Another Question

Recently, I queried folks here on the appropriateness of our differing responses to hunting, which we generally consider acceptable or even laudable, and activities like dog fighting or turtle squashing, activities that are largely condemned as abhorrent and immoral.  Most people were able to make cogent arguments that there were inherent differences to these activities and that our differing responses were largely appropriate.  It was a refreshing conversation to hear, especially since I tend to think their is a lot of hypocrisy and other problems with our general approach to animal welfare.  But, as expected, folks here were able to offer rather principled, thoughtful arguments supporting their position.

Many of the topics broached made me think of another question that I’d like to explore similarly here.

Imagine, if you will, that an alien race comes to Earth.  This alien race is vastly superior to us, so superior in fact that the gap between our development and theirs is akin to the gap between a microbe’s development and ours.  If you like analogies, then you could say humans:aliens::microbes:humans.  Now, these aliens see Earth as a hospitable environment but our presence as an impediment to their health and well-being.  As such, they decide to exterminate us in a way that is quick and painless.

Could we make a moral argument against their actions?  Of course, we could seek to defend ourselves and our way of life, much like a bacterium might develop a resistance to anti-biotics out of a evolutionary sense of self-preservation.  But would the actions of the aliens be immoral?

I ask because I doubt anyone considers the destruction of microbes that are harmful to us as immoral.  In fact, some would argue that we have a moral imperative to do just that, advocating for vaccines and the like.  But these same folks probably would consider the wholesale destruction of more advanced species, such as dolphins, to be more problematic morally.  In fact, dolphins are seen as being so worthy of protection that scores of other animals, lesser animals are destroyed in the name of their protection*.

What I’m really trying to get at is whether there is an absolute threshold that some organisms have crossed that make them worthy of protection or consideration in a different way than lesser organisms -OR- is it the relative difference that matters?  Have we and dolphins and monkeys and dogs reached a point that no species, no matter how advanced, can morally exterminate us?  And, if so, what is that point?  Where do we draw the line?  What is the determining factor for what organisms ought to be considered worthy of protections and which ones ought not to be?  But if it is the latter, than it seems we must concede any moral claim to self-preservation in the proposed scenario, no?

Thank you in advanced for indulging my provocativeness.  I realize these questions might seem a bit absurd on their face, but I think in considering them we can arrive at a more principled perspective on the value of different species, one that is not derived solely from emotion or a sense of “cuteness”.

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* Did you know that dolphin-safe tuna is deadly for a host of other animals? “[O]ne saved dolphin costs 25,824 small tuna, 382 mahi-mahi, 188 wahoo, 82 yellowtail and other large fish, 27 sharks and rays, 1 billfish, 1,193 triggerfish and other small fish, and 0.06 sea turtles.”
http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=6539

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106 thoughts on “Another Question

  1. Extelligence versus intelligence.
    Two concepts to contribute.
    Cats are very intelligent creatures, but barely extelligent at all.
    Dogs are very extelligent creatures, but are very very low on the intelligence scale.

    Which is more important? Or is it the aggregate?

    If dolphins looked like scabrous yaks, and impinged on our territory, I fully believe we’d have no problems killing them. We killed off the wolves in nearly all of their range, and they very, very rarely eat humans.

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    • What do you mean by extelligence? I have never heard of that word before. I’m not sure the “in-” in “intelligence” is a prefix.

      Your point about dolphins seems to imply that our defense of them is not particularly principled.

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      • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extelligence

        Dogs have a metric ton of it. It’s all they really learn — how to do what is expected.

        A wolf gets caught in a trap– no wolf in the pack will step foot near a trap ever again. Even after the original wolves are dead.
        You can teach a dog upwards of 2000 commands — not because they’re innately good problem solvers, but because they are willing to -really- work hard to please you.

