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A Note on Species Relativism and Cultural Relativism

A Note on Species Relativism and Cultural Relativism

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Published by David Roden
A discussion of Nicholas Agar's doctrine of species relativism
A discussion of Nicholas Agar's doctrine of species relativism

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: David Roden on Dec 17, 2012
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The bio-ethicist Nicholas Agar uses the principle of Species Relativism to motivate arguments against radical enhancement

in his book Humanity's End. Species Relativism is the claim that there are only certain valuable forms of life compatible with membership of a given biological species: (SR) According to species-relativism, certain experiences and ways of existing properly valued by members of one species may lack value for the members of another species (Agar 2010, 12). According to Agar, certain radical enhancements (e.g. becoming near immortal or becoming a digitally uploaded personality) would 'export' human individuals from humanity into some posthuman state. Thus radical enhancement violates the principle that humans should promote and cultivate their values rather than undermining or violating them. This is nicely précised over at Philosophical Disquisitions : Humans should pursue activities and policies that promote or honour their values; they should not pursue activities and policies that do not promote or honour their values. Agar states that SR is analogous to but different in scope to cultural relativist views of morality. Cultural relativists state that the truth of moral claims is relativized to historical cultural norms: (CR) According to cultural-relativism, certain experiences and ways of existing properly valued by members of one culture may lack value for the members of another culture. Thus while "'Slavery is wrong' is true" for cosmopolitan liberals, the same may be false for Spartans because the standards and practices by which each measures a worthwhile life are different. Agar does not provide a detailed refutation of cultural relativism. But he suggests that intra-species disagreements between members of different cultures do not reflect deep constraints on the values accessible to their members. Thus "if the Spartans were to find that they were under no threat of invasion and that sporting rivalries with Australia were their only outlet for collective aggression, then they too might abhor slavery" (Agar 2010, 13). The implication here is that cultural relativism is false for humans because for any human there are accessible forms of life other than ones they happen to occupy. By "accessible" I take we should mean something like "biologically accessible". That is cosmopolitan liberalism is not an inaccessible form of life for a typical Spartan because under favourable circumstances they could engage with it and compare its virtues with the Spartan arête without altering their biological substrate. Understanding or acquiring a new culture may not be easy but it is well within the biological scope of most humans, particularly human children. The inference to the falsity of CR, then, seems to be that culture is too soft a constraint on the possibilities accessible to individual humans to settle moral disputes. The set of truth-makers (potential values, whatever) for moral claims made within any culture C is fixed by the range of accessible forms of life for its members. CR would be true only if the forms of life accessible to members of C were limited to those compatible with C. But they are not so limited. Thus CR is false. By parity of reasoning, SR is true for humans only if there are a limited set of forms of life accessible to members of the human species. If species-membership turned out to be an analogously soft constraint on the accessibility of forms of life then SR would be likewise be false. In that case the range of values that humans were obligated to cultivate could potentially include values that are only accessible to members of other species with the proviso that human individuals could acquire membership of the relevant species. Now, why should we believe that species-membership is not analogously pliant?

It's worth pointing that that Agar is not a species-essentialist. He doesn't think that speciesmembership is conferred by satisfying some historically unchanging list of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Nor (on pain of irrelevance) can he claim that any member of a species is necessarily a member of it. In this he is line with post-Darwinian population thinking which sees species not as abstract kinds but as temporally and geographically-extended individuals (Tim Morton would call these "hyperobjects") characterized by clusters of properties maintained by homoeostatic mechanisms such as ecological or reproductive isolation (19). On this view species differences are historical in much the way that cultural differences are; they depend on the existence of mechanisms for restricting gene combination and thus phenotypic variety. Absent those restrictions and the property clusters characterizing a particular species will change (See also Roden 2012). So what's so difficult about jumping species? Well, if a key isolation mechanism is reproductive compatibility, then you could jump species by undergoing a biological change which allows you to mate with members of a nonhuman species. Agar imagines genetic engineers travelling back 45000 years and conducting this procedure on a human, turning him into a Neanderthal. Following the procedure the subject 'can no longer produce offspring with humans. He is, in compensation, attracted to Neanderthals and can reproduce with them' (24). Humans are relatively good at acquiring new languages and habits but are not currently able to alter their sexual characteristics in this way. So jumping reproductive species barriers in this way is currently much harder than jumping cultures. Does this suffice to protect SR from the objections levelled at CR? If species-membership is a harder constraint than culture-membership it cannot be because it is metaphysically impossible because (as we have noted) it would make it irrelevant to the enhancement debate. If species-jumping were metaphysically possible but technically impossible, then this would also render Agar’s principle moot. Thus let’s assume that species-jumping is technically feasible by various routes. If that is the case then the range of forms of life accessible to representative humans is a variable set which depends on culturally-available technology at a given time. However, if this is right, then species-membership may not be as pliant as cultural membership has been to date but could become increasingly soft as the technologies for altering our morphologies (posthuman-makers) become more powerful and widely available. In a posthuman republic characterized by great morphological variability species, membership would have no more constraining power than culture-membership currently has. Thus given that the accessibility of culturally variable forms of life is an argument against CR, is the dated accessibility of morphologically variable forms of life an argument against species-relativism? The obvious response would be that the SR objection is historically relative. It applies to the extent that posthuman-making is not feasible and our accessible forms of life remain species-constrained. Thus as posthumanmaking becomes more feasible the Species Relativist argument must suffer a decline in its relevance and plausibility.

Agar, Nicholas. 2010. Humanity’s End: Why we should reject radical enhancement. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Roden, David (2012). “The Disconnection Thesis”, in The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, edited by Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart. Springer Frontiers Collection.

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