© Roland O. Watson 2001-3
The last chapter
ended with the question of what values we would like our society to have. But
this, on the face of it, is not as difficult as it sounds. The values that we
seek are known as ethics, or at least they start with and derive from ethics.
For example, a number of positive values, including honesty, and patience and
tolerance, and a love of nature, have already been referred to throughout this
book. However, it is important to note that the existence of ethics presumes
that we have free will; that we have a choice in how we behave. If we are wholly
determined, then they do not exist. But, given the many arguments I have made,
I will assume that we do have free will, and therefore that we can have ethics.
Viewed simply, ethics are behavioral screens. They are a set of principles (not tactics!) to guide your behavior in all possible situations. This begins with taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences. In other words, before you do something you should ask yourself what the consequences will be. Will your behavior harm other people in some way, or the environment, or even your culture or nation? (Politicians, take note!) Your first concern should not always be to satisfy yourself (although there are personal ethics, such as to make the most of your life). In this way ethics function as a check on, as a defense against, our innate human selfishness.
We saw before that the types of problems which people cause have occurred again and again throughout history, and we also reviewed the many different types and sources of our bad behavior. To the extent that this behavior can be controlled, the means by which this will be achieved will be ethics (not prisons!).
However, human society is not now, and quite possibly has never truly been, ethical. The question is, why is this the case, and the answer is that these different unethical behaviors have passed the test of time. They have passed the evolutionary test, and been selected as the fittest to survive. In other words, they work! Ruthlessness and selfishness are effective!
Im a thief.
Im a liar.
Theres a chance I sing in the choir.
- Do the Evolution, Pearl Jam
There are many challenges with ethics, and of these the greatest is that they seek to alter behavior that has proven itself in the context of traditional human circumstances. We come from, and in many ways still inhabit, the world of kill or be killed. Because of this, we have the ethics of wild animals, which has been referred to as Natural Law. In this world self-interest is the only ideal, and in the pursuit of self-interest anything goes. There is no such thing as good or evil, at least in a broader social context, or as such terms might relate to anything we do. They only exist to describe things other people do and their impact relative to us; what is good or bad for us.
But humans, in a very important sense, are no longer wild animals. We have been able to rise above our genetic programming. We have a conscience, although it is of course a complicated question where it comes from. (Again, like anything human, it is derived in part from reason, will and education, and in part from form, particularly social form.) Because of this we are in limbo, between natural law and a more civilized system, with some other basis.
Also, once again, it is not as if this has not been recognized. People throughout the ages have been trying to construct such an alternative basis. The starting point in this search has been our existential condition. The unfathomability of the universe and the certainty of death are in fact the logical foundations of natural law. If there is no way we can know if there is an overriding purpose to our existence, there would appear to be no way, no fundamental way, to judge our behavior. (Conversely, if we knew what our purpose was, we could easily - presumably - tailor our behavior to satisfy it.) The problem is that without such a foundation everything inexorably leads to a subjectivist, i.e., supportive of personal selfishness, conclusion. If there is no overall purpose, then your existential goal reduces to your purpose, whatever you choose it to be.
However, we have a need for ethics. We are social animals, and there have to be tradeoffs and compromises between people. We cannot get everything that we want. We therefore need guidelines that will tell us how to act when we are confronted with such tradeoffs, and more generally in all social interactions. For instance, there is a tradeoff between freedom and equality. We want both, but if we focus on equality then we have to give up a few freedoms, although fortunately these are very few, and largely unethical, i.e., the freedom to kill other people. On the other hand, if we focus on freedom, including the freedom to compete, win and conquer, which traditionally has been the case, we now understand that this means we will be unable to achieve real equality.
Also, whenever possible, we want to design our guidelines such that we avoid what is known as zero-sum. This is where, when one person wins, or gets what he or she wants, another person - at least one - necessarily does not. Therefore, an underlying ethic of cooperation, where everyone gets some of what they want, is better than competition, where one person gets everything and the others get nothing at all.
