Some Prefatory Comments
Not too long ago, we fervently believed these related propositions to be true, and they inspired our conservation work—mostly with primates in Africa—and implicitly served as the guiding philosophy of our lives as parents, citizens, educators, researchers, and writers. But then, one day about ten years ago, gently but persistently nudged by a close philosopher friend, we began to question all our assumptions and beliefs, especially our dearest, longest-held scientific ones. It sent us on a wild and scary journey, as we were forced to abandon much of what we had previously believed unquestioningly and to establish a new foundation on which to build anew.
The essence of this new “guiding philosophy” is described in the following paragraphs.
It is meant to be honest, clear and unapologetic and, as a result, may shock but hopefully not offend the reader. You may take some comfort in knowing that as our philosophy evolved during the years of close study, we, too, were at first shocked by some of the unanticipated conclusions forced upon us by reason. As a result, we proceeded cautiously, vetting each new conclusion in conversation with professional philosophers, scientific colleagues, and in our work as animal behaviorists, conservationists, and educators. While this process of careful examination has given us greater confidence in our now well-examined guiding philosophy, it is no longer one “carved in stone”. Rather, it is in its essence an evolving one, one that much more than ever before we are willing to amend or abandon altogether as necessitated by new knowledge and the work of our best, collective reasoning. We invite you to engage our philosophy and more thoroughly explore its implications through our published materials and, most importantly, to share your constructive thoughts with us.
A Universal Ethic
As our guiding philosophy, we assume, minimally, that every human being, despite differences in cultural traditions, beliefs, or values, wishes to live and thrive. By thriving we mean simply that because human beings are self-aware, each person imagines a life for him or herself that goes beyond mere survival to include the realization of hopes and dreams, to be free to live up to one’s full potential. We can call this universally desired life one of flourishing. Ideally, a life of flourishing is one that provides each individual with equal opportunity to maximize their needs and aspirations. Let’s go one step further in suggesting that this universally shared value (i.e., a life of flourishing) constitutes a universal ethic. In other words, we assume that no one will wish to argue that they are disinterested in leading this kind of life—that they don’t value it—even though we may not all be able to flourish to the same extent. From this universal ethic, we can now infer that for any person the optimal society is one that recognizes and promotes the value of, and protects the right of individual flourishing. Moreover, it follows that if any one person has a right to flourish, then so does every human being and that one person’s flourishing should not impede another’s. Individual and collective flourishing, then, is at root a mindful exercise through which of each of us becomes fully aware of the widest possible impact of our values, attitudes, habits, and behaviors.
An immediate implication of this kind of mindful flourishing is that each of us needs to be prepared to adjust or moderate our behaviors and goals so as to maximize universal flourishing on a sustainable basis. Most critically, survival of the human species requires the sustainability of certain essential ecosystem services, which, in turn, demands their careful calibration and cultivation, and corresponding adjustments in human behavior (e.g., reduced population growth, improved management of natural resources).
When we agree that our shared goal or ethic is universally sustainable flourishing, then we become mindful of what we need to survive (e.g., food, water, sources of energy) and flourish (e.g., aesthetically transforming landscapes, improved health care), and we will be motivated to individually and collectively steward these resources.
Our Relationship to Nature
From this follows a further implication of our guiding philosophy, namely that humans are uniquely aware and desirous of leading meaningful or purposeful lives, alongside their ability to plan and estimate their long-term impact on the social and ecological environment. (We realize that self-awareness in nonhuman species is under active investigation and to our minds very much an open question. Nevertheless, our present position is consistent with the current predominant scientific evidence.) This means that we can—within limits—steward our social and ecological resources. We prefer the term “stewardship” to “management”, customarily used by conservationists, as the latter is too strong, implying a good measure of hubris about our control over “nature”. In our view, humans don’t stand outside nature, do not uniformly damage nature, nor interfere with nature’s “health”, “balance”, or “harmony”—all philosophically and scientifically untenable concepts. We are, rather, fully part of nature, and, like other species, we continually modify or transform our environment. Whether a modification is “good” or “bad” thus depends on our point of view or goal—in this case, we should ask, does it impede sustained human flourishing? All of nature is dynamic, changing, at times chaotic, and consistently resilient. Intrinsically, natural processes are neither good nor bad. In the history of life on Earth, the vast majority of species have gone extinct long before humans evolved. The Earth’s climate and distribution and extent of its eco-regions have also changed dramatically. It makes little sense, therefore, to believe that we can stop all species extinction or stop climate change. Hence, unlike a human-built factory, which can function well or badly, nature is not manageable in the same sense and ultimately defies our arrogant attempts to do so. We are, at best, mindful gardeners, understanding that our goals for nature are human goals reflecting human needs, values or preferences.
