Monday, May 14, 2007

Elephants and Babies

Cristina Odone on an ethical dilemma posed to her:

You are on a deserted beach with a rifle, an elephant and a baby. This is the last elephant on earth and it is charging the baby. Do you shoot the elephant, knowing the species would become extinct?

This was the dilemma Richard Dawkins put to me during a weekend in the country. Our host, publisher Anthony Cheetham, had mischievously placed us next to each other at table. I thought the dilemma was a no-brainer - my only doubt was whether I would shoot straight enough to kill the beast.

He was outraged by my answer: man, beast, they were all the same to him and the priority must be to protect the endangered species. He berated me for my foolish belief in the specialness of humanity for its soul.


But, of course, it has nothing to do with 'the specialness of humanity' or souls. Let's reason the matter through, and do it on purely naturalistic principles.

First, look at the matter in terms of reputational concern or social approval. Since we are human beings living in a human society, social approval is determined by the stable normal sentiments of human beings. Now, it's very probable that most people would have Odone's reaction to the situation; first, because many people do, in fact, believe in the specialness of humanity, and second, because even those who don't are going to feel greater kinship or fellow-feeling with a human baby than an elephant, however important. We tend to give babies of any sort an ethical privilege anyway; I've no doubt that given the choice between saving the elephant or saving a puppy many people would choose the puppy, and, likewise, if the choice were saving the last African elephant or a baby Asian elephant, even if there were many Asian elephants left, there's reason to think that most people would save the Asian. While social approval tends to allow a good deal of leeway, at the very least it sets up the social expectation that people will feel likewise, even if they decide on good reason not to go along with the feeling. To put it in other words, people who don't have pity for the baby, who (however highly they rate the elephant in importance) aren't at least inclined to kill the elephant, who being human nevertheless feel no kinship with the human, are the sort of people who tend to be condemned as callous and morally dangerous.

So social approval, if it is factored in, sets up a presumption in favor of the human baby. It's a defeasible presumption, but at least prima facie it inclines to Odone. Even if we feel we can ignore the moral approval and disapproval of society, however, we still can get a similar result. Much of the reason social disapproval tends the way it does is that human sentiments tend that way. If we consider moral sentiments, then, we get similar results, because other-directed moral sentiments like pity tend to be stronger the closer our apparent kinship with the other. So, for instance, we tend as a rule to pity close friends more strongly than casual acquaintances, and causal acquaintances more than complete strangers. This is not to say that pity can't be operative with regard to the elephant (for many people it certainly would); but only that, on balance, it tends to favor people and things that fall more clearly within, or come closest to being in, our basic everyday circle of concern. Thus people will go out of their way to save their pets, but even tenderhearted people usually hold themselves a bit more distant with other animals. If we take moral sentiments as a factor, then, our reasoning will tend to favor the human baby over the elephant; only people with very strong emotional ties to elephants in particular will be at all likely to have the reverse preference.

Alternatively, one might consider the matter in terms of public utility. One problem with this is that analysis of public utility depends on what the public is. However, we can make the public here very inclusive -- e.g., all animals capable of feeling pain and pleasure -- and still make reasonable arguments in favor of the baby. If we understand public utility to be greatest happiness for the greatest number, even if the public includes all creatures capable of feeling pain or pleasure, the principle will favor the preferences of human beings, not because we have any intrinsic specialness, but because we are experiencers with very extensive sympathetic scope. Precisely because of this, someone who reasons through the matter on the basis of public good will have to take under serious consideration the points already raised about social approval and moral sentiment. Because of human social networks, making a difference to human lives has a powerful compounding effect. Moreover, being human, we have a better insight into human happiness than into the happiness of other animals, and therefore find it more tractable for utilitarian reasoning; that is, it's easier to think through elaborate consequences to human beings than to other animals, simply because we have more background to work with when thinking about human beings.

Now, it's possible that setting the scene on the deserted beach is supposed to remove both social approval and consequences to human society entirely from the mix. We would need not only to be on a deserted beach, but be in circumstances in which it would never, ever get out. Even that would not be enough, however. As David Hume and Adam Smith pointed out, one of the important ways human beings reason morally is by putting themselves imaginatively in the position of an impartial spectator, where 'impartial' means a normal, reasonable human being with normal, reasonable sentiments and background, and determining what such an impartial spectator would find admirable or repugnant. This is not something that simply stops, or, indeed, that we have a rational basis in human nature for stopping, when alone. The concerns of normal human society, however hypothetical, are of moral interest even to the solitary human individual.

If, on the other hand, we take ourselves to be prevented by an obligation of reason from harming the elephant, this obligation has to rise to some pretty serious standards. For, however obligations of reason may be determined, the reasonable protection of babies is bound to be a pretty significant one. This is in part because obligations of reason tend, for purely practical reasons, to exhibit the same gradation according to circles of concern that sentiments do, although perhaps they allow more room for emergency cases. Perhaps there is an obligation to the environment or some such that would trump our obligation to the baby in this particular case, which, if so, would need to be defended rationally. This is difficult to do not knowing anything more about the situation than that the baby is human and the elephant on the verge of extinction.

It's peculiar, though, that if we are dealing with the very last elephant in existence that we should be so worried about the species going extinct, since obviously the time to worry about that has long since passed. As a matter of purely practical reasoning one could well argue that we should just shoot the elephant because there's nothing we can do to prevent its going extinct anyway, whereas human beings certainly stand the chance of being benefitted by saving the baby. At the very least, even if there were no other human beings on the face of the earth, there would then be the baby and the person with the gun.

What I find most interesting is that, despiting railing against the assumption of human specialness Dawkins feels he has to rig the dilemma so much in order to bring it out as a dilemma. It won't do to make it just any elephant; he knows quite well that even people with no belief in human 'souls' will tend to favor a human being over an elephant because they themselves are human. No, the elephant has to be made extra-special -- so extra-special, in fact, as to be the Last Great Hope of All Elephants. Otherwise it sounds like no dilemma at all. Thus the very construction of the dilemma presupposes that ethical choices between elephants and human beings will tend to favor the latter. Is it really so surprising, then, that people will tend to prefer the baby anyway? I presume that Dawkins has no particular belief in human specialness; so if preferring the baby has only to do with a foolish belief in human specialness, why does his own dilemma suggest that unless the elephant is made very special, the scenario will favor the ordinary human baby?

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