Lastly, we have a crucial ethical need regarding our responsibility for the planet. We must manage our behavior so we reduce and then reverse the environmental problems that we create.
The foremost, or at least the first, of the alternatives to natural law are ethical systems based on religion. Most religions do not in fact accept the above contention of universal unknowability. To them, universal and human purpose is known, and human behavior is regulated by Gods Law. However, it turns out that if you look at the history of human religious traditions, there have actually been two different types of ethical systems that have been forwarded. The first is that to do right, you must follow Gods Law - as revealed by prophets and saviors - or be punished. The second is that God is Life is Truth, and that the ethic of life therefore is to understand and assist it. It is notable that the first system has a negative component, of punishment (although there is also the promise of salvation), while the second is wholly positive. The first also tends to dogma and inflexibility: the Word of God necessarily is perfect, and therefore can never be changed. On the other hand, the second encourages education, and allows for the revision of views as appropriate, and it has also led to a demonstrable reduction in suffering, hence it has had a uniformly positive consequence.
(It of course gets much more complicated than this. There are many different consequences of religious ethical systems, both positive and negative, and these are examined in detail in the Religion chapter.)
The next basis for ethics derives from our social circumstances, but there are a number of different, and divergent, elements of this. The first, which is usually positive, is the ethical standard implied, and taught, by our mothers care for us as an infant, and more broadly from the lifelong support we receive from our family. Our parents and family help us, and we accept this as natural, and by extension we consider it normal to help other people as well. Indeed, you could almost consider this innate, particularly since it, at least the first part - motherly care - also occurs with many other species of life.
The problem is: this is countered and in many cases overcome by either an instinct or a need to compete with other people. I would argue that this in fact represents a need, and even then that it exists only in some circumstances. When resources are abundant, communities of many species, including humans, have shown no desire to compete at all, and instead share and cooperate. What we term the competitive instinct arises only in situations with limited resources and, as we have seen, when it is fueled by social forms.
Indeed, you could ask the question: would you rather enjoy a sociable cup of tea with someone, or fight them to death? Absent all social conditioning, consistently choosing one or the other would constitute an innate ethic. Of course, it is impossible to escape all social conditioning, so the choice cannot be made (although I would hope it is the former). But, the fact that people regularly do not choose tea over a fight - cooperation over competition - clearly reflects social conditioning.
However, there are situations where competition does appear to be ingrained, such as between siblings for food and parental affection. In such cases, social conditioning reinforces this competition. Also, both cooperation and competition, and conditioning, reflect the continual struggle that is part of life. To repeat the above point, in situations of abundant resources we regularly choose cooperation over competition. But in situations where the resources are limited, we get so caught up in the struggle that we do not even see that the first alternative, the cup of tea, or cooperation, sharing and peace, is available. This begs the question: how and when will we ever learn that this is an option?
This difficulty, our continued attachment to natural law, leads to the next means by which society takes a role in our ethics. Society often acts as if we are primitive animals that need to be controlled. And this, of course, is a restatement of the challenge. Can we develop and rise above our history as selfish animals, or do we need society in this way? Is this in fact its ultimate purpose: to control us?
I hope not.
Also, I want to emphasize that this view is in many ways a modern development. Human societies throughout the ages have always originated, arbitrated and enforced different ethics, morals and values. And, they will always do this: it is actually their most fundamental role. The key to the difference between traditional and modern is in the interpretation, i.e., humans can be viewed positively or negatively. Traditional societies usually took the former view. They rarely tried to control or even contain us, just manage us so that we functioned more effectively as a group. Modern society, on the other hand, definitely leans towards the negative view, and the control and containment.
We should not overstate the distinction between traditional and modern, though. In many cases traditional societies were, and are, worse than their modern counterparts: they are still governed by natural law. For example, in many developing countries, particularly if you live in a village or town in a rural area, if a crime is perpetrated against you or your family (or even if you just become aware of some other crime), you cannot go to the police. The police will not arrest and imprison the criminal. Instead, they will find them, and then extract a bribe from them and also quite possibly inform on you. This means there is a high probability that the criminal will come after you, and try to kill you. In this system you have no legal recourse, and there is no justice.
