|The Ethical Ape is a regular column published by author and researcher Shawn Thompson. The views expressed in the column are his own.|
It is the easiest of premises to make that Jane Goodall is a good person who has lived a moral life. It is more troubling to explain why that is. Even Jane Goodall herself has difficulty explaining it, and she is an authority on her own life.
Consider as a moral thought experiment to explain why Jane Goodall can be said to be good, the creation of a contrary, hypothetical figure, a dark and heretical version of her, a Jane Evilall who illuminates Jane Goodall by contrasting her.
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This bad Goodall is the nightmare experience of moral idiocy that is all too familiar in the world as we know it.
Part of this nightmare is that we can’t predict if a child, Jane Goodall or otherwise, will become good or evil and we don’t know how to raise a child like Goodall to guarantee goodness.
In this moral thought experiment, the good and evil twins, the two Janes, Goodall and Evilall, are raised in the same world, have the same experiences, live duplicate and parallel lives, and yet by a mystery that we do not comprehend, one acts morally and the other acts without moral considerations.
That puzzles us as thinkers who are willing to confront this mystery honestly and fearlessly and it leaves us feeling endlessly dissatisfied. But we are bold enough to persist against the mystery anyway.
What are the differences between the two Janes and why are there these differences?
Let’s assume that they both have the same personal life history. Both climb a beech tree as a girl to read Tarzan novels, make a trip to Africa at twenty-three, become a scientist studying chimpanzees at Gombe in Tanzania, get embroiled in a hostage-taking incident involving rebels from what is now the Congo, give birth to a son, divorce one husband and marry a second, become authorities on chimpanzees and have an influence around the world. The same things happened to both and they make the same choices, except that one is moral and the other is not.
Is this a fair experiment so far? Does it reflect an aspect of reality that we know? Don’t we see good and evil people emerging from the same experiences and the same circumstances? If not, then what is the clear and foolproof formula for breeding a moral person? If you raise a child in a safe, secure, loving family, is it sure that no matter what happens later in the life of the person that that person will act morally? Or, if you raise a child in a chaotic, dysfunctional, immoral family, is it sure that that person will act immorally and only immorally later in life and never change? Can the moral character of the individual be determined and fixed and immune to contrary influences?
We can ask Jane Goodall about the significance of this thought experiment and let her answer us through her book, Reason for Hope, which anticipates our questions. In the book, which she calls her “spiritual autobiography,” Goodall tries to account for her own moral development, but fails to offer anything that ensures that a person would be moral. In the same way, the “reasons” in the book that Goodall offers for hope, are no reasons at all, unless everyone else behaves like a Jane Goodall, which seems unlikely. All this seems to make logical sense in a Goodall universe only because we already know that Goodall turns out good. It confirms in retrospect the bias about her benevolence.
But we know that there are Jane Evilalls in the world just as there are Jane Goodalls. If we are skeptical, we might think there are more Jane Evilalls than Jane Goodalls; and if we are optimistic, we might think there are more Jane Goodalls, which makes it puzzling why the apparent surplus of benevolence in the world does not produce a more benevolent world. Whatever the case, Goodall in Reason for Hope is operating under the premise that people are like her and would choose to be like her out of rationality and benevolence. Her faith and her hope is that the world reflects her. There is no opposing premise in the Goodall universe that people are basically irrational and malicious. So Goodall’s book and the public speeches she gives based on her book, confirm that she is what she is and will do what she does and don’t contribute much more in the way of understanding that mystery of what makes her good.
But what is unusual in the book and what does answer our questions is the series of events in her life that she recounts which demonstrate a difference in Goodall. Whatever Goodall says about her character being fashioned by events, her anecdotes of her life show the reverse, that her character is shaping the events in a different way from how others would.
It is for this reason — along with my premise that morality is unpredictable in the development of an individual — that I am pursuing the moral biography of people like Goodall and it is true that I may be constructing my own Goodall out of this. I am suggesting that morality is observable in a negotiation between an individual and the impact of particular circumstances and specific other people.
These columns in mongabay are a work-in-progress of a book I am writing as a kind of moral engagement. As human beings we are inside the process of making moral decisions, of developing our moral character, of understanding morality in a way where comprehension ungraciously eludes us. From our point of view inside, everything is in flux and being revised, not fixed or determined yet, not even the thoughts of me as the writer of these words. If someone out there reveals a flaw or an error in my thinking, I feel free to revise the material. Is there anything wrong with that? Must we be fixed by our errors and forbidden to make revisions?
