The weak versus the strong: the law of the strongest

The thread on Reason.com on limiting human population growth (whether or not to) prompted me to express some fundamental thoughts about the relationship between 'us' - Western civilization, you know, the tough guys, macho - versus some weaker groups that exist or have existed in nature, such as the animals and the indigenous people of continents 'we' overtook.

Julian Fondren made a decent case asserting that the survival of animals is up to people. He implies (without justifying) that all corners of the planet must be owned, and that if any species are to survive, it must be through directly serving humanity - i.e., the owners of the territory the animals occupy.

What about when a species needs a vast territory, such as the Atlantic, in which to flourish? We're currently seeing a tragedy of the commons, with fish species being overfished to extinction, that only someone owning the entire ocean could prevent.

Julian is making a biblical presumption that humans are morally different from animals and that animals, in so far as they have rights, have such rights only in so far as it serves humans. That's a fairly popular view which I think is fundamentally unjust, except if one admits that one is only recognizing the freedom and ownership rights of other humans for strictly selfish and utilitarian reasons - i.e. because you're not powerful enough to ride roughshod over them; or if you are powerful enough, because you want to benefit from other people's creativity and such is not forthcoming unless the people in question feel they are free. On the other hand you don't have any creativity-based economic results to gain from animals, and as opposed to humans you can ride roughshod over them, so you do, and you don't feel bad about that at all.

I would say that such an attitude makes one a rather unappealing character, but if you admit to such views and ask me "so what?", I guess I'll have to live with you, since I too can't ride roughshod over you.

So, what do you say? Are animals independent creatures whose well-being should be respected as a terminal value of its own, or are animals dependent creatures whose well-being is at best an instrumental value subservient to the whims of humans?

If it is a terminal value, which I would subscribe to, then I think we need to consider fair outcomes for animals, too.

On the other hand, if one sees the welfare of animals as merely instrumental to that of humans, then I guess one's logic would be: if enough humans care about animal welfare, they should band together and buy the Atlantic Ocean and enforce cod preservation fishing quotas there. But if there are not enough such humans, then they should accept the scarcity of their numbers and just face the extinction.

On the other hand, this is basically similar to the moral dilemma of Europeans coming to other continents and taking the land for themselves after slaughtering most people there into submission. Don't the indigenous people, although technologically inferior, have the right to that land, too? Or do they have to move aside willy nilly, simply because they are weaker?

Now substitute indigenous people for other species that we're driving to extinction, and it is the same moral dilemma. In both cases it is a strong group conquering the territory of the weaker one, or even eating it to extinction, because it can. But just because the stronger group can, should it?

I have some respect for the law of the strongest. It is the law of nature. But if all we do is follow the law of the strongest, then what are libertarian principles, such as respect for other people's property, based on? If it's merely on their being human, then (1) you are biased against animals with no explanation (at most a bad rationalization), and (2) you need to explain what happened to indigenous people everywhere.

If on the other hand our respect for other people's property is based on the practical concept that we can all kill and steal from each other so let's agree not to, then I understand that, and then I can see how it follows that animals and even indigenous people are subservient to us. They are weak, so they are no threat if we plunder and steal from them as much as we want, and even drive them to extinction. They can't do much about that anyway. So it's fine.

Right?

One might not like what one sees in the mirror. But that is the consistent view.

See also Fake Justification. Just because you think your reasons are based on lofty principles, that doesn't mean that they are.

Comments

markbahner said…
"What about when a species needs a vast territory, such as the Atlantic, in which to flourish? We're currently seeing a tragedy of the commons, with fish species being overfished to extinction, that only someone owning the entire ocean could prevent."

No, that's not correct at all. What is needed is for human beings to have clear ownership to every single fish.

In fact, what is really needed is for people to be able to be paid for the fish they "plant" in the sea...just as a farmer is paid when the seeds he plants grow to adulthood. (Or a rancher is paid when the calves he releases to the open range grow to adulthood.)
Anthony said…
Very interesting
verbatim said…
So markbahner are you suggesting a privatization of animals?

