Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sapient Exceptionalism


In this post, I wish to defend the commonly held but often assaulted ideology of Human Exceptionalism. Though I do believe in Human Exceptionalism, I believe that Humans are exceptional by virtue of our Sapience, and other Sapient races would be just as exceptional as ourselves. Therefore, I prefer to say I believe in Sapient Exceptionalism.


First we must address what Sapience is. I would argue that there are essentially two types of consciousness. Primary consciousness is merely the subjective experience of physical sensations and emotions. It is likely that most species of vertebrates possess primary consciousness, along with the cephalopods. I would classify any entity which only possesses primary consciousness as sentient. Since sentient beings have the capacity for physical and emotional suffering, they are therefore worthy of moral consideration and should be treated humanely whenever feasible.

Far rarer on this Earth is secondary consciousness, which is the state of being aware of your own consciousness and existence, allowing for introspection. Secondary consciousness is basically consciousness squared. Since both secondary consciousness and higher intelligence require complex neural circuitry, any highly intelligent species is likely to possess secondary consciousness, and vice versa. I define Sapience as possessing both primary and secondary consciousness, as well as having sufficient intelligence to create a civilization. By my definition only Humans are Sapient. I do not however believe that Humans are the only species which possesses secondary consciousness. Elephants, cetaceans, and of course the Great Apes also possesses secondary consciousness. They are also highly intelligent, but less so then us, and none of these species could create a civilization on their own. That being said, I classify these species as quasi-sapient. I would also like to point that quasi-sapient beings are capable of morality as well. Chimpanzees clearly demonstrate both compassion and empathy, as well as a sense of fairness. They are also capable of immorality. Both chimps and dolphins have been observed committing rape, gang killings, and so forth. Sentient species are simply amoral, incapable of comprehending the moral consequences of their actions.

I fully acknowledge that the difference between quasi-sapient and full Sapience is one of degree and not of kind, and I also acknowledge that perhaps there is no cognitive ability in Humans which is not also present in other species to a lesser extent. I don't know this for certain, as it would require an exhaustive inventory of Human abilities and the abilities of every other intelligent species, which I don't have. I do however believe in (theistic) evolution, which means the more recently we share a common ancestor with another species, the more likely they are to share Human qualities. A difference in degree is still significant. There are close to seven billion Humans, where as all the other Great Apes only number half a million. The difference between Humans and the other apes may be small, but they are the key to our enormous success, and we should take pride in them.

Evolution is commonly cited as dethroning Humanity. It does not. To say that there is no difference between Humans and animals is like saying there is no difference between an infant and an adult. Clearly, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Just as an infant gradually matures into an adult, animals gradually evolved into Humans. I do believe that the Universe has a Creator, and that Creator's ultimate purpose for biological evolution was a Sapient species to transition from biological evolution to cultural evolution. This is purely a religious belief of mine, but I do not believe it is contradictory to a purely secular view of evolution. For instance, intelligence is a very useful trait. Due to it's utility, there should be an overall trend in evolution to produce species with higher levels of intelligence, ultimately culminating in a Sapient species.

Furthermore, we have always known that we were biologically animals. No one's ever claimed that there is a biological distinction between Humans and animals. To say that Humans and animals are moral equals because both are made of flesh would be like saying diamonds and coal are equally valuable since both are made of carbon. Humans are metaphysically distinct from other forms of life due to our uniquely high levels of intelligence and self-awareness, which engenders us with many unique and powerful abilities.

Now I have acknowledged that many animals are sentient and capable of feeling both physical and emotional pain, and some would claim that gives them equal moral worth to Humans. I disagree. I would argue that it is not pain itself which is undesirable, but the emotional and psychological trauma it causes. A basic law of the Universe is the more complex a system is, the easier it is for something to go wrong. The Human brain is the most complex object in the known Universe. This is not arrogance, this is fact. Being more complex than animal minds, the Human mind is more vulnerable to trauma. Since animal minds are more resistant to trauma by virtue of their simplicity, their suffering is of less moral consequence (though I would concede that it is not of no moral consequence). When an animal is traumatized, I would still maintain that it is not the same as traumatizing a Human, since less has been lost. Since an animal's mind possesses only primary consciousness and significantly lesser cognitive abilities, it exists lower down the personhood spectrum than a Sapient being like a Human, which possesses both secondary consciousness and unparalleled intelligence among known living creatures.