There is an intentional goal or purpose, though, in these words, these thought experiments. It is to consider our moral relationship to the great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos — a moral relationship that is reflected in an extraordinary way in the life of Jane Goodall and others.
If we go back in time to the beginning of the Goodall twins, we will encounter a mystery that is deeply perplexing in terms of morality, a mystery which has yet to be solved and which nevertheless determines the exclusion of apes from full moral consideration, a moral consideration which is one of the huge accomplishments in the life of the good Jane Goodall.
The incident is this: as a child Goodall reacts almost hysterically to the idea of the suffering and death of a dragonfly. She attributes unusual importance to this event in her life, as a kind of primal scene of guilt, and in an interesting turn, leaves the event to the very end of the book Reason for Hope to reveal, although it precedes in time the other events in the book and is seen as primary by Goodall herself. Thus the beginning comes at the end.
Here is Goodall’s description of what happened to her with the dragonfly when she was in a pram less than a year old and could not talk: “A dragonfly began swooping around me, and I screamed — so a well-intentioned passerby hit the dragonfly to the ground with his newspaper, and crushed it with his foot. I continued to scream all the way home. In fact I became so hysterical that they called the doctor, who prescribed a sedative to calm me down.” (Reason for Hope, p. 276)
Goodall’s mother tells Goodall the incident and then Goodall recalls another incident when she was lying in her nursery: “I remember watching a big blue dragonfly which had come in through the window. Nanny chased it out, but she said it might sting me…. No wonder I was scared when a dragonfly zoomed around my pram. Being afraid of something did not mean I wanted it killed.” Goodall says she can “see” the dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk. “Because of me it had died, perhaps in pain. I screamed in helpless outrage. And from a terrible sense of guilt. Perhaps I have subconsciously lived my whole life trying to assuage that guilt.” (Reason for Hope pp. 276-277)
It seems a fair premise that the ability to be sensitive to the suffering of others and to want to ease that suffering is essential for moral action. And for Goodall to feel this during infancy is extraordinary and in retrospect seems to validate the exceptional future history of this Goodall as she looks backward on her earlier selves. Goodall’s life as she tells it has a number of incidents that show an unusual sensitivity to the suffering of animals and an attraction to older or wounded men. The other Jane, Jane Evilall, would of necessity have to lack this sensitivity and the will to act on it, but could still become the emblem of the rational world-famous anthropologist.
Goodall’s evil twin, Jane Evilall, would experience the same event with the dragonfly, not feel any sensitivity to the suffering of the creature and is unlikely even to remember the event. The event will be erased from memory and from history as if it never happened and is not to be considered. That is what would have probably happened to most of us, although that would not make us evil. Or would it?
Maybe we should learn from this moment that we can excuse ourselves or forgive ourselves if we have different moral origins than Jane Goodall, with a different timing and circumstances, as long as we do have a moral beginning. Otherwise, there could only be one moral person in the world, Jane Goodall, who precedes us all in having her moral origin earlier in time than the rest of us.
We might conclude from the example of the dragonfly incident that a moment of moral consciousness involves a spark of sensitivity to others and a sense of responsibility to others, whether guilt is involved or not.
And here is a further question to puzzle us: can we take Goodall’s own guilt seriously and believe her or do we think it is a fiction and a phantasm and a magical hysteria at the basis of her psyche?
I have no answer for that question at the moment, but it needs to be posed at least, and then to move on.
There is yet another element in the dragonfly incident that is essential morally, and it is consciousness, and this, in turn, has ramifications for our moral responsibility toward apes.
Goodall remembers the second dragonfly incident in the nursery and connects it in her mind to the incident in the pram. She has consciousness of the event as a child and what she remembers has important consequences for defining our humanity. For an act to be considered moral, there needs to be consciousness, at least in our conventional notions of morality. Whether this consciousness must involve language is an issue I will tackle at a later time. But at this moment in the life of Jane Goodall she could not talk.
Acting consciously means acting deliberately on the basis of having a choice and seeing distinctions. The individual would have to be consciousness of the suffering and not just feeling an instinctual trigger to suffering as some kind of automatic internal echo. For a response to be moral, we have to be conscious of the event and able to act freely and independently, rather than acting automatically and unconsciously. We have to be free to choose deliberately to be good, not to be forced to act morally against our will or to behave automatically.