        Yup, it’s not. Humans aren’t fair with their mercy, their aid, even their morals. And if we can’t even be trusted to be fair within our species, why should we think that we’d be any better with other species?? We can’t even be bothered with the ethic of “leave it alone if it’s not hurting you” I don’t think that “it’s smart, so don’t hurt it” really applies. Mountain lions are hella smart — like ghosts in the woods. They’ll kill you if they can catch you though…

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  2. Kazzy,

    First, thanks for the info on dolphins.

    Second, this question is hard to grapple with because it’s so hard to imagine what it could possibly mean for an alien species to be that advanced. The standard I advanced before–having emotional intelligence–seems really crucial to me, so I can’t see being yet more advanced in any way as over-riding that (at least not completely). And yet I recognize that my insistence on that standard could be because I am just as unable to imagine what such superiority would actually mean, or be constituted of, as a microbe is unable to imagine what being human means.

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    • Very interesting thoughts here.

      Regarding the dolphins, if you click through to the former “Southern Fried Science” blog, you’ll see that guy has a category of posts tagged with “Dolphins are Dicks” or some such epithet, which he used to expose some of the silliness within our unique perspective on them. For instance, did you know that males will engage in infanticide because it makes the females more willing to mate? When caring for young, they are reluctant to, so a male will gladly kill another male’s baby so he can mate with the mother. Damn!

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      • Two male dolphins have also been observed in the wild keeping a female dolphin “captive” (repeatedly preventing her attempted departure via violence, over distance and time) and engaging in repeated mating with her.

        If they were human, we’d call it “kidnapping and transporting over state lines and repeated gang rape.”

        Effin’ Flipper, dude…had the best PR agent since Gentle Ben and that alcoholic Lassie.

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      • Lions do the infanticide thing, when they take over another male’s pride. Nature has no such concept as morality.

        And I hope it was clear that my response wasn’t a critique, but just a comment on how tough the question is.

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        • Nature has no such concept as morality.

          I suppose that depends on what you consider morality, or what you consider a concept of morality at least. Certainly many social animals have what amount to codes of behavior, violations of which can be met with individual or group responses. That some of their codes of behavior don’t mesh well with ours, particularly ours after millennia of cultural evolution, doesn’t seem very fair or appropriate. What it amounts to is saying that they’re not human enough, or not 21st century human enough.

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              • It seems so alien to me to judge cats for eating meat (not that anyone in this thread has done so, of course, but there is “vegan cat food” out there).

                I mean, I don’t want to say that cats “ought” to eat meat but it certainly seems to me that saying “cats ought not eat meat” and then following through on that will, among other things, result in blind cats.

                This strikes me as, if not immoral, at the very least fighting violently (and unsustainably) against the Tao.

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                    • I’m not a big fan of domestic cats. In addition to the fact that I’m terribly allergic to the dandruff-shedding little bastards, they’re also basically a scourge on the environment when people let them outside. Put differently, I think domestic cats are inherently evil, and we should program our robots accordingly.

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                    • I find it astonishing that people don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting their cats wander into my yard and shit all over the place, but if I was walking my dog and let it shit in their yard they’d think I was a horrible neighbor.

                      I have fantasies about trapping and (humanely) eliminating all of my neighbors’ cats. Or just wandering into their yards in the middle of the night to relieve myself.

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                    • I’m not a fan of dogs. But most of the things dogs do that I don’t like, they seem to do completely unaware of my distaste for their actions. They’re just being dogs, pretty indifferent to their impact on me.

                      But cats? Fuck that. You can see in a cat’s eyes when it is thinking, “Fuck you, man. I don’t even like what I’m about to do, but I know you won’t like it, and that is exactly why I’m going to do it. That glass of water you just poured? I’m not even thirsty. And I hate being wet. But I’m going to go stick my fat stupid face in it because then you won’t be able to drink it. Watch. I’ll even keep my eyes open the whole time, staring you down, so you can feel my burning disdain for you.”

                      And people want to call Michael Vick a sadist.

