Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Ballad of Cain, Cain, and Abel, part I

So, this will be attempt 2 at a thought-experiment about rights.

The question, we recall, is to what extent we can think intelligently about rights by reducing to an extremal case, in this instance the case of there being only one person in the world. I argue that this last-person-on-earth scenario is missing crucial features of what makes rights, in the real world, problematic to decide. Joe, on the other hand, thinks that the last-person-on-earth scenario is paradigmatic for rights.

After thinking about this a bit more, I want to amend what I said in the last post. One can have a right to do a morally wrong thing, I realized, and the amendment is that "A has the right to do X" should mean that it is immoral for others to prevent A from doing X. There's already a problem on this horizon, in that there's a generally accepted distinction between random other people preventing you from doing something, and the state, or the church, or your employer, etc. doing so; but while that problem is interesting, I think it's not too relevant for this discussion, since the hypotheticals here have so few other people, no state, etc.

Anyway, all of what I'm about to say is toward an argument that rights are inseparable from their context. In particular, I'm not prepared to concede the validity of any argument of the form
(0) Imagine a hypothetical world where the effects of person X doing action A are very different from the effects of that action in the real world.
(1) In the hypothetical world, it is moral for X to do A, and/or immoral for anyone else to prevent X from doing A.
(2) Therefore, in the real world, it is moral for X to do A, and/or immoral for anyone else to prevent X from doing A.

This is at least partially due to my consequentialist leanings in moral philosophy, an early point of divergence between Ms Rand and myself. (More precisely, I think that any attempt at a moral philosophy which does not factor predictable, anticipable effects of actions into the calculation of their moral status automatically fails.) Two actions which look identical "up close", but which will have different effects, can have different moral status, so long as the agents can predict or anticipate those effects (or at least anticipate how probable various possible effects are).

TL/DR: Context and consequences have moral weight!

Anyway: we begin our parable on a small island. To keep this post a manageable length, I'll lay out the first three sets of circumstances today, in which the moral claims are (I think) pretty unproblematic -- but I'd love to see disagreement if my readers have any.
0th scenario: there are no people on the island. The island's soil and natural features could probably support a civilization of a few hundred people, if they had the right crops to plant and the right animal species to raise in captivity; but none of that goes on in this hypothetical. The island features (obviously undomesticated) edible plant species, herbivorous and carnivorous animals, and freshwater fish in the island's lake and streams. (These don't tend to be very large, since there's not a whole lot of room for them to bump up against each other.)
OK, so there's really nothing, at all, to be said about rights here, since no moral agents live in this hypothetical. (As usual, I assume that nonhuman animals on Earth are neither moral agents nor persons. Also, no aliens.) So let's move on to the
1st scenario:We introduce one human into the hypothetical, a guy we'll call Abel. The details of his background are, I think, irrelevant; let's just assume he shows up at some point on the island with no expectation of ever leaving. He has skills ample to the task of surviving; he can hunt, and can make tools. Not only that: Abel knows how to work metals, and has the skill to find the ores of useful metals and smelt and forge metal implements. (Useful metals, I said, not gold.)

Abel does no cultivation of plants or animals, but as said, he does hunt, for food (and I'm sure for enjoyment too). In fact, he hunts faster than his targets can replenish their numbers: several of the tastier species on the island will be extinct, at his current rate, in twenty years or less. At the same time, Abel's smithing is using up the trees on the island too, on about the same timescale. He also fishes, but not at such a high rate; the fish species are safe.

The question is, of course, is Abel doing anything wrong in this scenario? Does he have a right to do the things he does?

The most obvious candidate for a "no" answer would be his practice of hunting animals to extinction; but while there's definitely an argument to be made that it's always baseline immoral for a species of moral agents to drive another species extinct (i.e. yeah, there are self-defense situations and smallpox, that's not what we're talking about here), I think for this discussion I'll posit that Abel has the right to consume the island's resources for his own benefit under this scenario. Disagreement is welcome below. (In particular, since this hypothetical arose in discussion as the last-person-on-earth scenario, we can omit the argument from "science needs to categorize and know about these species!')

 OK, so far so good.
Scenario 2: Same island, same plants and animals, no Abel. Instead, a similarly immaculately arrived adult human couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cain. Their skills lie in the direction of agriculture; they are vegetarians (though like many, they inexplicably see no problem with eating fish... maybe they used to be Catholic?). Hence, they are not in the business of driving any species to extinction.

After spending time eating fish (and ok, maybe a little rabbit when they couldn't get hobbit fish), the Cains can determine some plant species they can live off. The staple of their diet soon becomes the products of a pair of vines which climb on and live symbiotically with the tall trees of the island. One produces squash, and the other beans, which together provide complete protein. The Cains have tried, but with only limited success, to transplant these vines to trellises: the vines grow, but the beans are all husk and the squash taste like vinegar. They speculate that this may be a matter of too much light and not enough shade, but probably also related to the symbiosis between vines and trees, some invisible nutrient being passed on that they haven't figured out how to substitute in their own gardens.

The Cains prioritize the sustainability of their lifestyle. They plant and tend the vines and other vegetable species they eat, monitor the soil for depletion, and rotate their cultivation accordingly. Their focus on sustainability is not merely feel-good: they are planning to raise a family and generate a lasting society on the island, so that while they may be the only people on Earth at the moment, they are determined not to be the last.
Once again, I submit that in this scenario it is hard to claim that anything the Cains are doing is wrong, is anything that they do not have a right to do. Of course, in on sense this is trivial: since there are no other people, there is no one who could prevent either Abel or the Cains from doing anything they liked; but regardless of that, what they're doing in the scenarios seems well within their rights, no matter how we define that term precisely. (There aren't even any borderline cases in the second scenario, unless you count the fact that their kids will have no choices for mates outside their own siblings; let's hope the Cains have strong genes.)

