Thursday, February 20, 2014

Inherent Worth

Today's Guest Author:  Mark Causey, M.Div., Ph.D  
Teaches Philosophy and Liberal Studies at Georgia College & State University
Member:  UU Congregation of Gwinnett (in Lawrenceville, GA).  
Board of Trustees UU Animal Ministry

Philosophically speaking, inherent worth is contrasted with instrumental worth.  For something to have instrumental worth indicates that it is valuable only as a means to an end.  Money has instrumental worth in this sense.  It is a means to an end (i.e. the things I can purchase with it).  Money has no value except its current exchange value for goods and services.  For something to have inherent worth means that it is valuable in and for itself.  An entity with inherent worth is an end in itself.  Our first principle (as it currently stands) concerning the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” is meant to call attention to the fact that [human] persons (the dictionary presently limits the term “person” to humans) are ends in themselves.  It is meant to prohibit our usage of persons as mere instruments, like tools and things, for our purposes.  In Kant’s formulation, we should always treat others as ends in themselves and never merely as a means to our own ends.  Each person is his or her own unique center of value.  Slavery was a denial of the inherent worth and dignity of the personhood of the slave.  The slave was a person reduced to mere instrumental value.  UUs rightly rejected this reduction of persons on moral grounds.  Of course the present first principle goes beyond merely prohibiting slavery in that it also calls us positively towards and attitude of respect for all persons regardless of the many differences that may exist between us.  I will address the issue of equal worth below.

The question currently being posed by the First Principle project is whether all beings, not just human beings, have inherent worth.  To answer this question in the negative and to reserve inherent worth for human persons only invites a further question: “On what grounds do we deny inherent worth to other beings?”  To reply on the grounds that other beings are simply not human is to beg the question.  It doesn’t tell us why humans, and only humans, have inherent worth to begin with. 

A large part of our inheritance from both classical western philosophy and our Judeo-Christian past is the notion of the hierarchy of values in terms of beings that Arthur Lovejoy dubbed the Great Chain of Being.  With God at the top and humans a close second (or third if you are a medieval theologian and count angels as second), then follow the animals, plants, and finally inanimate things like rocks and dirt.  It should of course be noted that even within the human category, there was traditionally also a hierarchy in terms of sex and race in which white males tended to count for more than women who counted for more than slaves and so on.  In Biblical terms this was cashed out through the Genesis story of the separate and special act of the creation of humans as distinct from the rest of creation.  But this worldview also belongs to the days of the geocentric universe, and few of us take the Genesis creation myths to be literal, scientific accounts of the origins of the universe.  This sort of hierarchical ranking of beings is out of touch with modern science.  Ever since Darwin we have realized that whatever differences exist between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom are differences of degree not differences of kind.  We all share a common biological ancestor.
But worldviews, especially when they favor our interests, are hard to change.  Humans have been set apart and above the rest of nature on the basis of intelligence (rationality), the possession of a soul, being moral, having language, and so on.  Indeed, Descartes went so far as to claim that only humans had minds and could feel pain.  Animals in his view were just very cleverly constructed automatons whose shrieks of pain as they were being vivisected were just so many squeaks of their cogs and springs.  Recent advances in our scientific understanding, especially the contributions of animal ethology and cognitive ethology, have largely discredited all of the above reasons given for human uniqueness.  True to Darwin’s early insights, recent science is continuing to blur the distinction between human animals and the rest of the animal kingdom.  The work of biologists and ethologists like Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Frans De Waal, and Jane Goodall has demonstrated a far greater degree of human/animal continuity than discontinuity.  These scientists, among many others, are challenging us to expand our understanding of non-human animals in terms of their amazing cognitive, emotional, and even moral capacities.

