I’ve been going through David Livingstone Smith’s Less than Human for a few weeks now and have bookmarked quite a few of the pages. I picked it up because, finally, I found a person who makes a case for the normalization of what we generally view as ‘evil’ – that is; he puts forth honest arguments as to why we do the horrible things we do as a species, and more importantly, posits that anyone is susceptible to these actions; that we have an in-built capacity to engage in what he referrers to as ‘dehumanization’. I won’t get into details as I’ll leave that for when I’m finished reading, but I thought I’d touch briefly on a remark he made in regards to the ‘Chain of Being‘.
I’m not sure if you remember (of course you don’t …I barely do -ha) but I spewed forth in a few posts here and even earlier here, about the idea of ‘value’ being assigned to the concept of ‘life’ …a value that is for the most part dependent on our connection or relationship to whatever it is we’re discussing- be it animal, vegetable and even mineral. Subsequently then, certain ‘life’ would be granted a specific standing in relation to others. I won’t rehash it again as you can get the gist from those posts I mentioned (or others if you can find them for me …note to self; make things easier to find on this blog!) but I wanted to bring you a little of what David has to say about it ….albeit in a much more coherent manner than myself.
In the few paragraphs below, he wonderfully describes how we utilize a ‘foggy intuition’ in terms of sorting and attributing value to things …intuitively, but foggily -ha. Works great though. He also uses the far more appealing term ‘moral standing’ in lieu of ‘value’ (as I’ve referred to it) and as well, stresses the significance in the differences between ‘harm’ and ‘damage’ ….’harm’ as something that can only happen to higher-level beings, while ‘damage’ being something reserved for those of a lower-order. Semantics it seems, are always important when attempting to understand how it is that we intuitively go about the things we do. I mean, we have to try to understand how we understand, don’t we? Failing this, we can go foggily about our merry way …finding ourselves in the same old situations because we just didn’t understand what exactly the problem was the first time it came around. Which always sucks.
It’s a great book so-far, and I’m looking forward to the reread …after the read that is.
“What kinds of beings have moral standing? What makes the difference between things that can suffer harm and things that can’t? In some cases the answer is clear: People have moral standing and inanimate objects don’t – because people can be harmed, but inanimate objects can only be damaged. But where do all the other life-forms stand? Oddly enough, our judgements about this depend in large measure on where we position them on the great chain of being. This ancient, discredited, prescientific model of the cosmos still unconsciously serves as a guideline for our moral judgements. Recall that the great chain of being classifies things both in terms of their descriptive properties and in terms of their value; it’s therefore thick from top to bottom. Inanimate objects are at the bottom of the chain, and have no value in themselves. Micro-organisms and plants don’t fare much better, which is why even the most zealous vegans can weed their garden and wipe out untold millions of germs with disinfectants (“green” ones, of course) without suffering a single pang of guilt. Intuitions get foggier as we climb higher. Is swatting a mosquito cruel? How about stepping on a cockroach or skewering a writhing worm on a fishhook? Plunging a living lobster into boiling water, or gutting a trout for dinner? Killing a chicken? Slaughtering a lamb? Performing an abortion? Executing a criminal?
There’s no fact of the matter about exactly where in this sequence damage gives way to harm, and destruction becomes cruelty, but the principle governing such judgements is both clear and embarrassingly narcissistic: the closer we judge a creature is to us on the hierarchy, the more inclined we are to grant it moral standing.” p.221