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Darwinism With A Human Face?

"Because one species is more clever than another, does it give it the right to imprison or torture the less clever species? Does one exceptionally clever individual have a right to exploit the less clever individuals of his own species? To say that he does is to say with the Fascists that the strong have a right to abuse and exploit the weak - might is right, and the strong and ruthless shall inherit the earth."
Richard Ryder

DeGrazia draws together his discussion by extracting the principles set out in the list below. Broadly, they represent an extension to other species of the "principle of nonmaleficence": basically, don't cause unnecessary harm. Stated baldly and in the absence of DeGrazia's detailed reasoning behind each of them, they might seem arbitrary in number. Why not list fourteen or sixteen? As short-term stopgaps, they would nonetheless seem good working precepts - number fifteen excepted [see below]. Yet piecemeal tinkering is not enough. Fundamentally, the principles they embody still amount to an endorsement of "Darwinism with a human face". Even their thorough and complete state-sanctioned implementation - currently a world away - would leave atrocious "natural" suffering set to continue for millions of years indefinitely. The self-replicating biological machinery which manufactures the world's pain would continue to churn out its living vehicles for as long as Earth is capable of supporting organic life. DeGrazia's guidelines - admirable as is indeed the humane mind which formulated them - are still implicitly conservative of the old DNA regime which threw up the architecture of unpleasantness in the first instance. Only a blueprint for scrapping the generative mechanisms responsible for the mass-production of nastiness in the living world - essentially, bad base-pairs of self-replicating DNA - gets to the root of what needs to be done. Here, however, is DeGrazia's makeshift recipe. It's a start.


  1. Don't cause unnecessary harm.
  2. Make every reasonable effort not to provide support for institutions that cause or support unnecessary harm.
  3. Don't cause significant suffering for the sake of your or others' enjoyment.
  4. Apply equally any standards allowing the causing of suffering.
  5. Don't kill sentient animals unnecessarily.
  6. The presumption against killing humans, Great Apes and dolphins is virtually absolute.
  7. For a large class of sentient animals - at least fish, herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles) - and birds - the presumption against killing these animals is ordinarily weaker than that against killing humans, Great Apes and dolphins.
  8. Don't confine sentient animals unnecessarily (where confinement is understood as the imposition of external constraints on movement that significantly interfere with one's ability to lead a good life).
  9. There is a strong presumption against confining nondangerous sentient animals.
  10. The presumption against confining innocent humans, Great Apes and dolphins is virtually absolute.
  11. To the extent that we can separate out freedom interests in practice, for a large class of sentient animals - at least fish, herpetofauna and birds - the presumption against confining them is ordinarily weaker than that against confining humans, Great Apes and dolphins.
  12. The conditions of any justified confinement must be responsive to the animal's needs.
  13. There is a presumption against disabling sentient animals (that is, damaging their ability to function in ways that significantly interfere with their ability to live a good life) and if they are nondangerous, the presumption is virtually absolute
  14. Provide for the basic physical and psychological needs of your pet, and ensure that she has a comparably good life to what she would likely have if she were not a pet
  15. If (hypothetically) there appears to be a genuine conflict between benefiting an animal and respecting her autonomy, unless the expected benefit is very great and the apparent infringement of autonomy very marginal, respect autonomy.
Why number fifteen? Well, the stress on "autonomy" will surely play well with a lot of readers, not least the domestic audience of rugged individualists resident in DeGrazia's American academic home-turf. In the ideological aftermath of America's triumph in the Cold War, anything which smacks of statism, welfarism, and socialistic paternalism is still taboo; and DeGrazia extends such distaste to the rest of the animal kingdom too. Yet even the most admirably libertarian paediatrician, for instance, would hesitate to apply an anti-interventionist philosophy to human infants and toddlers; their cognitive limitations are too severe, even though their juvenile feelings are intense. Intellectually, few animals are any brighter - as distinct from more self-sufficient - than human toddlers; and if, as argued throughout this review-essay, their moral status is similar, a non-interventionist philosophy toward (at least) vertebrate animals is equally misplaced. They need our help, even though they don't know it.

         Set in much wider perspective, our faith in individual autonomy, humanoid or otherwise, is fundamentally misguided because there is nothing truly autonomous about constituting a throwaway neurochemical robot [built as though it were] designed by Evolution to leave more copies of one's genes. Many of the things we're genetically predisposed to want, feel and do, alas, are profoundly psychologically damaging to the emotional well-being of each of us. Yet they fester and multiply because they serve the reproductive advantage of the DNA which spawned vehicles like us. The superficially anomalous way in which certain organisms are endowed with a [highly constrained] measure of notional choices for action - in our mind's eye, we can run toy simulations of alternate scenarios which plausibly ensue from initiating different behavioural options - is an immensely useful adaptation, given a depressingly compelling gene's-eye view of the world. In humans, this faculty even gets philosophically dignified by the name of Free Will. Yet no life-form gets to choose the laws of physics and chemistry that determine which distributions of matter and energy are instantiated when and where - and that includes humans and their nominal choices. Neither the world's Master [Wheeler-DeWitt etc] Equation, nor any of its solutions, are dictated by mere mortals. Raising the phenomenology of voluntary action and anticipated consequences into some sort of metaphysical principle or separate ethical ideal is thus rationally ungrounded, to say the least. For the neural substrates of volition, willed action, and our sense of Freedom itself are as biologically manipulable as any other chemical reaction; and have been pressed into service by selfish DNA. Autonomy only matters to the extent that perceived restraint feels aversive; it's just another state of mind in the great cosmic mathematical dance.

        In an extremely limited context, DeGrazia is probably right to endorse a hand's-off approach. Misguided attempts to subvert any organism's (pseudo-)autonomy which result in more animals suffering rather than less are evidently best avoided. Yet this is an argument for greater understanding of the neurobiological substrates of what promotes their well-being, not inertia. In practice, what count as sins of commission and sins of omission are time- and culture-bound. A lot of the future ways of helping animals will require massive and systematic intervention: genetic engineering, long-acting depot contraception, ecosystem re-design, and eventually nanotechnology-based reworking of the whole molecular architecture of the vertebrate nervous system. This might seem to involve radical discontinuities in the evolution of life and consciousness; but such transitions have occurred before, and - extrapolating - there may be many more. Serious futurology is not a game of trend-spotting.