Speciesism and teleology

An interesting post, and interesting comments, on Philosophy, etc. on cognitive enhancement. The writer, in an argument against teleological thinking, asks the following: given a "severely retarded" human, Hugh, and a typical monkey of approximately the same cognitive capacity, Moe, what reason do we have to want to improve Hugh's condition before Moe's?

A commenter says, and I agree that he has set up his argument so it could not fail. By insisting from the first that there the reason must be non-instrumental (because the instrumental reasons are pretty f-ing overwhelming) and Moe and Hugh cannot differ psychologically in any significant way, then one cannot argue against it without resorting to teleology.

But I strongly suspect there could be no way in which Hugh and Moe are psychological twins. First, both have social desires. Social desires are mostly desires to be with one's species. A cognitive enhancement for Hugh would improve his relations to his species, a cognitive enhancement for Moe would damage them. Humans also have desires to maximize talents while monkeys do not. While Hugh and Moe may have similar cognitive capacities, they cannot have the same desire set. Hugh would likely have a desire to maximize his talents that Moe would not.

And perhaps I am a teleologist. But I think it is one of my obligations for both children in my care to maximize their talents. I do not feel that same obligation for the cats in my care. That seems to be an obligation we owe uniquely to humans, and not solely because they are rational beings - because we owe it to them even when they are not rational beings. And it is for their sakes, not for my sake or any other instrumental reason. To each of my sons, one of whom may well not have much better cognitive abilities than a chimp, I owe every effort to maximize talents that I would not owe a chimp in my care. This seems pretty fundamental.

Update: On further thought, I just can't see how someone does not see a cognitively impaired individual as less lucky than a chimp.


  1. We can build into the case that Hugh has no "desire to maximize his talents". (Suppose he's so severely cognitively impaired that he doesn't even have a concept of 'talent'.) We may also suppose that neither have "desires to be with one's species". Whatever their desires, I expect most people would still think it intrinsically more important to bestow ordinary intelligence on the human. The question is what justifies this.

    "I just can't see how someone does not see a cognitively impaired individual as less lucky than a chimp."

    No doubt some cognitively impaired humans (or even cognitively normal humans, for that matter) are "less lucky than a chimp" -- say, if they happen to be treated poorly by others, and hence unhappy. But that's a merely contingent feature of their extrinsic circumstances. The question is whether they're intrinsically worse off than the chimp. And it's hard to see how they could be, since their minds are (by stipulation) intrinsically similar. They merely have different DNA, and it's hard to see why that should make an intrinsic difference.

    If it's intrinsically bad to have chimp-level intelligence rather than human-level intelligence, then two things follow:

    (1) cognitively impaired humans (with chimp-level intelligence) are, in this sense, badly off.


    (2) chimps, with chimp-level intelligence, are likewise badly off (in just the same way).

    Of course, you're naturally inclined to use different reference classes when assessing the two individuals. You assess the chimp relative to ordinary levels of chimp intelligence, and by this standard he's doing fine. On the other hand, you assess Hugh relative to ordinary levels of human intelligence, by which standard he's doing rather poorly. But what justifies the double standards? If we assess each individual by the same standards, we seem forced to conclude that they are equally well- (or poorly-) off.

  2. um..not to be a smart alek, but monkeys are way down the list, I think you are referring to Apes. From dictionary.com
    any of a group of anthropoid primates characterized by long arms, a broad chest, and the absence of a tail, comprising the family Pongidae (great ape), which includes the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan, and the family Hylobatidae (lesser ape), which includes the gibbon and siamang.

    Monkey: any mammal of the order Primates, including the guenons, macaques, langurs, and capuchins, but excluding humans, the anthropoidapes, and, usually, the tarsier and prosimians.

    There is no way any monkey would have a comparable intelligence to a human.
    And it undercuts the whole argument when you can't even get the basic terminology right. And since the author can't even get this right, it shows just how little he knows of ape cognitive abilities and physiology. Even our nearest relatives in intelligence, Chimps and Bonobos are radically different than us in ways that go far beyond simple measurements of intelligence.
    There could be no way in which Hugh and Moe are psychological twins.

    One element that has astounded researchers is how much different are Bonobos from Chimps. If psychologists had studied Bonobos first, how differently evolutionary psych. might have played out.

    Our course we will favor humans. They look like us, smell like us, come from one of our fellow humans bodies.

    The only way this philosophical examination could be worthwhile is if Neanderthals had survived. But, my oh my, how different would our history have been.

    look, I know it is a thought experiment, but it is way too constrained by its inner inconsistencies, think of it this way, if we could using some kind of bio-technology to vastly increase a Chimp's intelligence, would you do it? Or would you invest that money in a mentally disabled individual? Planet of the Apes notwithstanding, a reasoning, thinking Chimp would seriously freak us out and force us to question what it means to be human, so for a host of reasons I see helping the mentally disabled individual would take overwhelming precedence.


  3. Richard, thanks for replying, and liked the original post and your reply to mine. It's thought-provoking.

    I still feel a strong urge to say that it is for intrinsic reasons and not merely instrumental that the cognitively impaired human is worse off.

    I wonder if there isn't some way to separate fortune or misfortune (related to reasonable possibilities, or close possible worlds or whatever - something that does justify judging a being relative to his species) and well-being. So perhaps the cognitively impaired individual is mre misfortunate than the chimp but not worse off. Or perhaps that's a language game to have my cake and eat it, too? I'll think about it more.

    @charo - I do mean apes. I'm loose with monkey talk. I think in this case, the actual creature doesn't matter. Stipulate some non-human animal that would fit the bill and test your intuitions. Although I do wonder if there are desires unique to humans - but I guess people could have their desire sets erased or whatever.

    But in general, I think since I am interested in evo psych, and cog sci, I REALLY need to learn more about apes!

  4. Eliabeth, I should introduce you to my friend Chuck, he is the most apelike human I know.


  5. I'm not sure why Richard's double standard argument couldn't use a squirrel instead of an ape. As he says, the DNA is different, but so what? There is no intrinsic difference that would make replacing 'chimp' with 'squirrel' problematic, as I understand the argument. In fact, we could go with amoeba instead of squirrel and the logic would still hold; both are equally well off unless we apply a double standard.

    Does this kind of reductionist approach inform our moral sense? It seems to me the conclusion is collections of atoms are all equivalent in an Objective sense. We cannot justify any value judgments by appeal to objective standards (which I wouldn't disagree with at all) and double standards are a necessary condition for the evolution of intelligence (because otherwise, the evolving organisms simply don't care).