Why humanity is getting a lump of coal for Christmas (a…

It’s that time of the year when parents pursue peace and quiet by reminding their offspring that Santa rewards goodness with gifts, but leaves a lump of coal in the Christmas stockings of naughty children. While the practice is somewhat problematic (simultaneously a dereliction or outsourcing of parental duties and the reckless confluence of virtue and material gain), philosophers and psychologists agree that there is value in moral self-reflection.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, for instance, believed moral reflection is the antidote to evil. He therefore committed to a daily reflective practice: “I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil — that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.”

Aristotle, in turn, recognized that the cultivation of virtue requires knowledge and awareness of one’s current feelings, inclinations and dispositions. Certain schools in psychology agree, proposing that purposeful self-reflection improves self-regulation.

Now that humans have managed to grow their number on the planet to an outrageous eight billion, it might be appropriate to engage in such moral self-reflection collectively — to ask at the end of the year, not whether we’ve been naughty or nice boys, girls and non-binaries; but whether we’ve been good as a species.

We are, coincidentally, the only species that could or would ask this question. As far as we know, we are the only species that makes its existence an object of study — that takes issue with its “being”.

One could ask whether it makes sense to judge any form of species-being ethically — as being good, bad, evil, noble, foul, just or unjust. We might find it curious that the cuckoo or the indigobird leaves its egg in another mother’s nest, but we don’t conclude from this that these birds are evil or despicable. It is merely their species-being: the way they have come to exist and survive. Why, then, treat the human species-being as something we can assess in ethical terms?

It is exactly because of the nature of our species-being that we can (and must) ask critical questions about the way we exist (our general “human-ing”). According to Karl Marx (who coined the term species-being), “Man is a species-being… and free conscious activity constitutes the species-character of man.”

To “human” therefore means not having to wait for natural selection to direct us. We can experiment and exercise conscious choice — whether to eat plants, meat or both; whether we build our houses with stone or wood, near rivers or above water lines; whether we draw energy from oil, sun or wind.

Thus far our human-ing has produced some impressive results. The rational, anxious animal, fascination with itself, has wrung forth the dialogues of Socrates, the novels of Kafka and Kundera, and the paintings of Picasso and Pierneef.

The rational, curious animal, desiring to reach and understand what is beyond itself, has also crafted the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the theories of Charles Darwin, and Edison’s lightbulb. Our species-being has enabled us to burst free from our home planet and its gravitational pull, to bend back and to look at ourselves. First and famously in 1972, when the crew of Apollo 17 captured the iconic “blue marble” image. Then again in 2022 with the James Webb telescope, when we bent back so far that we stole a glimpse at galaxies billions of years in the past.

But while our curious, rational and anxious human-ing allows us to reflect and discover, it simultaneously exposes our greatest moral flaw, a pernicious conceit that has brought us, and countless other species, to the brink. Through all of our human exploits we have concluded, simply but prematurely, that our species is exceptional. We have come to believe that we are both apart from, and superior to the natural world — life, the universe and everything.

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There are at least two versions of this conceit. In the first — with roots in biblical or religious origin stories — we believe that the natural world and the universe exist for us. Everything around us is there for our use. Being godlike ourselves, we enjoy “… dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth”.

In a second (more innocent, yet no less arrogant) version of human exceptionalism, the universe was not necessarily made for us, but it has been waiting for us. In our species, the universe has attained self-awareness. The world spirit has completed its dialectical journey and finally arrived at full knowledge. History is achieved. We are the apotheosis of life and existence, and it is only now that there are clever beasts that the value of the natural world is realized. The lives of swans, for instance, had no real meaning before Mary Oliver observed and described them. In this version, the natural world therefore still serves humanity, if only to inspire us. The instrumental value of swans — that “perfect commotion of silk and linen” — is to help people “figure out what beauty is for” and to “change [our lives]”.

Swans, it must be said, are still luckier than their bovine and porcine cousins. While denied intrinsic value, at least they are only exploited existentially, as poetic and mythological fodder for human “meaning”. We don’t eat or milk them (yet).

The grave complement of human exceptionalism is a horrific ethics that we need to discard. In the extension of the belief that we are a superior species lies the idea that we matter more than other animals. Human lives carry more ethical weight, and we enjoy a higher degree of moral worth. In the field of ethics, this is called “anthropocentrism” or “speciesism”.

Because we believe this, we can justify transplanting organs from perfectly healthy animals to humans — something we would not consider if the donor was human, healthy and did not consent. While such a practice might be morally less controversial, some other “normal” practices are more difficult to defend. The “exceptional” animal finds nothing wrong with cutting down forests, all but exterminating species like the orangutan; imprisoning animals and stealing their children so we can drink their milk; and burning fuels with knowledge of its devastating effects.

More than anything else, it is human exceptionalism and its concomitant ethics that should lead us to conclude that we haven’t been a very good species. Yes, generally we didn’t conduct ourselves very well intra-species: we’ve declared war, we’ve discriminated, we’ve maintained and prolonged the plight of refugees, undermined procreative rights, and enacted unconscionable acts of gender-based violence . But it’s our interspecies behaviors that have earned us a lump of coal — something we ironically keep asking for in spite of the dire warnings of climate scientists.

In a nutshell: we’re guilty of being invasive. And what makes this a moral flaw, is that we are either intentionally, or recklessly invasive. Many of us might plead ignorance, arguing that we were not aware that the palm oil in our shampoo is also to blame for deforestation, or that we didn’t know about the calves that are killed so we can drink milk. But just like we hold businesses accountable when modern slavery practices form part of their supply chains, so we should hold ourselves accountable for the animal slavery in our individual supply chains.

Therefore, if we hope to score better next year, we should start a de-centring of the human species. We should rid ourselves of the pernicious conceit that we stand above the natural world. Such a de-centring doesn’t have to be viewed as a sacrifice or the loss of comforts and luxuries. Instead, it could open up possibilities for new ways of human-ing that are both exciting and fulfilling. DM