The moral point, however, is that whatever the real differences (of degree) between us, they are morally irrelevant.  Insofar as other animals are subjects of their own lives with, as Tom Regan observes, a biography not just a biology, they are not the sorts of things we can legitimately use as instruments for our own purposes.  Insofar as they have the capacity to experience pain and suffering the generally accepted moral harm principle states that we should never cause harm to another without a very good reason.  Because animals other than us also care about their own lives and their lives can go better or worse for them, they are very different from a tool fashioned for our use.  If human pain and suffering counts at all morally, then so does theirs.  There is no qualitative difference, no difference in kind.  As Jeremy Bentham famously noted: “The question is not Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?”

The word being, however, can also include more than just humans and other animals.  It can also include other life forms like plants or fungi.  While these may not be sentient beings like us (so there is here a difference in kind not just degree) is there any reason to entirely exclude them from our circle of moral concern?  We do so at our own peril.  We humans are latecomers to the world.  As our seventh principle reminds us we are merely members of an interdependent web.  As Aldo Leopold formulates it in his famous Land Ethic: “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”  The world into which we are born is much older, complex, and complete than we are.  We are just barely beginning to understand the complex balance and intricacies of our planet’s ecosystems, which through our ignorance and hubris we are rapidly destabilizing and destroying.  It is the height of hubris on our part to think that this world, billions and billions of years in the making, is simply raw material put here for our use.  But if we assign to the rest of nature only instrumental worth, that is exactly what we are saying.

One of the most common objections I hear when presenting or talking about the First Principle Project is the objection that replacing the word “person” with the word “being” now means that we are all the same.  “Does that mean that a tapeworm or a cockroach has exactly the same inherent value as a human being?!”  What I believe has happened here is that the objector has subconsciously inserted the word “equal” into the formulation of the revised principle.  What we are saying is that we are “called to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.”  What the objector is hearing is that we are “called to affirm and promote the equal inherent worth and dignity of all beings.”  If every being has equal inherent worth, does that mean I can no longer swat a mosquito?  But the First Principle project is not proposing to insert the word “equal” into the principle.  It is quite natural for us to hear the word “equal” here because it is implied (although not explicitly stated) in the current wording of the principle. What we hear in the current first principle is that all persons, regardless of race, sex, ability, identification, etc., have equal worth and dignity.  We are so used to fighting for the principle of equality amongst humans, as we should, that we automatically transfer this notion to the proposed changed wording including all beings. 

Does acknowledging inherent worth in all beings necessarily mean equal worth?  After all, if all beings have exactly the same worth, what justifies my use of any being even for my own vital needs?  I would have no moral right to eat either a carrot or a cow.  I would have no right to cut down a tree to build my house.  Or take an antibiotic to cure an infection.  We would arrive at a moral dead-end in which no realistic action would really be possible.  Even the deepest ecological vision, Arne Naess’ Deep Ecology Movement, only proposes biospherical egalitarianism in principle allowing that “any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression.”  All that the proposed principle change is asking is for a paradigm shift in our thinking about the more-than-human world—a shift away from anthropocentric instrumental value, towards an acknowledgement and respect for inherent worth.  It is a call to expand our circle of moral concern and compassion beyond the limits of our own species and to acknowledge the truth of our membership in the larger life community that has value in its own right.  It had value before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene and it still does now.

We will still have to make difficult decisions as our interests legitimately conflict with the interests of other beings.  We do this amongst equal humans all the time.  What is different about the acknowledgment of the inherent worth of the non-human world is that our human interests will not (or at least should not) always automatically win.  The world is not simply a stockpile of resources for our exploitation.  To assert that simply because humans can—and have—dominated the rest of nature that this justifies our attributing inherent worth only to humans is really just another form of the “might makes right” argument that we would rightly reject if applied in human affairs.  Any number of otherwise unacceptable acts could be justified on that argument.

The only way to justify the view that non-human nature has only instrumental value, would be to establish some way in which humans are separate from and independent of the rest of nature.  Such a view was once commonly held and its remnants are very much with us still (much like the view of white racial superiority was once commonly accepted and its remnants are still all too much with us still).  But such a view flies in the face of reason and science, and even our own deepest intuitions and feelings.  As a thought experiment try this.  Complete the following sentence: “Only humans can ______.”  Make sure you complete the sentence in a way that qualifies every human being and no other type of being.  For example, “Only humans can use language” won’t work because not all humans can use language (infants and severely mentally challenged people cannot and some primates and even some parrots can in a more robust way than simply repeating words or phrases).  Now ask yourself if whatever you filled in the blank with is a morally relevant characteristic.

