mbd_map 19: A Dedication homepage homepage forum lectures 1: A Word of Encouragement 2: Dar al-Hikma 3: Proclus' Elements 4: Reversion in the Corporeal 5: Mathematical Recursion 6: Episodic Memory 7: Mortality 7 Supplement: Classical Mortality Arguments 8: Personal Identity 9: Existential Passage 10: Precedent at Dar al-Hikma 10 Supplement: Images of Dar al-Hikma 11: Passage Types 12: A Metaphysical Grammar 13: Merger Probability 14: Ex Nihilo Probability 15: Noetic Reduction 16: Summary of Mathematical Results 17: Application to Other Species 18: Potential Benefits 19: A Dedication appendices works cited

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A Word of Encouragement


Dar al-Hikma


Proclus' Elements


Reversion in the Corporeal


Mathematical Recursion


Episodic Memory




Classical Mortality Arguments


Personal Identity
1   2   3   4  


Existential Passage
1   2   3  


Precedent at Dar al-Hikma


Images of Dar al-Hikma


Passage Types


A Metaphysical Grammar


Merger Probability


Ex Nihilo Probability


Noetic Reduction


Summary of Mathematical Results


Application to Other Species
1   2   3   4  


Potential Benefits


A Dedication


Works Cited

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Chapter 18
Potential Benefits

Heretofore I have presented Metaphysics by Default as an abstract, theoretical philosophy.  This mode of presentation has fixed our attention on the properties intrinsic to the metaphysics; it's a presentation appropriate for our first, halting steps into a new idea.
       Now I'd like us to take a big step forward, out into the living world.  Metaphysics by Default has practical application to philosophies of environmental ethics.  Its benefits derive from the distinctive properties we've come to understand through the theoretical presentation of previous chapters.  In this chapter prominent philosophers will set the tone by defining environmental ethics in their own words.  Once they've spoken I'll re-introduce some beneficial properties of Metaphysics by Default.

We lead off with a quotation from the philosopher Peter Singer.
       Peter Singer has worked to raise awareness of animal suffering.  His goal (sometimes obscured by his provocative manner) is to lift environmental ethics above the ancient "contract model," which applies justice only to those humans capable of reciprocating our actions.  Singer believes that this model is insufficient for a humane society because some members of society are incapable of reciprocating our actions.  Awareness of this deficiency prods humane societies to move beyond the contract model, extending ethics to non-reciprocating persons.  Singer notes that this ethical advancement, while an improvement over the contract model, does not yet meet the legitimate ethical demands of other species and future generations.  Those communities are still excluded by our outdated ethics:
Most striking of all is the impact of the contract model on our attitude to future generations.  "Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?" would be the view we ought to take if only those who can reciprocate are within the bounds of ethics.  There is no way in which those who will be alive in the year 2100 can do anything to make our lives better or worse.  Hence if obligations only exist where there can be reciprocity, we need have no worries about problems like the disposal of nuclear waste.  True, some nuclear wastes will still be deadly for a quarter of a million years; but as long as we put it in containers that will keep it away from us for 100 years, we have done all that ethics demands of us. [1]
Metaphysics by Default argues against the contract model.  It posits existential passage to a future generation, without exception.  This rule was established back in Chapter 9.  The existential passage is thought to take effect straightaway, as soon as a recipient emerges to break the stasis of mortal amnesia.  As about five human children are born every second, the stasis would appear to be very brief — only a small fraction of a second on average.  This temporal fact places our afterlife concern in the generation which follows hard upon our departure, rather than in some generation of the distant, hazy future.  Arguably a focused concern for the immediate future generation is a better ethical motivator than an indistinct concern for all future generations.  At the very least it is an improvement over the ethical concern of contract ethics, which makes no provision for future generations.
       Singer's reciprocating ethicist asks, "Why should I do anything for posterity?"  To this question Metaphysics by Default can reply, "Because I join posterity in the consequent of my present actions."

