Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Whiteness of the Whale

"Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?...And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
In a post entitled, "The Expanding Ethical Embrace" (March 2005), I expressed skepticism regarding Peter Joost's argument that humanity will adopt a moral code that grants other mammals, birds, reptiles, and even, eventually, bacteria, the same natural rights that we now reserve for ourselves (supposedly irrespective of race, sex, sexuality, or religion). I did not doubt the plausibility of Joost's prediction, but rather his assertion that this ethical evolution portended only happy returns. I wondered, if humans were to transcend the cruel machinations of biological determinism, wouldn't we, in effect, be killing ourselves with kindness? In Joost's neo-Eden, the human population would explode; the increased resource demands would inevitably lead to collapse (that is, if we didn't first find it in our reptilian spines to loathe "the other" as passionately as we have for time immemorial). Attractive though Joost's notion was, I remained ambivalent about the prospect.

Joost's prediction was recently called to mind when, reading Grist, an online environmental news journal, I stumbled upon a provocatively titled Gristmill thread initiated by Jason Scorse.  Many challenging questions are advanced in the dialogue generated by Scorse's "So, environmentalists support whaling?" Notable among them are:
- Is an environmentalist morally obligated to support animal rights?

- Are regulated, luxury hunts that fund conservation projects ethically or morally defensible?

- Are free enterprise and sustainable development mutually exclusive?

- Should the conservation and preservation camps be distinct from one another, promoting different agendas, or should they work together toward a compromised, common goal?
Scorse's answers to the above questions are 'Yes,' 'No,' 'Yes,' and 'Yes/No,' respectively. Yet any approximation of a complete answer to these questions requires some degree of ambiguity, and even contradiction.  Normally I find contradiction and ambivalence agreeable, because they edge closer to objective "truth" than any ideology might; in matters of environmental policy, however, the grey areas trouble me. Apparently, they trouble Scorse, too, as he jettisons nuance in favor of ideological certainty. Prompted to choose between ideology and reasonable pragmatism, I'm tempted to follow Scorse up the moral high road; the ideological path appears straight and true. But while moral certitude, the black hat/white hat conception of life and thought, is the path favored by activists and fundamentalists, I am made uncomfortable by it, particularly when it informs legislation.

Reasonable pragmatism, the preferred approach of post-Enlightenment thought, has its own problems, however. As Benjamin Franklin wrote of his vegetarian experiment(1), "so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." Franklin's observation at once celebrates and skewers reason, revealing it to be a wholly relative enterprise. This chink in reason's armor is worrisome.

So what will it be? Are the complications and sacrifices of reasoned compromise better or more effective than ideology? Or do we have clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys"?

Craig Nelson's recent biography of Thomas Paine serves as my subway reading these days, and I find the following observation relevant.
"Beginning with Franklin and Washington, every successful American leader would balance the pragmatic with the Utopian.  Where Franklin the master politician would be almost entirely pragmatic, Paine would be too fervidly Utopian in ways that would not just damage him financially, but imperil him physically... Paine would...always be too ardent with his religion of the lights, a Savonarola of reason and liberty, and as inept a political operator as any fervid Christian saint...The success or failure of any leader in U.S. history can be judged through his of her successes or failures at reaching the pragmatic Utopian paradox that remains at the heart of the American experiment."
Nelson's words ring true.  "The pragmatic Utopian paradox" is not uniquely American, but it is central to the American experience.  For confirmation, we need look no further than the glut of contemporary, progressive American politicians striving to develop a decidedly centrist track record, even as they contradict themselves (and their conscience) in doing so.  By contrast, it's easy to discard compromise and contradiction if you are a committed revolutionary, an individual willing to die for your cause, or a monkish loner operating in an intellectual/philosophical vacuum, as did Theodore Kaczynski.  Outside the D.C. beltway, ideologues are a dime a dozen, but exceptionally gifted ideological rhetoricians like Paine or King, Jr. make a sociopolitical impact only rarely.