This is not at all to deny that humans are distinctive in our advanced cognitive, linguistic, social, and moral capacities. But these differences of degree do not in any way correspond to superiority in value.  Difference here need not mean better—just different.  We do not treat more intellectually advanced humans morally as having more inherent worth than the rest of us.  We would not, for instance, condone the involuntary use of lower IQ human beings in painful medical experiments in order to find a cure for a higher IQ individual on the basis of IQ differences alone.  Animals and plants have capacities we do not possess.  We cannot echo-locate like a dolphin or a bat nor photosynthesize like a plant.  Humans are not the sole bearers of value. 

So how to decide when our interests conflict?  The Great Chain of Being makes it easy.  Humans win. Every time. But if we reject the notion of the chain in favor of an interdependent web, what can guide our decisions?  I would suggest that there are some morally significant factors to consider: factors like sentience (the ability to feel pains and pleasures), consciousness, and sociality.  Vital interests trump non-vital interests.  Living things have more at stake than inanimate objects.  It is hard to imagine doing a moral harm to a rock.  Easier to imagine harming a plant.  Easier still to imagine harming an animal or a human.  Conscious beings, animals human and non-human, have a sense of self that persists over time and interests in how their lives go.  Social beings have more complex capacities for relationships and experiences.  It means that a harm to a member of the society causes pain to other members.  For example the death of a social being also affects the others in that society who mourn their loss (humans are not the only animals to mourn our dead—elephants for one do so as well).  Is this just another Great Chain of Being worded differently?  I don’t think so.  There is nothing here to imply that humans must always come out on top.  For example, in the choice of whether to eat the cow or the carrot the cow gets greater consideration because of the morally relevant facts that cows are sentient, conscious, and social beings.  As Alan Watts wryly observed, he was a vegetarian because “cows scream louder than carrots.”  But what about the human’s interest in eating the cow (because they really like the taste of a good steak)?  It loses because the non-vital interest (taste preference) does not override the cow’s vital interest in remaining alive.  This blog entry is not the place to work out all the ethical issues (as if I could anyway).  My point is simply this: recognizing the inherent worth of other-than-human beings does not commit us to a moral dead end or an impossible practical position of non-action.  It simply requires us to recognize at a minimum that the rest of nature has value which does not depend on what use humans can put it to.  It simply asks us to make a more humble, as well as a more ethically, intellectually and scientifically defensible assessment of our place in the grand scheme of things.  Spiritually it calls us to expand our circles of compassion by opening our hearts and our arms to embrace the more-than-human world in which we live.  That’s all we’re really asking.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Unbroken Chain of Inherent Worth and Dignity

Today's Guest Author:  Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
Unitarian Universalist Minister in Multispecies Ministry and Compassionate Communication
Main blog: Lafeber Conservation
Main website:  One Earth Conservation and Ministry

There are many pathways into living a life faithful to this world's reality, and the concepts and tools of religion are just one of many.  In many religious traditions, science too guides us in knowing how we and others belong to earth. For instance, as a Unitarian Universalist minister I am also a scientist. Working as I do with evolutionary principles and evidence ever before me there is no escaping the reality of the long line of ancestors that brought Homo sapiens to where we are now.  I combine this knowledge with my Unitarian Universalist ministry mode of telling stories to share with you my sense of how all beings have inherent worth and dignity.

Imagine that along one side of a dirt road in Africa there is a family of humans walking.  The youngest daughter is walking in front, and she is holding the hand of her mother who follows behind. In one arm is an infant, and the other hand grasps and supports her mother.  On the other side of the road, another family similar in makeup is also traveling.  The young chimpanzee daughter walks in front holding her mother's hand, and her mother in turn reaches behind her with her other hand to grasp that of her mother.  So similar, and yet an apparent wide gulf divides the two families.

