Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Another Nice Dark Ecology Slice, Featuring Pink Floyd

In Tom Stoppard’s play Darkside, which magically lets Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon speak its implicit ecological philosophical content, a cynical philosophy teacher explains the famous trolley problem. If there are lots of people on a train heading over a cliff, it is ethical to switch the points to divert the train, even if the train runs over a single person stuck on the track onto which the train diverts.

When a sensitive student asks the teacher about the experiment (“Who was on the train?” “Who was the boy?”), the teacher insists that it’s merely a thought experiment, that there’s no point in knowing. Yet this perceived irrelevancy is normative: it is what generates the utilitarianism in the first place.

The girl student, dismissed as insane, asks the teacher, “Who was on the train?” The teacher responds, “We don’t know who was on the train, it’s a thought experiment.” The humor compresses an insight: this nondescription of Easy Think passengers implies an unexamined thought that gives no heed to the qualities of the people on board. Only their number counts, the fact that they merely exist. Existing is better than any quality of existing, according to axiom (3). It doesn’t even matter how many more people there are. Even the sheer quantity of existing is treated as a lump of whatever. Say there were three hundred people on the track and three hundred and one people in the train. The train should divert and run over the people on the track. More to the ecological point, imagine seven billion people on the train and a few thousand on the track. This represents the balance (or lack thereof ) between the human species and a species about to go extinct because of human action. This amazing pudding of stuff isn’t even a fully mathematizable world. Counting itself doesn’t count. For a social form whose new technology (writing) was so preoccupied with sheer counting, as surviving Linear B texts demonstrate, this is ironic.


saji said...

I am reminded of the story of the shepherd seeking the lost lame one leaving behind the ninety nine..

Wilburforce said...

I've wondered a similar thing especially when it's always the number of children rather than say world experts on malaria that are killed during a plane crash.
And this dilemma:
Would you prefer to chuck a baby off the cliff in the pitch dark or strangle 100 puppies with your bare hands...

The pitch dark being a necessary curator of doubt about whether the baby is indeed alive when it is passed to you, or has a life-threatening condition etc. And the other rejoinder to torment - is think of how large a pile those puppies would make. Their yips and screams and just quite how long it would take.
One could follow your train point and say baby rhinos or turtle doves or bluefin tuna...

Likewise I wonder who'd willing give up their life if say it allowed passenger pigeons or some such to magically return.

It's an odd descent to such dualities.

John said...

I attended a talk Singer gave in November and suggested asking Singer something very similar to the following TM sentences:

This represents the balance (or lack thereof ) between the human species and a species about to go extinct because of human action. This amazing pudding of stuff isn’t even a fully mathematizable world. Counting itself doesn’t count.

My seat mate, reminding me of past disagreement with Singer and Utilitarians in general, persuaded me to be silent. She was right, no one in the room would have gotten it. Singer exemplifies a binary logic where 'value' and decisions become a quotidian numbers game divorced from either subjective valuation, interrogative thought, or ecosophical meaning -- and species survival strategies. A deep ecology viewpoint here is that the struggle is not merely one species against another, but one species against all life. The Utilitarian toolbox is very consistent, hence its appeal, but does not have the tech to even conceptualize this struggle. As with Singer qua Singer, this reasoning exists as form of emotional technology, a form of depersonalizing others to reflect the depersonalized self. All the little Eichmann's of this world, who confuse thinking with cost-benefit analyses, just do not get it because their assumptions of value are not qualitative and rooted in hierarchical ontologies of being instead of appreciation of difference and curiosity as to sense and soma. Churchill and Coventry and all that. On the other end of the spectrum, deontologist Tom Regan, the nicest man in the animal philo business, might have arrived at the same conclusion with his lifeboats instead of Trolleys, but still would assign relative valence to existences based upon anthropocentric standards of review. Steve Best, on the western part of Texas would save the dog. Under Singer, this leads to an ecology of more humans leading worse lives. I want to do away with the assumptions behind the problem. How do you explain to a man such as Singer that numbers add up to nothing when they are based upon one species specific accounting system? Michael Hauskeller at Exeter also works on these questions from within the Utilitarian framework.

Philippa Foote, who wrote an early version of the Trolley problem, did so in the context of the siege of Stalingrad. Surely Phillipa and all of us would value a few thousand Russians within resisting the technological onslaught of Nazi Germany over the greater numbers of the army outside. Philippa reasoned, and later repudiated, that members of a collective fight for each other, again something Singer would dismiss as facile. So how about under a flat order, we refrain from letting the Trolley flatten our minds?