Not a super fantastic essay, but there are some parts here at the very beginning I like very much, though I think he overstates the analytical view of children at the very beginning. I've indicated the sentences I like in bold. - Dallas


Apes, Humans, Aliens, Vampires and Robots

by Colin McGinn

As a child, you tend to take your position in life for granted, as written into the natural order of things. You were born, say, into a white middle-class family, you are comfortably off, in good health and not in any particular distress. You have rights and privileges, and these are generally respected. You aren't hungry or imprisoned or enslaved. You go on nice holidays. At an early age, you probably assume everyone lives like this. It seems natural that you enjoy the kind of life providence has granted you. You don't think about it.


Then you start to notice that others are less fortunate (and some others more fortunate). You see people around you who are poorer than you, possibly homeless, or who have something serious mentally or physically wrong with them. You start hearing about people in foreign countries who are starving to death, or being blown up in wars, or suffering from terrible diseases. Some of them are children like you! These facts jar on you; and they force you to make comparisons with your own life. Soon you are struck with a certain terrifying thought: that it is really just luck that you are not in their shoes. You happen to have been born into a certain class, in a certain part of the world, with certain social arrangements, at a certain period in history. But there is nothing necessary about this — it is just the luck of the draw. Things could have been different in ways that don't bear thinking about. You ask yourself what your life would have been like if you had drawn the short straw and lived in less felicitous circumstances. You imagine yourself born into a land of famine, or arriving on the scene before medicine made any progress with plagues, or before modern plumbing. You thus entertain a kind of philosophical thought: that it is just contingent that things are as they are, and that you could have been very much worse off. You are just lucky. Equivalently, you see that it is just bad luck for the others that their lives are as hard as they are. There is no divine necessity or inner logic about any of this. It is basically a moral accident. There but for fortune . . .


And with this thought social conscience begins. Since there is no deep necessity about the ordering of well-being among people, we should try to rectify (avoidable) inequalities and misfortunes. The arbitrariness should be removed from the distribution of well-being. We should discover the sources of misery and deprivation and try, where possible, to erase them. We should certainly not voluntarily contribute to the disadvantaged position of others. We should not exploit the power that is ours by sheer cosmic luck. Thus, morality is founded in a sense of the contingency of the world, and it is powered by the ability to envisage alternatives. Imagination is central to its operations. The morally complacent person is the person who cannot conceive how things could have been different; he or she fails to appreciate the role of luck - itself a concept that relies on imagining alternatives. There is no point in seeking change if this is the way things have to be. Morality is thus based on modality: that is, on a mastery of the concepts of necessity and possibility. To be able to think morally is to be able to think modally. Specifically, it depends upon seeing other possibilities - not taking the actual as the necessary.


I think, to come to the present point, that human adults persistently underestimate the role of biological luck in assuring our dominion over the rest of nature. We are still like children who take the contingent facts to be necessary, and thus fail to understand the moral significance of what actually goes on. People really do believe, in their bones, that there is a divine necessity underwriting our power over other species, so they fail to question this exercise of power. Indeed, this assumption is explicitly written into many religions. In every possible world we are at the top of the biological tree. As children, we naively took our family position to be the locus of cosmic necessity; now we assume that our species position is cosmically guaranteed. We assume, that is, that our relation to other species is basically the way things had to be, so that there is no point in questioning the ethics of that relation. Hence social conscience stops at the boundary of the human species, give or take a bit of supererogation here and there. We don't take seriously the idea that it is just luck that our species is number one in the biological power hierarchy. So our conscience about our conduct in the biological world isn't pricked by the reflection that we might have been lower down in the scale of species domination. We therefore need to bring our species morals into line with the real facts of biological possibility.


Read the rest here.

Tags: biology, ethics, luck, morals

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