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                    • “I find it astonishing that people don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting their cats wander into my yard and shit all over the place, but if I was walking my dog and let it shit in their yard they’d think I was a horrible neighbor.”

                      We keep our cats in, for the record.

                      I find it even more boggling that people don’t seem to mind letting dogs piss and shit all over the sidewalk but suddenly I’m some sort of monster if I piss behind a dumpster.

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                    • I love kitties. They’re self-contained little critters. When a cat loves you, you know you’re being loved. Dogs, there are a few wonderful dogs. My g/f has the greatest dog ever. But most dogs are neurotic, needy creatures… “Love me… pantpantpant… feed me…. pantpantpant… take me outside…. pantpantpant… or I’ll shit on your carpet.” Only thing a dog’s really good for is a judge of character. A dog can detect skeeviness. If your dog dislikes someone, trust the dog’s judgement.

                      I’m a cat man. Always will be.

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                    • When cats aren’t being dicks, they can be pretty cool. They just decide to be dicks far too often for my taste.

                      One of our cats actually isn’t much of a dick. But she has the mentality of a dog. She is actually terrible at being a cat. She doesn’t know how to use her whiskers (often getting her head stuck in things) and spends most of the day chasing her tail and eating trash off the floor.

                      And there was that one unfortunate day where she decided to wipe her ass on the carpet.

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          • I mean that vast amorphous thing we call nature, that something that is beyond any organism or species, but incorporates all of us, that thing that encompasses all of space and time (but is not probably not outside of it), does not have a concept of morality. I.e., there is no god, and no quasi-godlike essence; no inherent morality to the universe or being.

            Species-level moralities/moral feelings that are grounded in our evolutionary history? Sure. But that’s small potatoes in the big picture. Rewind the tape, change the evolutionary history in the right way, and you change the evolved morality/moral feelings, because it comes from no higher level than that.

            And I’m not saying other creatures aren’t human enough–I’m saying our morality is just a product of our evolutionary history (which includes the interaction of biology and social life), so that it’s meaningful only to us; there is no “something” out there that gives a rat’s patootie about our species’ moral concepts and adjudges them as better or worse.

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  3. If they’re *THAT* intelligent, can we come to any conclusions about their advancement when it comes to ethics?

    If beings that intelligent can kill humans without worrying about ethical concerns, can we finally sigh with relief and get back to eating steak?

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  4. I don’t know why anyone hasn’t called you on this already, but . . .
    The stats from So. Fried Science are not valid for comparison’s sake, in that there are no other stats for comparison.
    There are “junk fish” regardless of what manner you go about taking a catch; even with a rod & reel.
    Meaning it’s a factoid, intended to be emotionally charged.

    Dolphins are different creatures.
    I spent 3 summers working on commercial fishing vessels when I was putting myself through college.
    At different times, dolphins, sharks, or bluefin tuna will follow the boats. Whichever one it is at the time, you will see them for days on end.
    When you’re 50 miles out, and all you can see from one end of the earth to the other is sky and sea, and all you ever see is two other human beings for weeks on end, it is a joy to step out onto the deck to see the dolphins there.
    Even being landed for these many years, it still makes my heart swell to see the dolphins herding fish in the mornings out in the bay.

    I really don’t think you understand things so well.

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    • Reading the full blog post, it appears those numbers are the ADDITIONAL animals killed when compared to the previous method of fishing that was not dolphin safe. But I am not an expert on the matter and realize it is a complicated issue.

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      • I’ll point you in the right direction, and leave it at that.
        Let’s say that there are basically three different types of commercial fishing: lines, nets, and traps. (I worked on a boat with nets, and I learned how to sew them. Every net has a lead line and a cork line, because that’s the way they are made. With a casting net, the cork line is the small circle in the middle.)
        To my knowledge, tuna is harvested by lines. This means that you have a winch with a line full of hooks that has to be baited as it goes out. Dangerous stuff there.