Not surprisingly, many environmental activists are ideologues, Jason Scorse included.  To be fair, Scorse, a professor of environmental economics at the Monterey Institute, is not so much making a stump speech as he is asking a provocative question. From his "So, environmentalists support whaling?" post:
"I have tried to make what is essentially a straightforward case that environmentalism at its core is about respecting life and that separating this from our behavior towards individual living beings doesn't make much sense. Since many environmentalists reject this notion and insist that environmentalism only includes preserving biodiversity and promoting resource sustainability, this suggests that one of the defining elements of environmentalism no longer holds: an opposition to whaling...So are those who argue for the minimalist view of environmentalism willing to go on record in support of whaling and the killing of other advanced mammals?"
Money can do a lot in the way of protecting individual species and imperiled ecosystems.  Regulated hunting operations and animal farms, worldwide, generate substantial revenue, a healthy percentage of which is used to fund conservation measures.  For example, a buyer pays a tiger rancher (yes, they exist) an impressive sum - $40,000, say, sometimes much more - to obtain tiger parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines.  A substantial percentage of that price is then used for habitat preservation, conservation education, and tiger breeding programs.  It's a simple ethical equation; one animal's death results in improved species survival rates in the long-term (assuming that the habitat can be protected from the trespasses of our burgeoning human population). My short answer to Scorse's question, then, is 'Yes.' The more complete and complicated answer, though, leads down a rabbit hole of uncertainty.

To begin with, I find Scorse's moral framework - do unto your neighboring species as you would have done unto yourself - fundamentally agreeable. I'm troubled by the scalae naturae and other moral or physiological hierarchies. Because human life is, in my estimation, no more or less valuable than that of an earthworm (and, lest you mistake that statement for hyperbole, my inner ideologue assures you otherwise), the farming and killing of a tiger, no matter the result, is immoral. So, too, is the farming and killing for food of any animal species. In a truly enlightened world, then, we would witness a continued shift toward vegetarianism, sustainable consumption, and the extension of natural rights to other species. But the rate at which such values are adopted is of critical importance, and I feel Scorse is not at all pragmatic in his consideration of the real-world application of his moral imperative.  I fretted about this in the earlier post:
"From a strictly pragmatic perspective, morality is a denial of our existential [and by this I meant all species, not just human] sameness; like all other species, our principal drive is one of survival and propagation. Even our human urge to classify, as seen in the periodic table, clothing labels, and taxonomy, is a violent instinct, evolved to make us better able to ward off 'the other' and to flourish as hunter-gatherers, a lifestyle no longer suitable for our global, industrial species. [Therefore], it could be argued that [the] extension of human rights to all races, cultures, and creeds was but one more victory in our campaign to deny human nature.

But an inclusive, caring society, even if inconsistent, results in a population explosion and exaggerated life expectancies. Moreover, as our species’ requirements are increased, so are our demands on the environment. By embracing one another, we in fact make it more difficult for future generations to survive. When even more populations (in this case, other species) enter our moral and ethical peripheral vision, we will find ourselves facing a very interesting philosophical and pragmatic dilemma. Are we overloading of the circuitry?"
It seems clear that we would be "overloading of the circuitry," but there is a more immediate concern, one that does not bode well for Joost's expanding ethics: we have proven incompetent in our attempts to achieve parity among humans.

In the course of the Gristmill conversation, Scorse writes, "Thank goodness...humans aren't treated with the same level of abstract notions about 'sustainability' that you advocate that we subject every other living thing to."  Oh, but how we are! One need look no further than the morass of muddled litigation generated by today's vitriolic debates over abortion, civil rights, or assisted suicide to comprehend just how reluctant we are to treat fellow humans with the respect we reserve for ourselves and for our loved ones. As I wrote in March 2005, "one can barely imagine the ensuing cacophony when considering similar issues for sharks, birds, and turtles."

Ever since Homo sapiens adopted an agrarian lifestyle, we've been a top-down animal, a pyramid ladder of the very few haves and the countless have-nots.  I'm not altogether opposed to the felling of this pyramid in the name of populism and moral ideology (although, let's not kid ourselves punkers, anarchy ain't Utopia), but when similar tinkering and protest is extended to Nature, an entity of which we, as a species and complex-compound social beast, are but an insignificant part, we're not only risking collapse on a Mayan or Roman scale.  We're also gambling with the fate of the human species at large and, importantly, that of the many hundreds of thousands of species inextricably attached to us.  Those who herald the imminent expansion of our ethical embrace would do well to think on this.

