Koi, Consciousness, and Morality

Picture this: a small, pebbled pond with a single, motionless koi fish. This is a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that exhibits artwork from the Far East. Man, was it beautiful. So this pond, it has a tiny, trickling waterfall. And as I sat and stared at this single koi fish, I thought, “This little guy looks sad,” which made me have other thoughts: “Is he sad?” and "How would I know?" As I looked closer, another koi fish appeared, then another, and then another. Clearly, he wasn’t alone.



These thoughts led to more thoughts about consciousness. The thing was, I didn't know what’s in that koi’s head. But because of its stillness and the context of its environment (the otherwise empty pond), I thought it appeared sad, maybe even depressed. Why? The answer’s my context. That is, the circumstances I had originally thought that fish to be in (alone and isolated), would make me feel depressed. But when one considers that this fish had likely spent its whole life in that pond, one would naturally conclude that the fish, to put it simply, doesn’t know what he doesn’t have; ignorance is bliss, they say. Further, this fish has no need for depression since it does not experience any “bad,” as far as I know, only "same." (And constant "same" may be depressing to humans; but that is because we understand change, that there is change, which the fish doesn't appear to know.) In fact, it’s environment is pretty peaceful. And it is not alone. Humans have need for depression and anger and so on because life is often full of struggle and ever-changing; what we feel has had an evolutionary purpose.

All this led me to think about morality. Why? Well, I believe, the basis of what we consider right from wrong is founded on a theory of consciousness. Why’s it ok to strike a rock with a stick and not a person? One is not conscious, whereas the other is. As philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, it is something to be one of us. And, by definition, we don’t like suffering (emotional, physical, or otherwise). So it is consistent to consider suffering in others as a bad thing, such as hitting people with sticks. In order to circumvent this foundation in morality, one may generally do one of two things: deny the consciousness of someone or something (e.g., “animals aren’t sentient, so it’s ok to kill them”) or make the assertion that doing something that would inflict pain or suffering upon a sentient being will result in greater happiness, or less suffering, in more, or more conscious, individuals (e.g., “It’s ok to kill animals because they feed a lot of people”). Personally, I think animals are conscious, and that we don't have to kill animals to feed people. But there is another exception to the general rule of not causing suffering in other sentient beings: vengeance.

Vengeance is the idea that suffering in a conscious being is a good thing if the being “deserves” it. In other words, suffering is deemed a just punishment – a way to “right” a wrong. For example, it would be ok to torture a rapist because raping someone is a bad thing – in that it causes a great amount of pain (emotional, physical, and mental) in the victim. Here’s the issue, though: it is not heavily subjective. Who deserves to be tortured and who doesn't? (You would get different answers, for instance, if you ask Dick Cheney vs. a member of ISIS.) What is the appropriate amount of punishment, and when does it go too far? (Should we, for example, cut off the rapist's genitals? What about drawing and quartering?) The problem is it gives a lot of power to the individual or group who is making such distinctions. It doesn't meet Kant's categorical imperative, a universal law. Would you agree that those who "deserve" it should be, say, harassed for the rest of their lives? Ok. Then what if I suggest that you "deserve" it?

What is truly problematic for me about vengeance is that it is antithetical to how I understand my own morality: a system of determining right from wrong based on a theory of consciousness. If it is something to be a sentient being, and, as sentient beings, we know the inherent bad there is suffering, then it follows that causing suffering in others is bad. Vengeance, on other hand, asserts that suffering is, in fact, good – it is punishment. That simply violates my intuition. Much of our morality has been shaped by culture. Culture can make a good person do a bad thing and think it good. Religion, given its higher, infallible authority, is particularly suitable for this purpose. 

But is there any sense in the contradiction? Is it actually ok sometimes to cause suffering in others? Well, in accord with this theory of morality, I think that suffering is always inherently bad, even when it may be necessary, as it is in certain self-defense scenarios. By definition, it is always regrettable. More, vengeance is driven largely by our emotions, which certainly drive us away from reason. It may be useful to teach someone why it isn't good to mistreat another. But revenge goes beyond teaching; suffering is the point, often to satisfy some emotional urge, be it pride, rage, or the like. Some might claim that revenge is reasonable to compensate a victim for a loss, perhaps of property, or suffering; yet there is nothing actually gained from the transaction of causing the pain. One has merely added to the net suffering in the world. Some would claim that revenge is a dish best served cold. And yet, to me, it is never cold, but cooked to some degree or other. Otherwise, the point would not be to harm, but to educate, or perhaps to only do what is necessary to avoid future injury; and that can hardly be called revenge. 

I sat near that pond and free-wrote for 20 minutes. Truly, consciousness matters. It gives the world meaning – or searches for it. I continue searching.