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Nietzsche, narwhals and the burden of consciousness

Justin Gregg’s witty exploration of animal intelligence is a useful guide – but there is more to human life than a search for contentedness.

By John Gray

The German prophet of the superman found in cows an ideal way of living. In Untimely Meditations (1873), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: 

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy or bored. This is a hard sight for man to see; for though he thinks himself better than animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness.”

The science writer Justin Gregg comments:

“Nietzsche was wrong about cows. They are not ‘fettered to the moment’. Cows, like most animals, make plans, albeit for the near future. And they experience melancholy. They have a minimal concept of death, and feel some kind of sadness at the loss of their friends and family.”

Cows are more like humans, in some respects, than Nietzsche believed. Even so, the philosopher had reason to envy them. Unlike cows, humans ask why they exist. If the many religions and philosophies they have invented fail to satisfy them, their default state of mind is one of vague misery. Until his final breakdown in 1889, this was Nietzsche’s condition for much of his life.

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A senior research associate at the Dolphin Communication Project and professor at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, Gregg tells us that If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal is a book about “the problem of intelligence, and whether it’s a good or a bad thing”. The narwhal – the elusive and beautiful species of Arctic whale whose males have a protruding tooth that appears as a long tusk – exemplifies this problem. Humans are prone to ask what Gregg calls “why questions”, sometimes looking for causal explanations for events, at others seeking moral justifications for their actions. But asking such questions isn’t necessary for intelligent behaviour, and the answers human beings reach can be harmful. Narwhals congregate in pods and cooperate with each other without knowing why they do, but they have not developed systems of beliefs that justify wreaking death and destruction on their own species. Gregg writes:

“In the end, Nietzsche would have been better off as a narwhal. And, if we think seriously about increasing pleasure and reducing misery on a global scale – the utilitarian utopia – then the world would have been better off if we were all narwhals.”

No one who reads Gregg’s witty and instructive book will come away without having learnt some humbling truths about themselves and their animal kin. His argument is twofold. He details instances of intelligent behaviour which show that attributes believed to be uniquely human are present, in varying degrees, in animals, birds, fish and insects. On the other hand, he suggests that in humans these attributes come at a price. Consciousness – the hallmark of the human species in many philosophies – is double-edged in precisely this way.

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There is no basis in science for denying some measure of consciousness to other species, even those with tiny brains. Studies of bumblebees have revealed them displaying problem-solving abilities that can only be explained by accepting that they have “a basic understanding of the outcome of their own actions, and those of other bees: that is, consciousness-like phenomena or intentionality”. In other experiments, male fruit flies were bred to generate a chemical associated with orgasm when they were exposed to red light, and so preferred spending time in areas flooded by the light. Flies denied such exposure were more likely to eat food laced with alcohol. Why deny the existence of minds in insects, when they can be observed seeking out mind-altering experiences?

But if consciousness isn’t exclusively human, neither is it an unalloyed good in its human form. In an arresting section on the findings of “evolutionary thanatology” – a discipline focusing on how animals evolved their understanding of and behavioural responses to death – Gregg discusses how they perceive that other living creatures can undergo irreparable breakdown while lacking any sense of their own mortality. Only humans, using their ability to imagine the future, are afflicted by the knowledge that their lives are bounded by death.

Like consciousness, morality comes with dangers and costs. Humans are not alone in possessing a moral sense. When capuchin monkeys are rewarded unequally for performing the same task, those that receive less respond with rage at the unfairness. But morality among non-human primates is not used to sanction mass killing. In chimpanzees violence has strictly limited goals, aiming chiefly at removing a few adult males so as to make rival groups less threatening. Methodically killing a subset of one’s own species is a singularly human type of violence. No other species has attempted to exterminate its fellows in this way. As Gregg notes: “Narwhals do not build gas chambers.” 

An inquiry into whether human intelligence is a good or a bad thing needs some standard of value. For Gregg it is pleasure:

“Cognitive things that are good are the ones that generate the largest amount of pleasure for both the individual animal, and the world at large, now and in the foreseeable future… what matters most to you, me, or any animal species alive at this very moment, is pleasure… the one thing that all animals value is the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of misery… Pleasure is both intrinsically rewarding to the brain experiencing it, and biologically rewarding in that it inspires animals to pursue goals that increase their biological fitness.”