Your only option is the option that exists under natural law, or the domination of the strong over the weak. You can try to kill the criminal yourself, or hire someone else to do it. (Such an action was the only check on early despots.) But, if you do this, you will probably have to kill their entire family as well, to forestall the possibility of revenge. However, for most people this is not an option, either ethically - they wont kill another person, or practically - they cant get access to a gun, or they dont have the funds to pay an assassin. So, again, there is no recourse at all. Of course, even if you could get justice, this would likely plant the seed for a long-term conflict, such as a blood feud. It is therefore no wonder that there are still so many such conflicts in progress around the world.
(Also, it is interesting that in some traditional societies everyone is on their own level. Anytime two people meet, they appraise each other: who is superior and who is inferior. But this is the same thing that dogs do, and many other animals as well. It is in fact as far from a system of equality as it is possible to get.)
Within a society ethical promulgation is the responsibility of its social institutions. And, as we have seen, we have moved from a world of traditional communities, where such institutions (sometimes) conveyed positive messages in support of the social group, to the modern world, where they ignore the welfare of the general public and concentrate instead only on themselves. Also, different institutions have always generated different values, but particularly in the modern world these often conflict, and they regularly are unethical. Through this we can see that social ethics have evolved. The dominant ethics of society nowadays are the ethics of the leaders of our social institutions, of politicians, business executives, press barons, evangelists and, of course, the values of Hollywood. All of these are clearly designed to serve their interests, to the detriment of ours.
One other consequence of this general state of affairs is the prevalence of ethical confusion. With so many different, and competing, and conflicting values out there, it is difficult to know what, and whom, to believe. For instance, you may not think that you, personally, have an ethic, but you do, even though it likely has many contradictory elements. Your ethic is based on your own reasoned moral development, as furthered by your education. It is the set of principles that you have adopted by choice, coupled with the values (good form) that you have learned from your family and society. However, all of this has also been combined with, and subverted by, the values that are inherent in the sources of bad behavioral form to which you have been exposed.
For most people, what results is an ethical hodgepodge or mishmash. And this is what causes the confusion, such as over how to act in a given situation. In addition, this confusion causes us to feel as if life itself is in some way contradictory. All of this affects our behavior, makes it less than rational, and also our self-view: it assaults our self-esteem.
Everyone needs an ethical system which they can call their own: one that is reasonable, which is based on education and experience, and which is internally consistent and applicable in all situations. But, in the modern world, few of us have one. Also, in this way we can see that an ethic is more than just rules of behavior; it actually constitutes a philosophy of life. We need ethics, this philosophy, to make sense of life and to make the best of our life; and also for our role as part of society, to guide us to make the best tradeoffs and compromises between the competing needs of different individuals.
In summary, society can no longer be trusted for moral guidance. We therefore need a new ethical basis. And, it turns out that this basis is the same as the solution to the failure of our social checks and balances: it is us. We must now find our ethics, somehow, on our own, as individuals. The question is: how can we possibly do this without falling prey to subjectivism and selfishness?
However, as difficult as this might seem, I guarantee that it is possible. We saw earlier that one of the implications of the principle of human equality is that we can all be heros. If this is the case, and it certainly is, it means we can all be ethical as well.
Another perspective on innate ethics is that at birth we inhabit an ethical vacuum. Other than crawling to our mother for food and warmth, and perhaps jostling with our brothers and sisters in the process, we have no sense whatsoever of how to behave. We have only a fundamental motivation to live, and the rest of our behavior is necessarily shaped by environmental and genetic influences, which can easily lead it to go off in unethical directions. To counter this we need a basis as individuals for making behavioral choices, and the options that are available to us are reason and emotion, i.e., to do what we think we should do or what we want to do.