Now imagine that on each side of the road the grandmother reaches behind her to grab the hand of her mother, the great grandmother, who links up with the great-great grandmother.  Imagine this line of primate hands extending back, back into time, to all the mothers who came before until at one point human hands begin to grasp that of Homo neanderthalis who grabs the hands of earlier hominids.  On the other side of the road the chimpanzees are holding hands with ever more slightly different species. Then a peculiar thing happens. The road seems to  narrow as the two lines converge, until at one point, the human line is holding the hand of the same individual who is also holding the hand of the last of the chimpanzee ancestor line. At some point in our history, we share the same mother. 

Now going forward along both lines, at what juncture where two hands grasp, do we begin to say that one species belongs to the earth, and not the other?  That what owns more of the earth than the other?  That one has inherent worth and dignity, and not the other?  It cannot be done, for we all are sons and daughters of this one earth.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Spiritual Path of the First Principle

Today's Guest Author:  Rev. Meredith Garmon
Minister, Community Unitarian Church at White Plains
Main blog:  The Liberal Pulpit

To affirm and to promote the inherent worth and dignity of all beings is an exercise of the heart, a spiritual practice, and a path of deepening growth and broadening connection. In the most important ways, it’s not about what we owe them – other beings. It’s about how connecting with all beings in compassion is our own road to awakening.

My liberal arts education, enhanced by my faith tradition’s teachings (I grew up a Unitarian Universalist in the 60s and 70s) guided my thirst for self-understanding. I came to understand myself by investigating the glories and burdens of “the human condition.”  More recently, I’ve come to see that the way of self-knowledge also requires exploring “the mammalian condition,” “the warm-blooded condition,” “the vertebrate condition,” and “the animal condition” – for I am the inheritor these glories and burdens as well. Closer contact with, and awareness of, my animality, my being-ness, not just my humanity, engenders concern and respect for all beings, which, in turn, engenders my own self-awareness.

Here are two questions:

Question 1: What does it mean to be human?
Question 2: What does it mean to be animal?

Question 1 directs attention to what separates me from nonhuman animals. Question 2 directs attention to what connects me with nonhuman animals. To touch with reverence the ground of commonality with all beings, rather than to draw distinctions, expands my spirit, ennobles my heart, and grounds my soul.

This is not to deny that there are differences. There are some things we humans are really good at: like communicating learning and preserving it so we can build on it. We’re not the only species that does that, but we are really good at it. Other things, humans are not so good at. Other species have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs live in a world of smells that we can but dimly imagine, and bats and dolphins live in a world of echolocation that we imagine, if at all, even more dimly. There are various differences between any two species. Quite a large part of what I am, however, lies in the connections and similarities I have with all mammals, with all warm-blooded animals, with all vertebrates.

I’m not going to truly know myself by picking out one or a few unusual skills. I know myself by grasping the inheritance I share with the gorilla, gazelle, goose, and gopher tortoise. My world is taken in through eyes and ears that work pretty much like theirs do. Many of them live in, and are guided by, a world of smells that I am mostly oblivious to – but not entirely. The fast-track connection between the olfactory and memory is something my brain also has. I hunger as they do. I am susceptible to the same fight-or-flight adrenaline surges.

Humans do have an especially wrinkled thin neocortex layer on top of our brains, yet we remain largely driven by those brain systems that all mammals have – and even those that all vertebrates have. The cognitive processes of the neocortex govern me much less than the neocortex likes to believe. Indeed, perhaps the neocortex’s greatest glory, ironically, is that it has, over the many millennia since its emergence, developed the means to investigate itself and reveal its own relative insignificance.

