One day the sun will grow so large that it will first dessicate, then bake, then engulf and vaporise, the Earth and everything on it. No life will survive that. Perhaps some people will have escaped to habitable places in other solar systems, but it’s hard to imagine it would be many, given the enormous energy that is likely to be involved in any interstellar travel. I expect ordinary people will be unable to escape.
Even escapees will be wiped out eventually, as the universe, many billions of years from now, slides inexorably into heat death. No life will survive that.
So there it is: the end of the world is a matter of when, not if. We are powerless to prevent it.
That background makes it a bit confusing to work out what moral obligation we have to take actions that prevent a near-term end of the world, and to avoid actions that would hasten it.
If we are talking about preventing the end of the world in our lifetime, it can be easier to resolve, because that would affect people that are alive now, and most people recognise that they have at least some obligation of care to other people that cohabit the world with them.
But that obligation is less widely accepted when it comes to future generations, and the farther away those generations are, the fewer people tend to feel an obligation towards them. Politicians sometimes talk about intergenerational equity and caring for the future of our children, maybe even our grandchildren. But it’s a rare politician that argues for a policy on the basis of its effect on our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-children.
At some stage, life on Earth will come to an end, and it seems likely that that end, unless it occurs in the blink of an eye – which it is hard to imagine happening – will be accompanied by tremendous suffering. If that is inevitable then how can we work out whether it matters whether it occurs sooner or later?
We cannot solve this by reason alone. As David Hume so acutely observed “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Of course he wasn’t saying he did prefer the destruction of the world. He was saying that one must look to one’s emotions to find an answer.
Looking to my own emotions, I confess that I am more alarmed at the prospect of the world ending in a catastrophe in 100 years than in 100 million years, despite the fact that I will not be here to see either..
I use the word ‘catastrophe’ rather than ‘cataclysm’ because I think the end would be lingering and painful. We should be so lucky as to be extinguished in the blink of an eye. Philosophers who have nothing better to do with their time make up thought experiments involving a button you could press to instantaneously end the world, and ask under what circumstances you would press it. But there are no such buttons, nor ever likely to be, so we need to contend with the end being a drawn-out, painful process. I suspect widespread famine would be a major part of it. That would lead to outbreaks of uncontrolled violence as people compete for the dwindling resources of food and water. Disease would spread to accompany the famine – perhaps providing a more merciful end for some. We see this sort of catastrophe already in some parts of the Earth, and we will see them more often as climate change becomes more severe.
Is a ‘soft landing’ possible? What if, realising that the world will become uninhabitable within 200 years, we were to decide that we were morally obliged to not have children, in order not to inflict on those new people the pain of experiencing the world’s slow death? What would a world with no new children be like? Most of us, including me, feel that it would be very sad. I know of two novels that explore this: ‘The Children of Men‘ by PD James, and ‘I who have not known men‘ by Jacqueline Harpmann. In the first, for some unknown reason, humans cease to be able to conceive. The novel is set about twenty-six years after the last baby was born. In the second novel, a group of female prisoners escape from their underground dungeon to find the Earth deserted. They wander for many years in vain search of other survivors and after a while start to die of old age, with no replacement.
Both novels are confronting, bleak and sad. The James also has a thriller element to it (which I won’t spoil for you), but the basic premise is still bleak.
It would be very hard for us now to decide ‘No more babies’. Imagine us all gradually dying one by one, deprived of that feeling of continuity – the circle of life – that one gets from seeing younger generations. But what if society had the time to work up to that over several generations? What if, realising that all life would cease within ten generations, society worked to change its culture in order to equip people to feel more positive about non-procreation and less reliant on younger generations. It would be a very difficult psychological shift to accomplish. It would have to counteract the powerful impulse embedded in our psyche by evolution – to perpetuate the species. But who knows what techniques of psychological manipulation humans may have managed to invent in a thousand or more years’ time? Maybe they could condition future humans to find fulfilment in bringing their species in for a soft landing – for instance in working as a childless carer for old people until one becomes too old to work. Things could be set up so that the last remaining people have all the food, water, clothes, medicine, shelter, power and entertainment they need to survive solo (we would also need to train people to be comfortable with isolation, which we current humans are definitely not). They might also be provided with pills to provide a painless end to life once they near the point where they will no longer be able to feed themselves. That is not how it happens in ‘The Children of Men‘. But that book is set in 2021, not 3021, and with no notice for society to prepare for the landing (for some reason fertility just suddenly ceases in 1994).
If a soft landing were possible then, while an end of the world may be inevitable, its accompaniment by great suffering would not be. It would then become easy to argue for doing what we can to delay the end of the world. It is simply to prevent a great suffering.
What if it’s not possible, so that the great suffering is simply a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’? What if the amount of suffering accompanying the end of the world will be roughly the same regardless of whether it occurs in 200 years or 200 million years? Are we morally obliged to do what we can to defer it beyond 200 years? I pick 200 years by the way because that should be long enough to be fairly certain that nobody currently alive will be around to experience a world’s end in 200 years.
It seems to me that the main difference between the two end dates is all the currently-unconceived humans that would experience life in the intervening 199,999,800 years. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that such lives should come to pass? There is very little moral guidance on this. Even religions have little to say about this, with only a very few religions (albeit big powerful ones) forbidding contraception.
A group that has a decisive opinion that is the direct opposite of the anti-contraceptionists is the anti-natalists, led by the prominent South African philosopher David Benatar. Benatar argues that, since all life contains some suffering, it is immoral to create any new life. He does not accept that suffering may be offset by pleasure at other times in a life. Even a few moments of mild pain in an otherwise long, happy life makes the creation of that life a moral mistake, in Benatar’s book. Less extreme anti-natalists argue that procreating is OK if we think the new life will have more pleasure than suffering but that, since we can’t be sure, we are obliged to not procreate. A more folksy version of this is the comment uttered at many a late-night D&M discussion, that ‘this is no world to bring an innocent child into‘.
