Oh, Sly Hippo! Defective Eyesight

In an article in TableAus titled Philosophical Defection, SN criticised the general and specific ethics described in my essay Cloning Around.

SN’s Philosophical Defection is apparently targeted at the brief summary of my ethics and its conclusions presented in Cloning Around: The Ethics of Human Cloning & Stem Cell Research.

He starts with several paragraphs that are merely an argument from personal incredulity. As one of the fallacies of logic, that requires no answer. It is interesting that a repeated target is that my philosophy actually leads to answers to “hard” questions: as if being able to give answers is proof of inadequacy! Note also that Cloning Around contained an essentialised summary whose stated purpose was to put the ethics of cloning in its proper context – not to validate the entire philosophy in detail, which is done elsewhere. Perhaps a wider reading of what I have written would have been fruitful.

There were some specific questions however:

1. Why is the thinking mind the essential?

The question is not “looking for something that makes us different from other animals”. The question is, what is our fundamental tool of survival? Certainly like all organisms our anatomy is adapted to our particular needs, and most of our organs are necessary or beneficial to our survival. But without the thinking mind, our lives would be no better than that of apes in the wilderness, for that is exactly what we would be. All we have which is better than that – a life expectancy of over 70 years, very low child mortality, individual rights and the rule of law rather than the rule of brute force, agriculture to feed billions, and all the rest, we have only because of the thinking mind. These things have not fallen into our laps by accident, they all owe their existence to inventions of the human mind. Opposable thumbs let us make tools: but without the mind to guide them, they’d have made nothing more than sticks to spear termites. We have legs: but only the mind can choose the path that guides our steps.

Furthermore, ethics is about the chosen. The functioning of our organs is automatic. The proper use of our minds to think, to be rational rather than irrational, to think critically or swallow everything someone else says, is voluntary. Yet it is that on which our lives and happiness depend.

As for the bad things men have invented with their minds, when I say the mind is a tool, it is just that: a tool. How a tool is used is up to us. Knives can cut food or throats, legs can take us to unlimited horizons or kick someone in the head, and thumbs are essential to both jewellers and stranglers.

People have free will, and can choose to do good or evil. That is why we need ethics: to guide people in how they should live, for their own sake and their own happiness. And all ethics are the product of a thinking mind, as is free will itself.

2. Do we forfeit our rights when we stop thinking?

Of course not. A “thinking mind” is a mind that possesses the power of thought, and our rights derive from that power, which we have whether we are awake, asleep or anywhere in between. It does not matter whether we are thinking at the moment, or what the quality of our thinking is: just that we can think and can be dealt with by reason rather than force. We are entities that exist over a span of time, and our rights are determined by our nature including that: they apply over the span of our life, not moment by moment according to temporary states of consciousness.

3. What if we can breed people who want to be slaves, etc.?

To “breed in” an “agreement” to slavery is a contradiction in terms and an obvious initiation of physical force. It is no different in principle than using drugs, brainwashing or some kind of neural implant to achieve the same effect. Forcing a mind is forcing a mind, no matter how it is done, and is a violation of individual rights.

Ethics is not the preserve of subjective whims or arbitrary commandments. It is too important for that. There is a morality based on reality and reason, and human life deserves nothing less.

© 2004 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.