What does it mean to know a thing? The tripartite theory of knowledge claims knowledge to be a true, justified, belief. Let us set aside for a moment that this definition pertains primarily to knowledge as understood in proposition form only. What are the implications of a true, justified, belief? What is the procedure leading towards the acquisition of knowledge? It seems to me, an inherently paradoxical process. The end result is ultimately to add to an ever growing pool of knowledge, however, to know a thing is only to make it distinct from everything else. Any true, justified, belief is but an infinitesimally lesser part of an overall sum of experience from which it is (often times, artificially) isolated. In simpler terms, you cannot know a thing without implicitly assuming everything it is not. The more precisely you come to know a thing, the further removed it becomes from the whole. The lines of identity often blur with the more abstract concepts. I believe it is the way we come to know that leads to the problem of subjective knowledge. The means to knowledge is not objective, nor uniform, so the end result could never be the same between any two parties.
Harlow’s Monkeys and Ethics in Animal Testing
Where are ethical practices needed most? It’s a bit of an absurd question on the surface. The immediate answer might choose to undermine the implicit partitioning of ethical behavior posed by said question. It could be suggested that “one should be ethical all the times, in all situations. There is no one situation that necessitates greater attention to ethics than another.” What I ask however, is not a reflection of the ideal, but a reflection of the world as it is. Obviously one should behave properly in all situations, but where do we find people neglecting to do so the most? Not too long ago in my Developmental Psychology class we covered an experiment conducted by Harry Harlow involving the use of Rhesus macaques. Harlow sought to investigate the nature of attachment between child and caregiver. The popular consensus among his peers at the time (that being the 1950s U.S.) was that the source of a child’s attachment was purely founded upon the satisfaction of biological needs, namely, feeding. Harlow posited that there was something more…substantial to the relationship. He thus set out to illustrate his suspicions with an experimental study. Now, using actual human subjects was considered largely immoral, even for the 1950s, so Harlow settled on using Rhesus monkeys in his studies. He separated them from their mothers at birth and placed them in cages with two “artificial” mothers in place. One was no more than a crude mesh form with a bottle attached, the other, wrapped in cloth with no bottle. Harlow found that the monkeys almost consistently spent more time with the cloth mother than the wire mother, thus strengthening his position that child-caregiver attachment was much deeper than basic biological demands. The baby monkeys required some measure of comfort. But what ended up becoming of Harlow’s monkeys? He used them to study the effects of social deprivation. Needless to say, the detriments to the monkey’s mental health were severe and irreparable. Harlow found that the monkeys involved in the social deprivation experiments could not integrate into other groups and suffered from a variety of other problems which plagued functions not related to social activities.
Now, I’d like to tell you that that was the 1950s and we’ve come a long way in the decades since. Unfortunately, while there has been many improvements to the way human subjects are treated, animal subjects are still largely getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. Rodents are still largely exploited to advance knowledge in the field of neuroscience. In cosmetic testing, animal subjects run the gambit from rabbits to guinea pigs, back to the rats. Medical testing on primates is by far the most prominent example that comes to mind for most people. Every form of animal testing is, of course, involuntary - though the abuse sometimes far exceeds simply stripping the animal of a free life. I think we need to step back and ask ourselves just what the advent of scientific and medical knowledge is worth? If you wouldn’t do it to a person, why would you do it to any other animal? A more important question, how much of what you learn about these animals even translates over to humans? Some of the criticism lobbed at Harlow was that the validity of his conclusions didn’t cross over properly to humans.
So I ask you again. Where are ethical practices needed most? I’d say they are needed most in the people who didn’t even know they needed them. They are needed for the people to whom egregious behavior has become common place.
