the composition of the Kamasutra, oscillated no less than seven times between the rigors of the monastic life and the abandon of the sensualist. “There are two paths,” he wrote. “The sages’ religious-devotion, which is lovely because it overflows with the nectarous waters of the knowledge of truth,” and “the lusty undertaking of touching with one’s palm that hidden part in the firm laps of lovely-limbed women, loving women with great expanses of breasts and thighs.”

“Tell us decisively which we ought to attend upon,” he asks in the Shringarashataka. “The sloping sides of wilderness mountains? Or the buttocks of women abounding in passion?”

Of the happier consequences of the death of god, one is that we can dispense with this never really existent dichotomy between the life of the mind and the sensuousness of the body. From beyond such strictures, they seem entirely arbitrary. Their abandonment is the aesthetic-ethical corollary of Kant’s dissolution of the rationalist-empiricist debate. I take it that this is what Nietzsche was getting at when he promulgating a collection of aphorisms under the title The Gay Science, or as it has occasionally been translated, The Joyous Knowledge. I think here of his discussion, as well as my own experience, that one’s best thoughts are often had while in motion.

The Slipstream Between Absurdity and Profound Beauty

Terri Schiavo finally died today (objectively yesterday, but subjectively today as I am still awake). I am tempted to say that the body of the former person Terri Schiavo finally stopped working today, but it seems a little too party-line.

As this drama has played itself out, a passage from an old article has acted as an interlocutor as I have turned this issue around in my head.

A few years ago The New York Times Magazine published a few thousand word essay titled “Unspeakable Conversations” (16 February 2003) by Charleston, South Carolina based attorney and disabled persons activist Harriet McBryde Johnson.

The article was more human interest than polemical. It was about Ms. Johnson’s acceptance of an invitation from Peter Singer and Princeton University to participate in two forums on infanticide and assisted suicide.

Mr. Singer, if you haven’t heard his name, is a rather famous philosopher focusing on ethics. Asserting that personhood is coterminous with cognition, he has argued in favor of abortion rights, euthanasia, assisted suicide and in some cases infanticide. Oddly enough, he is also a vegetarian and the author of one of the classics of the animal rights movement, Animal Liberation.

The dramatic tension of the essay was that Ms. Johnson is a disabled persons activist and the Professor argues in favor of killing disabled infants at birth. From her perspective, Mr. Singer is a monster. How is one to behave towards a person held in such contempt? Many of her fellow activists encouraged Ms. Johnson not to legitimize Mr. Singer by appearing with him in the forum, but she accepted nonetheless. After her visit, Ms. Johnson’s sister asks her, “You kind of like the monster, don’t you?” She replies, “He’s not exactly a monster. He just has some strange ways of looking at things.”

The article is a well-crafted and interesting piece of writing. The passage from Ms. Johnson’s article to which I give a few minutes of sustained consideration every couple of weeks when it comes to me is an interchange between the Professor and the Attorney:

In the classroom there was a question about keeping alive the unconscious. In response, I told a story about a family I knew as a child, which took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other, making all the other children, and me as their visitor, feel safe. This doesn’t satisfy Singer. “Let’s assume we can prove, absolutely, that the individual is totally unconscious and that we can know, absolutely, that the individual will never regain consciousness.”

I see no need to state an objection, with no stenographer present to record it; I’ll play the game and let him continue.

“Assuming all that,” he says, “don’t you think continuing to take care of that individual would be a bit — weird?”

“No. Done right, it could be profoundly beautiful.”

Profoundly beautiful. That is the phrase that has stuck with me. I think that I am firmly in the camp declaring such a use of human resources absurd. Worse than absurd: granting that preserving someone in a neither-death-nor-yet-life state is morally neutral, pressing their caretakers into empty medical rituals, acts that would be difficult even where the rewards great and obvious, or into meaningless labor, no matter how generously remunerated, is the unbearable pinnacle of absurdity. Doesn’t it devalue life to devote it to so meager an end? The incongruence of the tremendous technological feats and the expenditure of the heights of human ingenuity to no effect whatsoever, in the service of nothing so much as proving a point — a point that could be better made in so many other ways, for life is so cheap in this world — is demoralizing in its own way.

These are all just platitudes. I don’t really have an answer to the proposition of profound beauty. I want to say that there is something gnawing about the statement, but I don’t know if it is the power or the starkness of the statement that provokes me so.

I don’t know how much moral seriousness to accord Ms. Johnson: when presented with her seemingly double standard regarding the value of the lives of animals versus humans in a persistent vegetative state, she cut off Mr. Singer, saying, “Look. I have lived in blissful ignorance all these years, and I’m not prepared to give that up today.” How can one be so morally inflamed about an issue that is obviously of great interest to one’s self, yet insistent on flippant disregard on all others?

One might think Ms. Johnson a profound moral thinker, but this is only the most outstanding example from the piece of what is a sectarian agenda the makes little consideration of anything beyond its own particularistic and selfish aims. And particularistic and selfish is exactly what Mr. Singer has set himself against.

Despite my criticisms, I cannot recommend the essay enough. As a pissed off liberal I have come to hate the word “nuance,” but the article very clearly complexifies (a neologism, but still better than “nuance”) an issue too often portrayed as simple.