In considering these I will start with emotion, since it has two fundamental flaws. The first is that it is too closely aligned with our self-interest: it makes us prey to our innate selfishness, and causes us to devalue the interests of others. Also, it is by definition out of our (rational) control, and therefore is subject to great volatility. For example, love is probably the best and the highest of our emotions. But when it is not reciprocated, this causes discomfort. Discomfort in turn causes dissatisfaction, which itself readily leads to discontent, and then resentment, and anger, and hate. Without reason to temper our emotion, it can easily lead to extremes, particularly divisive and destructive extremes. Put in another context, earlier I touted the benefits of impulsiveness as a means to effect personal change. But without reason as a guide, we would be equally prone to follow our unethical impulses as well as our good ones.
But, there are problems with reason as well. Relying on reason to too great an extent tends to lead one towards asceticism and away from satisfying, and ethical, passions. Life is passionate, and this should not be renounced. The art of life is to use your reason to shape it, to construct an ethical guide for it, but to use your emotion - your spontaneity - to live it. Viewed another way, you want to temper your reason with your emotion: sometimes you follow your mind, but other times you follow your heart. Moreover, you also want to temper both with the benefits of your experience. By doing this you will make use of all of your strengths, abilities and resources as you pursue the greatest opportunity of all, which is life.
To expand this description, you should use your reason to further your formal education (book and school) and for spiritual or philosophical speculation, to preserve the planet, and to live in peace. You should use your emotion to have fun, to enjoy the most simple satisfactions of life all the way through to its most exhilarating and outrageous moments. Also, you should use both as guides in your relationships with other people. Finally, you should use your experience to oversee this entire process: as time goes by to get better and better at the art of living your life.
In this way, it is possible to make value judgments without recourse to God, and in the face of the subjectivism that is implied by the ant-farm analogy. This type of ethical system is conscience. Of course, developing and applying it will be a great challenge, and many people, at least in some circumstances, will fail: they will act unethically.
The problem is, human nature, or human behavior, depends on the circumstances. In good circumstances it is easy to be ethical, and to have great humanity. In bad circumstances, and todays world in general - dominated by institutions and ridden as it is with their form - is bad, it is much more difficult. People are compelled to self-protection, to do whatever they must to survive. The greatest challenge of all, again, the real test of humanity, is to retain our ethics in such circumstances. Of course, many, many individuals have already proven through their actions that this is possible. Only time will tell if we can prove it as a species, if using our reason, emotion and experience, but mainly our reason tempered with experience, we can learn that this option is available and adopt it species-wide.
There are many other ethical challenges as well, which we will review later in this chapter and in the last two parts of the book. One of them, though, which is dealing with anger, both your own and the anger of others, is worth some consideration here. This is because anger underlies and perpetuates so many of our seemingly unresolvable problems.
We all get involved in a moment of emotion, and then we cannot get out.
- The Quiet American, Graham Greene, Penguin, page 152
For most people ethics depend on the situation. In other words, they practice what are known as relativistic ethics. They make up ethics on the spot, to fit the situation, to satisfy their personal selfishness. But we are seeking ethics that are firm, that are general principles, based on reason, and which guard against our selfishness. However, in another, deeper sense, ethics are situation-dependent. This is because all situations are different, even unique. You will have to decide for yourself how to apply your ethics in many different situations. For instance, it is easy to accept the golden rule, but does its converse also apply: do unto others as they have already done unto you? If someone takes advantage of you, are you justified in seeking revenge? Do two wrongs make a right? There is often a fine line between justice and revenge, and how you respond should always depend on the specific circumstances.
Anger is an extremely complex subject. This is because it can be both legitimate and not. If someone causes you harm, you are completely justified in being angry about it. Indeed, you would be a fool not to be.
In such cases anger is an expression of reason. And this anger should be resolved; you should obtain justice for your injury. On the other hand, such anger can easily get out of control: the emotion may take over with the consequence that reason is left behind. In most cases this would be wrong: it would lead not to justice but to revenge. However, this is not true in all cases. Even irrational, uncontrollable anger, and anger leading to violence, is justified in a few circumstances, such as when you are defending yourself or your family from attack. (It is in these circumstances that anger has proven its evolutionary merit.)