I am not claiming that being this planet's lone Sapient species gives us the right to behave amorally towards other species. I reiterate that most vertebrates are capable of emotional and physical suffering, and ideally Humans would never have to inflict such suffering upon them. Sadly, we do not live in an ideal world, and sometimes the good of Humans conflicts with the good of other animals. In such unfortunate situations, Humans must come first. Since we possess both primary and secondary consciousness, along with our peerlessly complex brains, Humans are highest up on the personhood spectrum, and therefore of highest moral value, and therefore our needs must take precedent. However, as moral beings Humans are obligated to avoid animal suffering whenever possible.

As I mention in oh my god...it's man bear pig!, I support switching to cultured meat to avoid animal suffering, and I do promise to switch to it once it becomes commercially competitive with real meat. I also support transitioning to vertical farming so as to allow present farmland to be rewilded, and pretty much any method of reducing Humanity's impact on the planet, so long as it does not cause Human suffering. In spite of the damage we've cause to the planet, we're also the only species who could potentially save the planet from a natural catastrophe, which historically have caused far more devastation than we ever have. So long as Humanity causes less environmental damage than an asteroid, I believe our existence is justified. Even if we're not completely unique, we're still something very rare and very special. Something the Earth has never seen before and may never see again. It would be a horrible tragedy if such a magnificent species were lost due to misplaced self loathing.

There are a few more issues I'd like to address; one is cannibalism. I hope I've made it clear that just Because Humans are animals, that doesn't make animals Human. We may be biologically animals, but we are social animals, and cannibalism is profoundly anti-social. If eating the dead is socially acceptable, what happens when you run out of corpses? You turn on each other. It is also unethical to treat a person as anything less than a person. Cannibalism reduces the value of other Human beings to the meat on their bones. I also believe that as the vessel of a Sapient mind, the Human body deserves to be treated with reverence. There is a pragmatic aspect to this, since funeral rituals are a very important of the grieving process. Desecrating a corpse is emotionally traumatizing to the person's survivors. I am aware that these arguments could also be extended to organ donation, however our need for organs is far less prevalent than our need for food, and organ transplantation requires complicated surgery and medical care, whereas cooking flesh is far simpler. So in practice, organ transplantation isn't nearly as likely to destabilize society as cannibalism. Even so, organ transplantation has resulted in Human exploitation, and after regenerative medicine has rendered it obsolete, I don't doubt it will be viewed as a barbaric practice.

Some of you will no doubt point out that not all Humans meet my definition of Sapience due to severe retardation or brain damage. However as Humans we are naturally inclined to empathize with them, so abusing them goes against our conscience. Just like a muscle, a conscience can atrophy from neglect. By degrading such unfortunate individuals, we degrade ourselves by going against our innately compassionate natures. Many non-sapient Humans are also have great emotional value to their family and care-takers, and abusing them would be like desecrating a corpse, except they may still have primary consciousness. Finally, since they are Human in body they are entitled to the same reverence as any other Human body. If only for ceremonial purposes, they should be treated like Human beings.

Of course, Human embyros, fetuses and babies aren't Sapient yet. Part of me doesn't want to touch this with a ten foot pole. Granted, they're not Sapient, but they will become Sapient, and that has to count for something. We all began as pre-sapient, and obviously our experiences as pre-sapient beings, going back to our earliest days in the womb, have a permanent effect on the people we become. Now I am not unsympathetic to the plight of the unexpectedly expecting, and a conflict between a woman's autonomy over her body and a child's right to exist is a tragic situation, and I hope such dilemmas will eventually be rendered moot by highly effective and convenient birth control. I do not want to make a pro-life argument here, but I do believe that an organism that is not presently Sapient, but will mature into a Sapient being, is entitled to Human rights. I will say no more on this horribly controversial matter.

Lastly, I'd like to address bestiality. Sadly, I can only logically argue it is wrong from an animal welfare point of view. I do believe that such acts are degrading to Human dignity, but I admit this is mainly emotive and I cann't really articulate why it's any different than using a sex toy. Anyway, since interspecies sex serves no evolutionary function, it is not favoured by evolution, and is therefore a rare aberration. If you are one of the few Humans who favour sexual relationships with other species, the odds that the animal you've chosen will also be into Humans are practically non-existent. You will therefore be raping that creature, which I'm pretty sure counts as cruelty to animals. We do not consider our children to be capable of consenting to sex, and are not children more capable of such things than non-sapient animals? It is not possible to get consent from an animal, and for evolutionary reasons there is very little chance that it enjoys have sex with a Human, so it really should be unacceptable just for being cruel and, admittedly, gross. Squick!

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