Living With Other Hominids

Written by Professor Neil Levy

The recent discovery of what is claimed to be a distinct species of the genus Homo, our genus, raises to three the number of species that may have co-existed with Homo Sapiens. Homo naledi is yet to be dated, but it may be only tens of thousands of years old; if so, it coexisted with modern humans. Homo floresiensis, the so-called ‘hobbit’, seems to have been extant well after sapiens evolved, and there is strong evidence that the Neanderthals coexisted with, probably interbred with, and may have been killed by, our ancestors.

If any of these species had survived into contemporary times, we would be faced with an ethical question which is novel: negotiating our stance toward a species that is not quite human, but too close to be regarded as simply animal (using that word in its common meaning, to refer to non-human animals). More specifically, we would face the problem of how to respond to another deeply cultural being. Naledi seems to have had a culture – so the researchers conclude from the placement of the bones, which they think indicates burial. Perhaps it was language using (floresiensis seems a very good candidate for language using). Yet they might not have been intellectual equals of modern humans (perhaps they were – genetic difference certainly doesn’t entail inferiority – but for the purposes of this post I will assume they weren’t). If they were our contemporaries, would we be obliged to allow them to vote? To have affirmative action for them in universities and in jobs (assuming that some of them, perhaps rare geniuses, could function at a high enough level to take advantage of these opportunities)? Should we treat them as permanent children, appointing guardians for them?

Some philosophers would say that the answer to these questions is quite easy: we should give them equal consideration. Equality of consideration is the kind of equality which philosophers like Peter Singer argue should be extended to chickens and chimps, just as much as human beings. Treating chickens equally in that sense doesn’t entail affirmative action or voting rights for chickens, because chickens don’t have an interest in either. It just requires taking their interests equally into account.

While there are strong reasons for thinking we ought to extend equality of consideration to homo naledi, floresiensis and Neanderthals, that doesn’t tell us the answer to the concrete questions. Insofar as they are self-aware, these people (let’s call them that) have an interest in self-government, and therefore in voting. But (let’s assume) they have a limited capacity to understand the issues on which we vote. As self-aware beings, they might be harmed by being treated as inferior. But there may be good grounds for thinking that they are inferior.

We might offer them limited rights: rights to vote in elections for people who have the special role of looking after their interests. That would entail that they are not as self-governed as we are, since they would be living in a broader society (or in a world, at any rate) in which decisions are taken over which they have less say than we do.

I don’t think there are good answers to these questions. That is, while I am sure there are better and worse answers, I think this would be a true moral dilemma: the best possible response would have big moral costs. There seems to be no way to act that would involve some harms to a properly cultural being that couldn’t be fully autonomous: harms that would arise from its awareness that it was less autonomous and less able to govern its own life than others.

Julian Baggini sees in the discovery of naledi good news for humanity; it shows that in some sense we are not alone. Perhaps, but had they survived, we would face a tragic dilemma. To that extent, we are lucky that they didn’t. Genetic diversity among modern human beings is tiny, with genetic differences between groups swamped by those within them. That ensures that the questions we face about how to treat members of other groups are in one central way easier: they are in every important respect our equals. Our ethics would struggle to settle how to treat a deeply cultural group distinct from us which is in some respects not our equals.

Liberalism and inequality

by Joao Fabiano

Why inequality matters

Philosophers who argue that we should care about inequality often have some variation of a prioritarian view. For them, well-being matters more for those who are worse off, and we should prioritise improving their lives over the lives of others. Several others believe we should care about inequality because it is inherently bad that one person is worse off than another through no fault of her own – some add the requirement both persons should be equally deserving. Either way, few philosophers would argue that we should worsen the better off, or worsen the average, while keeping the worse off just as badly off, only to narrow the inequality gap. Hence, when it comes to economic inequality we should prefer to make the poor better off by making everyone richer instead of making everyone, on average or sum, poorer. Moreover, in most views it is reasonable to care more about inequality at the bottom and less about inequality at the top. We should prefer to reduce inequality by making the worse off richer instead of closing the gap between those who are already better off. I believe a closer inspection at how these equalitarian/prioritarian preferences translate into economic concerns can lead one to reject a few common assumptions.

It is often assumed that the liberal economic model, when compared to strong welfare models, is detrimental to human economic equality. Reducing poverty, equalitarianism and wealth redistribution are, after all, one of the chief principles of the welfare State. The widening of the gap between the top and the bottom is often cited as a concern in liberal States. I wish to argue that out of the various inequality statistics available, if we look at the ones that seem to be more relevant for equalitarian ethics, then strong welfare States fare worse than economically liberal States[1]. For that, I will focus on a comparison between the US and European welfare States’ levels of inequality. Continue reading

The Parable of the Islands

Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary, recently proposed that 5-7-year-olds in British primary schools should be taught about the ‘concept of a nation’. This proposal, along with several others, it seems, is to be dropped. So unfortunately I will not be able to send the following story to Mr Gove for possible inclusion in his new syllabus. But here is an updated version of it anyway.

Many years ago, a sailing ship carrying two-hundred people sank in a storm. Fortunately, no one drowned. The people managed to swim to two different islands, one hundred on one, one hundred on the other. Continue reading

Abortion and Equality

During the year I’ve just spent in the US, several of the ethical issues commonly discussed in the media – gay marriage, assisted suicide, whether there should be universal health care, along with several others – have seemed to me largely unproblematic in themselves. The main issue in each case is how to deal politically with the fact that many people have deeply mistaken views.

Abortion, however, is not one of these issues. Though I certainly believe abortion should be available free and on demand, deep ethical problems arise out of the apparent conflict between two serious interests: those of the fetus and those of the woman bearing it.

The weight of philosophical argument over the last five decades has been in favour of abortion. Here is one argument against. Note that it is an argument against, which may well be (and I believe is) outweighed by arguments for. The argument can be constructed on the basis of a principle of equality, or a principle requiring one to give priority to the worse off. The example I shall use is highly circumscribed, and the application of the argument to the actual world may therefore be quite limited especially in the case of equality, since how to measure equality is considerably more disputed than how to give priority to the worse off. And there are also philosophical assumptions which could be questioned – for example the notion that moral status attaches not only to actual persons or those with a currently exercised capacity for well-being, but to individuals with the potential for well-being or a capacity for well-being dependent on developing physical attributes. It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that standard versions of consequentialism or utilitarianism count against abortion in the case I describe.

Consider a world containing just two individuals: a woman, and the fetus she is carrying. The woman wishes to abort her fetus, and is able to do so. If she does so, she will live a life with a  high level of well-being; and her fetus will live a (very short) life at the zero level. If she does not, then she will live a life with a moderate level of well-being, and her fetus will live a life at a level slightly below that of the woman’s life.

Assume that these two outcomes are the only ones possible in this world. Then both equality and ‘prioritarianism’ appear to count against abortion. For if the woman aborts her fetus, she will bring about great inequality between herself and her fetus, and fail to give priority to the worse off.