Noetic reduction also comes into play here.  We recall from Chapter 15 that Metaphysics by Default posits a rapid[2] rate of noetic reduction for any group's given starting population.  For example, noetic reduction would coalesce a group with a starting population of 300,000,000 down to a population of 3,000 in about 510 years.  (This, while the overall population remained unchanged.)
       Given a few hundred years more, the process would reduce a population group of several billion down to the minimum psychological atomic — a single individual.
       Now, "common destiny" is a phrase with some panache among ethicists and ecological advocates.  But the literal truth of the phrase remains unclear so long as we lack a metaphysics which can state that truth with some rigor.  An audience indisposed to accept common destiny as gospel can ask, "Why ever should destinies be 'common,' and not individual?"  Metaphysics by Default replies, "Because of noetic reduction."
       Noetic reduction lends "common destiny" a very clear meaning.

In sum, these properties of Metaphysics by Default enhance Singer's ethical appeal towards future generations.  The appeal holds true even if Homo sapiens should prove to be the only species whose future generations are deserving of ethical concern.
       But is that actually the case?  Or are some other species also deserving?  If some are, how should we distinguish those deserving from those which are not?
       For the moment, we'll ignore the arguments of Chapter 17 and let other philosophers speak to these points.  Many philosophers of environmental ethics have composed answers to these questions.  One of the first and most famous is Aldo Leopold.
       Leopold was an early advocate of "ecocentrism," the belief that moral value is resident in nature.  This philosophical forester turned a naturalist's eye towards the creatures of his farm.  In A Sand County Almanac Leopold sketched what he could imagine of their inner lives.  It's a pleasure to read his field notes from a winter excursion, which I reproduce below.  I encourage the reader to dawdle over this Almanac passage, giving freedom and ample time to the imagination as Leopold unpacks each animal's inner life:

January Thaw

Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a night of thaw when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land.  It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter.  The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world, dragging his belly across the snow.  His track marks one of the earliest datable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year.
       The track is likely to display an indifference to mundane affairs uncommon at other seasons; it leads straight across-country, as if its maker had hitched his wagon to a star and dropped the reins.  I follow, curious to deduce his state of mind and appetite, and destination if any.
= = =
The months of the year, from January up to June, are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions.  In January one may follow a skunk track, or search for bands on the chickadees, or see what young pines the deer have browsed, or what muskrat houses the mink have dug, with only an occasional and mild digression into other doings.  January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold.  There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.
= = =
A meadow mouse, startled by my approach, darts damply across the skunk track.  Why is he abroad in daylight?  Probably because he feels grieved about the thaw.  Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public view and ridicule.  Indeed the thawing sun has mocked the basic premises of the microtine economic system!
       The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack:  supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized.  To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.
= = =
A rough-legged hawk comes sailing over the meadow ahead.  Now he stops, hovers like a kingfisher, and then drops like a feathered bomb into the marsh.  He does not rise again, so I am sure he has caught, and is now eating, some worried mouse-engineer who could not wait until night to inspect the damage to his well-ordered world.
       The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may catch mice.  He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.
= = =
The skunk track enters the woods, and crosses a glade where the rabbits have packed down the snow with their tracks, and mottled it pink with urinations.  Newly exposed oak seedlings have paid for the thaw with their newly barked stems.  Tufts of rabbit-hair bespeak the year's first battles among the amorous bucks.  Further on I find a bloody spot, encircled by a wide-sweeping arc of owl's wings.  To this rabbit the thaw brought freedom from want, but also a reckless abandonment of fear.  The owl has reminded him that thoughts of spring are no substitute for caution.
= = =
The skunk track leads on, showing no interest in possible food, and no concern over the rompings or retributions of his neighbors.  I wonder what he has on his mind; what got him out of bed?  Can one impute romantic motives to this corpulent fellow, dragging his ample beltline through the slush?  Finally the track enters a pile of driftwood, and does not emerge.  I hear the tinkle of dripping water among the logs, and I fancy the skunk hears it too.  I turn homeward, still wondering.[3]
Leopold's narrative places us in the minds of his farmland denizens.  It is tempting to grant these creatures ethical consideration solely on the strength of Leopold's imagination.  But as a precaution against hidden anthropomorphism, we should check Leopold's empathy against what other ethicists have to say about animals' inner lives.
       The nineteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham attempted to "trace the insuperable line" dividing those creatures deserving of natural rights from those undeserving.  He succeeded in narrowing the problem down to a single question:

