Pretenders To The Throne

by Mike O’Brien

I heard a discussion about animal ethics recently, and the concept of “full moral standing” came up. The presumption was that we humans, certainly most of us and maybe even all of us, enjoyed this full moral standing, and the ethical quandary to be sorted was whether any other beings did as well. This is a common standpoint from which to philosophize about the rights and recognition due to our fellow earthlings: the view from the top. It is still quite common to assume that we are alone there. I suppose that this is a very sensible assumption, given the available data. Old modern myths, unfounded by anything except ignorance, arrogance and a deliberate withholding of curiosity about others’ experiences, denied animals any basis of consideration at all; no sensation, no consciousness, no “there” there at all. Increasing accumulation of knowledge, and decreasing self-delusion about the propriety of our collective abuse of nature, has lent more credibility to arguments for the moral enfranchisement of animals.

But facts only get you so far. When I was a wild and crazy youth, I pursued graduate philosophy studies and read a lot of works on sovereignty and the legitimacy of political power. One of the main take-aways of thousands of pages of obscure theory was the importance of make-believe. Not as a substitute for facts and logic, but rather as an accompanying dimension of thought. Even if humans are, in fact, completely determined in their behaviour by the laws of physics, the task of accurately predicting what billions of us will do decades hence is beyond our faculties. If we were simple enough to be predicted, we would be too simple to do the predicting. So, if we want to tell stories of what our collective future will look like, we have to make them up. The alternative is to be silent, and we are not the sort of apes to do that.

The label “speculative fiction” describes “sci-fi”, religion and political philosophy rather well. Most of what is produced in all these categories is clunky, implausible, and a bore to read. But even when these works fail to hang together, they contain elements that usefully introduce notions and possibilities for improving the world. Sci-fi tends to describe worlds wrought by the developments in technology and social adaptations to technology, for better or for worse. (A propos, I would like to exhort anyone who has not read E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” to stop reading this article and go read that instead. It’s short. You can finish this bit of fluff later.) Religious texts, in addition to describing how the world came to be, also points to possible futures, wrought by humans following or straying from divine guidance, and occasionally with divine intervention as needs be. Political philosophy tends to be more modest about predicting the future, although by presuming to understand why things have happened and do happen, by implication it will make some claim on the possibilities of the future, provided that it resembles the past and present in pertinent respects. When it starts placing bets on more fleshed out visions of the world to come, things can get a bit grandiose and loony, and it tends to stray from “philosophy” into “philosopher’s embarrassing side project”.

Philosophers should be comfortable with writing embarrassing works, however, given that (1) their most defensible works will still appear absurd to 99% of humanity, and (2) their entire corpus will be read by, rounding to the nearest integer, nobody. Might as well get weird with it. In that spirit, I’d like to talk about aliens and God. Not as things with whom I claim to have had recent conversations, or whom I credit for designing and constructing any particularly impressive bits of architecture. Instead, I’d like to employ them as placeholders for a category of things labelled “things like humans but better”. The emptiness of this category tends to impoverish humanity’s imagination, and deprives it of a much-needed sense of humility. I dare say that the psychological experience of vulnerability is necessary, though not sufficient, to make people decent. If our collective self-image conceives of no possible threat to our species’ supremacy, we run the risk of conducting ourselves like uninhibited assholes. See, for example, any political identity ending in “supremacist”.

“Full moral standing” may well be a status from which we exclude our own kind. I don’t mean in the sense of excluding some humans on the basis of some intra-species difference like sex or ethnicity. Rather, there may exist some beings that qualify for the fullest of moral status, and we are not them. God, or gods, is/are usually the most fully actualized being within a given picture of the world, and would enjoy the highest moral status, although it is hard to conceive of a failure to recognize this status resulting in the injury or imperilment of a deity. (Though stories abound with examples of mortals who are ruined as a result of their failure to show such due recognition. There’s a lot of punching down in traditional texts). This might be called a prudential theological argument for recognition of superhuman moral status. I would argue that there is also a virtue-based moral argument for at least entertaining the idea of God, or some being God-like in its categorical superiority to humans. Just as trolley examples are useful even to people who will never have to redirect trolleys, taking seriously the prospect of subordination in a cosmic ranking of Being might expand the mind a little.