Not many people are anti-natalists. Most people, despite the exaggerated doom and gloom on the news – terrorist this and serial-killer that – (of course no mention of the real dangers like climate change, malaria, poverty, road carnage and plutocratic hijack of our democracies) see life as a generally pleasant experience and look positively on conferring it on new humans. But that tends to be a very personal feeling, in which the moral dimension cannot be disentangled from the powerful personal urge to procreate.
For those of us who are neither anti-natalists nor anti-contraceptionists, the question of those lives in the intervening 199,000,800 years remains a mystery to be explored. Is it important that they come to pass? Is it good that they do so?
Lest you decide I sound like a homicidal maniac and ring Homeland Security to have me ‘dealt with’, let me state here that I feel that it is better to do what we can to delay the end of the world. That’s a major factor in why I think action on climate change is the most important issue facing humanity today. But I won’t go into the reasons why in this essay, because this topic will be discussed at my upcoming philosophy club meeting and I want to avoid spoilers. In any case, I’m more interested in what other people think about this.
The dilemma posed by this essay was first raised by Oliver Kirk.
Bondi Junction, April 2017
- What, if any, obligations do we have to unborn generations? Do they include an obligation to ensure their existence?
- Does the nature or strength of the obligation change with the remoteness of the future generation?
- If we accept that the end of humanity will occur, and will be accompanied by great suffering, are we obliged to do what we can to delay it for as many centuries or millennia as possible (taking as agreed that we are obliged to delay it beyond the lifespan of anybody currently alive)?
- If we do feel obliged to delay, does that imply an obligation to maximise the population of the Earth, subject to being able to maintain adequate living standards?
- How do I feel about the fact that a time will come when there is no more life? Does it strip life of meaning? Or does it enhance meaning? Or neither?
- How would I feel about a world in which human reproduction became impossible?
- Do I feel differently about the world ending in 200 years from how I feel about it ending in 200 million years?
- What implications do our opinions on the above have on our feelings of what stance we should take on current future-oriented issues like climate change, balancing government budgets, infrastructure building, asteroid mapping, solar flare prediction?
PD James: ‘The Children of Men’
Jacqueline Harpmann: ‘I Who Have Never Known Men’ (‘Moi qui n’ai pas connu les hommes’)
Peter Singer: “Practical Ethics’. Discussion of obligations to future generations on p108-118 of Third Edition (2011, Cambridge University Press).
Last night I dreamed of Voldemort.
There’s nothing so strange about that – he’s a memorable character. What makes this worthy of comment is that I realised this morning, for the first time, that I regularly have dreams about Voldemort. But until recently, I have always forgotten them. This is the first time I realised that they are a recurring phenomenon.
They are fairly dramatic dreams. It’s a classic tale of the good (presumably that’s me, and my companions if I have any) trying to find the courage to face up to evil, to confront it, struggle against it – and the fear it evokes – and, one hopes, to vanquish it. Or at least to banish it until the next time it shows up.
Details are sketchy, and would be boring to relate. But the recurring scenario seems to be that, like Harry Potter, I need to venture into Voldemort’s lair (like Frodo going into Mordor) in order to try to bring his plans undone.
There is no absolute need for me to fight Voldemort – no duel with wands at twelve paces or anything like that. But I need to sneak into his headquarters like a secret agent, perhaps to steal some plans or sabotage some special evil-doing equipment he has constructed. I can’t remember the reasons why I need to go into his headquarters, but I do remember that the mission is essential if evil is not to triumph, and that I am very afraid that he will detect my presence and leap out of a wardrobe or somesuch and fling the full weight of his malevolent powers at me. And he does – every time. No matter how quietly I creep about, Voldemort always detects my presence and suddenly leaps out of a wardrobe to attack me with a splendid and terrifying roar.
What happens next I cannot remember. But something extended happens, because he doesn’t win instantly, killing me stone dead on the spot. Maybe some sort of supernatural scuffle and or flight/pursuit ensues and sooner or later I wake up out of that on account of all the excitement.
I don’t want to get too Freudian, but I can’t help feeling that these dreams tell me something. The idea of confronting one’s fears and deliberately going into danger, because it is the right thing to do, may have a strong emotional pull on me. I am, at heart, a romantic, notwithstanding my obsession with mathematics and the correct use of grammar.
A rather more surprising aspect is that the dream involves imagining a character that is supposed to be pure evil. It surprised me because I believe the idea of ‘pure evil’ is dangerous, hyperbolic nonsense. I don’t believe anybody is purely evili. We all do some good things and some bad things. Some people – serial killers, dictators, rednecked talkback radio hosts – do lots of extremely bad things, but I expect even they are not purely evil. I expect they are sometimes kind – to family, to friends, even to strangers that manage to excite their interest or compassion – in those occasional lulls of peace between slaughtering hitchhikers, invading neutral countries and stoking up hatred in resentful white heterosexuals for Muslims, gays or environmental activists.