It may be obvious that our propositions about the human right to flourish sets this above or comes at the expense of other species’ flourishing (hereafter simply called animals). For example, to the extent that we have a need to consume animals for protein, we can decide to keep them in conditions that maximize fulfilling our need while denying theirs (e.g., cattle in stock yards, chickens in coops). So far, we have purposely defined flourishing in anthropocentric terms by calling it a “mindful” flourishing that includes the realization of one’s imagined future goals and aspirations, while taking account of one’s impact on others’ flourishing. This kind of flourishing is clearly dependent on the capacity for self-consciousness—to see oneself as a separate entity with intentions, desires, beliefs, etc.—and the related capacity to project this self into the future—to mentally simulate future scenarios for the self. Indeed, it is fair to say that the perception in the present that our needs, intentions or desires are thwarted or cannot be realized or our anticipation of noxious or dire future events that is the source of much of human suffering.
We can, however, also meaningfully speak of animal flourishing and suffering without requiring a human-like consciousness, by invoking Aristotle’s basic notion of flourishing. Simply put, going beyond basic bodily needs (nutrition, safety) it means the opportunity to fully express the functions that (naturally) follow from an organism’s design. Put less teleologically and in the language of modern evolutionary biology, it refers to the freedom to express one’s full adaptive capacity or potential, whether mental or physical. Thus, animals built for running at speed, will optimally flourish if they have the opportunity to run freely. Similarly, animals equipped with intellect and curiosity will flourish in environments that promote expression of these capacities. Likewise, environments that prevent or stifle the expression of these behaviors may induce suffering, minimally in the form of physical discomfort or pain or additional mental suffering in animals that have more elaborate states of conscious awareness. In thus recognizing the potential for varying degrees and kinds of suffering in other animals, we believe that it is our duty as a species that itself values flourishing (or the absence of suffering) to be mindful about our impact on the flourishing or suffering of other animals.
However, it does not automatically follow from this consideration of other animals that they have an equal right to flourish, that we cannot set our right to flourish above theirs. There are many who champion the “intrinsic” rights of all animals—perhaps even all life—to exist or flourish. We have given much thought to this alternative ethic—one that would not put the human right to flourish ahead of such “rights” of other species—but presently we find this position as philosophically untenable for several reasons. First and foremost, the idea of rights is a human invention—a social contract—that by convention we agree to extend to members of society, and likewise agree to deny, abrogate or revoke from members of society. We recognize, in other words, that rights are conditional, for example, on an individual’s capacity to understand, reciprocate, and be held accountable. As such, we have no intrinsic rights but rather we give each other rights, including, if we wish, rights to other species. We are “rights givers” par excellence. At this point, given our knowledge of the mental capacities of other animals, it would make little sense to extend “equal” rights to other animals, given the understanding and expectations that come along with granting human rights (i.e., reciprocation, accountability, etc.). Something cannot have an intrinsic right to anything if it has no way of comprehending that it has a right to something, nor therefore of recognizing that something else has, by extension, an equal right. Nevertheless, we can, and probably should, grant specific rights to other species, such as their “right” to lead lives without human-induced suffering. Moreover, none of this precludes the future possibility that a member of some as yet undocumented nonhuman self-aware, sentient species itself believes and insists upon its right to exist and flourish. Indeed, a future machine intelligence that gave evidence of self-awareness may also come to believe in its right to exist. Our future moral progress will likely include a serious consideration and negotiation of the rights of other sentient beings within a larger and increasingly diverse community of rights activists.