[T]he question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?[4]
Singer has taken Bentham's question to heart and proposed an argument which equates animal suffering (Bentham's "insuperable line"[5]) with one particular anatomic structure:

How Do We Know That Animals Can Feel Pain?
       We can never directly experience the pain of another being, whether that being is human or not.  When I see my daughter fall and scrape her knee, I know that she feels pain because of the way she behaves — she cries, she tells me her knee hurts, she rubs the sore spot, and so on.  I know that I myself behave in a somewhat similar — if more inhibited — way when I feel pain, and so I accept that my daughter feels something like what I feel when I scrape my knee.
       The basis of my belief that animals can feel pain is similar to the basis of my belief that my daughter can feel pain.  Animals in pain behave in much the same way as humans do, and their behaviour is sufficient justification for the belief that they feel pain.  It is true that, with the exception of those apes who have been taught to communicate by sign language, they cannot actually say that they are feeling pain — but then when my daughter was a little younger she could not talk either.  She found other ways to make her inner states apparent, however, so demonstrating that we can be sure that a being is feeling pain even if the being cannot use language.
       To back up our inference from animal behaviour, we can point to the fact that the nervous systems of all vertebrates, and especially of birds and mammals, are fundamentally similar.  Those parts of the human nervous system that are concerned with feeling pain are relatively old, in evolutionary terms.  Unlike the cerebral cortex, which developed only after our ancestors diverged from other mammals, the basic nervous system evolved in more distant ancestors common to ourselves and the other "higher" animals.  This anatomical parallel makes it likely that the capacity of animals to feel is similar to our own.
       It is significant that none of the grounds we have for believing that animals feel pain hold for plants.  We cannot observe behaviour suggesting pain — sensational claims to the contrary have not been substantiated — and plants do not have a centrally organized nervous system [emphasis added] like ours.[6]
For Singer, the critical anatomic structure is just the central nervous system (CNS) itself.  The CNS makes possible the sensation of pleasure and pain.  Consequently the CNS makes a creature deserving of natural rights and ethical treatment.
       Singer's ethical conclusion dovetails with the metaphysical conclusion of Chapter 17.  In that chapter we found that Metaphysics by Default would seem to apply not to Homo sapiens alone, but to CNS species generally.  CNS species have been shown to meet the criteria of personal identity:  it follows that creatures of all CNS species may be thought to participate in the web of existential passages described by Metaphysics by Default.

The CNS has now become a common criterion, both for participation in Metaphysics by Default, and also for justification of ethical treatment.  This common criterion formally conjoins the metaphysical and ethical conclusions in a harmonious whole.
       With this joint conclusion established we can aim towards a more appropriate ethical model, one which serves us better than the "contract model" which Singer has lamented.  Holmes Rolston, III (quoted at the end of the previous chapter) joins Singer in rejecting anthropocentric ethics outright:

There is something overspecialized about an ethic, held by the dominant class of Homo sapiens, that regards the welfare of only one of several million species as an object and beneficiary of duty.  If the remedy requires a paradigm change about the sorts of things to which duty can attach, so much the worse for those humanistic ethics no longer functioning in, or suited to, their changing environment.  The anthropocentrism associated with them was a fiction anyway.... [7]
It seems we're called upon to overturn the anthropocentrism that Rolston counts as a fiction.  How we should summon the will to do this, Rolston does not prescribe.  Perhaps willpower is triggered by what Paul Taylor calls "moral concern":

