Burn the Trolley Car Mind

The calculus of harm is the topic of this recent Interchange on “On Climate Change and Non-Human Animals” with philosopher and ethicist Jeff Sebo.

Beasts’ Burdens

But the history of human thinking is simply full of error. Example: “Between Scylla and Charybdis.”

Wikipedia: Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer; Greek mythology sited them on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, on the Italian mainland. Scylla was rationalized as a rock shoal (described as a six-headed sea monster) on the Calabrian side of the strait and Charybdis was a whirlpool off the coast of Sicily. They were regarded as maritime hazards located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer’s account, Odysseus was advised to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool.

Literally, one should always choose to sail on Calabrian side of the strait. Done, easy. But by turning this into a metaphor we have sacrificial calculation. To achieve some particular end you must confront the need to do harm in some measure.

According to Wikipedia, this “wisdom” seems to have really found its way into philosophy and politics in the 16th century in the works of Erasmus (a Christian “humanist”). He apparently explained that the proverb could be applied in three different ways. In circumstances where there is no escape without some cost, the correct course is to “choose the lesser of two evils”. Alternatively it may signify that the risks are equally great, whatever one does. A third use is in circumstances where a person has gone too far in avoiding one extreme and has tumbled into its opposite.

It seems to me the first and the third of these come to the same thing; and the second should stop the action altogether.

Contextually there are of course times when making decisions won’t really harm anyone (except for maybe yourself) but if you are a “captain” then the lesson is clear – Life, what you believe to be a “way” of living, requires affecting harm on some others in order for you to achieve your ends. Some creatures are means to your ends.

That is immoral, yet serves as a way to “measure” acceptable levels of immorality.

That, I think, is the crux of humanity’s dive into the abyss of total war and climate collapse – to believe that some people may choose acceptable levels of harm for other people and non-human animals.

Of course now our existential dilemma as regards climate collapse requires ACTION – which is the primary distinction when considered alongside that other human-made existential threat, nuclear war, which begs us not to act.

As Rachel Carson asked, who has the right to decide? I would have liked to imagine this rhetorical, but I don’t think it was for Carson; she was a scientist after all.

Too many of us have been awarded luxury and ease and the “gift” of philosophical and scientific knowledge – these create the illusion of responsibility, of duty, to an ideal of human “progress” (which is a way to say, maintaining luxury and ease). MOST of “us” have no such experience or education. And it was those “gifts” (and self-interest in the form of greed) who brought us here; why are those gifts imagined salvific?

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