But, because anger is such a volatile emotion, and also because it gives you such a sense of power, it is also easily abused. For example, appeals to anger, like the creation of fear, are a regular tactic of behavioral form. Sources of form manipulate us to be angry about something, using rhetoric and not logic, and then get us to act so as to suit their purposes.
Also, there are risks even in the application of legitimate anger, as is seen clearly in the world of activism. Activists are legitimately angry about social and environmental problems, and they want to do something about them. And in general, they have three choices. The first is to use reason to educate people, particularly the people who create the problems, to alter their behavior. Secondly, they can convey this anger, and use it to energize an opposition. And this is to use anger as a good form, since it is reasonable and not directed to achieving a personally selfish end. Such a use is commonly seen at demonstrations in the leading of group chants, and also in activist literature. However, it is form, and the recipients of it, lacking the tempering reason of the advocates, may easily be inclined to express their anger without limit. And through this even good anger can end up having the same effects as bad anger (which is the last option but really not an option at all), which is anger motivated wholly by selfish ends, and used to inspire mobs to form and to riot and wreak havoc.
Put simply, when you are emotionally involved your reason is clouded. And, it is easy to make mistakes. Also, even if your reason stays intact, other people may be swayed. This is why reason is far preferable as a motivator to good form, including legitimate anger.
But, in any case, you cannot outlaw anger. What I am trying to say is that it represents one of the clearest and most tangible examples of the real world problems that our ethics must overcome, and also that any attempts to use it in solving these problems are highly risky and may easily go astray.
Now, to close the chapter I will briefly consider some basic ethics regarding your relationships with:
- other people
- social institutions
- the planet, and other forms of life
As to ethics for yourself, we have already covered these extensively under personal development, including the two fundamental goals to learn about and experience life, and to help other people and species. Also, a number of additional guidelines for individuals are given in the Your Future chapter in the final part of the book.
For your relationships with other people, the basic ethic is to show respect, both of them as individuals and of their cultures. You should accept other people as they are, not try to impose your own form on them. However, there are two distinctions that must be made when applying this ethic. The first is that you should not tolerate intolerance, or prejudice, or primitive and savage behavior. When in Rome, you are not always obliged to do as the Romans do. In this regard, the real challenge is not to control your own behavior, but to decide what your response to the intolerance should be. In some cases passive nonacceptance, such as disinterest, will be called for, but in others outright rejection, even intervention, will be appropriate. (This is regularly the motivation for activism.) You will have to use your will, your reason, but also with some allowance for your emotion - for legitimate anger - to decide.
Related to this is the idea that it is itself unethical to support others who are unethical. We have already seen an example of this with police forces, which refuse to bring bad cops to justice. In general, this ethical challenge most commonly applies to employees of institutions who discover cases of institutional wrongdoing. Such wrongdoings must be revealed, perhaps anonymously, as to the press, or at least protested. Of course, it can get much more difficult than this, as for a family member who becomes aware of the misdeeds of another, such as by a mother of her son. The appropriate behavior in such cases will depend on the specific circumstances, on the individuals and the misdeeds involved. But at a minimum there should be communication within the family and, to the greatest extent possible, and using reason and perhaps even threats, the unethical individual should be persuaded to desist from his or her actions. (A recent public example of such a situation was David Kaczynski turning his brother Ted into the police, without confronting him first. This was a curious, and in a way unethical - even cowardly - choice.)
To continue, the ethic of having respect will also lead you away from causing harm. And, regarding this, you should try to live such that you do not injure anyone, in the broadest sense of the phrase (anyone includes other species). Also, I realize that at times, such as in love affairs, this will be impossible.