Millennia of assumed differences between humans and other animals have been crumbling under recent research. Roughly speaking, the assumption has been that nonhuman animals are basically machines, their behavior merely conditioned responses, while humans are more than that: free, capable of exercising intention and forming responses that transcend conditioning. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637), for instance, influentially declared that nonhuman animals were complex organic machines without the immaterial mind or soul that only humans have. Research has been steadily closing the gap. Studies have noticed, or elicited, elaborate and intentional behavior in various species.

Other studies come at the gap from the other direction: revealing that humans are not nearly as intentional as we think we are. Of these studies, there are two – findings by Benjamin Libet and by Michael Gazzaniga – that warrant a detailed look.

The Libet Experiments. In 1983, Benjamin Libet and others at the University of CaliforniaSan Francisco, published the striking results of their experiments. In the study, participants were asked to voluntarily flex their wrist at a time of their choosing. Libet found that the neural signals for motion preceded the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds. “Put simply, the brain prepared a movement before a subject consciously decided to move!” Conscious intentions to move aren’t what cause our movements. This begs the question: why do our brains bother to create for us this illusion of conscious intentional control? Janet Kwasniak suggests that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action.” She suggests that “this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened. The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened,” the effects on my wiring are different. What we call “volition” is a perception of our own behavior rather than a generator of it. The illusion of intention (or, more precisely, the illusion that intentions precede and determine action), then, is a by-product of the systems that all animal brains have for learning from experience.

It remains an open question how many other species might also generate such an illusion as a by-product of learning. Whatever the answer to that question might be, we can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhumans are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or we are too – and our vaunted human exceptionalism amounts, at most, to a unique capacity to be deluded.

The Gazzaniga Experiments. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga flashed two different images at the same time into the subject’s visual field. One image was in the part of the field that could only be seen by the left visual cortex, and the other only by the right visual cortex. The right brain saw a picture of snow covering a house and car. The left brain, at the same instant, saw a picture of a chicken claw. Gazzaniga then asked the subjects what they saw. The left brain has the language centers, so the left brain can articulate what it saw. “I saw a chicken claw,” reported the subjects. So instead of asking for words, Gazzaniga then presented an array of pictures and asked subjects to point to what they saw. Subjects’ right hands (controlled by their left brains) pointed to the picture of the chicken claw that the left brain saw. At the same time, subjects’ left hands (controlled by their right brains) pointed to the picture of the snow-covered scene that the right brain saw.

Gazzaniga then asked each hand to point to a picture of something that goes with the picture seen. The left brain saw a chicken claw, so subjects' right hands pointed to a picture of a chicken. Chicken claw goes with chicken. The right brain saw a snow-covered house and car, so subjects' left hands pointed to a shovel. Finally, Gazzaniga asked his subjects, "why is your left hand pointing to a shovel?" Now we’re in the language realm where only the left brain can express itself. If left-brain knew the truth, it could say, "I have no idea why my left hand is pointing to a shovel. It must be something you showed my right brain." Instead, the left brain instantly made up a plausible story. The patient said, without any hesitation, "Oh, that’s easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a drink," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

Our language centers and neocortex notice our behavior, and they make up a story about ourselves – typically as heroes with certain endearing foibles. This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know, and the story about about ourselves as intentional, purposeful, and rational is made up after we notice our own behavior. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I “meant” to do. That’s the delusion I live in.

I wouldn’t want to lose the things my human neocortex can do, the level of detail of envisioning the future that my human forebrain creates, the wonders of language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Yet these functions are only a small part of who I am. Moreover, as attached to them as I am, they do cause problems. The forebrain that envisions the future can so easily start obsessively worrying about that future -- in contrast to the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief." (Wendell Berry). The language centers, creating their own little world of story loops, can leave me oblivious to the nonlinguistic awareness of each moment.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that honors wildness as sacred. An earlier time described the material world as fallen, sinful, or, at best, crass. Then the scientific view has encouraged seeing the world as mechanical and inert. The emerging eco-spirituality connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world. Connecting to our own animality means attending to, honoring, and loving what in us is wild and unpredictable. Connecting to our own animality means connecting to our world. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more open to the nuances of the unexpected in experience. This is the path of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.