Moral Foundations of Value

Part 1 – The Ethics of Intention

“…good intentions in human affairs are often deceptive. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is partly because that is the road they generally start out on.”

Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue
By Stephen G. Post, Lynn G. Underwood, Jeffrey P. Schloss, William B. Hurlbut

The righteous life is plagued with moral uncertainty. Not only should our good intentions not exempt us from ethical scrutiny, but the measure of how good our intentions really are, will be evident in the enthusiasm with which we attend to questions that challenge the moral high ground of our actions.

Ethical and just actions are judged and guided by intentions. Unlike intent, motive without intent is not a sound basis for moral responsibility. Whereas intent is a moral state, motive is a reason, and a situation. Motive is the social context that gives rise to temptation. Motive is unfair: in a morally ambivalent society, the person with social status and privilege is inured to the temptations that plague the person without social connections who survives on the precipice of homelessness, hunger, debt and unemployment. To know ones own moral character, it does not help to examine motive, but cultivating awareness of ones intentions is the ground of moral self knowledge.

If you intend to make the world just and kind, and if your actions are guided by this deliberate intent, you will succeed only if you are able to learn from your unintended outcomes. It is only by subjecting your intentions to moral scrutiny that you will navigate towards your aspiration for a better world.

Unintended good outcomes do not justify bad deeds, and unintended bad consequences do not negate actions intended to do good. It is not good intentions that lead to hell, it is simplistic good intentions that were not that good to start with and that remained closed to guidance.

Testing our intentions will give us a foundation in the consideration of our most enlightened interests. By continually stirring up the mud of moral uncertainty, and habituating ourselves to floating in the fluctuating waters of ethical scrutiny, we will be used to giving our attention to complexity, and making sacrifices for the sake of intentions that transcend our temptations – we will include others in our decisions and when opportunities arise to be of service, we will be more likely to act than someone who has no compassionate aspiration, or irrationally supposes that all actions have an equally uncertain moral cost/benefit or that those who intend to do less harm and those who act without questioning are morally equal.

If a person can intend to do evil, and their acting on those intentions does harm, then how is an intention to do good somehow exempt, or the same as no such intention at all? For example, just because there are unintended consequences for vegans who aspire to give up all animal products – motivated by the moral objective of doing less harm – such as that many mice are killed in agricultural processes often used to grow plant crops, it does not in any way follow that the just motives of Vegans not to kill are futile. It only means that there is even more reason for them to apply moral reasoning when buying and consuming and thereby influence a systemically harmful production market to make systemic changes that place a higher value on life.

So following from this example, if being vegan were not a minefield of difficult ethical dilemmas, but a simple lifestyle decision, then we would already be living in a world where ethical considerations were a normal part of commerce and agriculture. It is precisely because it is so thorny that veganism is useful to place pressure up the economic food chain to make ethical values an intrinsic part of doing business.

Because economic interests mold society, to buy vegan, is to be an activist. To base ones actions on moral intent that counteracts ethically inconsistent norms, is active moral aspiration, it is protest through dietary and lifestyle choices intended to establish a world of fairness based on valuing life, that applies to human primates, to mammals – and then cascades, in a descending hierarchy of value to all things, starting with valuing our own lives and extending that value to those most biologically similar to humans and then to all other living beings, all the way down to plants, robots and rocks.

It is not our virtues such as respect, decency or compassion, but our irrational cultural norms that support the unnecessary cheapening of life and objectifying of structurally analogous sentient beings. What could be a greater sign of human reason and logical consistency than the thoughtful search for and creation of ever less harmful social and economic practices? At its core ethical veganism is a living march against the hypocritical use of life to normalize the devaluing of life.

Every moral success is built on the hardened foundations of failure, no progress towards justice and equality have been achieved by perfectionists. Even if the only available alternatives to directly eating and using the lives of animals do unintended harm to animals, as in the case of sugar: although certified USDA organic sugar is not filtered through animal bone char, industrial agricultural processes for producing sugar from sugarcane are responsible for numerous rodent, snake and bird deaths, but the coincidental or inadvertent imperfections of a struggle to do good, provide no rationale to be discouraged, but rather provides the very purpose for acting on the intention to bring about change to a heartless system. Remember what matters morally is that our motivations are right and just, even though our actions are limited by the unjust world in which we live.

