What Does It Mean That Animals Play?

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On one level, this (below) is just a cute video of a baby elk playing in a puddle. But it made me think.

I don’t think I will ever be 100% vegetarian, and I certainly have limited patience for people who seem to be more worried about saving animal lives than saving human lives, but the older I get the more I feel like there is some kind of sacred responsibility we owe to living creatures. Eating meat might not violate that trust, but mistreating animals (which is often a part of how we get more meat cheaper) certainly does.

I guess the only way I can describe it is say that while animals are not people, they are certainly not things either. A little creature that has a sense of enjoyment is a little creature that has a self in a way that, even if not human, is still important. To be honest, playing in a puddle is much more meaningful to me than traditional tests of intelligence. 1Also, I’m really fascinated by the fact that dolphins really do save people in danger, and sometimes other mammals too.)

6 thoughts on “What Does It Mean That Animals Play?”

  1. I’ve been heading in the same direction (albeit in fits and starts…it is HARD to avoid less than ethically raised/harvested meat).

    I think I’m pretty much in the same boat as you on that one. It’s hard to say where I fall on the spectrum of overall American population, though. I think I probably only eat red meat about once a week most of the time, but I still do eat a lot of chicken.

    The Vox piece was at once interesting and annoying. One of the perverse incentives of academia is that you want to get out and stake a position as early as possible not only to get their first, but also just because if it’s still silly then you’re an early adopter and controversial. Killing video game bad guys is, at this point, certainly less concerning than using antibacterial hand soap. If we’re using some kind of complexity-based ranking system for life, then even the most sophisticated NPCs in modern video games aren’t even near the level of your basic virus.

    Another angle, I think, is that even if we know intellectually that an NPC isn’t human, if it triggers a visceral sense of empathy, then I think there are moral questions about whether killing the NPC might be immoral not because of harm it does to the NPC (in this case there would be none) but rather because of harm it does to the player in terms of eroding / contradicting our natural sense of empathy.

  2. I’ve totally changed my eating and even living habits (i.e. moving to a farm, learning to raise our own food/meat) as a result of learning more about how our current industrial food chain works.

    I can barely eat restaurant food because I assume 99.9% comes off the Sysco truck. But I have no qualms about eating the animals we raise. These are noble creatures and they deserve to live as such.

  3. I deeply admire your approach. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with eating meat in and of itself. Life and death are part of the natural order, but I think the way we treat our animals–and maybe the amount of meat we eat as as society–are inhumane. You’re way ahead of me when it comes to putting principle to action, however.

  4. Nathaniel, yes, Publish or Perish leads to annoying stalking horse oneupmanship.

    But ethically and philosophically, the difference between the NPCs and say, bacteria, is we’ve brought the NPCs to life.

    I think, too, that at the individual NPC unit level, things aren’t so complicated. Where things get more complicated, though, is the entire universe of interconnected NPCs in a single MMORPG or universe of games, or distributed AI iterated in single player across thousands or millions of machines.

    Then there’s the issue of things like Watson which IBM claims has achieved near cognition in becoming aware of not only what it knows, but doesn’t know. It’s not hard to imagine that scaling in 5-10 years such that this really does become a moral/ethical issue that we need to confront more seriously.

  5. Where things get more complicated, though, is the entire universe of interconnected NPCs in a single MMORPG or universe of games, or distributed AI iterated in single player across thousands or millions of machines… It’s not hard to imagine that scaling in 5-10 years such that this really does become a moral/ethical issue that we need to confront more seriously.

    I absolutely agree that it’s something to keep an eye on, but more when it comes to Watson and IBM. Not so much when it comes to NPCs who are restricted to near-trivial simplicity because of hardware limitations. You have to have an NPC that can easily run (many times over) on a single, consumer console. There’s just not much room for complexity. And 5-10 years is still within the current console generation (give or take), so to be concrete we’re saying: are the NPCs that you can run on a PS4 or XboxOne sentient? No. Not even close.

    That’s why I think that the relevant moral question today is not concern out of actual sentience of NPCs, but simply our relationship to them. You can make a very, very simple program that has really no plausible moral value whatsoever but still register as a person on our psychological wetware. I’m thinking, for example, of something like GLaDOS from Portal / Portal 2. She’s brought to life mostly be a pre-written script, pre-designed levels, and human voice acting. GLaDOS is not plausibly a moral entity in her own right. But if she seems like one to us then, even if we rationally know that she’s not, you could arguably say that killing/abusing her is immoral because it’s akin to vandalizing our sense of empathy. That strikes me as the near-term concern, because it is arguably happening right now and not in 5-10 or 20 – 100 years hence.

    Also, if MMORPG NPCs ever did get networked enough to have intrinsic moral worth, i think the real abuse would not be killing them. It would be imprisoning them within the rigid, meaningless confines of an MMORPG as playthings. So even in that case, the simulated “killing” seems like the least of our moral concerns.

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