Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
“The quest is to clone a mammoth: The question is, should scientists do it?” (Japan Times, Saturday, July 20, 2013) raises among a panel of strong objections to the exciting idea of cloning a mammoth that the ethics of devoting so much time and money to an extinct species while so many living species currently hover on the brink of extinction themselves are extremely questionable. Good point. In the “Three other potential candidates for cloning” section of the article the case of the extinct Passenger pigeon is mentioned. Conservationists love to raise the issue of the Passenger pigeon, a gleaming example of a species that human beings deliberately extinguished in modern times. Usually it comes across as if our ancestors were a bunch of vicious and stupid slack-jawed yokels who “blasted” the birds “out of the skies.”
Yes, they did, but they had a good reason for it that conservationists never mention. Passenger pigeons reproduced in such out of control numbers that “vast flocks ... once darkened the skies” literally. Those vast flocks were not a good thing. They damaged property and crops and left a layer of feces everywhere like snow that wouldn’t melt. They were not just a pest but a filthy public hygiene menace. I don’t think I want the Passenger pigeon back. Of course, its existence in the first place was not up to us and as living creatures they had their own worth. But I do not equate the moral value of an animal with the moral value of a human being. Resurrecting the Passenger pigeon could be an environmental disaster.
Published on Thursday, August 1, 2013 as "Resurrection with a messy result."
Perhaps a contributing reason to the decision to print this letter is the simultaneous publication of the letter "Conservative sense toward eels" by Shuichi John Watanabe of Tokyo. The Japanese eel is a species facing extinction from over-fishing, and extinction makes a common thread with my letter.
As always, a thought-provoking letter. But one could argue that human beings are the greatest environmental disaster of all—no "could be" about it. At least passenger pigeons weren't responsible for climate change and didn't have the ability to build self-destructing nuclear power stations.
So, on that basis, which has greater moral value—people or pigeons? What in fact is moral value? Is it some intrinsic quality of varying degree that animals and human beings possess regardless of what they do? Or is it just a figment of the human imagination, just an expression of our conceit?
Human beings do not have the ability to 'damage' the environment and the planet. In fact, it seems like ridiculous hubris by environmentalists to say so, and reveals the chauvinism of their imaginations to think that the various environments of the planet ought to be conducive to human life in the first place. Over time environments inevitably change, and the world will outlive the human species by billions of years.
Many environmentalists are simply confused on this point because they confuse the disadvantageous affects of our activity on the environment as 'damaging' it when in reality human activity is damaging ourselves and our ability to survive, not the environment itself. The two are not the same. Human activity is certainly negatively affecting our ability to survive and prosper in the world, but the world itself is morally neutral to that.
Morality and ethics are related but are not at all the same thing. It can be argued that animals exist in a better, purer moral state than human beings because animals, unlike humans, never fell from a condition of grace. It means they exist in a condition of moral innocence. However, moral innocence and morality are not the same. Animals, like human children or other human beings of diminished responsibility, lack the capacity to live morally because they lack the capacity to bear responsibility for choices made. In fact, it might be argued by some and rebutted by many that they lack decision making thought processes, or at least responsible decision making thought processes. People usually confuse instinct with thought.
The question that asks 'what is moral value anyway?' is the same relativistic argument that says 'it's true for you but not for me' and that tries to relegate morality to the lesser level of mere ethics. Saying 'it's true for you but not for me' sounds fine and tolerant. But it only works because it is twisting the word 'true' to mean not 'a true revelation of the way things are in the real world' but 'something that is genuinely happening inside you.' In fact, saying 'it's true for you' in this sense is more or less equivalent to saying 'it's not true for you' because the 'it' in question is conveying very powerfully a message which the challenger is reducing to something else.