That is just wrong... any form of private control on wild animals should be eliminated (as it exist today even in some advanced western societies). Governments should take all control over animals...private ownership leads to keep money-making animals (like deers) and kill money-killer animals (like bears).
markbahner said…
"So markbahner are you suggesting a privatization of animals?"

Yes, I'm suggesting privatization of animals. I'm specifically suggesting it for oceanic fish (such as cod and tuna). In fact, I'm suggesting that biological, chemical, or mechanical technologies be developed so that people who "plant" fish in the ocean can later be paid for that "planting," even if another person does the harvesting.

If people owned the oceanic fish (and their descendants), then the owners of the fish would be encouraged to create more fish when fish prices increased.

Right now, there is no incentive for anyone to "plant" fish. There is only an incentive for people to harvest fish.

"That is just wrong... any form of private control on wild animals should be eliminated (as it exist today even in some advanced western societies)."

Well, your suggestion goes against evidence to the contrary. See this website, for example:

http://www.adamsmith.org/80ideas/idea/77.htm

Here's a quote from that website:

"Some species, such as tigers and rhinoceros, are threatened by large-scale poaching to supply Middle Eastern and Oriental markets with the ingredients for traditional medicines. Trade bans imposed by CITES (the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species) have failed to curb killing of endangered species. Rather, they encourage poaching by driving up the black-market value of animal products. Thus a ban on rhino horn in the mid-1970s led to a soaring of the price of this product in markets such as Yemen, Korea and Taiwan: and consequently, poaching became more profitable. Inevitably, this black market has attracted organized crime and there are numerous instances of corruption within National Parks services, the police, the military, government departments as well as the diplomatic service of several countries."

Note how governments have made bans on hunting animals, and that these bans have actually created incentives to kill the animals, and have encouraged the corruption of government officials.

"Governments should take all control over animals...private ownership leads to keep money-making animals (like deers) and kill money-killer animals (like bears)."

If I own a young female bear (and any offspring), I'd be foolish to allow her to be killed before she reached the end of her reproductive years. I'd be giving up the ownership of all of her potential offspring.

But I'd rather stick with the initial problem that Denis identified (loss of fish such as cod). Denis says the owon solution is for someone to own the entire ocean. I say it's just as good if someone owns every fish. It's particularly good if a system can be devised such that people are financially rewarded for "planting" fish. Right now, no one is "planting" any fish in the ocean. But they certainly do in fish farms! And the reason they do it in fish farms is because they own the fish that they plant. We need to devise a similar system for the open ocean, such that people are rewarded for "planting" fish.
denis bider said…
Mark: I don't see how fish can be owned and "planted" the way you describe anywhere else but in fish farms. It does you no good to "own" an animal if its survival depends on a territory you can't control. Besides, how are you going to tag fish with their owners, and how are you going to properly account for when one person's fish eats another person's fish, and how are you going to properly account for when fish of different owners give birth to more fish?

What you are proposing requires something like nanotechnology beyond anything currently available, and probably anything that's going to even become available before these fish go extinct.

Furthermore, even if you had this technology, what do the tags help you if people who catch the fish simply ignore them? If you have not even one police or coast guard ship capable of averting poachers, anyone can come in and catch all the tagged fish they want; possibly process them to remove the tags; and sell them.

Your proposal is unworkable without some measures in place to protect the territory where fish live. The person who protects the territory is the de facto owner. The de facto owner can enforce a tagging policy such as you describe, or he might simply impose a very low quota on catching fish.

I think your comparison with hunting bans driving up demand for endagered species misses the point. That does happen to animals of which relatively few remain. However, the fish populations I think can support a few individual fish being poached now and then. What they cannot support is continued industrial fishing at current levels.
markbahner said…
"It does you no good to "own" an animal if its survival depends on a territory you can't control."

I don't agree with that. My understanding of "open range" animal operations--at least as practiced in the U.S. centuries ago--is that there was little or no control of the territory. See Wikipedia on "Ranch":

"Likewise, cattle and sheep, descended from animals brought over from Europe, were simply turned loose in the spring after their young were born and allowed to roam with little supervision and no fences, then rounded up in the fall, with the mature animals driven to market and the breeding stock brought close to the ranch headquarters for greater protection in the winter. The use of livestock branding allowed the cattle owned by different ranchers to be identified and sorted."