The natural algebra can not evolve apace with our ethical code. Believing this to be true, I suppose I'm something of a determinist. I don't doubt that Earth's carrying capacity will increase as we adopt more sustainable lifestyles, but such a change occurs in geologic time, not generational or historic time. E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard entomologist, makes a similar, if distinct case in his landmark book, On Human Nature.
"Can the cultural evolution of higher ethical values gain a direction and momentum of its own and completely replace genetic evolution? I think not. The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool. The brain is a product of evolution. Human behavior - like the deepest capacities for emotional response which drive and guide it - is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function."
I'm inclined to a point. But what hand really holds the leash? Wilson assigns control to genes, our evolutionary chaperones. Genetics is indeed powerful, but the brain is as much a product of cultural evolution as it is physiological evolution. Therefore, I believe nurture can outpace nature at the societal level. In other words, genes have less control over moral and ethical evolution than Wilson would have us accept. In fact, it is the "eco," the greater whole - the Everything and the No-thing, from which we are inseparable - that grasps the leash. I trend toward the mystical here, but the skeptical scientists in the room can call this leashing by holistic natural law (as opposed to Wilson's evolutionary imperative).

Despite my attraction to the moralistic, and my belief that our ethical purview will inevitably expand, I must conclude that is necessary to distinguish between long-term aspiration and present policy. The American Civil Rights Movement may be portrayed as a historical artifact in high school text books, but racial prejudice and bigotry are no more history than is the Cold War. Our aims are ahead of our practice, and we should take care not to neglect incomplete cultural "mutations." Today being the anniversary of his death, take another listen to John Lennon's "Imagine." The words and images of artists are vital. Without them, our shared cultural imagination (or our memes) would be starved, but we shouldn't ride the moral high horse if it means we won't reach our destination. This is the critical distinction between morality and ethics.

Progress - if loosely defined as our stumbling effort toward the betterment of humanity and the world we belong to - is best served by pragmatic rationalism and a conservative code of ethics. As my father stressed to me from a young age, good economics - literally translated, "management of the household" - begins with good ecology - "study of the household." A promising future awaits humanity if we are imaginative enough to forge our ethics from the moral, the aesthetic, the ecological, and the pragmatic.

Turning to Bill Cronon's writing, as I so often do, and did when considering these ideas before:
"The choice we face is not to leave no marks – that is impossible – but rather to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave."
So to Jason Scorse, and all ideologues: my heart is with you, but things simply aren't so clear as might like them to be.

Image credits: Ahab illustration by Sam Weber; ethics diagrams from Peter Joost's March 2005 New York Historical Society lecture; timeline diagram by Hungry Hyaena

(1) Franklin abandoned the diet eventually, as the smell of cooked seafoods, particularly fish, proved too much for his dietary resolve. No problem, though, as he was able to use reason to account for why fish were a viable exception!


jason said...

Thoughtful post, even if I disagree completely. Some of my beefs:

So to Jason Scorse, and all ideologues: I'm with you, but I'm against you. Things are bumpy in here.

I think the philosophical positioning of your post (article?) is less conflicted than you make it out to be. It reads more as a polemic for pragmatism; that is, you set up idealism only in an effort to knock it down.

...assuming one avoids moral certainty and sticks with what I'll call reasonable pragmatism.

What's wrong with moral certainty, as long as the moral ideal in question is "never hurt anyone (or, anything)"?

there's moral certitude, the black hat/white hat conception of life and thought, seemingly so popular in our blessed America.

While the evils of neoconservatism are much to blame for the recent unpopularity of idealist thought among U.S. liberals/democrats, I would argue that the problem is not idealism per se, but the particular ideals of neoconservatism (like the elevation of economic freedom over equality and non-violence) and that movement's hypocritical and contradictory notion of freedom.

In short, we cannot save the whales by killing them, inasmuch as we can't save the Iraqis by killing them.

Hungry Hyaena said...


For a moment there I thought you were the Jason who wrote the Gristmill post and I was happy to get a dialogue going with him, but hearing from you is no less satisfying. I hope you're doing well these days.

Anyway, yes, I think you're right. My post is, in the end, decidedly opinionated. Unfortunately, my thinking isn't that neat. It's hard for me, as a novice writer, to translate the brain's quiet, ongoing arguments into a post; in day-to-day thinking, I vacillate between the poles of reasonable pragmatism and ideology (if they're set up as poles, as they were here). In many respects, the longer ramblings I write for HH are exercises for me, hopeful attempts to see if I can make some sense of the murk. In other words, I think I'm after a straight and high road, but am always having to veer off this way and that.