This in turn, along with the previous discussion of anger, raises the question of forgiveness. When, or for what, should you forgive someone? I would argue that anything can and should be forgiven, with two conditions, the first of which is absolutely essential. Justice must be served, the consequences of the action must be paid, so there must be punishment in those cases where there is a real misdeed. In addition, forgiveness should be granted when remorse for the misdeed is given. The question is, what if this remorse in not forthcoming?
Another way to look at this is to recognize that forgiveness is the opposite of revenge, and also that neither of them exist in natural law. They are largely the province of humans. Revenge and torture are humanity at its worst. Forgiving someone, even someone who has not expressed remorse (but who has received justice), is humanity at its best. Forgiving someone a misdeed is the most difficult thing a person can do. It is perhaps the most challenging ethical test of all.
The next ethic to consider, or reconsider, is the issue of negativity. One aspect of form, which can yield either a positive or a negative result, is that you (generally) get what you ask for. What this means is that if you want people to be good, they will be: if you give them this option, they will usually take it. But if you do not want people to be good, or even if you just presume that they will not be, then they wont. This is bad form, and modern social institutions are guilty of it all the time. They presume that we will be bad, so we fulfill their expectations.
At a deeper level, negativity and positivity function as feedback mechanisms, further examples of the phenomenon that as you change it, it changes you. For positivity:
- If I treat you nice, you like it and are probably nice to me in return.
- If I continue to treat you nice, you come to expect it, and you also form the pattern of being nice to me.
- Moreover, you incorporate what you have learned from your interactions with me into your behavior with other people. You tend to be positive with them, and they in turn are positive with you.
Therefore, to the extent that we want to construct good relationships with other people, and a better society, we have to learn to treat each other positively. More than anything, you should do your best not to be negative with people who are trying to be good. You should not let any of your own selfish concerns get in the way of their trying to be ethical.
My last comment on ethics regarding other people has to do with what are known as human rights. In this book I argue that humans have rights, innate rights that exist or which accrue to us merely because we are alive, and that we - as activists - should work to see that they are extended to everyone, everywhere. Now, I want to look at this another way. I want to question it, and even refute it.
In life, in a very important sense, there is no such thing as a right. Rights exist only insofar as they are earned. A right without this is the same as a consequence without an associated action. Indeed, not having rights, rights that you are supposed to have, again, makes you in some way a victim.
In concept, the rights to freedom, and equality, to food and water, etc., appear so obvious that they can almost be taken for granted. But in practice, it is a different story. A right that is not won, and defended, is nothing. If it does not exist now, it never will, and if it does exist, it could easily, perhaps inevitably, be taken away.
Rights, as a concept, while self-evident, constitute a weak and even dangerous portrayal. Arguing for human rights may well not achieve the intended effect. Rather, a more accurate formulation is that such rights are goals, or needs. To the extent that we can only survive if our needs are met and our goals are fulfilled, so it is with rights. We can only survive if we have them.
Do children have rights? Only if adults fight to win them, and defend them. Does the environment, and do other species, have rights? Again, only if we win and defend them.
Rights are not entitlements. They are goals and needs. Nothing in nature is free. Life entails no such gift (other than its creation). The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is a statement of goals, and it should be recognized and used as such.
As to ethics regarding our relationships with society and social institutions, on your own and with others you should work to confront their modern form, and get them to refocus their efforts from satisfying their needs to once again serving ours. And, if you are employed in such an institution, you should consider the specific comments for such individuals that I made earlier in the Fighting Form chapter. Also, in order to guide our behavior towards society we need a clearer idea of what we want the nature of our society to be, and to this end a statement of our social goals is given in the Economics and Development chapter.
Lastly, regarding our relationship with the planet and other species of life, the following quote, from a sign at the entrance to Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka, captures it best.
Through these gates you enter a protected area. The animals, birds, trees, the water, the breeze on your face and every grain of sand, are gifts that nature has passed on to you through your ancestors so that you may survive. These gifts are sacred and should be respected. Whisper a silent prayer as you pass through for the protection of wilderness around you and ensure that what you see and feel is passed on to the unborn generations to come.