Moral concern is the ability and disposition to take the standpoint of animals or plants and look at the world from the perspective of their good.  Unless this ability and disposition are well developed in a moral agent there will be a question of whether and to what extent the agent genuinely has the attitude of respect for nature.  For we have seen that willingness to take the standpoint of an organism [emphasis added] is part of what it means to regard it as an entity possessing inherent worth.  And unless and until we so regard it we have not taken an attitude of respect toward it.  Here we must have the moral capacity to overcome the all-pervasive tendency to be dominated by our anthropocentricity, just as in human ethics we must have the power to overcome the ever present tendency toward egocentricity.  In particular, for a life-centered system of environmental ethics it is necessary to develop a certain kind of magnanimity.  We must achieve a breadth of concern that enables us to transcend the anthropocentric bias implicit in the assumption that the final ground of all value is what furthers the good of humans. [8]
Can Metaphysics by Default help us develop the "moral concern" of which Taylor speaks?  Well, Taylor emphasizes the "willingness to take the standpoint of an organism."  Aldo Leopold has demonstrated something similar in the passage quoted from A Sand County Almanac.  Leopold has imagined the inner lives, the subjective experiences, of CNS creatures inhabiting his farmland; and we may say he was within reason in doing so.
       Leopold imagined those subjective experiences in the third person, by designating each animal as a "he" or a "she."  But subjective experience, integrated within personal identity, is a first-person datum.  Each creature capable of personal identity knows itself only in the first person, as an ontologic "I."
       This is not to imply that language is a requirement of personal identity:  the ability to say the word "I" is irrelevant.  As we've seen in Chapter 8, the three Great Criteria of personal identity — continuity, subjectivity and memory — would seem to constitute by themselves the ontologic "I."
       When we imagine a creature in the third person, as Leopold has done, we are placing an ontologic barrier before the subject of our imagination.  It is as if we have committed to a conceit, saying to ourselves, "I will imagine this animal's subjective experience, but only from a safe distance."  By this conceit we attempt to eject that animal from the human metaphysical realm.
       But this conceit is not tenable.
       Nothing in the criteria of personal identity justifies it.  Consequently Metaphysics by Default grants the same ontologic weight to all CNS creatures.  The ontologic "I" is seen to subtend all CNS creatures equally, so that all participate in existential passage as equals.  For this reason the subjective experience of each animal is best imagined in the first person.  We empathize with an animal when we imagine "what it would be like" to experience the animal's condition firsthand.

This result relates back to Taylor's plea for "moral concern."  As Taylor has defined it, moral concern is "the ability and disposition to take the standpoint of animals or plants and look at the world from the perspective of their good."[9]   Certainly, Metaphysics by Default does give us reason to take the standpoint of CNS creatures, very much from a first-person perspective.  Existential passage from man to beast is an event which the imagination can only conceive from the point of view of the passage participant.  A vivid conception of the event bridges the gap between first- and third-person concern.  Non-CNS life remains outside the charmed circle, but our moral concern for CNS creatures draws naturally towards self-interest.
       This shift of moral concern is a force we can use to dislodge lethargic willpower.  In analogy, we can think of a drill sergeant's rifle instruction:
       A drill sergeant wants to impress upon a recruit the importance of rifle maintenance.  How can he do this?  He might appeal to the recruit's disinterested commitment towards his platoon.  We imagine the drill sergeant's speech:

This is your rifle.
Maintain it well,
and your platoon will be victorious.
That speech conveys a simple truth — but no drill sergeant worth his salt would use it.  Instead he would appeal to the recruit's self-interest, as with this speech:

This is your rifle.
Maintain it well,
and you will live.
Metaphysics by Default marries environmental ethics to an enlightened self-interest.  As we bear self-interested duties more willingly than disinterested duties, this metaphysics eases the burden of duty concomitant with environmental ethics.