Nothing is wrong with moral certainty if you're talking, as you put it, "never hurt anyone (or, anything)," but doing so is impossible. The ideal isn't problematic, but the superiority of the ideologue is, as subscription to the ideal necessitates flawed thinking. This is the difference between the ideologue and the politician, I suppose (and I'm not championing contemporary compromise here). Benjamin Franklin was a supreme politician, and he accomplished much in his lifetime, but he recognized that the achievement of his over-arching goals was unrealistic in the short-term, that is, in his lifetime or perhaps that of his children. Thomas Paine, by contrast, was an artist, in my mind, a man who refused to accept any delay and inspired many with his rhetoric. Ultimately, though, he was cast out by even his allies, and his ideals, in his eyes, were corrupted by one country after another. Had Paine been both the great rhetorician and politician, he may well have had a more profound, direct influence, some say in the direction that the governing bodies of the young U.S., England and France moved.

In case I sound overly critical of Paine, I should make it clear that, of the two men named above, I am more enamored of Paine. He destroyed himself for his ideals and stuck by abstraction in the face of so much reality. I'm more fond of this type than great schmoozers and tinkerers like Franklin, but I accept that my romantic notions of "good men" are essentially irrelevant in practice. In other words, I can feel whatever I please, but unless I do something about it...

I agree completely with your distinction between neo-conservatism and idealist thought. They are very different animals.


"In short, we cannot save the whales by killing them, inasmuch as we can't save the Iraqis by killing them."

Here, I disagree as the two issues can only be fairly equated in the abstract. If you assume, as I do, that human life is no more valuable than that of other species, you must take each case point by point. No, we can't save the Iraqis by killing them, but we never intended to save them. Our motivation was colonial conquest and political expedience (not mine, but you get the idea). As for whales, then, you need take each species by species. To hunt a blue whale or right whale to save other species would be a disaster, but to allow regulated hunting of pilot whales, a very populous species that is currently hunted sustainably, in order to generate reveue for marine conservation programs... That's a different story altogether.

Regrettably, if I follow this train of thought, I'm forced to consider torture. Is it acceptable, then, to torture or even kill a human to obtain information that may save many other lives? (This assuming, as I do not, that torture ellicits sound intelligence.) Here I balk, and must shamefully devour my own reasoning.

It's just not mathematics, no matter how much any ideologue would have it be, even if the more sensitive among insists that it's got nothing to do with math, but is all heart.

So, I'm back to the grey zone, a parade of case by case, totally subjective choices. Aarrrgggghhhhhhh!

OK, back to the painting, dammit! At least the contradictions don't bother me there.

jason said...

I'm happy to engage in the cyber-public exorcisms of your inner murk (and hope you are doing well). I just wanted to suggest that your arguments are less murky than they may appear to you and that they consistently lean towards the pragmatic -- especially if you are advocating the hunting of whales. I think you have an Aristotelean desire to find the mean between two extremes, which leads to a pragmatic respect for conventional wisdom and an aversion to idealistic radicalism.

Of course, I'm all for idealistic radicalism, as long as it's motivated by the ideal of non-injury.

doing so is impossible. The ideal isn't problematic, but the superiority of the ideologue is, as subscription to the ideal necessitates flawed thinking.

The ideal is not an end, but a direction to move towards -- a guide. It's definitely impossible to reach in its most perfect sense, but that's not its purpose. Setting a goal is not tantamount to flawed thinking. And yet the pragmatist still has ideals and even follows most of them; everyone does (this is why I think your conflict between 'idealism' and 'pragmatism' is actually just pragmatism at work). But the pragmatist is willing to compromise ideals in some cases in order to attain certain recognizable, measurable results -- the Machiavellian "ends justifies the means" as is so aptly demonstrated in the example of hunting the whales (and our current political system).

By compromising the ideal of non-injury in order to attain immediate measurable results, the pragmatist is setting herself up for future misery (or present misery, as our alienated, violent society can attest to) because violence always turns back on itself (even when the violence involved is directed towards whales).

... as I do, that human life is no more valuable than that of other species ...

I'm reluctant to believe you, because I don't think you would ever devalue human life so much as to kill another human being -- especially for sport.

...No, we can't save the Iraqis by killing them, but we never intended to save them. Our motivation was colonial conquest and political expedience

Right, I was referring to the proliferation of "save the Iraqis" rhetoric that erupted after the U.S. didn't find any WMDs. But the whole-hearted support originally granted by the American public for the Iraq war was not due to some misguided agreement with neoconservative ideals. Instead, I think most following a pragmatic logic in believing (especially in the case of Afghanistan) that we could justify killing a few [hundred thousand] Iraqi or Afghani civilians (and our own troops) if it meant safeguarding our nation (and the world) from the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Notice that the new outrage at the war isn't directed at our utterly inhumane crime of slaughtering massive amounts of civilians and sacrificing our poor young American soldiers. Instead, people are pissed off because WE ARE LOSING -- many are even saying that we aren't winning because we didn't use enough violence. The disagreement is with strategy, not basic human morality. This way of thinking perpetuates a cycle of rationalizing violence. order to generate revenue for marine conservation programs... That's a different story altogether.