This should clearly be our approach to all of the worlds ecosystems and species, not just to Yala!
We should - we must - learn to respect the rights - the goals and needs - of other species, instead of selfishly caring only about our own. The rest of the life on earth has been caught in a trap by our rapid population growth and voracious appetite. The seemingly unstoppable evolutionary process of increasing diversity, which has been underway for billions of years, and which is responsible for the phenomenal natural beauty of the planet, has effectively been reversed. All of the species that have suffered need a respite from our pressure. Indeed, they need our assistance, so they can quickly regenerate themselves.
In an ideal world, and in the world we must, and will, create, the entire planet would - it will - be turned into a park. By this I mean that massive expanses of natural habitat will be preserved, and restored, and allowed to be subject only to the forces of natural law and the patterns of natural evolution, i.e., without any human tampering or interference. The means to this end will be environmental activism, voluntary control of our population and consumption, and well-reasoned land, agricultural, industrial and technology planning.
Also, as this says, nature itself clearly should be left subject to natural law. We, because of our abilities, need our own ethic: one based on those abilities - on reason and not selfishness. But this does not mean that we have the right to alter the ethics of other species or to apply the manipulative abilities that derive from our reason to them, for instance, to shape their behavior (or genes).
The lifeline of our planet, of any planet that bears life, is a string of species. Our lifeline, our string, is now some three billion years old, and both hopefully and likely it will continue for another such period. Therefore, any species in such an immense string is, by definition, no better than any other. Each did their job as a species: each stayed alive long enough to evolve. (Even those species which failed to evolve served a purpose, by forming part of the overall ecology and therefore, directly or indirectly, supporting those which did.)
Currently, we may be the most well adapted species on earth, meaning with the best chance to survive and evolve, or we may not. It is impossible to say with certainty. Hopefully, many, many species - millions of them - also are sufficiently well adapted to survive and evolve. And, to the extent that they are, there is no possibility of judgment between us and them. Indeed, other lines may prove to be more durable, over the long-term, for whatever reasons. They will ultimately be the links, the right links, that lead life forward, which in fact makes them better.
But, even if we do prove to be the most well adapted, you cannot even say that we are the best at this moment, i.e., until we hand over to our successors. We could actually prove to be the best by taking away - by destroying - the ability of other species to adapt and evolve, by taking away their lives, which in a sense - certainly to them - actually makes us the worst.
It is of course impossible to refrain from killing other things, even if you are a vegan and shun animal products entirely. Your body kills organisms, automatically, as they invade it for their own ends. Parasites, viruses and bacteria, all must be fought off continually by your bodys defense system, or you will die.
But these organisms are alive, too, and they also are only trying to live. Life, for all living creatures, is a struggle in which survival requires that other life must die.
We saw that humans in their perspectives on nature have a bias. We ignore this struggle, but view its results as beautiful. But nature can be viewed as beautiful in another way as well. Plants, of course, are beautiful from our traditional aesthetic perspective, which is sensory, in their design and color and grace. And plants are also beautiful because they live a relatively peaceful existence. There may be tremendous competition between them for space, but their actual survival involves little death. It is largely a process of photosynthesis and the conversion of inorganic matter. So too it is with butterflies and other pollinating insects, which to survive do not kill other life; instead, they help spread it.
But all higher or more complex life (life with a central nervous system and self-consciousness) kills other living things to survive all the time, including, if not (for some species) predominantly, other higher life. The different species of life can in fact be categorized by the amount, and the complexity, of the other life that they kill. But, and here is the beauty, this is not in itself horrible, or even unethical. It simply is. It cannot be judged for, again, what measure could be used? (Plants are better than animals? Butterflies are better than plants?) It is the natural rhythm, the natural symphony, of existence. And we are part of it, too. To say that life is not beautiful, but that it is ugly, is to say that we are ugly, too.