I don’t believe that evil can be personified – that people like Sauron, Satan, Voldemort or The Penguin are possible. Although I then ask myself ‘Are we really supposed to see the mythological figure of Satan as pure evil?‘. Satan is actually a very interesting fictional character. Some of his complexity may stem from the delightfully baroque Roman Catholic teaching on evil – first cooked up by St Augustine in the fourth century. It says that evil is not a ‘thing’, ie it is not a substance or spirit or anything like that. It is just an absence of another thing that is a thing, which is the ‘good‘. It’s an interesting position, and quite appeals to me, up until the bit where it suggests that the ‘good‘ is a thing. That’s a bit too ectoplasmic for me – the idea that there’s some sort of invisible, nonphysical substance called ‘good’ that floats about and goes here but not there (one wonders, can it be hoovered up by those ectoplasm suction guns that the Ghostbusters use?). It’s needlessly multiplying entities, I reckon. Much easier to just say that people sometimes do kind things and sometimes do mean things, and some people do more of one than the other. William of Ockham would not approve of ‘goodness as a thing‘ (although, being RC, maybe he pretended to, in order to avoid being burnt).
Back to Satan, then: the interesting thing about him is that he isn’t portrayed even in orthodox Christian texts as being pure evil. His story is just that of an angel that didn’t want to serve as an angel any more and so – in what appears to me to be an admirable display of honesty and integrity – resigned. Some bits of the Bible such as the book of Job portray Satan as pretty nasty (but then Yahweh doesn’t come out of Job looking very nice either) but there seems room to view him as a complex, conflicted, multi-faceted figure. Certainly not the sort of person you’d want your daughter to marry, or that you’d trust to do your tax accounts, but not bad enough to deserve exile to an eternity of torment either. I haven’t read Paradise Lost but, by eavesdropping on more literate people that have, I have gained the impression that maybe what Milton was trying to do there was investigate that complexity: Satan as exile, as rebel, as lonely iconoclast.
I digress. Sorry about that. Yes, well I don’t believe in evil as freestanding substance, and I certainly don’t believe in entities that personify evil. So it’s interesting that I dream regularly about battling a character who was created to represent pure evil. Does it mean that my disbelief in evil is purely intellectual, and that deep down I am as credulous and fearful of evil spirits as a Neolithic cave-dweller? Perhaps. Who knows?
Or perhaps even Voldemort is not pure evil. After all, JK Rowling does give him an unhappy childhood, to hint at the idea that maybe he was not always that way – that he was as much a product of his environment as anybody else.
But then I can’t be 100% sure that the terrifying Dark Lord in my dream is always Voldemort. All I know for sure is that in the most recent dream it was Voldemort, and that the dream series in general is about a stupendously powerful being (much more powerful than me) that wishes harm to all sentient beings in the universe. Perhaps other dreams are about Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, or John Le Carré’s Soviet spymaster Karlaii.
Thank goodness my dream self has enough courage to go through with the daring mission each time. It would be mortifying if the last scene of the dream, instead of a big fight-or-flight with a terrifying Dark Lord, saw me skulking about at home in shame and humiliation, having realised that I was too scared to go on the mission that was the free world’s last chance.
I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that I have one of the bravest dream selves in the observable universe. Now there’s a boast to conjure with! Who else can claim as much?
Bondi Junction, March 2016
i And No, Tim Minchin, – much as I love most of your work and, like you, detest the power structures and many of the teachings of the RC church – not even George Pell.
ii Or perhaps the Daleks of course. We mustn’t forget about them!
When I first read Les Misérables, I was miffed to find that the first one hundred or so pages were taken up with a character that does not even appear in the musical – Monseigneur Myriel, the saintly bishop of Digne (saintly as in incredibly kind, not as in pious). That hundred pages is basically devoted to painting a picture of just how saintly Mgr Myriel is.
When you know you have 1800 pages ahead of you and are impatient for Jean Valjean (the hero) or Javert (his primary antagonist) to appear, you don’t have much patience for detailed portraits of peripheral characters, however saintly. Mgr Myriel’s sole role in the story is to be the first person that shows the cold, starving, exhausted Jean Valjean some compassion, as Jean makes his way on foot from the prison galleys in Toulon, where he was finally released after nineteen years’ penal servitude, to Pontarlier in Central Eastern France, which is several hundred kilometres to the north. Valjean’s attempts to buy food or shelter along his way are rejected by innkeepers, peasants and even local jail-keepers who distrust and fear him because they know he is a former convict. Valjean seems destined to starve or freeze to death until the bishop takes him in and treats him like an honoured guest. Despite that, Valjean sneaks out of the bishop’s house in the middle of the night, stealing away most of the bishop’s silverware with him – the bishop’s only possessions of any value. When the police arrest Valjean next morning and bring him to the bishop, expecting the bishop to accuse him and thus complete an easy arrest for them, the bishop instead says ‘No, I gave all that to M. Valjean, and also, you silly sausage, you forgot to take these that I gave you as well’ (and hands over to the astonished Valjean the few remaining pieces of silverware). This act of unfathomable kindness stuns Valjean, gives him much to think about, and changes his life (but not instantly: he still manages to steal a shilling off a small kid later that day before he finally ‘sees the light’ – a baroque flourish that is omitted from the musical).
There you have it – one hundred and fifty pages summarised in a paragraph!
Victor Hugo is given to these long diversions. Later in the book there is a very long, technical diversion about the topography of the field in which the battle Waterloo was fought – apparently just to show what a villainous knave the innkeeper Thénardier is (‘Master of the ‘ouse’). And another later on, almost one hundred pages long, describing the construction and layout of the sewers of Paris – just because Valjean will escape the police by going through these, carrying the half-dead body of Marius, his daughter’s boyfriend.
In most cases these interpolations are irritating. They subtract momentum from one’s reading and cause one to lose interest. That’s how I felt on my first reading of Les Mis. There was no momentum to lose, because Mgr Myriel is introduced on page 1, but one is beset by impatience to meet Jean Valjean and come to grips with the famous story. ‘Why are we wasting time on this bloody bishop?’ the impatient reader (me) asks themselves, and ‘We get it already, he’s a very kind person, can we move on now?’