Again, I believe that you can never justify harming something in order to save something, because violence can never be quarantined into a neat, isolated act. It corrupts the soul, rids us of our humanity, and educates and advocates for the application of more violence. It's why lasting peace can never be attained through even the most seemingly-just war.

Michael said...

I don' thave time to write a proper comment (library computer... tick tock tick tock), but I'd like to chime in on the idea of the ideal of non-injury. Personally I think that ideal is very dangerous. We harm. Period. Why do we harm? Because entropy increases, and all actions lead to the breakdown of order. We kill when we eat. We kill when we drive our cars. We kill when we walk. We kill even when we simply sit still. That's not opinion... it's a doggone fact.
I propose that we own that fact. Injure with purpose and take responsibility for that injury. That, I believe, is an ideal that is worth the struggle.
(sorry for the rushed comment)

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thank you for the very thoughtful reply. I'm unable to respond in full now, but I will do so within the week.

For the time being, suffice to say, I admire your good faith...even envy it. Your idealism and determination are admirable, even if I disagree with much of what you suggest in the way of specifics (excepting anything to do with our present Middle-East bungling; I was vehemently opposed to action in Afghanistan, much less Iraq, so you've no need to make a convert of me on those counts).

And as for human "sport" hunting. I've never killed a human - and, presumably, never will have to - but the suffering I associate with the death of any animal, whether an animal I have murdered or a loved relative, is the same. I feel the same amazed shock and dismay over the body of a dead deer as I do that of a loved relative. To me, it's all sacred energy. An individual's value is determined by those around her, so mourning the death of that particular person is a form of selfishness. The deer is just as important, just as vital, as I. Should I be shot - hopefully not tortured - tomorrow, the energy will go on, part of the same weave that feeds energy into Saturn's rings and the dust on my DVD player. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, the dragonfly having landed on the flower, the two are now one. I would take that a step further. Physical contact matters not. You and I are one, as are you and the earthworms which will one day digest your corporeal decadence. Given that, would I amputate a limb to preserve the heart beat?

Granted, I'd rather be around for a little longer, 'cause I'm enjoying the constant amazement. You know the hackneyed riffs; plastic bag in wind, ad nauseum.

Anyway, I've had a few beers and should get back to the regularly scheduled programing. A more complete response will come soon.

Enjoy this lovely, frigid evening!

Hungry Hyaena said...


Sorry for the delay.

"The ideal is not an end, but a direction to move towards -- a guide. It's definitely impossible to reach in its most perfect sense, but that's not its purpose. Setting a goal is not tantamount to flawed thinking. And yet the pragmatist still has ideals and even follows most of them; everyone does (this is why I think your conflict between 'idealism' and 'pragmatism' is actually just pragmatism at work)."

Agreed, more or less. Were I to start listing examples of ideologues (or groups that are governed by ideology), I fear the distinctions between them and reasonable pragmatists are easily erased. My remark about amputating a limb to preserve the heart, for example, holds true in many arenas, from conservation, an example of reasonable pragmatism, to revolutionary terrorism, an example of ideology. Given this, I think Machiavellian rationales can take root in both types.

"Violence always turns back on itself."

Agreed, again, but non-violence turns back on itself, too, in the form of Nature's wrath - disease and starvation or, worse, armed conflict over limited resources.

"The disagreement is with strategy, not basic human morality. This way of thinking perpetuates a cycle of rationalizing violence."

Well, on this count I fear you're right. For the powerful, at least, most rationalized violence is motivated by potential profits, and has no moral/ethical support.

On the other hand, what of humanitarian intervention? When you engage as a third party combatant, with the goal of halting/minimizing fighting between two or more other that an immoral act? (Obviously, I'm not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan here. Despite some claims to the contrary, our involvement in Afghanistan wasn't motivated soley - even mostly - by moral conscience.)

Anyway, as I said before, I admire your resolve and commitment to an undeniably beautiful ideal. Despite myself, I fell long ago, even though I'd wager that I continue to uphold the philosophy of minimizing impact and injury more than most of my associates. But could be the selfish lens talking...

Freudian Slip said...

Yes, survival of the fittest. It comes down to that. Push forward, or be left in the dust.