Last summer, I noticed a web-weaving spider building an elaborate web outside my kitchen window but between the glass and the screen. I keep that window closed so I never disturbed it. This was an interesting case for me to study. It is clever to position a web across a window that is transparent that exposes an internal light that stays on all night (night light under the microwave). It is at the same time seemed a bad idea since the screen will stop any prey from entering.
Somehow the spider found its way to this location so I assume it could find its way out. It must have felt vibrations of the moths on the screen attempting to get in. But it stayed put. It seemed pretty stupid to stay where it was, but it did. One day, I noticed a jumping spider stalking in the same space. The next day the web spider was feasting on a wrapped up jumping spider. Could it have planned this all along? I don’t know but I suspect another spider may be offer a better meal than some other insect. By the end of the season, I observed a couple more meals and three separate egg sacs. The spider had a good year in this bountiful and protected space.
I have no problem attributing some intelligence to the spider. In fact, at first, I kind regretted I had no way to inform it of the screen’s presence. Later, I was a little disappointed in the first outcome because it seemed the jumping spider was smarter. It seemed to have deliberately entered with the intent of stalking and eating the web spider. I took its side. I didn’t see the attack and even if I did I would not be inclined to do anything to change the outcome even if was apparent that my side was losing.
My point is that I can acknowledge something intelligent in seemingly minor beings but I don’t feel a moral obligation to intervene one way or another. (I did neglect to clean the window in favor of not disturbing the spiders, but I can attribute that to my own selfish curiosity).
There is a difference between acknowledging an intelligence and feeling obligation to that intelligence. I imagine a scenario of a home owner discovering termite damage in his house. A termite colony has built a nest outside the home and that colony built an elaborate network of mud-tunnels and managed the traffic workers who traveled back and forth to the colony. The home owner discovers the problem. He may discuss the problem with neighbors but they are not obligated to help with the cost or effort of extermination. They may even ridicule the home owner for not having preventive treatment.
Part of what makes us different from other animals is that we can ridicule each other’s failures and expect that the person will get the message of the ridicule. Apparently this is a big business in the popular “fail” videos on YouTube. Sometimes the “fail” label is applied to animals but it doesn’t have the same impact as when applied to animals. Certainly, the animals never know we are laughing at their failures.
Another scenario is the same neighborhood and same house. Instead of a termite problem, a neighbor notices a stranger vandalizing the house. Here, we generally expect on the neighbor two obligations: one is to protect the neighbor’s property, and the other is to punish the vandal. This may be a simple action such as calling the police. If he sees the problem and doesn’t do anything then we expect an explanation. This is what separates humans from the rest of the natural world. We expect humans to act morally in situations involving other humans even if they are not directly involved.
In general we do. In a city, a fight may be broken up by complete strangers who happen to be standing near by. Alternatively, complete strangers may join into the fight if they understand the nature of the disagreement. We generally don’t expect humans to break up a fight between pigeons on the sidewalk and certainly don’t expect to join in their fight.
Moral obligations to other humans is the primary thing that sets human intelligence apart from all other intelligent beings. On the contrary, the other beings are set apart from us by being completely free of this obligation toward humans.
A human is held accountable for a structure he builds later injures someone else. When something in nature harms a human, our primary response is to blame humans for not doing more to prevent that from happening rather than to expect nature to conform to our expectations.
I am not able to come up with an example that we expect human-like accountability to non-human animals. But it seems that something similar does appear within the nature world among certain highly-social species and sometimes between cooperative species. I recall an incident where a neighbor’s dog caught and killed a crow in the backyard. The trees filled with very indignant crows, some flying from long distances to join in something they could not have witnessed. What was remarkable was that smaller bird species seemed to also come in to join the ruckus either to join in the condemnation of the dogs or to lodge a complaint about the crows disturbing the peace.
As I can assume intelligence in nature because I am a natural being, I can assume nature can have other moral codes because I see it in human race. The only thing that separates us from the rest of nature is that we restrict or moral code exclusively to humans, or (less charitably) exclusively to our particular tribe of humans.
We have a stronger claim to our unique view of morality than we have to our intelligence being exceptional.