But on the second reading it was different. I already knew the story. I knew when JvJ would enter, and why, and I knew what role the bishop would play. So, the impatience having been neutralised, I was alert for little details, items of colour and feeling, that were not essential to the plot, but instead artistic features of what is better considered as a vast tapestry.
And on that second occasion, I found myself entranced and inspired by Mgr Myriel. Unlike cardboard cut-out goodies like Dickens’s Little Nell or Little Dorrit (with Dickens, you always know you’re in for some insufferable Victorian sentimentality when somebody appears with the word Little prefixed to their name), Mgr Myriel seems real. One can imagine that there really are such people – rare, yes, but not extinct. I heard the retired heretical bishop Richard Holloway interviewed on ABC radio a couple of years ago and he sounded a little like what one imagined Mgr Myriel might be like.
How was it Inspirational? Basically, it just made me want to be like Mgr Myriel. I am sadly aware that my troubled, deeply flawed character is a million miles away from that of Mgr Myriel – a ridiculous seething mass of passionate good intentions with very little in the way of good actions to match. But just observing first hand the operation of Mgr Myriel’s apparently bottomless well of compassion made me want to be more like him – even if it meant travelling only a few small steps along the way between where I am and where he is. And in addition, Hugo managed to make it seem possible, that one could be at least a little bit like that.
It’s hard to put a finger on what it is that makes Hugo’s presentation of Myriel so inspirational and believable and so different from the goody two-shoes vaunted by other Victorian-era authors. Being honest, I have to concede it’s possible that it’s just a consequence of the frame of mind one has when one reads about them. Maybe if I’d read about Little Nell in the right time and place she would be my inspiration. I doubt it, but one must always remain open to the possibility of being mistaken.
One key difference is that Hugo doesn’t content himself with telling us how kind Mgr Myriel is, or with quoting dialogue in which Myriel says pleasant, amiable things. Talk, after all, is cheap. No, what we see beyond his gentle, friendly speech is a long string of tremendously kind actions. Myriel, piece by piece, gives away almost everything he has to those less fortunate than him. Since he is a bishop, and bishops in those days were very wealthy, with palaces, coaches, large incomes and expense allowances, there is an awful lot to give. Having given away almost everything he has, he then researches what other allowances and claims he can make from the church in virtue of his office, does the paperwork to claim whichever ones he can, and then gives those away too.
But never does Myriel congratulate himself. He seems to subscribe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’ adage. When asked why he gave this or that thing away, he replies to the effect that he was never entitled to possess it in the first place. But Myriel is no anarchist. His comments are not generalised philosophical points about the nature of private property, but about the specific treatment by society of the people to whom he gives these things. They have been dispossessed, by the operation of law, of privilege, of capitalism, of raw temporal power. As his employer’s policy manual says ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Bishop Myriel does his humble best to redress the imbalance created by the church and state by returning some of the world’s good things – those that he has in his power – to those from whom they have been taken (whether directly or indirectly).
Hugo writes Myriel’s dialogue in such a way that one can imagine doing and saying such things. His lines are not ethereal or sanctimonious, but practical and down-to-Earth. After giving the last remaining silver to Valjean, as well as saving him from a return to penal servitude (this time for life), he professes relief, telling his sister and housekeeper that he was embarrassed to be dining off silver when others in the village had no utensils at all, and that he feels much more relaxed eating his soup out of a wooden bowl.
Here’s a sample. Mgr Myriel is talking to the director of the small, overcrowded church hospital that is attached to his large, luxurious bishop’s palace, and has learned that they have too many people crammed in, in unbearably uncomfortable conditions. After a series of probing questions about conditions in the hospital, Myriel comes out with:
‘Look, Mister Hospital Director, this is what I reckon. There’s obviously been a mistake. You have twenty-six people in five or six little rooms. We have only three people in here [in the palace], where there is room for sixty. It’s a mistake I tell you. You have my lodgings and I’ll have yours. Give me my house [meaning the little hospital]. This one here is your house.’
No moralising, no sermons, no verbal niceties, just ‘Look – this is what we need to do‘.
He even has a sense of humour – a quality nearly always lacking in nineteenth century heroes. When the housekeeper discovers that Valjean has disappeared overnight and so has the silverware, the following dialogue ensues:
Housekeeper: Your excellency, your excellency, do you know where the basket of silverware is?
HK: Jesus-God be praised! I didn’t know what had become of it.
Bish: [Picks up and presents to the housekeeper the empty basket that he had spotted lying under a hedge, where Valjean had jettisoned it last night] Here it is!
HK: What!? There’s nothing in it! Where’s the silverware?
Bish: Ah, so it’s the silverware you were worried about. I don’t know where that is.
One might be tempted to think that Myriel is a Marxist in disguise – a fifth-columnist usurping the rich, corrupt church from the inside by giving away whatever of its wealth he can lay his hands on. But that is not the case. For instance he does not give away the (very valuable) robes and ornaments of the cathedral – presumably because he feels that they belong to his congregation, who enjoy seeing them as part of their religious rituals every week. He even believes in a good God – quite an achievement given the corruption and cruelty of those around him who claim to represent that God. He holds fast to a humble, optimistic spiritualism in which God is identified with Love – the value that guides his life in every waking moment.