As Gregg admits, this evolutionary version of “utilitarian philosophies first described by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill more than two centuries ago” is “old-school ethics stuff”. Yet he seems unaware of the many difficulties that bedevil utilitarian ethics, and does not grasp why Nietzsche dismissed it as a guide to life.

A major problem concerns the nature of pleasure itself. Bentham thought of it as a homogeneous good, which could be maximised by applying a “felicific calculus”, whereby utility is measured by reference to an overall quantity of pleasure. In contrast, Mill distinguished between “higher” and “lower” pleasures, the former being intellectual and moral and the latter physical. He was confident that anyone who had experienced both would prefer the higher kind. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied,” he declared in Utilitarianism (1861). It is hard to see how Mill could support his celebrated assertion. Officially he was an empiricist, committed to testing all his beliefs at the bar of experience, but from what we know of the buttoned-up Victorian sage it is unlikely he tried out piggish pleasures in any systematic fashion. For Mill – aptly described by the Liberal prime minister WE Gladstone as “the Saint of Rationalism” – their immorality was self-evident.

Mill never resolved the contradictions in his moral philosophy, but they saved him from some of the repellent consequences of Bentham’s. If maximising total pleasure is the goal of morality, a world of billions of people whose lives are only barely worth living must be better than one with a much smaller population, all of whom enjoy satisfying lives. Dubbed “the repugnant conclusion” by the late Oxford ethicist Derek Parfit, this thought experiment poses a dilemma for anyone who believes morality is about doing the most good. Are they ready to live in such a hideous world?

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Some philosophers revel in this kind of counterintuitive reasoning. Exponents of the fashionable philosophy of “effective altruism”, such as Peter Singer and William MacAskill, exult in applying their theories with unswerving consistency. According to MacAskill, a rational altruist will give priority to preventing the loss of trillions of lives in a future human extinction over the well-being of actually existing human beings. But why should anyone be concerned with maximising the number of human lives? Except in limited contexts such as rationing life-saving medical treatment, ethics as we know it isn’t about maximising anything. We muddle through our days, seeking a precarious balance among the particular things we care for. Reducing this messy richness to the pursuit of a single measurable value would invite a ruinous impoverishment. If a rational calculation of utility demands sacrificing something I love – a human being, a non-human animal, a work of art – then to hell with reason and utility.

The belief that acting morally means obeying a universal imperative may seem obvious, but in fact it is an inheritance from monotheism. The polytheistic religions of the ancient world involved juggling the demands of contending gods such as Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus, Aphrodite and Hermes, among others. The core of Aristotle’s ethics constituted a high-grade type of individual well-being; in many non-Western traditions right conduct means discharging duties to one’s family and community. There is nothing in any of these moralities about maximising value in the world.

The impact of monotheism on utilitarian thinking is illustrated by the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), a powerful influence on Parfit and, through him, the theories of effective altruism. The most penetrating intelligence in the utilitarian tradition and a lapsed Christian believer, Sidgwick believed morality required acting on the basis of what he called “the point of view of the universe”. He spent much of his life searching for reasons why anyone should do this. That he failed in his quest – as he confessed in his last words to a friend – is unsurprising. Unless it is overseen by some deity, the universe has no point of view.

The belief that morality requires doing the most good is like Mill’s belief in the superiority of the higher pleasures – a groundless assumption. In practice it produces a comical parody of ethics in which having to deny yourself the pleasure of expensive shortbread because you donate most of your income to long-term causes – a quandary MacAskill reported suffering from in a recent interview – can be regarded as a mark of virtue. The current generation of rationalist saints can at least be credited with providing some unwitting entertainment.

Gregg’s embrace of utilitarianism suppresses Nietzsche’s most subversive insight: the tyranny of morality can be injurious to life. What matters to us depends on what we care for, and there is no reason that we must all care for the same thing. Morality should be part of the art of living, not a dictatorial authority ruling over us.

In the end the attempt to maximise value ends up destroying it. If we try to adopt the imaginary point of view of the universe, we estrange ourselves from our attachments and relationships – the only things that give meaning and value to our lives. Nietzsche’s objection to the utilitarian utopia was not that it is unrealisable but that it is humanly empty. For us, unlike cows and narwhals, pleasure is not enough. The dubious privilege of being human is to ask why we live as we do, without any assurance of finding an answer.  

If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity
Justin Gregg
Hodder & Stoughton, 320pp, £22

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This article appears in the 04 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak Under Siege