Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fear and loathing among the apes

The news has been building for some time now that the Spanish parliament may be about to recognize that great apes should be accorded certain basic legal protections. That is, not only humans, but the other great apes too. This news has been met with controversy and ridicule, as well as approval. Are the wacko Socialists and Greens of Spain about to give chimpanzees the right to drive motor vehicles, to run for parliament, and to sit on the boards of major corporations? Will young Spanish children now have to share their kindergarten desks with gorillas? Well, not exactly. If Spanish legislation were to follow the ideals of the Great Ape Project, chimpanzees ("common" and bonobo), gorillas, and orangutans would acquire legal rights to life, liberty, and freedom from torture. In the words of the Declaration on Great Apes:
We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang-utans.

The community of equals is the moral community within which we accept certain basic moral principles or rights as governing our relations with each other and enforceable at law. Among these principles or rights are the following:

1. The Right to Life
The lives of members of the community of equals are to be protected. Members of the community of equals may not be killed except in very strictly defined circumstances, for example, self-defense.

2. The Protection of Individual Liberty
Members of the community of equals are not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; if they should be imprisoned without due legal process, they have the right to immediate release. The detention of those who have not been convicted of any crime, or of those who are not criminally liable, should be allowed only where it can be shown to be for their own good, or necessary to protect the public from a member of the community who would clearly be a danger to others if at liberty. In such cases, members of the community of equals must have the right to appeal, either directly or, if they lack the relevant capacity, through an advocate, to a judicial tribunal.

3. The Prohibition of Torture
The deliberate infliction of severe pain on a member of the community of equals, either wantonly or for an alleged benefit to others, is regarded as torture, and is wrong.
It is surely a sad commentary on human civilization in the twenty-first century that we are still debating – indeed, have only begun to debate – whether torturing and killing our nearest relatives is acceptable. Passage of legislation in Spain would mark a giant leap for apekind, both because it would hold out some hope (though no certainty) that our relatives may be saved from extinction and enabled to live relatively free lives, and because it would mark significant progress in human ethical thinking, by removing some non-humans from the legal category of property and recognizing their intrinsic moral worth.

It is this last bit – recognizing the intrinsic moral worth of members of other species – that is generating fear and loathing among human apes. Although chimpanzees have cognitive faculties roughly equivalent to those of normal three-year-old human children, there is fierce resistance to granting them the right not to be killed, tortured, eaten, orphaned, kept in tiny cages, deliberately infected with fatal diseases, or to have their body parts used for trinkets or medicines. As I've suggested before, this resistance to admitting non-humans into the moral community is to a large degree based on existential dread: it is only by asserting our right to dominate and exploit other sentient creatures that we can overcome the fear that we will share their ultimate fate, that of being abandoned by God and Nature – of being treated as if we were animals: that is, of being treated the way we treat others who are not human. We must continue to treat animals like animals to prove to ourselves that we are not just animals who will be treated like animals.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Bottle of wine

Paul McCartney is 64.
Veronica Lodge, who was born the same year as Paul, is still 16.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler has been in town, to attend a conference on urban planning and to talk about the coming Long Emergency, as he calls it. Kunstler is a witty and engaging public speaker, who can make his audience roar with laughter as he describes (and illustrates with slides) the ugliness of North American urban sprawl and the hideousness of much modern architecture. If we didn’t laugh, we’d have to cry. The problem with our urban environment, as he points out, isn’t that “it’s all the same” (no one complains of Tuscan hill towns or of Parisian streets that “it’s all the same”); the problem is that so much of it is inhuman and alienating, lacking in the proportions and appropriate design that make for a welcoming sense of public space.

Kunstler argues that the end of cheap oil will soon force radical changes in our lives. The suburbs and the suburban way of life will be toast. Cities will of necessity become smaller, and will rely more on waterways and ports for the delivery of goods. The rail networks will have to be rebuilt and upgraded. Overall, however, life will become intensely local, and urban centres that do not have access to locally produced food will be in trouble. It’s madness, says Kunstler, to construct buildings more than seven stories high. With power outages likely to be fairly common, living on the 18th floor of a building will not be a good idea.

Kunstler rejects the idea that technological innovation will enable us to overcome the crisis with little disruption of our comfortable way of life. Technology ≠ Power, he says. A jumbo jet can’t be fuelled with software. (He says that the young millionaire nerds at Google headquarters to whom he talked just didn’t grasp this elementary fact.) He doesn’t believe that alternative energy sources like wind or solar power – or even nuclear power – can be adequate replacements for oil and gas. And he utterly rejects claims that the Alberta Tar Sands and its ilk can provide enough recoverable oil to significantly postpone the arrival of the Long Emergency. He says that people often ask him whether he can give them any hope, but he can’t do that. The only hope there can be is what comes from getting up off your rear end and doing something about the current state of affairs.

Footnote: Useful action must be guided by an intelligent analysis of the problem. And that includes understanding the capitalist economic system. It is interesting that a survey of some prominent British politicians and commentators finds many of them claiming that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is still relevant today. How many of their North American counterparts would dare say such a thing, even if they believed it? How many have the educational background to have a credible opinion on the matter?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Where's my stick?

And speaking of the CBC: Last night I watched a wonderful documentary on Newsworld’s The Passionate Eye about Diego Maradona, the Argentine footballer – followed by good old George Stroumboulopoulos interviewing Al Gore on The Hour. How fortunate we are to have the public network(s), which is not under quite the same pressure as other radio and television outlets to dumb down its content in pursuit of ratings.

Unfortunately, most people want dumb, as illustrated by both traditional mass media and the Web. Even overtly political blogs too often generate more heat than light. One high-traffic right-wing blog site, which shall go unnamed, illustrates the tendency to substitute name-calling for intelligent argument. The proprietress drops bits of food (“CBC”, “Liberals”, “United Nations”, “Tommy Douglas”, “multiculturalism”, “moral relativists”) into the tank, and the feeding frenzy is on. The piranhas enjoying their meal are dumb but vicious. You can click on “Comments” to lift the tank’s lid and peer inside. It’s tempting to take a stick and poke at the writhing mass with a provocative comment of one's own, just for the fun of it. (This is called “trolling”, or “a waste of time”.) Fortunately, several Canadian conservative bloggers do more than feed the fish: have a look at Andrew Coyne, Jay Currie, Bound by Gravity, and North Western Winds (this last having an interesting leaning toward Catholic theology).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Whose side are you on?

According to the lawyer for one of the accused, those suspected of planning terrorist attacks in Ontario are charged with targeting the CBC. So let's be very clear, folks: Either you're on the side of the CBC or you're on the side of the terrorists.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Let the good times roll

Mogadishu — An Islamic militia with alleged links to al-Qaeda seized Somalia's capital Monday after weeks of fighting with U.S.-backed secular warlords, raising fears that the nation could fall under the sway of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.
Read more.