Yesterday, I was cutting up a yew tree in my back garden. As often happens, this got me in a philosophical frame of mind, and while I hacked away at the unfortunate tree that my dad had just felled, I started musing about how justified killing the tree actually was. In our case, I felt the removal was probably justified according to the utility-centred ethics of permaculture – it wasn’t producing many berries due to being overshadowed by other trees, it was starving out the plants that were growing below it, and the shelter it offered small birds could easily be provided by other, more broadly beneficial plants. My mum had considered all these factors in her eventual decision to take the tree down. But while my mum and dad started expressing their enthusiasm for the spot of light forestry we were embarking upon, commenting on how much nicer the garden looked with the yew gone, I considered how for most people that would be enough of a justification to get rid of the yew in the first place. The yew’s own life, how catastrophic it would be from its own perspective to be killed, wouldn’t even be a factor for consideration. As far as most people are concerned, if the felling was of genuine use to humans, it’s justified. The thinking behind this is simple – human beings are able to experience neurologically sophisticated forms of pleasure, such as happiness, while yew trees, as entities lacking brains, are not. Therefore, humans like my family would gain far more utility from chopping a yew tree down than the yew tree would from continuing to live.
Of course, even if you believe that human utility is the only significant kind, that still gives you plenty of reasons to conserve our natural heritage. The human reliance on the natural world is considerable, even in rather narrow economic terms, and this doesn’t even touch upon the level of spiritual, aesthetic and emotional satisfaction human beings derive from their environment. Nonetheless, anthropocentric forms of conservation and environmentalism have been frequently criticised by certain thinkers (such as the deep ecologist Arne Naess) for being “shallow” and not addressing the underlying personal flaws that lead to ecological abuse. But such critiques assume that ecological abuse is a bad thing per se, something that an anthropocentric environmentalist wouldn’t accept. If the situation came down to saving the Earth or saving humanity, then the average shallow ecologist would, like Bruce Wayne in this scene from Batman & Robin, do the latter. There is, though, a far more penetrating criticism of “shallow ecology” – that holding to a “humans first” attitude leaves one vulnerable to one of the great critiques of utilitarianism – that of the utility monster.
Warning: It is dark. You are likely to be eaten by a utility monster.
Simply put, a utility monster is a being who derives greater or equal returns from each additional unit of a resource it consumes, unlike normal people who get diminishing marginal returns the more they consume. This pleasure-generation machine of a creature would, in theory, be perfectly justified in consuming the world, the universe, anything and everything, because the amount of pleasure it would gain from doing so would outweigh any suffering that such consumption would produce.
In my view, humanist, consumerist society (and the shallow ecology it advocates) transforms mankind into utility monsters – beings whose capacity to benefit from utility is perceived to be much greater than that of other classes of beings. In our case, the fundamental difference comes down not to constant or increasing returns on consumed resources, as in the original thought experiment – it comes from how utility itself is defined, as the sense of pleasure (or “meaning”) created by the human brain. Narrow utility of this kind gives humans the right to consume indefinitely, even when such indefinite consumption harms non-human beings. Of course, there is no reason why this is necessarily a bad thing – the axiomantic identification of utility with human happiness is not logically contradictory. It does, however, create a rather bleak moral universe. In this particular vision of the world, we have a tyranny of the best-evolved to be happy. Species exist with a significantly more acute sense of pleasure than other species, and that in cases where conflicts of interest arise, the “maximally pleasurable” are able to ignore the interests of those who feel comparatively less pleasure. The outcomes would be grim. Look at the Hollywood film Independence Day. It’s very clear from watching this film that humanity are meant to be the good guys – defending their homeworld and fighting for their very survival against a fleet of uncompromising alien invaders, who want nothing less than to destroy the entire planet, consume its resources, and move on. But hold on, what if these aliens have a far stronger sense of pleasure and pain than humans do? Wouldn’t they would gain much greater benefit from consuming our planet than we would from living on it? Furthermore, the fiery annihilation of the mother ship in the climax of the movie (spoilers, sorry!) would be the source of massively greater suffering than the wholesale elimination of the Earth’s human population, as the beings being killed in the former have a far greater capacity for feeling than the beings in the latter case.
What if within that huge brain-case lies a very sensitive soul?
Looking at it this way, the scene where the US President confronts an alien pilot gains a sharper moral point. The alien is no more or less uncompromising than humans are when faced with a shoal of cod or a stretch of Amazonian rainforest. Imagine what the alien is thinking – Mine is a people that has travelled the stars for millennia. We have mastered the fundamentals of the universe. We see, feel and understand the world in ways your species could not imagine. What could you possibly offer us alive? You might consider this to be a hugely speculative example, but it has happened in Earth’s history many times – colonial powers have routinely applied similarly parsimonious standards of value when interacting with indigenous communities. Though such interactions occurred across a much smaller gulf of experience, a moral principle is a moral principle. So long as subjective experience is ranked in this way, there is a necessary moral hierarchy.
I’m not saying that an alien genocide of humans (or a human genocide of other humans) is justified though. Quite the contrary, the manifestly repugnant nature of such acts is proof against the kind of simplistic utilitarianism that underpins both the aliens’ attitude in Independence Day and shallow ecology. But how is this not a refutation of utilitarianism itself? The answer, I find, comes from considering the following question – what sort of universe would a universe of utility monsters be like? The answer, it seems to me, would be an unpleasant one. Simply put, there would always be a bigger fish – a nastier, more powerful entity out there who could destroy you utterly, and be perfectly moral in doing so, because it could derive more pleasure from the act than you would suffer from it. The aliens of Independence Day might be able to justifiably destroy us for their own gain, but they could just as well be justly devoured by a gigantic voidworm orbiting around some dark, forbidden sun. So although on a basic economistic level this stance might make sense, the sort of world it would create means that it doesn’t make logical sense for any moral agent, even a utilitarian one, to pursue such an approach. Of course, a world where everyone gets a chance at happiness would have less overall utility than a world of utility monsters. So why is it better?
The critical factor here is the relative nature of value. All value is relative to the person experiencing it. Therefore, just as the annihilation of mankind is catastrophic for us, but barely of consequence to the aliens, so the felling of a yew tree might be barely of consequence for the lumberjack, but be of terminal significance for the tree. Whether it “feels” pain, fear or despair as we do is irrelevant – on its own terms, dying is hideously bad news. Utilitarianism can therefore never be drawn from some kind of universal “standard” of utility. It just doesn’t work like other, legalistic forms of moral philosophy, outlining a code of practice by which all actions might be judged. Instead, it only functions as a general call to being mindful of one’s own needs, and the needs of others.
So how do we prevent ourselves from becoming utility monsters then? Simple – we take the motivations of all other beings, such as they are, into account. This doesn’t amount to a crude anthropomorphisation, in which trees are equated to humans, but instead requires a basic sense of empathy, even for those who are nothing like ourselves. The assumption of universal utility is replaced with an acknowledgment of a constantly changing, relative fabric of pleasure and pain, that must always be sensitively responded to. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can no longer cut down trees, harvest crops or take antibiotics because of the lethal consequences of such acts, but we simply can’t afford to ever forget, or be cavalier about those consequences. Lest we become monsters.