Many people chafe at God-talk, so aliens can be a useful substitute. Naturalistically speaking, we can attribute to them some greater degree of the qualities upon which our own moral status depends. We may even posit some “X” factor, lacking in us but possessed by aliens, that would make these little green moral subjects categorically superior to us. Our own capacities for abstract thought and deliberation, among other things, are often cited as just such an “X” factor with respect to other animals. Here is a question: If we enjoy “full moral status”, would aliens who are quantitatively and qualitatively superior to us (in their morally significant capacities) enjoy “extra-full moral status”, or would they share in the same “full moral status” we have, their more numerous and developed moral capacities being unaccounted for in the moral calculus? Or, would “full moral status” be redefined upwards to encompass this new defining cluster of qualities, bumping us down the scale to “not full but still special in our own way” moral status? I imagine that we would not be the ones deciding this question, and the deliberations involved would be as intelligible to us as a petition for personhood is to the apes on whose behalf it is argued.

Maybe we really are the most morally and cognitively developed beings in the universe. That would be a rather disappointing showing on the universe’s part. But even within the breadth of our own species, there is room for debate on “full moral status”. Imagine a single group, alone on Earth, developing culturally and anatomically over time. Across thousands of years, cumulative cultural advancements produce generations that have a richer existence, and experience it more richly, than their ancestors. They also accumulate an ever-advancing culture of moral thinking, such that they are not only fuller moral subjects than their predecessors, but fuller moral agents as well. If “full moral status” merely means “top of the heap”, then every member of this society is has it relative to their own time, but only the last generation has it relative to the whole lineage. We may refrain from drawing distinctions within our own species, and say that “full moral status” was achieved by the first recognized ancestors (which introduces a new problem of line-drawing) and everything since then is just gravy. Of course, there’s no need to assume that “full moral status” applies or has applied to any existing person, and we can debate just how far off this unrealized ideal lies from our own situation.

The trick that religion employs to inspire humility and solidarity among mere mortals is to posit a being whose morally salient qualities are cranked up to 11, such that whatever discrepancies in worth may exist between people are vanishingly small in comparison. “Far from perfect” is a good description for humanity’s place in this scheme. Since we’re dividing by infinity, in moral worth terms, this humility and solidarity can collapse divisions not only between societal and national others, but species others as well. Granted, things like the doctrine of souls and the creation of Man in God’s image do rather muck things up for a species egalitarian.

The God trick makes a good point, but I don’t think it makes a good argument unless you take ideal, that is to say supernatural, sources of value seriously. The alien trick makes a good argument, but I don’t think it makes a good point unless you take alien invasion seriously. If we are never actually dethroned from a biologically determined moral ranking, why practice humility? Is “would you like it if someone did that to you?” a moral question, or a warning? I think the prospect of comeuppance is at least part of why I like the alien prospect. There are certainly other life forms that could end our reign on earth, biologically speaking. But they are simple and microscopic (and in the case of viruses, not obviously life forms) and they would simply kill us off, not replace us as planetary shot-callers with grand designs to put our Hoover Dams and Burj Dubais (“Burjs Dubai”? Like “governors general”?) to shame. The alien invaders of sci-fi often play our games, but better, and visit upon the capitals of empires the fate of the colonized. It says a lot about us that discussions of moral status so often sound like a decision tree for the proper direction of abuse.

The ultimate moral status slave revolt is, of course, Planet of the Apes. In the last three instalments of the original films, the offspring of time-travelling super-intelligent future apes foment revolution among the millions of domesticated apes that replaced cats and dogs following a pet-borne plague. (As a script, it works better than it has any right to). In the rebooted series, an anti-dementia drug imbues apes with human-like intelligence (and, crucially, language skills), and they organize a revolt against human supremacy, fleeing the cities and staking out territorial sovereignty in the boonies. Another plague emerges, weakening humanity further, and apes seem poised to inherit the earth. These apes are, of course, just stand-ins for humanity, returned to  factory settings and still possessing the egalitarian values of a freshly liberated underclass. The leader of the apes ultimately comes to pity the withering humanity, and this marks some kind of absolution-by-surrender for our species. Maybe there is a political lesson in this- we can forgive our enemies only when they no longer threaten us.

As much as I like the Planet of the Apes, it achieves its moral poignancy by humanising the apes, and according them “full moral status” does not require any reassessment of the criteria for that status (barring objections from simple speciesism). To the extent that arguments explaining the moral supremacy of humans are post-hoc justifications of that status, an analogous explanation of the moral equivalency or supremacy of another kind of being would be a post-hoc justification of that status. And I’m not sure we’d be doing much philosophizing post that hoc, especially to burnish the credentials of our usurpers. To the extent that explanations of humanity’s (relative) moral supremacy are disinterested assessments of available facts, I don’t see why we would posit the idea of “full moral status” at all, because there is no reason to suppose that we or any other extant species occupies the upper limit of morally significant qualities. If the aliens (or the apes) ever do show up, we may want to be able to articulate a theory of moral standing in terms other than “the best and the rest”.