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24.5.06

Natural Suffering

[UPDATE, 17 June: In the comments to Hugo Schwyzer's response to this post, Chris Clarke clarifies the meaning of his poem, which is quite different from the way Schwyzer and I read it. So take this post as a criticism of Schwyzer's interpretation of the poem, not of Clarke's views.]

Chris Clarke has written a striking poem about finding an injured squirrel, and deciding not to interfere with nature by trying to save it. Hugo Schwyzer and numerous commenters at Clarke's blog aver that they would have chosen differently, but they chalk the difference up to their sentiment getting the best of them. But I find the ethical principle behind Clarke's decision to be problematically anthropocentric. (If you have no problem with anthropocentrism, the rest of this post will be beside the point for you.)

Who among us would leave a human injured by a natural disaster to die, reasoning that we shouldn't interfere with nature? Why, then, treat a suffering non-human differently than a suffering human?

One might point out, rightly, that there's no such thing as a purely natural disaster. But there are disasters that are not purely social, and I would doubt that we can make our degree of responsibility for hurricane victims proportional to the share of the blame that human activities hold. And even so, it's strange to claim that there purely natural disasters claim no human victims, or that we should care only for the human victims of human-caused disasters.

Our moral obligation is not just to right the wrongs that we (individually or collectively) are responsible or blameable for. Our moral obligation is to relieve suffering, regardless of what the cause is.

Of course, there's a strong case for a pragmatic refusal to go actively saving wild animals from suffering. We can't dismiss the suffering of animals because it's "natural" -- there's something literally true about the Christian ideal of the lion laying down with the lamb when perfect justice is achieved. But our recognition of the injustice of nature as it exists must be tempered by a recognition of our own lack of knowledge and power, and hence our inability to effectively do anything about it. We can't reengineer nature to save the animals in it. Indeed, we may not even be able to save individual hurt animals (encountering Clarke's injured squirrel, I would doubt the usefulness of my own first aid skills). But insofar as we're able, I don't think the naturalness of suffering gives us any excuse to refuse aid.

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