But to continue with the argument of the Goodall experiment, the idea that moral action requires consciousness affects our responsibility toward apes. It seems that ultimately consciousness is a threshold to be included in the privileged circle of humanity. Consciousness would also be a threshold for inclusion of outsiders in the circle of humanity. When I raise the issue of our moral responsibility towards apes, as, for instance, asking the Catholic Church why it tells me that it can’t baptize an orangutan, the response I get is that an orangutan does not reach a high enough level of consciousness. An ape may show all the qualities of human beings, such as being able to think, feel, remember, create tools, feel the suffering of others and be able to act selflessly towards others. It may also show complex abilities of mind, such as being aware of self, and being aware that other apes think, that their thoughts can be changed and manipulated. But, I am told by the church that apes need an even higher level of consciousness. When I point out that a human baby is baptized with a level of consciousness lower than a mature ape, I am told that the baby can be baptized because it has a higher potential for consciousness later than an ape. Even if the infant dies as an infant or suffers some sort of brain damage or incapacity where it never reaches an adult consciousness, the argument, as it goes, gives human beings a privileged position because of the potential of human beings as a group. This argument also ignores the history of our evolution as primates from an earlier stage of consciousness comparable to an ape.
It seems that human beings believe that it is critical that the threshold of consciousness in apes be closer to humans than it is perceived to be at the moment before our moral responsibility toward them increases to the point where we see them as fellow beings, with the basic right to life, liberty and freedom from torture, which are the three principles of the declaration of rights for apes, as proposed by the ethicists Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri.
So did the infant Jane Goodall indeed experience the threshold of human consciousness at some level of a moral moment with the death of the dragonfly or was this somehow a precursor to her later moral development? If it was a precursor, when exactly did the child Jane Goodall reach the capability of moral consciousness and moral action? And does the moment of humanity of Jane Goodall as a child define a threshold that would include apes?
But there is more to consider. Later, Jane Goodall feels guilty about the dragonfly incident, which means that she feels she acted wrongly, that she acted immorally, that she behaved like her evil twin Jane Evilall. And so, in this narrative, she can explain how her life becomes dedicated to correcting the moral error she made as an infant. She is thus fixing her origin in morality and defining herself that way, and she is doing it in an earlier and more primal way than other spiritual leaders. This suggests that the way out of the trap of our self-centered selves is not only through our relationship with other human beings, but can expand to our relationship with other living beings, the traditions for which the east and the west have alienated us historically. The category of “animals” is conveniently outside our circle. They would be illegal immigrants into our zone.
We should appreciate this dragonfly episode for the remarkable event it is. In it, Jane Goodall has recognized an intelligent and conscious ethos in childhood, which would in part explain her need later to keep a connection to her childhood self through her life. Goodall establishes in this not just her own personal childhood, but the ethical potential of childhood in humanity and perhaps by extension in apes as well. If human beings can be conscious, ethical beings at an early stage, then the threshold for humanity may be moved to an earlier point, a point which might also include apes. Moreover, Goodall has redefined humanity in the core of her being as a primal moral act towards the natural world outside ourselves and outside our human circle. We recognize the moral principle in this that goodness is a conscious denial of self and a willing acceptance of life other than oneself, with the responsibilities that come from that acceptance. If an act only serves the interest of oneself, then it is self-serving and not moral. It will be interesting to pursue the structure and ramifications of this argument in future columns on mongabay which examine the life and moral biography of my Jane Goodall and others like her.
But, for the moment, Goodall still leaves us with the puzzle of the threshold of consciousness. Is Jane Goodall acting in a conscious moral sense with the dragonfly? If she is and if that is the threshold for consciousness and morality, should that threshold then include the great apes?
I want to explore questions like this in this malleable cyber space, anticipating that it will mean reaching the end of the road of what science and reason can do to help us decide moral questions, with the goal of proposing eventually that the moral sphere of humanity should expand to include apes in order for us to be more fully human. Is that achievable or just morally quixotic? I may not be alone in wanting to think about this mystery.
Coming in future columns: The radical plan of animals rights lawyer Steven Wise to file a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a captive chimpanzee in the United States; should the new Canadian Museum of Humanity include apes; Jane Goodall and the dark side of innocence in apes; why Jane Goodall can’t solve the problem of evil in the world; Jane Goodall – mini-saints and mini-ethics; how Tarzan predicts Jane Goodall; Jane Goodall the self-created literary figure and ethical trope; the influence of the human ideology of wildness; dehumanizing apes in front of the camera; how to be more human; the relationship of language and consciousness in moral decisions about apes; how to build a good ape sanctuary like Lone Droscher-Nielsen; a candid interview with Dale Peterson, author of an epic, 700-page biography of Jane Goodall; Andrew Halloran and the ethos of the language of chimpanzees; why science and rationality alone can’t produce morality; defining the threshold to be a person; till extinction do us part; adventures in guerrilla morality.