Thursday, January 12, 2017

Envisioning a Posthuman World

The movement known as "posthumanism" is gradually being incorporated into the academic mainstream as an interview in the New York Times with philosopher Cary Wolfe of the Center for Critical and Cultural Theory at Rice University and the founding editor of the Posthumanities book series reveals. Wolfe's posthumanism distills to the belief that there's no basis for making moral distinctions between human beings and animals and that hierarchies which implicitly assume or promote such distinctions should be abolished and abandoned.

In the interview Wolfe says:
[M]ost of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So...what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness.

An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”
All of this may be true, but a vocabulary such as Wolfe enjoins upon us is apparently elusive since he never offers one. Indeed, we might ask why any organism at all merits respect. Is it merely because it's unique and different, as Wolfe suggests? If so, does it follow that individual members of extremely common species, for instance human beings, shouldn't merit the same valuation as members of rarer species, such as timber wolves or snail darters?

And, we might also ask, why shouldn't anyone who has the power to do so exploit other organisms for his/her own benefit? Why is this morally wrong? Wolfe doesn't address these fundamental questions because, I suspect, he holds to a naturalism that offers no basis for his moral commitments. I'm speculating, but I wonder if his ethical concerns are grounded in nothing more than his own personal, emotional attachment to animals. If so, why should others think they're doing something wrong just because they offend professor Wolfe's personal preferences by ranking humans higher and more valuable than, say, rodents?

Human beings have rights that mere animals don't have because, as John Locke wrote over three centuries ago, humans are uniquely created in the image of God, are loved by God and belong to God and no man has the right to harm God's children. Strip that fundamental proposition from a society's assumptions and human rights talk, much less animal rights talk, is rendered groundless, it's just words on paper.

Wolfe adds this toward the end of the interview:
So the first imperative of posthumanism is to insist that when we are talking about who can and can’t be treated in a particular way, the first thing we have to do is throw out the distinction between “human” and “animal” — and indeed throw out the desire to think that we can index our treatment of various beings, human or not, to some biological, taxonomic designation.
Consider the logic of what Wolfe says in this paragraph. Once we "throw out the distinction between 'human' and 'animal'" there remains no argument against granting the same rights to animals as humans enjoy. In a world in which posthumanists had their way, the ineluctable conclusion would be the abolition of raising and harvesting animals for meat as well as owning an animal as a pet. It would certainly be a world in which fishing and hunting game as well as the use of animals in medical research would be banned. It also would seem to follow from throwing out any distinction between humans and animals that any difference or inequality between the rights of humans and other vertebrates (mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles), or even the rights of humans and invertebrates (jellyfish, insects) would be a morally intolerable act of species discrimination.

Perhaps a world like Wolfe envisions will come to pass when the lion lays down with the lamb, but in this world, a world in which people need fish and fowl in order to live, in which they require the labor of animals in order to ensure their own survival, Wolfe's posthumanism seems terribly naive not to mention cruel to the millions of people who rely on that Lockean distinction between human and animal for their very survival.