The Corner

Now It’s ‘Posthumanist Ethical Pluralism’

The New York Times continually publishes opinion pieces and news articles aimed at undermining human exceptionalism and the understanding that we have the highest moral value.’

This is exceedingly dangerous. If human life doesn’t have the highest ultimate objective value simply and merely because it is human–an equal value to be distinguished from all other life forms on the planet–there is no way to philosophically defend universal human rights.

Moreover, if we can’t distinguish between our inherent value and that of animals, we will not elevate their status to our level but diminish our own to theirs.

Now, the Times has an extended interview with anti-humanist philosopher Cary Wolfe advocates a “posthumanist ethical pluralism” among us and with the rest of life on the planet.

Of course, Wolfe makes the usual claim among such believers that what is done to an animal or other life form should be judged as morally equivalent to same thing being done to a human. From the interview:

N.L.: How might a posthumanist approach to undoing interspecies hierarchies intervene with structures of violence among humans themselves? Trump’s election reflects and emboldens white supremacy and misogyny to a frightening degree. Could a posthumanist intervention risk moving focus away from a direct and much needed struggle against these things, or could it help?

What a moronic question. Can we all roll our eyes and hoot in unison? 

And catch the big-brained vapid answer:

C.W. Oh, I think it can help enormously, by drawing out more clearly the broader base that these struggles share in what I’ve called a posthumanist ethical pluralism.

My position has always been that all of these racist and sexist hierarchies have always been tacitly grounded in the deepest — and often most invisible hierarchy of all: the ontological divide between human and animal life, which in turn grounds a pernicious ethical hierarchy.

As long as you take it for granted that it’s O.K. to commit violence against animals simply because of their biological designation, then that same logic will be available to you to commit violence against any other being, of whatever species, human or not, that you can characterize as a “lower” or more “primitive” form of life.

This is obvious in the history of slavery, imperialism and violence against indigenous peoples. And that’s exactly what racism and misogyny do: use a racial or sexual taxonomy to countenance a violence that doesn’t count as violence because it’s practiced on people who are assumed to be lower or lesser, and who in that sense somehow “deserve it.”

But we don’t believe any of that. Indeed, we have instituted increasingly stringent animal welfare laws precisely because we understand that as humans we have duties of humane care toward animals.

Moreover, raising chickens for eggs and inseminating cows  does not lead to “rape culture.”

What the hell would instituting a society based on “posthuman ethical pluralism” mean in actual practice?

Unsurprisingly such practical questions are left unanswered in the interview:

C.W. 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.

Does this mean that all forms of life are somehow “the same”? No, it means exactly the opposite: that the question of “human” versus “animal” is a woefully inadequate philosophical tool to make sense of the amazing diversity of different forms of life on the planet, how they experience the world, and how they should be treated.

If we reject the moral hierarchy of life with us at the apex, does it mean we can’t eat meat? Does it mean we must fundamentally harm ourselves by ceasing animal experimentation? 

In the real world–yes, I know that is not where professors tend to live–all of this is simply unworkable. And the potential adverse impact of trying to impose policies based on such thinking would do unquantifiable harm to human thriving.

But do note that the entire discussion rests on the extent and depth of human moral duties that we assign to ourselves. 

And indeed, the entire question proves the moral hierarchy that Wolfe is at such pains to deny. No other species in the known universe could even engage the question, much less decide that altruism requires elevating morally lesser life forms into equal–or higher–consideration with our own.

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