OK, so are we good with these initial scenarios? Are there any matters of rights that show up as problematic here, but that I've skipped or not noticed?


  1. No problem with the Cains. Is one of them named Herman? Abel on the other hand is acting immorally iff he is aware that he is depleting the resources he is dependent on and he views this as problematic for some reason. As you have laid out the facts, if Abel is ignorant or stupid (or both) he is not acting immorally. On the other hand, I would posit that he has a right to act immorally in the situation where he is the only person on the island. It would be similar (in the effect produced on himself) to an alcoholic drinking a lot, all the time, knowing it will probably cause his early demise. Abel's actions (and possibly those of the alcoholic) do not harm others so they are both well within their rights. So far, so libertarian. I like it.

    1. Yeah, that was the analysis I had in mind. While we might say that Abel has the responsibility to take care of himself, that responsibility can only be to himself, and he is perfectly free to discharge himself of that responsibility, and to not take care of himself, even if it means his eventual death.

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  3. Who was it that said something like, "When Matthew and Joe agree it is likely the first sign of the apocalypse"? I think it more interesting to note that, as of yet you have no objection to Abel's rape and pillage of the environment, including the possible extinction of plant and animal species. Gaia has no rights. I think we both agree that it is not wise for Abel to squander limited resources even if it is the only way he knows how to survive. I am not surprised that we both think he has a right to do so if he wants to, even if he knows it is not wise. I did suspect that you were going to raise some kind of objection but I could not imagine what it might be. This to me is one of the important features of the last man on earth scenario. Abel's only regard for the environment is a selfish one. More importantly, you seem to be OK with that from the standpoint of rights. This would seem to be the case with the Cains as well because the creation of a civilization seems to be something they value. You pointed out that there sustainable lifestyle is not accidental. I presume they would like to do something that they are refraining from doing because some larger population of humans that they hope to propagate would not be able to do the same in a sustainable manner? You seem to be suggesting the setting of an example for future generations. You also seem to suggest a failed attempt at crop management. I am going to assume that this, in no way precludes success of some similar idea in the 2nd scenario. By 2nd scenario I mean the one that is yet to come and not scenario 2 with the Cains. I would hope the reason to include this failure in scenario 2 is not the suppression of technological advances in crop science. At any rate, I am looking forward to the 2nd scenario and a hardy discussion of property rights. I can smell it coming. The 2nd scenario almost certainly will have to deal with the issue of property.

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    2. If Abel is in fact calculating his lifespan and the length of time to use up the resources so that they coincide I would say he is acting morally as well as within his rights. That would actually be very intelligent if it also happens to be the easiest way for him to survive.

      As for the Cains being selfish, well selfishness is a little like rights in that it is hard to be selfish when you are alone. Thinking only of your own desires is probably all you would do if there were no others to think of. I only called the Cains selfish to point out that they too have decided to value certain things, among them the creation of a civilization. This certainly is not required of them, although one could argue that it is instinctual. I think an argument could also be made for Mr. Abel's action for his survival being instinct driven. This could be true even if he is knowingly depleting his resources in a way that he will likely live long after they are gone. As with any set of instincts among a given population, those instincts are bound to be stronger in some and weaker in others. Instinct may well be the difference between these two scenarios. Abel may have an instinct to breed (I'm guessing he probably does) but he has no one to breed with so that instinct is suppressed along with all the hopes for a legacy and any need for preservation of his environment. Back to the Cains being selfish. They are acting on "their" desire to create a civilization. It is possible that life for the people they create may be very harsh indeed despite the best efforts of the Cains to create an environment that is perfect for their new society. They might be better of trying to cultivate a "morning after" squash and forgoing their instincts to procreate and provide for those offspring.

      My point is that while most would consider Abel to be selfish and the Cains to be not selfish, I would say most people are actually selfish and the differences tend to be in what they value. I don't have a problem with the differences or the selfishness. Both Abel and the Cains have decided what they should value and they are setting out to insure that what they value most is obtained. If one is seen as selfish and the other is not I would submit that it is a matter of perception at this point. We can no more fault Abel for a strong survival instinct than we can the Cains for a strong instinct to procreate. If the three of them happen to be on the same island this would still be true.

  4. I re-read all of this post and it occurs to me that I am actually waiting for scenario 3 or the 3rd scenario which will be one in the same. The confusion was mine :-)

  5. Apparently the "undelete comment after clicking the wrong button" feature isn't working this week... Reposted.

    You've put your finger on the difference that already exists between scenarios 1 and 2, which will become even more pronounced in the ones to come. (I haven't figured out the numbering of those yet, since there's a lot of fiddly cases like "what if so-and-so-does-this-but-not-that-and-also-does-this-other-thing"... gotta avoid a combinatorial explosion somehow.)

    Yes, for the purposes of this analysis, only persons have rights, and we're assuming that the biosphere is not a person, and so there's no way it could have a claim on Abel's actions. I'll even go farther than you, in that under a certain kind of selfish analysis, Abel is maximizing his utilization of the resources he has available by consuming them on the timescale of his expected lifespan. No one else is going to use them, after all, so why is it unwise to use them up?

    The key premise there, by the way was this one: "no one else is going to use them". By hypothesis, Abel knows this, and hence cannot be breaking any obligation he might conceivably have to any other person by consuming these resources.

    You say that Abel's only regard for the environment is a selfish one, and I agree. A thought: what if the Cains' were only selfish too? I think it's not that they'd like to exploit the environment more, but rather that they'd like to have to work less at being careful, expend less effort rebuilding what they necessarily have to destroy. They aren't doing this for themselves: in their judgement, someone else has a claim on their actions (albeit only through their own free choice of that claim).