Now, concerning that burden:  Paul Taylor has elaborated four duties appropriate to environmental ethics.  These duties equate to four "rules of conduct."  They are:  the Rule of Nonmaleficence, the Rule of Noninterference, the Rule of Fidelity, and the Rule of Restitutive Justice. [10]
       Taylor explicitly extends moral consideration to all organisms, including those below CNS life; whereas Singer judges the CNS to be the minimum standard.  Both views hail from noble philosophy, and Taylor's may earn the prize for audacity.  But I think we can follow Singer's more conservative tack here.  As we've seen, the CNS appears to be a common criterion:  both for participation in Metaphysics by Default, and also for justification of ethical treatment.  So Taylor's four rules of conduct can serve as a reasonable guide for actions which affect CNS creatures.
       Taylor also sets down five "priority principles"[11] for the fair resolution of conflicting claims.  When our actions cause harm to CNS creatures, those priority principles can become principles of applied justice.[12]  Even if we should restrict the application of justice to CNS creatures alone, the priority principles might yet benefit non-CNS life — by indirectly aiding species which lack a CNS.  A hypothetical example can illustrate:
       We can imagine that a strip mining company has destroyed the grazing lands vital to a species of elk.  The elk go hungry, and some die.  The fifth priority principle, restitutive justice, compels the company to restore grazing lands for the elk.  In restoring those lands the company will plant native grasses suitable for elk consumption.
       Once the grasses have been planted, they thrive; as do the elk.  The end result is that Taylor's priority principles, here applied to a CNS species (the elk), have indirectly aided non-CNS species (the native grasses).

Plants and animals cannot flourish in isolation.  They require natural surroundings.  For non-CNS species the barest patch can sometimes suffice.  A stem of grass prospers indifferently in a plastic test tube if provided with nutrients, moisture, air and light.  But CNS creatures need more.  An elk needs acres of grazing land; an eagle needs miles of river; an octopus needs ocean harbor.
       Considerations of this kind readily extend our ethical concern, drawing it out beyond CNS creatures, into the ecosystems which sustain those creatures — or rather, sustain us, I should say.
       As in the previous chapter, Dr. Rolston once again gets a final word:

A species is what it is where it is.  No environmental ethics has found its way on Earth until it finds an ethic for the biotic communities in which all destinies are entwined....[13]

next    Chapter 19:  A Dedication

Chapter 18 Endnotes

[1] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 80-81.
[2] Specifically, the population curve follows this formula, derived in Chapter 15:
y = x(0.5) nGEN
where x is the starting population, and y is the population remaining after nGEN generations.
[3] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (Madison: Tamarack Press, 1977) 4-7.
[4] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (London: The Athlone Press, 1970) XVII, Section 1, footnote to paragraph 4.  From The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, gen. ed. J. H. Burns.
[5] Bentham's "insuperable line" hails from his footnote referenced previously:  Bentham XVII, Section 1, footnote to paragraph 4.  See note 4, above.
[6] Singer 69-70.  See also, Singer's essay on animals' perception of pain.  Available online.
[7] Holmes Rolston, III, "Environmental Ethics: Values in and Duties to the Natural World," Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence, 2nd edition, eds. Richard G. Botzler and Susan J. Armstrong (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998) 85.
[8] Paul W. Taylor, Respect for Nature, 2nd printing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 203.
[9] Taylor, Respect for Nature 203.
[10] Paul W. Taylor, "Respect for Nature," Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence 369-79.  This printing of Taylor's definitions is abstracted from Taylor, Respect for Nature 245ff.
[11] The priority principles are: the principle of self-defense, the principle of proportionality, the principle of minimum wrong, the principle of distributive justice, and the principle of restitutive justice.  The principles are applied according to the hierarchical scheme of Taylor, Respect for Nature 279.
[12] Developed in Taylor, Respect for Nature, Chapters 4-6.
[13] Holmes Rolston, III, "Environmental Ethics: Values in and Duties to the Natural World," Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence 80.
Copyright © 1999

Wayne Stewart
Last update 4/19/11