"Besides, how are you going to tag fish with their owners, and how are you going to properly account for when one person's fish eats another person's fish, and how are you going to properly account for when fish of different owners give birth to more fish?"

These are all questions that need to be considered, with potential answers proposed and tested.

My point remains. You have proposed that only someone owning the entire ocean can prevent a tragedy of the commons related to fish. I have responded by pointing out that cattle ranchers get away from the problem of tragedy of the commons by branding cattle. Obviously, something similar for fish is more difficult. But engineers solve difficult problems every day. Some scientific/engineering conferences should be set up to discuss opportunities, problems, and possible answers. Technology prizes could probably be awarded for clever solutions.

To give just one of an infinite number of potential ways to “brand” fish: here are RFID chips that are 0.4 mm x 0.4 mm (the size of a grain of sand)…or even 0.05 mm x 0.05 mm (the size of powder).

http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Science-Fiction-News.asp?NewsNum=939

So perhaps such RFID chips could be injected into a part of the fingerling fish not eaten by humans (e.g. the fins or tail) prior to release of fingerlings into the open ocean, and then the adult fish could be scanned for RFID chips when caught. That would not give any person “credit” for a fish that gave birth to more fish, however. But perhaps “credit” could be awarded for fish that did not have RFIDs in proportion to the number of fish that did have RFIDs. For example, if 10 percent of fish have RFID number 66666666666 and 10 percent have number 33333333333, then perhaps a 10 percent credit could be awarded to the owner of each number for the remaining 80 percent of the fish that are caught that don’t have tags.

That would be an example of a mechanical solution to fish branding. But fish could also potentially be branded chemically or biologically. The main thing is to focus on the problem…e.g., that there are not enough fish, in part because no one is “planting” fish.

“The de facto owner can enforce a tagging policy such as you describe, or he might simply impose a very low quota on catching fish.”

No, you’re missing the point. The real problem is that no one is “planting” fish. A corn farmer doesn’t simply wait for corn to grow, and then impose a very low quota on harvesting when he doesn’t get much corn. He plants the corn in the first place. Similarly, cattle ranchers don’t simply let their cattle give birth on the open range. They make sure that the mating and birthing processes are controlled and protected, to enhance the number of calves that are born and make it to young adulthood. Simply “imposing a very low quota on catching fish” does nothing to improve the chances that there will be more fish to catch. In contrast, if the fish spawning and raising to fingerling size is done in controlled conditions, a lot more fish will have a chance of reaching adulthood.

Here is a website that’s also missing the point (or at least assuming that a natural process is the way something has to be):

http://www.cdli.ca/cod/history4.htm

“It's a fish-eat-fish world out there in the ocean. Each individual faces enormous odds against it's survival, so each female cod lays millions of eggs. While fishermen are concerned about the movements and abundance of adult fish, many scientists focus their attention on the younger ones. Millions die at each stage of maturity. As long as two grow up to replace each two caught by fishermen, the race goes on. But what determines how many young survive? Scientists know very little about the early life of cod -- perhaps only enough to ask some of the right questions.”

If only two cod reach adulthood for every two caught by fisherpersons, then the size of the cod catch will never increase. Why not make it so that 20 cod reach adulthood for every two caught by fisherpersons? Then the number caught by fisherpersons can be raised from 2 to 20!

But how could that be achieved? Well, the cod could be raised in a protected and nurturing environment until they grow to a sufficient size. That way you eliminate the huge number that die at each life stage. But there has to be some financial incentive for someone to do that; the people who raise the cod need to get some sort of “credit” for doing so.

“However, the fish populations I think can support a few individual fish being poached now and then. What they cannot support is continued industrial fishing at current levels.”

The fish populations can’t support industrial fishing at current levels because no one is “planting” fish. As I pointed out, if 20 fish grow to adulthood for every two now caught by fisherpersons, the catch could actually be *raised* by a factor of 10.

See how inefficient the process is (from that previous website)?

"The water temperature plays an important part in the reproductive process. The cod, like most species of fish, have their own favourite temperature range for spawning. If this changes, they may not spawn at all. Also, the eggs and young fish are very sensitive to heat and cold, and temperature changes can kill them.

