Monday, March 19, 2007

Existentialist bear criticized by nature-loving a priorists!

German animal-lovers are divided on the issue of "Cute Knut", an orphan polar bear that has (so far) been raised by human beings at the Berlin Zoo. Some argue that the bear should have been euthanized, for "[i]f a polar bear mother rejected the baby, then ... the zoo must follow the instincts of nature." And like-minded others argue that "[t]he animal will be fixated on his keeper and not be a 'real' polar bear," and that being raised by humans is "not appropriate to the species."

As Thom Yorke said, we hope your rules and wisdom choke you. The very idea that a being would be better of dead simply because it's not living a "natural" life -- well, I guess I just can't make sense of it. Let me try to explain why. Here a situation in which it seems like you might be better of dead if you couldn't live a natural life: you're a fish, and you're not allowed to live in water, but when you're outside of water you are in constant pain and suffering from lack of oxygen, and (this may go without saying) you don't have any important Williamsonian ground projects that involve being out of water. If that's you, then you'd be better off dead.

But that is because the unnatural life that you're forced to live is a life of pain and suffering (with no compensation when it comes to the things you really care about). It's not the mere fact that your life is unnatural that makes it a life not worth living. What ultimately explains why your life is not worth living, in that case, is not the fact that your life is unnatural. Rather, it's the pain and suffering.

In the case of a fish, intuitively, there may be nothing more to the good life than pleasure and pain -- any fish life that isn't a life of suffering is a fish life worth living, for a fish. How might other animals -- including humans -- be different? The existentialists (and American sympathizers like Frankfurt, Nagel, and Williams) have an answer to this question: (roughly) human beings have values, i.e. things they love and care about, i.e. projects that give meaning to their lives. On a less grand scale, many animals (including humans) have interests, desires, concerns, preferences. To the extent that you have these sorts of wants (whether they rise to the level of existentially significant "ground projects" or not), your life is worsened by not getting what you want, in the same way that its worsened by pain and suffering. So the question we have to ask about Cute Knut, it seems to me, has nothing to do with the biological nature of bears, and everything to do with what he wants, and whether he's getting it.

Can we attribute to Knut a ground project of wanting to be a "real" bear, according to zoological standards? Of course we can't -- what Knut cares about is getting food, and playing with a toilet brush, or whatever. He could care less about living up to his biological nature, if he even things about such things, which he doesn't -- and that's the real point. What's "natural" can't matter to a being that doesn't (and probably can't) form thoughts about what's "natural." And if it can't matter to Knut, then it can't be the difference maker for whether his is a life worth living.

(Allan Hazlett)


Anna Christina Ribeiro said...

My question is: since when do zoos follow the instincts of nature? Do they not care for the animals as they keep them *in captivity*? I suppose this highlights the tension involved in having zoos at all. There is something slightly absurd in having animals in an unnatural environment, and then making decisions about their well-being on the basis of what would be 'natural'. Either the objective is for animals to thrive, or for their lives to be 'natural'. If the former, then feed him with a bottle; if the latter, then close down the zoo and put animals back 'where they belong'. I think Allan is right that what makes a life worth living is not whether it is 'natural'--for one, specifying what is 'natural' can be a rather tricky business, what with nature not being a static, but rather a constantly changing, system (whose only constant seems to be, incidentally, the very fact of adaptation of its entities to one another).

Anonymous said...

Thank you all who think that Knut should be killed, you have successfully pushed the infinite bound of human stupidity.

Josh Brown said...

sorry, i made that last comment.

Jacob Parks said...

I guess that means that any 'wolf children' and other Mowgli-types need to be euthanized also.

Kimberly said...

It's a hard life for an existentialist bear...on my part I didn't even know polar bears could be existentialists.

Maggie said...

It’s true that the most important thing here is the animal’s well being, not some empirical standard of “polar-bearness.” It’s also true that, so long as his needs are being met and he is happy, to suggest that he be killed is ridiculous and cruel. However, I have to wonder what those activists mean when they say that human raising is “not appropriate to the species.” Nobody wants to see Cute Knut euthanized because he is, well, cute. And apparently pretty happy. But he’s not going to be a baby forever. And has he grows his needs and behavior will change, too. Many animals have adapted perfectly well to all-human environments, but I have to wonder what if some can't?

I can see the argument for euthanization if the result is a maladjusted bear that will become increasingly unhappy as its natural urges
conflict with its human raising.

I’m not making an argument for animal captivity itself, but if we do choose to keep animals in captivity we have a responsibility to the animals, and to ourselves. The result of irresponsible animal handling can lead to horrific situations like this one,, at the Dallas Zoo when a gorilla escaped from its enclosure, attacking and injuring zoo visitors, including a toddler, before it was shot to death. If we bring an animal into captivity we are responsible for its well-being for its entire life, and if we can anticipate changes in its nature or mood that may put us in the position of having to kill it later on, then is that really any more ethical than euthanizing it as an infant?

In Cute Knut’s case, we obviously don’t know-- I have no idea if a polar bear has ever been raised from infancy by humans. If a polar bear can adjust to human foster-parenting and still lead a happy life in captivity then I have no further queries. And, as an animal lover, I really hope that he can.

John said...

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