Actions motivated by the intention to value life, have a universally beneficial purpose and sends a message of dignity that unites all beings who value their lives, whether human, alien or animal, that our intelligence gives us the technology to respect and protect those less powerful than us, and our might gives us no right to do harm, but a unique responsibility and capability to love and value fellow beings for who they are, not for how we can benefit from them. Using lives as ends devalues life in general. In every life affirming choice this message rings out.

If we want more justice, sometimes we have to suffer more injustice to attain that goal. Underpaid workers who can’t make ends meet may have to lose pay in order to go on strike, so the very value they want, they must forgo in order to attain it. We must accept that although our actions are imperfect, embracing that imperfection is our best resistance against economic and social systems that otherwise have no incentive to change.

Not vegan actions but vegan aspirations and intentions are morally superior to intentionally or conveniently eating and using animal lives when the option exists to eat or use plants. It is a fact, not a belief, that vegan reasoning is a moral baseline for every human being who has the power to dignify all life and by extension, give their life its highest value.

Part 2 – Function, Structure and Self in Value Hierarchies

“You say you value life but you kill plants and they are life forms and have feelings too?”

This popular question is an example of the “all life is of equal value fallacy.”
The gut answer: We are humans, we value our lives, humans are animals, we value animals not plants.

The intelligent answer: There is a difference in values based on function and on structure.

The reason why all lifeforms are not assigned the same value is because the value of life is based on: reason, experience and both structural and functional analogy: what I know of life, is dependent on my being alive, and analogous to life as I experience it.  It is irrational for me to think that I value life, if I devalue lives that are directly analogous to mine, and using this reasoning it is not hypocritical to devalue lifeforms that are not analogous mine, and to value less, those lifeforms that are only functionally but not structurally analogous to mine.

To exist is to interact.
To value anything “other,” that interactive worth must be built on values I give to myself. Since I am talking about values, let me use numbers to explain how this logic works. If I assign myself the natural number of 1, then I am able to to interact with all other natural number values, it is that operation of my value interacting with other values that enables me to increase, or decrease value in others as well as myself; but if I assign myself the value of zero, I cannot interact with other natural number values. This is how giving myself my own value is essential if I am to be of use to others. Altruism is the extension of self value. A hypothetical altruist who gives themselves no worth will not be able to benefit or serve others. The same reasoning applies to the organization and hierarchy of what I value.

I do not value everything equally.
Those things I overtly value most are determined by my primary value. My life and my existence are the support for all that I value, and are reflected in what I value most. For example, in popular video games, the drama pivots on the value of interacting. The vast majority of games make me care about the game-play, by threatening my incipient value, not stuff, or status, but existence. When the character I am identifying with dies, I lose the basis on which all value depends – existence – my ability to interact.

Cutting the limb off an animal is just like cutting my own limb off, but cutting the “limb” off a tree or a plant is not. Placing a high value in a plant’s feelings omits questions of semantics and plants-to-humans analogies – you can’t cut a branch off a cat. Uprooting a tree is not analogous to my physical experience, I cannot empathize with it even though I can make the indirect analogy that it is like when I pull out hair, but that analogy remains fictional.

Whereas I do not have a tail my sentient experience is biologically and structurally analogous to that of a cat, but it is only functionally analogous to a tree. The life of a fish may seem very distant from mine, but compare a fish to a flower and the fish might as well be a member of my family: like me, a fish is a social individual with a brain, nerves, a 2-chambered heart that pumps blood, I have a 4-chambered heart that pumps blood, fish have all the same five senses that I have. The eyes of a fish are structurally analogous to my eyes. Calling a plant’s light receptive cells “eyes” is functionally accurate, but using the same reasoning my own skin should also be called “eyes” because human melanin-producing skin cells called melanocytes contain rhodopsin, a photosensitive receptor, used by my eyes to detect light, and used by my skin as a self-defense measure against damage to my DNA by “seeing” sunlight and unleashing calcium ion signals that instigate melanin production.
Comparing the will to live of a tree to my own, leaves me “stumped.”