But he has no time for theology. He has no interest in doctrinal favourites like the trinity, the resurrection, sexual purity, salvation by faith or grace, or the damnation of sinners and unbelievers. When his ecclesiastical colleagues discuss such things he does not criticise them for wasting their time on meaningless arcana. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say ‘They must be terribly clever to understand such things, but it’s much too complicated for a simple man like me‘. If he has a theological position, it is something like that everybody is worthy of salvation, and will ultimately be saved. He never quite articulates this though. If he did, he’d be at risk of punishment as a heretic. But all his actions seem to me to suggest such a belief. He expresses no theological opinions except for the primacy of love. He judges nobody, and is happy to admit his ignorance and uncertainty on all ‘ultimate questions’.
In general I am not a fan of clergy. But I make an exception for Monseigneur Myriel, even if he is fictional. He is an inspiration. I could never be anything like him. But if reading those 150 pages again, without the impatience this time, has motivated me to move even a little bit more from where I am towards where he is on the spectrum of compassion, it will have been worth it.
Bondi Junction, February 2016
I fried mushrooms and zucchinis in the juice left over from having fried a steak for my daughter. Then I ate them. They were delicious.
There’s nothing remarkable in that, except that I’m a vegetarian who is, since my ‘conversion’, repelled by the idea of eating meat. I could not have eaten the steak, but was happy to eat the mushrooms and zucchini fried in its juices.
This struck me as odd when I first thought of it. But I was able to explain it to myself well enough, at least at first. The explanation was that I was brought up to abhor waste and, since the juices would otherwise have been wasted, and the cow had already been killed, it would be a shame to waste the nutrition of those juices. All very sensible, except that the same argument wouldn’t have worked had my daughter decided she did not want her steak. I could not have eaten the steak to save waste, however strong my intentions. I would have requested my daughter to bury it in the garden. That is the fate of all unwanted meat scraps in our house, as experience has taught us that putting them in the compost bin attracts too many rats and breeds maggots.
As an aside, our garden is full of decently interred parts of animals. Buried carefully and solemnly, but without ritual (unless I do it, in which case there may be a surreptitious incantation of respect for the departed spirit). Perhaps that is why the garden is so lush.
But that leaves me without an explanation for why I will eat the thus-fried mushrooms but not a leftover steak or sausage. Don’t get me wrong. A left-over portion of meat is a rare event in our house, as we only have two meat-eaters out of five (the third meat-eater having flown the coop), and I try very hard to err on the side of too little rather than too much, to avoid the animal having died any more in vain than necessary.
Anyway, an alternative, or perhaps supplementary, explanation occurred to me today. It may be a bit new-agey and holistic, or is it just brutally biological, I don’t know. But whichever it is, I stand by it. It seems to explain why I’ll consume the juice but not the steak.
Carl Sagan told us that we are all made of star dust, and how deep and inspirational that is. But other perspectives are possible too. One comes from an African philosopher – Simba the Lion King. He reminded us that we are all part of the circle of life. Put bluntly, while from one perspective we are made of the remains of dead stars, from another we are made of the remains of dead animals and plants. And however vegetarian or even vegan we may be, we are still made of both. Because there is no food chain with a top and a bottom, there is only a food cycle. Even Lions and Tyrannosaurs become food for worms and bacteria, fungi and plants. Plants are part animal juice and animals are part plant juice.
So when I eat a pear or a nut I am also feasting on the bodies of long-dead kangaroos, rabbits, mice, dingos and wild cats and dogs. And also on the bodies of long-dead people.
Not only do we all eat the remains of people and animals. We also breathe them. The air is full of small particles of organic matter, each molecule of which has probably been part of the body of a long chain of living organisms – plant, animal, fungi, bacteria, whatever, over the billion or so years since organic chemistry really took off on this planet.
And of course we are breathing in loads of dust with every breath, which they tell us is mostly discarded human skin.
Now this doesn’t mean that I regard all consumption as identical, either in an ethical or an aesthetic sense. I have no immediate plans to become a direct cannibal, or any other sort of direct carnivore. I have aesthetic objections to both and ethical objections to most carnivorous opportunities that are presented to me. I won’t start eating steaks simply because I have come to dislike the thought of chewing on flesh, because every bite would remind me that this animal had been imprisoned for life and finally killed for my benefit.
That would not be the case if the animal had been shot in the wild, or raised on a happy farm (I picture the farm in Charlotte’s Web) and humanely slaughtered there rather than undergoing gruelling transport to an abattoir. But since almost all meat in our society does not meet that standard, I have come inevitably to associate the texture of meat with that spectre of life imprisonment and execution. So unfortunately, I could not even eat a humanely culled wild kangaroo or Wilbur the pig from the idyllic-sounding farmyard in Charlotte’s web. I doubt I could even eat road-kill, which would be the most defensible of all choices. Just because of the texture and what it reminded me of.
But there is none of that involved in consuming the juice of a steak, especially when combined with zucchini and mushrooms. One does not have to chew it or slice it. There is no tearing and ripping involved. One’s only obstacle to consuming those steak-cooked mushrooms is the potential to think ‘Oh no, this was cooked in the remains of a cow!‘ But since my epiphany of this morning, all I need do is remind myself that everything I eat is made of the remains of animals, including people. So why be squeamish?
Bondi Junction, November 2014
What a difficult skill is conversation! And the hardest aspect of it is interruption. How and when does one interrupt? I have been participating in conversations for about fifty years and I still have not managed to figure this out yet.
As children we are taught that it is impolite to interrupt, and so it is, mostly. Yet in many conversations, especially when the pace and intensity increases, it is very hard not to interrupt. If someone pauses after a sequence of words that can serve as a completed sentence, and I start to respond to what they have said, I often find that all of a sudden we are talking over the top of one another, because what I thought was a full stop at the end of their sentence was actually only a comma – a pause for breath – in the middle of it. That can be awkward. Then one of us needs to stop talking and let the other continue, but how do we know which one it should be? It can become like that awkward dance in a corridor when the South-going and North-going person who have almost collided keep on moving simultaneously to the East, then the West, then East again, to try to let the other through, only to find that they both continue to be blocked.