Cod eggs hatch as they float in the ocean. Of the billions layed, only a small portion survive. Quite a number will drift into water that's too warm or too cold for them to live in. Others drift into water that's too deep. Some wash ashore and dry up. Still others are eaten by birds and other fish."

It’s ridiculously inefficient to have the size of the cod population depend on so many uncontrolled variables. Someone should be making sure that a much larger proportion reach near-adulthood, and then the size of the catch could be greatly increased.
denis bider said…
Mark: "You have proposed that only someone owning the entire ocean can prevent a tragedy of the commons related to fish. I have responded by pointing out that cattle ranchers get away from the problem of tragedy of the commons by branding cattle."

That's not what it says in the Wikipedia article you pointed me to: "The end of the open range was not brought about by a reduction in land due to arable farming, but by overgrazing. Cattle stocked on the open range created a tragedy of the commons as each rancher sought increased economic benefit by grazing too many animals on public lands that 'nobody' owned."


Mark: "So perhaps such RFID chips could be injected into a part of the fingerling fish not eaten by humans (e.g. the fins or tail) prior to release of fingerlings into the open ocean, and then the adult fish could be scanned for RFID chips when caught."

Uh. I should have understood what you propose sooner. You are actually proposing that people dump enormous quantities of little fish into the ocean, and then after a while to catch them.

Yeah, that scheme could work. One problem that might arise would be that the fish that are not caught before they reproduce would result in offspring that is not properly branded. But yeah, something like awarding "fish planters" according to percentage of the fish that do have RFIDs would likely work even in this case.

The problem is, this does not solve the problem that I stated. This solves the human food problem - which is a problem I don't think we are likely to have. Unless we all suddenly get a massive case of ethics, I'm quite sure that, even after we have destroyed everything there is to see in nature, we will still have chicken farms and cats in our homes.

The problem I'm talking about is the preservation of species that are not part of our food chain, for the sake of preserving at least a semblance of a rich and functioning natural environment that humans can appreciate for its own sake alone.

Wild species that we target as a food source are especially under threat, but (1) it's not only those species, and (2) we aren't really preserving a functioning natural environment if we are a necessary ingredient in the functioning of the environment that we "preserve", such as planting fish into the sea. It defeats the purpose.


Mark: "It’s ridiculously inefficient to have the size of the cod population depend on so many uncontrolled variables. Someone should be making sure that a much larger proportion reach near-adulthood, and then the size of the catch could be greatly increased."

Yeah - or we could just farm them in a completely controlled environment, avoid the risks of the ocean altogether, and have plenty of fish to eat.

Except that the idea is not to ensure the continued existence of a food source, but to preserve a natural environment itself - one not dependent on humans to remain diverse and rich.

There is a value to preserving at least a semblance of nature, like there is a value in preserving an original painting by Monet. We can only destroy it once. After we do, no matter what we do, we will have lost the original. DNA will be preserved for some species, but not most. For most species, they can only go extinct once.
denis bider said…
And what our descendants manage to resurrect - if they ever do - will be but a shadow of something that once existed and which will have been destroyed, for the most part, needlessly.
cybermanikan said…
I have to agree with Denis that a micromanagement solution to global ethics, preservation, etc., is untenable. The reality of it is it is a many-to-many type of problem--and given current resources it is a solution that ends up being way more complex than the original problem.

I'm not saying ownership under certain circumstances doesn't make sense but it's just way to simplistic a model to work here. Unless only things worth owning are worth preserving, etc., again as Denis has explained.

Markets are simply not the best way to handle all problems--simply because the *reasons* for doing various things do not always end up being clearly transactional. Economic arguments I've heard that try to explain over that end up being bizzare charactatures.

Think also of "motivation crowding".

Lastly, I'll just point out one thing. I believe we face many issues of staggering importance to our species and/or to huge groups within our species. These won't be solved magically and they indeed may not be solved at all. So the suggestion of spreading reasonable concepts of many kinds--utility, empathetic, humanistic, economic--is in my mind the only way to tease out solutions.

People go wrong, I believe, when the options are limited down to just that "One Right Way".

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