Published on: October 20, 2014This morning's Eye-Opener is brought to you by Barnie's CoffeeKitchen…
by Kevin Coupe
First of all, let me be absolutely clear about this.
This morning's Eye-Opener has nothing to do with business. Nothing at all. (Unless of course, someone out there is able to find a business lesson in it, in which case I'll be happy to post it if you pass it along.)
It is, however, about perhaps the most interesting column I read over the weekend - "The Ethicist" column that runs in each Sunday in the New York Times Magazine. I was just fascinated by it, and wanted to share it on the off chance that you might find it interesting, too.
The column was prompted by an email to Chuck Klosterman, who writes the column, questioning whether it was ethical to tell Koko, a gorilla who is extremely adept at sign language, about the death of Robin Williams, who she met once, 13 years ago. If Koko was sad at hearing the news, which press reports suggested, was it ethical to bring unnecessary sadness into her life?
So, that was the question. My first reaction, upon reading it, was that this is a crazy question, and it is even crazier to answer it. But Klosterman responded, in part:
"Let’s start by looking at this from a slightly wider angle: What is the moral purpose of 'talking' to a gorilla about anything? What’s the ethical justification for teaching Koko sign language and trying to communicate human ideas that have no bearing on her life?
"The best possible answer to that question is that we might learn something that will amplify our understanding of both apes and of ourselves. We are not talking to this gorilla to make idle conversation. We are communicating with this gorilla to learn about consciousness. And if Koko were authentically saddened by the news of Robin Williams’s suicide, we would learn a great deal.
"Koko met Robin Williams only once. And since an ape can’t comprehend the concept of 'celebrity,' that meeting should be no more intrinsically meaningful than any one-time interaction Koko shared with anyone else. It’s not as if Koko sits around constantly rewatching 'Moscow on the Hudson.' So if Koko was still impacted by that 2001 meeting in the year 2014, it would suggest something pretty profound about ape consciousness. I mean, can gorillas vividly recall and contextualize every interaction they experience? Do gorillas feel empathy for all mammals equally? Do gorillas have the ability to sense (and mentally catalog) specific interactions with 'special' individuals (and did Robin Williams fall into that class)? Do gorillas simply want to please their human masters and reflexively display whatever emotion they assume is expected? Can gorillas comprehend what death is? Do they understand that they, too, will die (and that death, though natural, justifies sadness)?
"If any of these questions could be irrefutably affirmed, everything we think about gorillas would need to be re-examined, along with our entire relationship with all nonhuman mammals. So the moral question might not be 'Is it wrong to tell Koko about a human’s suicide if that information will make her sad?' The moral question might be 'If we tell Koko about a human’s suicide and her sadness is rational and authentic, what else are we obligated to tell her?'"
You can read the entire column here, if you wish.
For me, it was just an unexpected pleasure to read the piece - it was about something I'd never thought about before, and it is presented a thoughtful approach to a question that I normally might've thought was a little bit silly. For no other reason than that, I found it to be an Eye-Opener … and I thought I'd share it with you.
- KC's View: