Question 15: If you could obtain anything you wanted, “would you be willing to tear the wings off a beautiful butterfly? If so, would you be troubled enough to enjoy [whatever it is you obtained] any less? What about stepping on a cockroach?
“Does a beautiful creature merit more compassion than an ugly one? If so, why? Do you injure yourself psychologically by destroying something you find beautiful? Is there a meaningful difference between pulling the wings off an insect and stepping on it? How much would it take to induce you to rip the wings off a hummingbird or dove?”
Many of us enjoy beauty, but I don’t think it’s strong enough to determine if we kill or don’t kill. For example, most of us aren’t opposed to killing a majestic elk for food – or eating the flesh of one we didn’t kill ourselves. On the other hand, even though the Panda is a stupid creature, we value it because it’s exotic. I think beauty holds some weight, but I’m not convinced it’s enough.
Instead, let’s talk about the new Superman movie (Man of Steel). I think that – regardless of what my friends say – the Jonathan Kent death-scene is a fantastic portrayal of a human’s powerful but limited value in non-human creatures. From what I’ve seen, the amount of value we have for other creatures depends on how similar or dissimilar our consciousness is to that creature (or how much a non-human creature reminds us of ourselves).
In the Jonathan Kent death-scene, a tornado threatens to abolish a line of occupied cars along a highway. Although everyone flees to a relatively safe spot, the family dog is locked inside a truck and in the line of fire. Jonathan, who is helping other families get out of their vehicles and to safety, eventually abandons his human cohorts in order to rescue the dog. Kal-El takes a few steps forward, preparing to risk his safety to rescue his adoptive parent, but Jonathan silently tells him to remain where he is. Jonathan succeeds in saving the dog and his family, but is killed in the process.
My friends find this scene heroic and beautiful. They say, “A human being [identified as superior] is compassionate enough to sacrifice his own life for that of another being [identified as less superior].” I believe there is truth in this sentiment, but I also think the scene reveals just how far our loyalty stretches for those that are alike us. There is a reason the dog is along for the ride in the first place; he is an important member of the family, and, according to this scene, just as important as a human.
However, I would like to argue that Jonathan saves Kal-El’s life out of love and duty, and perhaps, even, his potential for the greater good due to his advanced level of consciousness.
When I think about the Jonathan Kent death-scene, I feel that companionship plays a heavy role in our choices to protect or kill. Many non-human creatures seek companionship, but they do so because of biology and instinct. To seek something is one thing; to value something requires something unique — a highly advanced brain that gives your body the ability to extensively know itself while acknowledging others as individuals. Our value for companionship is a result of our consciousness.
Our bond to a cockroach is not as strong as our bond to a dog. Would Jonathan have risked his own life for a pet flea? Maybe so, but I don’t think most of us would. On a more serious note, maybe this is why we can’t collectively figure out when/if abortions are ethical. Do we value a fetus when it’s more similar to a fingernail than to us? Do we value it a little more when it’s similar to a dog? Do we highly value it once it’s born; more once it’s an infant; possibly more once it reaches a higher conscious, like us? We value a cockroach with little consciousness less than we value a human with a high consciousness, and we tend to believe terminating a fetus is more humane than murdering a newborn baby.
I would love to fully embrace the philosophy that all creatures should be equally valued and taken care of, but I don’t. I would even like to claim that, only in the most desperate of situations, could I kill another creature. But it’s not true. Could I tear the wings off a butterfly if it meant I got something I wanted: yes. When I was younger, I did it out of curiosity. Could I step on a cockroach? You bet. I’d do it for free. Could I pursue and kill another human if that person tortured someone I love? I bet I could.
None of this implies we can’t act differently. If morality is really a human construct, we can wield it. We can make it better. We can realize that the only reason we risk our lives for a “lesser-conscious being” (usually a dog; usually never a cockroach) is because the dog is usually considered one of us. An ameba is rarely ever considered one of us. A fetus is sometimes considered one of us. A baby, mostly always.
Everyone draws their line somewhere. For me, I realize where my value lays, and now it’s time to make a choice.
Thinkies & Thoughties is inspired by The Book of Questions by Doctor Gregory Stock. Grab a cup of coffee — or something a little stronger — and sit down, open up, and share yourself every Friday.
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