Thursday, June 2, 2016

Mentally-handicapped human beings are morally distinct from gorillas

A very smart libertarian acquaintance of mine recently asked the following question on Facebook:

“Let's say an intellectually disabled human adult has a lower IQ than a very intelligent gorilla. Would it be wrong to put him in a cage and charge admission for kids to come look at him? If so, why are zoos okay? (Please try to answer without "God thinks we're special." That's cheating.)”

This was my response…

Yes it would be wrong, and yes zoos are still okay, primarily because even mentally handicapped human beings deserve more respect, rights and freedoms than gorillas do (whatever their IQ).  Humans are categorically morally distinct from other animals, period.  I would be happy to defend that belief in a separate comment.

But suppose you disagree with me.  Suppose you think gorillas are so biologically similar to us that their lives deserve equal legal protection.  Fine.  Even then, zoos can be morally justified for gorillas, but NOT the mentally handicapped, from a purely utilitarian standpoint: the psychological impact of inclusion in a zoo would be much more detrimental and hurtful for the disabled human than it is for the gorilla.

Most mentally disabled people desperately wish to lead normal lives.  They recognize they are human, and that others around them are human too, and they yearn for inclusion and acceptance into human society.  More than anything, they want to be seen and treated as equals by other people.  This is why it strikes us as wrong to put them in cages and gawk at them. Even if their physical conditions were comfortable and their survival needs were met just as amply as they are in the outside world today, the cage would deny them this societal participation and devastate their psyche.  It would demarcate them as fundamentally different from and inferior to other human beings, and deprive them of the freedom and agency necessary to earn the respect of their peers.  We would essentially be quarantining them as objects of ridicule and laughter, and they would know it.

Gorillas, by contrast, have no illusion of equality with human beings.  They have no knowledge of human society nor any desire to be a part of it.  They do have emotions, and basic reasoning, and a relatively high degree of sentience, but they focus these gifts almost entirely on the single-minded pursuit of survival and base pleasures.  A well-crafted zoo enclosure can provide them with literally everything they want in life: abundant food, security, comfort, sex and companionship with other gorillas, and a plethora of toys and trainers with which to interact and apply their curiosity.  When people of a different species stare or point at them, they are unoffended and altogether quite unbothered.

TL;DR – Gorillas can be happy in a zoo, but mentally disabled humans cannot.


For those interested, here is that “separate comment” defending my belief that humans are “categorically morally distinct” from other animals…

I value human life more than I value gorilla life because human life has at least three things gorilla life does not:

1. The capacity for abstract thought.  Humans have written language – gorillas do not.  Even our spoken language is vastly more complex than the “language” of Gorillas, who do not have anything we would recognize as “words.”* 

*The most linguistically advanced gorilla ever trained is named Koko, who understands over 1,000 words of sign language (which she can sign herself) and over 2,000 spoken words (though she cannot pronounce them herself).  By comparison, the average adult native English speaker knows 20,000 words, so it’s conceivable that were Koko raised by humans she could approach that.  But that’s where the comparison ends.  Koko cannot use syntax or grammar or put those words together to make sentences.  She doesn’t initiate conversations herself except to sign for food.  And crucially, she does not truly understand the meaning of what she is doing; she has merely been conditioned to sign in a certain way because the researchers reward her for doing so.  Anyone who has ever heard of the Chinese Room thought experiment should know why this is important.  We can program computers to respond to a certain input with a certain output so efficiently that they could pass the Turing Test as a human being.  But the man mimicking Chinese characters in accordance with visual instructions does not actually speak Chinese, those computers are not actually human, and Koko does not actually understand English.

Humans can use this complex language to comprehend, articulate and exchange abstract ideas, and have been doing this for thousands of years. This pushes the boundaries of human knowledge exponentially further than any modern animal can fathom, which is morally important to me in how I value human vs. animal minds.

2.  Morality. Among those abstract ideas which humans can understand and discuss – but gorillas cannot - are those ideas necessary to develop a moral ethic.  Animals may feel evolutionary urges for self-sacrifice in service of their clan or species’ survival, but they do not have anything remotely resembling a human moral philosophy.  They cannot have conversations resembling the one we’re having now.  They do not understand “rights” or “justice” or most other human moral principles.  Their actions belie this; animals are ruthlessly violent with one another every day.  They have no respect for the lives of one another, much less those of other species than their own.  If they fight with one another within their species, the winner does not feel guilty, and the loser does not feel resentful, because their struggle was a purely pragmatic contest of strength; neither side claims a “moral high ground,” nor could even fathom one beyond “might makes right.”  Those animals which are peaceful abstain from brutishness only due to lack of ability or need for violence, not some conscientious objection to it.

So I treat animals in the same way they treat me, and the same way they treat one another – which is to say by killing them when I’m hungry, or they’re in my way, or they’re causing me the slightest inconvenience.  They cannot comprehend it as a matter of right and wrong, but only as a matter of winning and losing, so I play on their terms (and tend to win).

     3.  Meaning.  To all animals – including gorillas – continued life is the only real objective they pursue.  Everything they do is instinctively geared towards promoting their own survival as a species, or comfort as an individual.  This worry dominates the entirety of their existence.  Of course humans also have this instinct.  But to most of us, life is more of a means than it is an ends.  We see the meeting of our basic survival needs as merely the starting point, the launching pad to greater things – things like philosophy and literature and poetry and culture, like music and art and friendship and sport, hobbies and interests and bucket lists.  These things do not have survival value in an evolutionary sense; rather, they give value to survival.  Jeremy himself contributes to this rich pageantry with his comedy.  No gorilla could ever have the cognitive ability to comprehend his jokes, much less them on its own.  Humans have created and mastered these things independently, while gorillas can only perform severely limited versions of them (and only when taught by humans, and only in exchange for a treat, which even then merely proves how totally their minds are driven by the base search for sustenance).  This is morally important to me in how I value a human life against an animal life.

IQ tests are almost impossible to administer to gorillas anyway (Koko can only take infant IQ tests on things like motor skills, not the adult versions with things like inference or logic or math).  But even if they could be tested under laboratory conditions, IQ scores are a poor approximation for these differences.

A more compelling question, to me, would be “If alien life that far exceeds our own intelligence and capabilities discovers human kind, would it be wrong of them to put us in cages and charge other aliens admission to come look at us?  If not, why are zoos okay?”

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