The natural way to try to avoid such conversational difficulties is to wait longer before responding, to make sure that it really was a full stop and not a comma, or perhaps a semi-colon, hyphen or ellipsis. But how long should one wait? One second? Two? Three? If I wait long enough to be sure, I usually find that, yes it was a full stop, and now my friend has started a new sentence, and is perhaps a little disappointed that I offered no reply to their last sentence, which perhaps they felt was particularly insightful and worthy of comment. In fact, you can only ever be sure that a spoken sentence is finished once a new sentence has begun. But then, of course, it is too late. Trying to spot the end of a spoken sentence is like trying to spot the ‘bottom’ of a stock market slide.
This becomes even more difficult when the conversation involves more than two people. In a two-way conversation, one’s friend will often wait quite long for a reply if they expect one. But in a multi-way discussion, somebody will almost certainly plunge in if the pause exceeds a couple of seconds. That’s as it should be, most of the time. But if I consistently over-estimate the appropriate length of pause, I may end up having nothing to say all night, and people may wonder why I am so sullen.
The degree of difficulty rises yet again when the conversation involves some element of challenge. Perhaps the two parties are trying to persuade one another to change their view, or are at least challenging or questioning the opinions offered by the other. I might for instance ask whether my friend agrees with the principle the Labor party was trying to apply in the 2008-9 financial crisis – that rapidly increasing government expenditure (‘fiscal expansion’) would prevent a recession arising from the contraction of private credit. If my friend replies by explaining their view that the fiscal expansion was implemented poorly, citing numerous cases, my question has not been answered, because I am not wondering about the effectiveness of the implementation but rather about whether the expansion should have been attempted at all. Three minutes later my friend may be still waxing eloquent about how poorly he thinks the policy was implemented, without having said anything about the in-principle merits of the policy itself. As they launch into yet another compelling example of poor implementation, should I interrupt, to let them know that I have no opinion on, and have not asked about, the quality of the implementation?
Sometimes I do interrupt in such cases. But it’s a risky strategy. Some people don’t mind being interrupted, but some react ferociously. A meeker approach is to try to hold in my mind the question I originally asked and patiently wait for my friend to finish his diversion before reminding him of what I actually asked. In practice this can be difficult, because unless I look away and try to close my mind to what is being said, I usually find that the flow of rhetoric has driven my previous thoughts completely out of my head and I no longer have any idea of what I wanted to know, or what we were even talking about before the conversation shot off on a tangent.
We see this sort of thing all the time in political interviews, when a journalist asks a probing question and the politician answers a completely different one with great length and passion. In those cases the diversion is deliberate, which is not usually the case in discussion amongst friends. But despite the different motivation, the dilemma is the same – do we interrupt and bring the discussion back on track, or do we silently and patiently wait for the (often unintentional) filibuster to end, to avoid being rude.
Even where there is no dispute, difficulties can arise in long answers, if somebody uses a term we do not understand, and that renders most of what they subsequently say meaningless to us because of its reliance on that term. Is it permissible for me to interrupt a five minute discourse on the iniquities of schwerms, in order to ask what a schwerm is?
If only there were a universally recognised time limit we could apply! It would be great if if Mrs Cartland included in her etiquette guide, advice about the length of time into an answer after which it is acceptable to interrupt to indicate that the answer is off-topic, or incomprehensible. 30 seconds? 60 seconds perhaps? Sadly, there is no such guide, so I am left guessing, and mostly getting it wrong.
There are some conventions we could introduce that would ease the difficulty. One is the ‘hand up’. I would like to be able to raise my hand, like in a schoolroom, when something is said that I don’t understand or that sends the reply off topic. Ideally the friend would, like a patient school teacher, pause and say in a kindly tone ‘yes Andrew, what was it that you wanted to know?’. I have not been able to bring myself to do this though. I fear others might laugh at me.
Another Really Useful Convention would be if we agreed that nobody should ever talk for more than say one minute without seeking permission to continue. A standard form of words such as ‘there’s more to come, but first are there any questions? shall I continue?’ could be adopted to make this work. That would provide an opportunity to query unexplained terms or point out that the answer had veered off topic. We would of course need time-keepers, or perhaps clocks with big push-buttons like they use in chess. Such a convention is unlikely to get off the ground at the suggestion of a nonentity such as me though. I am hoping that George Clooney or Ryan Gosling will pick up the idea and promote it.
Some people are professional interrupters. Political journalists, mentioned above, are an obvious case, but by no means the most interesting. They operate in an atmosphere of conflict, so the interruption seems to fit. A more intriguing example is a radio announcer talking to a caller as the hour for the news bulletin approaches. They need to manage the caller’s comments so that ideally they finish exactly 20 seconds before the hour. Too early and the announcer is left with ‘dead air’. Too late and they have to cut them off. What often happens is that they exhort their caller to ‘be quick, because we only have 30 seconds before the news’, upon which the poor caller then panics and either gets stuck on an ‘er’ or ‘um’, or else descends into a flood of breathless verbal diaorrhea.
Even highly cultured and revered broadcasts, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and academic impartiality, suffer from this problem. I enjoy listening to ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4. Melvyn Bragg discusses abstruse topics in history, science, philosophy and culture with three or four experts from prestigious universities. All very nice, but Bragg – though tremendously erudite – is an incorrigible interrupter. He constantly interrupts his experts, in the nicest possible way, to tell them that they are talking too long or that they are off topic. Sometimes it turns out that they weren’t off topic at all and that Lord Bragg had just misunderstood. This gets increasingly frenetic towards the end of the show, presumably because the dreaded News on the Hour is looming. I understand that his job is a difficult balancing act, and that what he does is necessary but it still sounds strange to hear esteemed experts being cut off and bossed about like that.