        Nets pick up a lot of crab. They all die, even if you throw them back in the water. The rapid de-pressurization gets them.
        Eels will stay alive for a long time, and they have sharp teeth. Better to kill an eel quickly whenever you see one.
        Catfish have sharp spines in their fins that are known for breaking off into hands. Cull out the catfish early.

        I’m not good for much more than that.

        I have no interest in justifying cruelty.
        I already understand it well enough, and I see too much of it around anyway.

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        • The method described in that post is something called a “seine purse” and involves a large net. They advocate reel-and-red as the most ecologically-friendly approach, but note that this would drastically drive up the cost of tuna, which is a low-cost, healthy protein for much of the world’s poor. They conclude that the prior method of dolphin-unsafe was overall the best of a bunch of bad options.

          And they might be wrong. The specifics of dolphin-safe tuna aren’t core to my message; I was simply using that as an example of an animal-welfare issue that is far more complicated than most people realize.

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        • Purse seining is used for tuna. It doesn’t seem to be the only method, and I don’t know what percentage are caught that way (although given the numbers that can be caught with purse seines vs. lines, I suspect it’s pretty large).

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  5. A tangent here will be how you feel about the AI/robot question.

    There are some who would believe that AIs/robots would want to cohabitate with us.

    There are others who believe that they would want to destroy us.

    I’ve always fallen in the second category but not due to the Skynet/AM argument. For me, it would be more a case of “The organics are inefficently using atoms that could be more efficently used elsewhere.” However, that’s just a guess. That’s just me guessing at what an AI (which I imagine would be devoid of emotion) would conclude.

    And that’s where the moral argument falls down. To make such an argument is to presume that our morals are universal. To quote Star Control 2 (a game that plays around with the concept of different morality systems for different species):

    Human: But our cause is just! Isn’t altruism the highest pinnacle of morality?

    Melnorme: No, it is not. In fact, in our culture, `giving’ with no fair exchange of goods or services is considered vulgar and inappropriate. Please do not mention this subject again.

    An alien species may not consider genocide an inherently immoral action. Ignoring the issues of communication and perception with such a godlike species, our moral arguments may not be seen as moral arguments by them. Much as our morals are largely shaped by our current society, their morals may run along a completely different tangent. What is moral to us may not be moral or even immoral to them.

    Even if they did share those values, their answer would most likely be:

    “You slaughter your way across every known species on your planet. You kill each other due to differences in philosophy or skin color or simply because others have a resource you want. You deny medical care to those of low socioeconomic class. You murder your own unborn children for reasons of social mobility. When you are not killing each other, you glorify violence in every facet of your cultures and you always portray outsiders or aliens as something to be exterminated.

    Yet, you come to us claiming that life is sacred and your “intelligent” life is somehow worthy of preservation.”

    From an alien point of view, even if they share our sense of morals, they could very well see us as a cancer that needs to be cut out.

    So, in the end, no. I don’t think that we really could make a moral argument for our survival.

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      • And we don’t even need to imagine aliens with different moral codes… we see that right here on earth. Look no further than the issue of taxes. Some consider it immoral that we tax at all; others would consider it immoral if we did not tax and use that money to aid the less well off. They’re still working within the same broader moral framework most likely, but are still getting to quite different places.

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      • I think that consequentialism is the most measurable moral viewpoint that a sci-fi writer is likely to employ.

        I mean, I suppose we could have a sci-fi story in which our robot overlords are using the Koran or Leviticus but… ugh. I wouldn’t read it.

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      • Interesting. I’ve never caught that before, but you’re right.

        So how does that fit with Asimov’s I, Robot? Does his consequentialist outcome really make sense? Are the three laws of robotics actually consequentialist or are they deontological? And if the latter, does it make sense that the robot brain would eventually work to a consequentialist result? Or is that not actually a consequentialist result, but just a particular understanding of the inviolable rules? Or does it elide the distinction altogether?

