ETHICS TOWARDS NATURE
By Roland Watson
To close this series, I will again consider our relationship with the planet, and with other species of life. The following quote - which I saw on a sign at the entrance to Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka - captures this relationship well.
"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."
I believe this should unquestionably be our approach to all of the world's ecosystems and species, not just to Yala National Park.
The human trap
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.
An ideal world
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, 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, in other words, 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.
All products that have genetically-modified ingredients, and all clones, should of course be labeled as such, but as I just said, it goes deeper than this. Through our technology we are applying the idea that might is right to other species. This is unethical. We do not in fact have this right. There should be no genetic engineering, or cloning, of other forms of life.
The value of life
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.
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. Indeed, 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, in other words, 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 body's defense system, or you will die. But, these organisms are alive, too, and they are also only trying to live. Life, for all living creatures, is a struggle in which survival requires that other life must die.
The beauty of life
I said 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 - meaning life with a central nervous system and self-consciousness - kills other living things to survive all the time, including, if not predominantly - for some species - 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.
However, 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, 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?
An ethic towards life
Nonetheless, 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 case 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 in some cases this requires civil disobedience.
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 hundred thousand years.
The same goes with fur. Being warm is an ethical end, but wearing the fur 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 I said 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 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 their only concern is to make a profit. Life-saving drugs are pursued only to the extent that this can be done profitably. The company's 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 body's need for protein. However, 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, then, 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. And, 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 fast food restaurants, 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. Much of the meat in supermarkets comes from factory farms, which activists term animal concentration camps. 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!
What all of this illustrates is that 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 might even go so far as to say that the art of Bonsai is tree torture.
Is it 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, including the land for the factory, and the land where the construction materials were mined or cut. Such ethical challenges necessarily require complicated decisions about consumption, and a further difficulty is the frequent unavailability of the information that you need to make them.
As I implied earlier, product labels need to be completely revised, to give us all the information that we need to choose well.
© Roland Watson 2014