It feels as though there is such a thing as an appropriate amount of interrupting, and an appropriate time at which it is acceptable to interrupt. Melvyn Bragg perhaps interrupts too much (although we can forgive him for that because he picks such lovely topics, and usually coaxes his guests to give interesting explanations). Rookie political interviewers probably interrupt too little. As for me, I still feel like I am just guessing in the dark.
I’m still learning this conversation business. The process is very difficult. I think I am getting better, just very, very slowly. Perhaps by the time I’m 80 I will have mastered it.
Bondi Junction, September 2013
Every set of moral principles of which I am aware can be made to look ridiculous. All that is needed is to construct a hypothetical scenario – a ‘thought experiment’ – in which the set of principles (I will call the set a ‘framework’) leads, via an unassailable logical argument, to a conclusion that recommends a morally repugnant act.
Utilitarianism can usually be made to look silly via a thought experiment in which cruelty to one innocent individual will save many others from great suffering. Kantian ethics, with its absolute rules such as ‘never lie’ can be made to look silly by hypothesising a mariticidal spouse at the door that wants to know where her fleeing husband is. Divine command ethics is made to look silly by the story of Abraham and Isaac, or any of the Old Testament genocides. Virtue ethics might escape the silliness charge, but only by being so vague that it avoids making any moral recommendation in a case where all alternative actions are unpalatable to our moral intuitions. Such indecisiveness seems to me even sillier, as to not act is itself an act, and often has worse outcomes than taking one of the unpalatable actions.
But we are moral creatures, living in a world beset by moral dilemmas. We must act, so we need some basis for deciding. How can we decide about actions when we feel that every possible moral framework is flawed in some way?
One response is to insist that moral reason over-ride intuitions. Under this approach, we would decide on our fundamental moral principles via a period of intense reflection. Once decided, we would make all moral decisions by reasoning from those principles, and we would stick with the decision even if we found it repugnant to our intuitions.
This approach has the advantage of logical consistency in the sense that all decisions are consistent with the principles, and hence with each other. However there is troubling inconsistency in the fact that the whole system rests on principles whose sole justification is our moral intuition, yet we then reject our moral intuition when it conflicts with the rational application of those principles. If our intuition is good enough to serve as the foundation for our entire framework, why is it not good enough to over-rule that framework when there is a conflict?
At the opposite extreme is a variant of Moral Particularism, in which we reject all moral principles and moral reasoning, and judge every potential action based solely on our intuitive moral feelings about it. I don’t like the sound of that, as it allows very little scope for moral development. If we have an intuitive dislike for certain people or actions, based on some combination of our natural dispositions and our upbringing, we will never find any reason to challenge and reject that dislike. It could be a belief that women should always obey men, or that other races are less worthy of respect and kindness than my own race for instance.
If we wish neither to always let moral reasoning over-rule moral intuitions nor to always let moral intuitions over-rule moral reasoning, we need a basis for deciding which of the two should win when there is a conflict. For a long time this seemed to me an unsolvable problem, leaving us in a state of potential moral confusion. But now I think there may be some hope of a solution. To present it, I will first consider two examples. The examples both relate to utilitarianism, because that is the framework I know most about. But similar examples could be developed for other frameworks.
Example 1. Fred and the Father-son chat
Fred was brought up in a fundamentalist religious family, and one of the moral rules he imbibed from as early as he could understand it was that sexual acts between two men were an abomination – one of the worst possible sins. Coincidentally, Fred also has a genetic disposition to feel a slight aversion towards the idea of sexual acts between two men, in the same way that many animals have a natural aversion towards sexual acts with close blood relatives.
Fred discarded his religious beliefs when at university, has adopted a utilitarian moral framework and is completely persuaded by arguments that consenting, caring sexual relations between two male adults are entirely morally acceptable. Yet, because of his natural inclinations, and the residual effect of his upbringing, from which he will never be able to completely free himself, he still feels intuitively that there is something wrong with male homosexual acts, even though his reason says there isn’t.
Fred is now happily married to a woman and has a ten year old son who is starting to ask questions about sex. Fred wonders whether he should portray all types of mature, consenting, respectful sexual activity as equally acceptable, or whether he should subtly imply that heterosexual sex is preferable. His reason recommends the former, but his intuition recommends the latter.
Example 2. Sheila and the Terrorists
Terrorists have hijacked a commercial plane with fifty passengers on it and are planning to crash it into a nuclear power station on the outskirts of a major city. Engineers have advised the Prime Minister, Sheila, that if the plane crashes into the reactor there will be a radioactive cloud released that will kill millions.
Sheila is told that the air-force jets shadowing the plane can fire missiles to destroy it, but without that there is no way of diverting the plane from its target, and there is no way of averting the disaster if the reactor is struck. The pilots only need Sheila’s command to fire the missile.
Sheila is a utilitarian and her conclusion from her moral framework is that she should order the jets to fire. Yet she finds the idea morally repugnant. How can she order the death of fifty innocent people?
My proposal for resolving conflicts like these is to investigate the moral intuition, to try to understand why we hold it. If we are able to find a convincing reason why we feel that way, then we can decide whether we wish to over-rule the moral intuition, based on whether we like that reason and on whether we would like to feel differently if we could.