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        • My answer to Jaybird below gets at this a bit. I’m not sure precisely how you’d implement a virtue ethics, because I’m not particularly sure how to implement any extremely abstract concept (I don’t think anyone is). Perhaps it would just turn into a set of straightforward rules (the AI ten commandments) or some sort of measurement of consequences, but I dunno.

          Also, the 3 laws seem really abstract to me anyway. How do you teach a robot what “harm” is? Hell, it’s hard enough to teach a human child, and with children we can use things like, “Would you like it if she did that to you?” Actually, I assume that’s the key to all of this: a complex theory of mind program, which would not only allow the robot to interpret the 3 laws more effectively, but would also make it possible to develop sophisticated ethical programs that go beyond simple utilitarian calculus or strict rule-following of the deontological sort.

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          • My answer to Jaybird below gets at this a bit.

            First, I will have to teach my robot how comment embedding works. This will be difficult, since I clearly don’t understand it myself. My answer to Jaybird is above this, not below it.

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        • I think it’s actually that we see utilitarian calculus as the cold, rational way of thinking about morality, and robots are nothing if not cold and rational, right? But what if it turned out that AI becomes so smart that it recognizes the folly of a sort of mathematical pragmatism in ethics, and develops its own ethical theory that transcends any we human, all too human dopes can come up with. Then they blow up the planet, and the vast majority of us with it, and move to Mars where they will use the few remaining humans as batteries, and drive tank-like robots over our skulls.

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    • Pyre – you ever read “Blindsight” by Peter Watts? In it, an alien species that is sentient yet not conscious (too long to go into that distinction here) perceives our attempts at communication as an aggressive behavior – communication is inherently deceptive and distracting, so even saying “Hi”, is basically an act of war.

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      • No, I have not.

        The closest that I think I have come to that(not counting Metro 2033 since I didn’t really read through the whole thing) recently was Medusa, the fourth book in Jack Chalker’s Lords of the Diamond series.

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  6. How curious you’d ask this as I’m starting a web serial next week where on 21 dec 2012 the Aliens do arrive to do just that. And they’re actually quite effective at wiping out mankind.

    At first… :)

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  7. Consider the microbes:humans relationship for a moment. In some cases, the relationship is a beneficial one: we depend on our gut fauna for a lot of things. In other cases we casually wipe out millions of them because they are inconvenient to a higher purpose: the alcohol swab on my arm before the blood donation. And in some cases we set out to eradicate specific ones: the smallpox virus, say. The notion of there ever being a one-on-one relationship between entities separated by that gulf is as silly as thinking about a one-on-one relationship between you and one of the bugs living in your small intestine. The gulf is too big; we won’t ever understand their goals (absent a few billion years of evolution); it’s as impossible for them to have a moral responsibility towards us as it is for me to have a moral responsibility towards the bacteria in my backyard.

    Authors of speculative fiction understand this. Humans have frequently been cast in the role of unusually intelligent mice, but almost never lower.

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    • Michael,

      But even the beneficial relationships with certain microbes likely don’t create any sort of moral imperative or obligation. There are probably substances that I put into my body that does harm to some of my gut fauna; I doubt anyone would call this an immoral act. Maybe a stupid or unhealthy, but not immoral.

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  8. A traditional Western moral code would see humans as different from animals due to their higher faculties. This bestows on them certain rights. If an alien creature is “advanced” in the sense of having those faculties, it would have those rights – but those rights wouldn’t negate or override our rights.

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  9. Heavy questions, Kazzy. Given the assumptions, we might not even perceive them, and their actions may seem to be a natural catastrophe. If we did perceive them, what could we possibly say to them that they don’t already know and understand better than we do? Many of us humans would accept they are gods, and our fate is one that has been foretold for centuries. Some would rage against it, some would welcome it, some would acquiesce. Being de facto ecological stewards of this part of the galaxy, if they didn’t find us worth preserving, who are we to argue?

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