Rationalistic or rationalizing ethics?

So I’m back on the grid after a long absence.  I apologize if anyone has been eagerly expecting my presence for the last month-and-a-half, although I suspect there is about a 2% chance of that.  In addition to the explanations that my brother has already provided, I would add that I have been trying to distance myself a little from this project to think about what I want to do with it and perhaps re-orient myself a little.  The major thing is that I would like to make my presence a little less reactive, not just responding to things I’ve read but also pushing the cart of my own volition, though of course most things I think about are sparked by some outside stimulus.

 One thing I’ve thought about a lot lately is the pragmatic basis for a lot of our ethics.  I’ve always thought that morals should be able to stand and fall on their own basis, but I have to admit that most of the time they owe a lot to communication.  What I mean by that is not any particular principle, but just the difference between how we apply our ethics to, for example, other adult people versus, for example, animals or children.  I don’t intend to claim that this this form of discrimination is a bad thing or a good thing, but I would like to simply observe one or two things.

It is usually presumed, at least in our society, that all adult people in the world have essentially the same moral rights.  Yet this does not really seem to me purely a matter of principle.  Partly we grant rights to others out of a fear of what they or their allies might be able to do to us if we do not, and also out of a desire to secure the possible benefits of their goodwill.  Because intelligence and communication greatly amplifies the ability of an individual or group to affect those around them, no matter how isolated or oppressed.  In short, being social animals, cooperation is generally the best strategy for us from a purely self-interested point of view, although even this often comes at the expense of certain other individuals.  This is obviously not the case with, for example, animals (even the relationship with useful animals like dogs or horses canno be considered cooperative in the same way).

 With them it is basically ethics in the abstract.  Whether we treat them well or badly is not likely to have much of an effect on us.  Maybe an individual will lash out if threatened or in pain, but they are not likely to coordinate their efforts or make use of technology to harm us in any significant or prolonged manner.  Sure, people are wary of animals that can harm them, either as individuals or in packs, like bears or bees or army ants.  But even in this case it is only within an immediate context.  There is little fear that wiping out a nest of hornets with a can of Raid will result in the incident’s being remembered in the collective hornet memory and avenged by other groups. 

 Even with children, despite the ability to mutually communicate, the risk of retaliation, due to smaller size and experience, incomplete intellectual formation, strong attachment to parents, etc. make them much less likely to band together in any sort of menacing way.  It is generally claimed that children enjoy less rights because they need to be protected and guided until they attain adulthood, and I think there is a good deal of merit in this.  But one could nonetheless legitimately turn this around and claim that is is because they are inexperienced and vulnerable (and small) that it is possible to get away with granting them fewer rights.

 By none of this do I mean to claim that ethics is just a fraud, or that animals should enjoy rights commensurate with humans, or that parenting is just a rationalized subjugation.  I simply mean to point out that perceived principles often conform remarkably closely with rules of behavior which are in aggregate simple self-interest.  With a number of animals, for example, we are essentially programmed to eat them, not cooperate with them.   This may be explained away, generally by reference to their (perceived) lesser intelligence, but I would simply point out that lesser intelligence is not generally an admissable criterion for discrimination in ethical debates.  But my whole point is that whether this is right or wrong seems a bit academic, since the fact of the correspondence (whether causal or not) between self-interest and ethics more or less ensures that it will continue for the most part, whether the Spanish government tries to grant rights to the great apes or not. 

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