In Fred’s case it would be fairly easy for him to trace at least part of the source of his negative feelings about homosexuality. He would be well aware of the permanent effect the inculcation of dispositions in young children can have. He would be able to see that he was trained by his fundamentalist parents to feel negatively about homosexual acts, in the same way that he was trained to fear eternal punishment if he ever ceased to believe the dogmas of his parents’ religion. Chances are he has been unable to completely rid himself of either feeling, notwithstanding all the rational arguments he has for their invalidity.
But when he realises that the source of his feeling is a childhood indoctrination that he deplores, he will feel confident about rejecting the feeling, and allowing his moral reasoning to over-rule the moral intuition it provides.
The other criterion is whether he would wish to feel differently if he could. Because he rejects his moral upbringing, he is likely to wish that he did not feel negatively about homosexuality, and to regard that negative feeling as a cross that he reluctantly has to bear. This realisation again supports a decision to over-rule the moral intuition.
What about the other source of the intuition – Fred’s genetic aversion to the idea of homosexual acts? I have no idea whether such a genetic aversion exists and if so whether it is common or very rare. But it is at least plausible that an aversion to homosexual acts could be a trait that is selected for in some species, in order to focus all of the animals’ efforts and energy on sexual activity that propagates the species. If Fred thinks that he may have such a trait then, unless he is prone to the Naturalistic Fallacy (the belief that whatever is natural is morally right), he is likely to conclude that this natural trait is something he would rather suppress and try to eliminate, in the same way humans try, through the process of civilisation and education, to suppress the natural tendency to kill or injure rivals for mates, food or social status. Just as we might wish to be free of our natural tendency to anger, Fred would wish to be free of his aversion to homosexuality, if he could.
All this considered, I feel confident that when Fred has his father-son chat, he will over-rule any inclination to imply that homosexuality is best avoided, and present a picture entirely consistent with the recommendations of his moral framework.
For Sheila it is not so easy. She knows that whatever she chooses will cause her and others enormous anguish. Her moral reasoning is clear – she must destroy the airliner. Her moral intuition tells her that would be a barbaric act.
Sheila can follow the same process as Fred, to try to identify the source of her moral intuition.
She might conclude that her revulsion against killing stems from the same source as her utilitarian principles – her empathy for fellow sentient beings. If she concludes that’s all it is, her choice is easy. The revulsion against killing is there because killing is usually gratuitously cruel. So in a case like this where the killing is not gratuitously cruel (it is cruel, but it is not gratuitous) the justification for the revulsion disappears and it is reasonable to over-rule the revulsion.
But what if Sheila concludes there is more to the revulsion than the fact that killing is usually gratuitously cruel? What if she feels that there is something more that is wrong with killing, beyond its cruelty? If she can positively identify what that ‘something more’ is, then she has discovered a new moral principle, and she can reflect on whether she wishes to respect it or whether she would like to reject it if she could. If it is something she wishes to respect then that opens up the door to allowing the intuition to over-rule the moral reasoning – in other words to not destroy the airliner. What this discovery does is suggest that Sheila’s moral framework is flawed in some way. It may be fundamentally flawed and need wholesale replacement, or it may need to become more nuanced, more complex – perhaps just by adding the new principle to the existing ones or perhaps by more complex changes. Since in this case Sheila has managed to identify the missing principle, it is likely to be possible for her to deduce what changes are needed to her framework to remove this conflict, without introducing any obvious new conflicts. This process has a weak but interesting similarity to the way that scientific theories are refined when new discoveries are made.
Equally possible though is that Sheila is unable to locate the source of her intuition against killing. She is convinced it’s more than just an aversion to gratuitous cruelty, but she can’t work out what that ‘something more’ is. This is different from Fred’s case, where he identified the source and concluded he wanted to reject it. And it is different from the case where Sheila identified the source and concluded she wanted to respect it. To continue the scientific analogy of the previous paragraph, this is like the conflict between observations of the constancy of the speed of light that was demonstrated by the Michelson-Morley experiment and the equivalence of frames of reference (Galilean Relativity). Physicists in the late nineteenth century knew there was a conflict in their theory. They knew there was ‘something more’ needed, but they didn’t know what it was. It was several years before Einstein resolved the conflict with his theory of relativity. That was in one sense a refinement of the existing Newtonian theory. It had new principles that, in most but not all situations, gave very similar answers to the Newtonian theory.
If Sheila can’t pinpoint the source of her intuition then she may well need a new theory. But she can’t be sure of that until the source is pinpointed and a resolution found. In the meantime she just has to do what humans do all the time, in love and war, in cricket and in business – make a decision in the presence of inadequate information. She will go one way or the other, and either way the decision will cause agony for her and for others. The only consolation is that, whatever decision she makes, at least she did her best to work out the right thing to do.
We haven’t developed a way of always choosing between the dictates of moral reasoning and moral intuitions. That would be too much to expect. If there was any moral framework that was completely free of dilemmas we wouldn’t spend so much time debating and comparing moral issues.
We have however identified a way of proceeding when such a conflict arises. In some cases, maybe even most, that approach can lead to a resolution, either via rejecting the intuition as Fred did, or by respecting it as Sheila did in the first instance, and following that by a revision and update of our moral framework.
In the last case, where the source of the intuition cannot be identified, the dilemma remains. But at least in that case we will have highlighted a flaw in our moral framework, and we can stay on the lookout for insights that may enable us to refine the framework to correct the flaw.
And what do I think? Well I think Fred should reject his moral intuition and give his son the even -handed account. And in Sheila’s case I just don’t know. None of the moral frameworks I can think of have an answer to that dilemma that convinces me. I feel there is indeed ‘something more’ that is wrong with killing the people on the plane in that case, but I am hopelessly unable to identify what that ‘something more’ is. So I don’t know what I would do if I were placed in that situation. I’ll just have to hope I never become Prime Minister.