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The Smallpox Dilemma
J√łnathan Lyons   Jun 12, 2014  

Over the past few weeks, a question we have faced before as a species reared its head once again: Should we destroy the last known samples of smallpox on Earth? The answer might seem obvious, may not even seem to require a second thought: Of course we eradicate smallpox! What good is it? One question I would ask in response is: What kind of species do we want to be?

In my opinion, the practise of ahimsa is part of the answer.

Merriam-Webster defines ahimsa as :

”the Hindu and Buddhist doctrine of refraining from harming any living being,” and further (from the Concise Encyclopedia, adds: ”(Sanskrit: ”noninjury”) Fundamental ethical virtue of Jainism, also respected in Buddhism and Hinduism. In Jainism ahimsa is the standard by which all actions are judged. It requires a householder observing the small vows (anuvrata) to refrain from killing any animal life. An ascetic observing the great vows (mahavrata) is expected to take the greatest care not to injure any living substance, even unknowingly”

(I’d like to add that while what I am about to say might seem obvious, I have been called to task for not spelling out the following in previous essays: Ahimsa ends where defense of self begins. That is to say, I believe in both the practise of ahimsa and self-defense. An objection raised earlier to my practise of ahimsa assumed that said practice meant becoming a punching bag, refusing to defend oneself. That is not the case. Now then — )

Philip Cafaro, PhD, Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, and Richard B. Primack, PhD, Professor of Biology at Boston University, make a compelling case against species extinction in their essay, Species extinction is a great moral wrong, subtitled Sharing the Earth with other species is an important human responsibility.

Indeed, apart from self-defense leaving one no other option, I can see no justification for the extinction of a species.

I’ve used the Hierarchy of Exclusion from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game novels in past essays as a leaping-off point for a way to think about issues including a species’ personhood. (And yes, I am aware of Card’s repugnant sociopolitical views.) Here, I’d like to consider our role in deciding what species are allowed into our privileged domain — the domain of beings meriting moral consideration.

Card’s Hierarchy of Exclusion, refined:

* Utlänning, or otherlander: The stranger that we recognize as being a person of our world, but of another city or country.

* Främling: The stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another world.

* Raman: The stranger that we recognize as a person, but of another species.

* Varelse: The true alien, with whom no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.

* Djur, the dire beast, a marauding, unreasoning threat, a monster, fearsome murderer. I also see no need to differentiate between biological and technological beings here.

So how is this useful? To quote Card further: "The difference between raman and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have."

I agree: We are the ones who decide who or what we include under our definition of enough like us and not enough like us. We are the ones in power.

To paraphrase the above language, the difference between nonhuman persons and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be nonhuman persons, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.

That’s the language I have used to discuss nonhuman personhood in my previous essays. But now we turn to different questions.

As beings who aspire to that threshold of moral maturity, how could we begin to conscience the extinction of an entire species — what Card’s novels dubbed an act of xenocide, or the intentional killing of an entire species?

Which brings me back to my earlier question: What kind of species do we want to be?

Do we aspire to that high threshold of moral maturity, or do we not?

Smallpox poses no real threat to humankind, not any longer. Though in the above system of classification it would be Djur, it is a Djur without the ability to endanger us. And as long as that remains true, we have a moral obligation as a species, whenever it is possible, not to deliberately cause the extinction of any species.

While there are other good reasons not to destroy the last remaining samples of this species, this is a vital ethical consideration.

If this were a question of self-defense, the issue would not be so clear-cut; but this is not such an issue. As long as smallpox poses no real threat to humankind, we have a moral responsibility not to eradicate that species.

Jønathan Lyons is an affiliate scholar for the IEET. He is also a transhumanist parent, an essayist, and an author of experimental fiction both long and short. He lives in central Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University. His fiction publications include Minnows: A Shattered Novel.



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