But we are not ugly. We sense, and we know, that life, including the creativity that we bring to our own development, has beauty. Life has an innate beauty, and also an applied beauty through this creativity. The extent or limit of the beauty of life, though, it is impossible to know, but it clearly reaches extraordinary levels. Indeed, what is the universe itself, a ballet of plants and animals, of planets, stars and galaxies, if not beautiful?
However, even after considering all of this, we still need an ethic. Our goal should therefore be to minimize our impact on other forms of life. We want to kill less life, as little life as possible, particularly higher life, since it can feel fear and pain. But, it is not just killing; we should also eliminate any and all forms of mistreatment of other species of life.
It is in these types of cases that activists feel compelled to rise to the ethical challenge. For example, if while walking down the street you see someone torturing an animal, you should, and if you are ethical you will, intervene. But such torture actually goes on all the time, and on a massive scale, behind closed doors. In response to this animal rights activists do intervene, even though this regularly requires civil disobedience, including trespass and even property destruction, as of the instruments of torture.
Making medicines or vaccines to help humans is an ethical end, but torturing and killing animals in the process is an unethical means. If we cannot find a way to develop such treatments using only ethical means, then we simply should not have them. We should use our will to deny ourselves. We should do our best to survive without them, in other words, continue doing what we have already done for two million years.
The same goes with fur. Being warm is an ethical end, but wearing the skin of animals now that we have other and better alternatives, is not an ethical means to accomplish this, not even if such animals can be harvested sustainably. You do not farm tigers.
Is there any difference between killing flies, or mosquitos, or even parasites, and killing people? In principle, no, there is not. A fly is part of a billion year old lifeline just as much as you are. This therefore gives rise to the great ethical challenge of application, since to survive you must kill. The solution, as stated earlier, is that the only situation where you may justifiably kill is in self-defense. But, is it a case of self-defense when drug companies torture and slaughter thousands of animals to try to make drugs from which to profit, including drugs that may save lives? They would certainly say so, but this is self-serving, since as we will see later, their only concern is to make a profit. Life-saving drugs are pursued only to the extent that this can be accomplished profitably: the companys motivation is far from altruistic. Therefore, life-saving medicines are ethical only if they have been developed without animal exploitation. They are not ethical if such exploitation was used.
As to eating meat, and dairy products, and using animal products in general, we must confront our carnivorous heritage, and also our bodys need for protein. But vegans have proven that we can reduce our reliance on other non-plant life greatly, if not completely. To the extent that you can follow their example, this would be an admirable ethic to have. But am I going to demand that you do this, and even seek to punish you for non-compliance? No. That would be form: me telling you how to act. As unsatisfactory as it may be to some, ethics are only guidelines, but as we have seen we will only install a better world, with a sustainable equilibrium, if we can get there voluntarily.
I would implore you, though, not to patronize McDonalds and other such slaughterhouses. Finding your own food in nature, for your own sustenance, as humans traditionally have done, is one thing. Satisfying a socially prescribed need for obesity, and supporting the institutions that promote it (and also hunting for sport), is another.
And, it is not only fast food outlets: any meat that is available in a supermarket likely came from a factory farm (an animal concentration camp). Organic foods, including meats, where the animals living conditions are far superior to life in a factory farm, are available. Of course, they may be more expensive, but the solution to this is simple: eat organic, and eat less!
In conclusion, though, ethics, like life, are rarely easy. For instance, taking the above to an extreme, some people would say that you should not kill mosquitoes, simply because they may carry malarial or other parasites. (A few people would even go so far as to say that the art of Bonsai is tree torture.) It is better to let the mosquitoes bite you, and if you do catch malaria, then to treat it. But then there is the question of the treatment: was it ethically produced? Still better is to apply your reason and use a mosquito repellant. But then the question becomes: what about the insecticide? It contains harmful chemicals that pollute the ecosystem, and it was produced using destructive technology that involved at a minimum the leveling of many specific environments (the land for the factory, the land where the construction materials were mined or cut, etc.). Such ethical challenges necessarily require complicated decisions about consumption, and a further difficulty, which will be discussed later, is the frequent unavailability of the information that you need to make them.