The sentience of a fish is directly analogous to mine even if a fish has one additional sense that I do not have.  “Senses” in plants are often placed in quotes when compared to animal senses, like in my limb or skin-cells-as-eyes examples, because the analogy is functional and not structural. Senses are not sensors, all animals and humans not only have most of the same senses in the same configuration and this combined sentience is not only functionally the same, but structurally more similar than different too. The sentience of plants is so structurally different to that of animals as to make plant empathy an act of pure anthropomorphic functional analogy.

Empathy is the sustenance that energizes all moral intention.
How do our moral actions differ when applied to animals versus plants?

How do studies show that individuals who are less empathetic towards people also have less empathy towards animals, and people who harm animals often also harm people?

A correlation has been established between animal abuse, family violence, and other forms of community violence. A growing body of research indicates that people who commit acts of cruelty towards animals rarely stop there. Murderers and people who abuse their spouse or children had frequently harmed animals in the past. Child and animal protection professionals are aware of this connection, and recognize that both child and animal abuse are linked in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.  Criminal psychologists acknowledge that participating in or viewing acts of repeated cruelty towards animals desensitizes both the perpetrator and the spectator. John Locke once wrote of children that “…tormenting and killing…beasts, will, by degrees, harden their minds even towards men; and they who delight in the suffering and destruction of inferior creatures, will not be apt to be very compassionate or benign to those of their own kind.” Animal cruelty destroys respect for life, and children who witness and participate in animal abuse are at a greater risk of becoming abusers themselves.
The Link: Cruelty to Animals and Violence Towards People
Author: Cynthia Hodges
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Publish Year: 2008
Primary Citation: Animal Legal & Historical Center

The connection between people and animals is obvious, we are both animals, but we are not plants. Whereas there is a direct correlation between animal abuse and weakened empathy or violent aggression there is an inverse correlation to “plant abuse.”

The best tool to fight crime may be a lawnmower. That’s the conclusion of a new study, which shows that sprucing up vacant lots by doing as little as picking up trash and cutting the grass curbed gun violence in poor neighborhoods in a major U.S. metropolis by nearly 30%.
From “This city fights crime with gardening” By Roni Dengler, Feb. 26, 2018 , 3:00 PM
Preliminary research in California prisons suggests that, among prisoners who participated in gardening programs, less than 10 percent returned to prison.

Of course plants react to their environment, so as I said does our skin, but we do not reason that chemical reactions demonstrate that chemicals have senses, or even “senses”. What is at work here is that everything we experience, we do so by different degrees of both functional and structural analogy, I cannot know anything except my own experience. I will never know what another being experiences, thinks or feels, I can only look for analogous experiences, thoughts or feelings in my own life.

cute-bunnies-tongues-9Plants are functionally like animals, but try to empathize with an apple and compare that to empathizing with a rabbit. Empathizing with the rabbit is direct and structural. You do not need to first form a mental model of how the rabbit may be experiencing, but empathizing with a plant is indirect and functional, you must empathize with your idea of what you infer a plant is feeling based on its activity. If we bury ourselves in the ground or inhale air, we do not feel what a plant feels, but when we eat an apple in our mouths with teeth, taste buds, saliva, a tongue etc. we do not need to infer what a rabbit experiences when she eats. Unlike a plant, we cannot “eat” carbon from the air. Structurally, almost none of that which makes a plant a plant is what makes an animal an animal.

Our moral characters are reasonably judged based on how consistently we extend our understanding of the value of our own lives, to our value of lives that are structurally analogous to our own life experience. Valuing my life is logically inconsistent with devaluing lives that are structurally, functionally and biologically equivalent to mine.

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plants have feelings too