08 June 2007

Cognitvie Development & the Moral Worth of Other Species

I never fail to be disappointed at otherwise bright individuals who come off as ignorant and uncaring when it comes to the natural world. Even friends who are dedicated anglers, hunters, and outdoorsmen frequently come off this way. After more than 30 years of reading & teaching cognitive moral theory (Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan, etc), I should not be disappointed. I know only too well from the research and from my work with students that general intelligence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for dealing with moral issues in an autonomous and principled way.

My friend the math professor and fishing guide is an example of this. No one could question his intelligence or practical ability to put paying clients onto big trout. And yet this fellow could care less if Big Hole River grayling become extinct, and he will twist common sense and historical fact into a pretzel in order to avoid even admitting that grayling were ever abundant in the upper reaches of the Missouri River basin. In his mind, it is natural and acceptable that grayling just "go away."

At a practical level, fishing and his attitude toward nature seem to be all about making money (those paying clients again), pleasing his own ego by sticking big fish (with brains the size of a pea), and counting the number of trout caught as if they were cordwood used to fuel a locomotive trip to heaven. Moral consideration for other species -- especially "useless" ones like the fluvial Arctic grayling -- is a non-question. He also does not support or participate in conservation/environmental groups, and largely seems to take it on faith that rivers and trout will always be there. He's a bit like the fin de siecle physicists that clung to the notion of an aether filling all space, and because of this dogmatic faith in and unwillingness to question their reality, they saw Einstein's relativistic space-time as a non-question: given their view of nature, Einstein's phenomenology simply was not possible.

From historical examples like this and from my own teaching, I know it is not possible to grab someone by the collar and drag them up to a new cognitive level. Yes, occasionally -- if someone is teetering on the cusp of embracing a new reality -- you can give them a little nudge. But it's a rare thing, and it's like the psychologist's light bulb that can only be changed if it wants to change.

Clearly, immersion experiences get nearly any intelligent individual over the "moral considerability of nature" hump. But the immersion seems to require years and years of specific kinds of experience with nature along with an open mind toward/long exposure to the ideas of edgy nature writers such as Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Aldo Leopold, and Gary Snyder. In other words, knowing (and learning to care about) nature is hard work. There are no short cuts (Carlos Castaneda's experience with psychotropics notwithstanding).

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