Reconciling Change and Identity
Who are you? Who are you right now? Would you agree that you have an identity to call your own? Or that you are a distinct individual from your peers? Most people would answer yes. However, in citing examples of what makes them unique, they would only be describing a present snapshot of who they are right now. Are you the same person you were a year ago? Or five years ago? Is the present you any more you than the you of five years ago? That would be equating the self to being no more than the summation of ones experiences. Yet it doesn’t seem quite right to quantify identity in terms of experience, as then I could claim that you are not as much yourself as you could be a year down the line. Your identity in the present would be forever incomplete so long as the opportunity for change exists. The only point in time in which we can safely say you no longer carry the potential to change is upon your expiration; at which point you would cease to be you anyways. If you carry your identity in physical terms, you should know that your biological state changes just as much as your mental state. Hair and nails grow, teeth may become stained, even your cells are constantly replacing themselves. So it appears as though change is intricately bound with ones identity. But then who, or rather what, are you? If both your notion of the self as well as your corporeal vessel is in a constant state of flux, neither of which staying the same between any two instances, then what can be said of your identity? Consider that for change to occur, there must be a present state from which the successive state emerges. Across all states of being there is a linked commonality. There is a thing, something, that remains across all changes. I posit that you are the volitional entity upon which is imposed a constant state of flux. Identity for such agents consist primarily in the act of recognizing change upon oneself, and not the results of the actual change itself.
Ethics in the pursuit of longevity
As contemporary medicine becomes more and more advanced, the average lifespan of those with access to it stretches ever onward. Infant mortality rates decline, while the number of centenarians only grows. The world population is estimated to be around roughly 7 billion people or so. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crusade continues its noble goal of maintaining suitable living conditions in those areas that desperately need help. Efforts by researchers to eliminate various diseases and preserve one’s health are yielding promising results. The quality of life is undeniably approaching its zenith. And yet…
Resources remain finite. If one were only concerned with the basic necessities however, fresh drinking water is the most pressing. Of all the water on Earth, only about less than one percent of it is both drinkable and available. The rest is either frozen, or unfit for consumption in its present state. The demand for this precious resource is directly, and positively correlated with the rise in global population. As one goes up, so does the other. And this is just considering water. Now think of agriculture and industry, and how they will be strained to meet a larger population. As it stands, innovations in providing these services can only check the inevitable for so long. Excess and luxury is unsustainable. The human condition itself, is unsustainable. Controlling for catastrophe and conflict, if things continue to progress as they are currently, the human population will reach a very uncomfortable plateau, and then dip quite dramatically. Barring the miraculous colonization of other worlds, it is inescapable. A matter of if, and not when.
So now we arrive at the crux of this post. Would research into negligible senescence (biological immortality) be irresponsible? Unethical? If, hypothetically, a pill were to be released in the very near future which promised you eternal youth, would you take it?
I have more detailed entries regarding epistemology on the way, but just for fun I thought I’d write up a quick code of ethics. That, and I feel rather bad for not posting anything in some time. Anyways, this is my first attempt at an all encompassing ethical code. Expect it to grow and undergo multiple revisions in future posts. Critiques are, as always, most welcome.
1. Destroy no knowledge - As is the case with book burnings or censorship. Knowledge is intrinsically good, and should not be conflated with the misuse of knowledge.
2. Think before you speak - Serious matters require serious attention
3. Speak before you act - There is power in the spoken word. Physical action as a means of resolving conflict should be a last resort.
4. Take not without consent - i.e. no murder, rape, or theft. This pertains to the property and self of others capable of volition (including animals); though it allows for euthanasia
5. Strive to benefit the whole - Give back to humanity in some way, be it through the sciences or humanities. If everyone contributes, we all grow.
6. Take care of your home - Sustainability and all that jazz. Also, literally take care of your actual home, ‘cause that’s just a good idea.
7. Don’t be an asshat - Seriously, don’t be an asshat. And don’t tell me I’m being too vague here either, cause this transcends time and culture. Everyone knows exactly what it means to act like an asshate relative to wherever and whenever they are. It’s common sense. Just don’t do it. Don’t be an asshat. (to be revised).
Zeno once famously posited several paradoxes about the apparent illusion of motion. I got to thinking (not too hard, mind you), if he believed motion to be an illusion, then could there be a case for time merely being a construct of the mind as well? So I put on my special idealist thinking cap and got to work. Half-way through making a procrastination sandwich, it struck me. The nature of thoughts can tell us a bit about the nature of time. Right now, try to think of your next thought. It’s okay, I’ll wait. Done? Now, is it that you were thinking on your next thought, or merely your current one? Step two. Think on your current thought. Now ask yourself - is it that you’re thinking on your current thought or a past one? Thoughts are pretty slippery devils aren’t they? They never come when you want them to, and can never be while having been. If your interpretation of time is rooted in your thoughts, how can you be so sure of the validity of a linear abstraction? What is, and what is interpreted are two very distinct thing.