The words that will stop them in their tracks when they come to take me away.

Consider our relationship with cattle*.  They are born and raised in captivity, to live a life of relative ease**, the end of which comes in the form of a bullet to the brain or a knife to the throat*** (I won't pretend that this is a quick, painless death, but for the purposes of this post, I'm not going to go into the ethics of the death itself).  Following such a death, many of them are then chopped up, vacuum sealed, and frozen in preparation for later consumption.  They are either retrieved by the previous owner, or sold to another member of the human species, in part or whole.

Where this process gets interesting, at least to my mind, is in the interaction between the farmers and the cattle.  There is a famous, though apparently too obscure to show up on google, question that many throughout history have pondered: What can I say that will stop [them] in their tracks when they come to take me away.  'Them' referring to any body of people or any organization that may have a motivation to 'take me away', presumably to a fate I do not desire.

In that vein, while enjoying a sirloin from a cow that had broken her leg(and summarily executed, butchered, and stowed in the freezer), I thought to myself, "what would I say if a more powerful life form came along and shifted the food chain down a link, putting myself in the place of cattle?"   That is to say, what if earth were taken over by a life form that is as advanced of us as we are to cattle, and began treating us as we do cattle.  Our men, the vast majority, raised simply for consumption, a select few kept alive longer for selective breeding.  Our women selectively bred for their production of breast milk, the health of their babies, and their capacity for domestication (a handful in and of itself, that last).  The children are whisked from the birth canal to another location, where they are raised with other such children, and supplied with artificial sustenance.  When men reach the age of 15-18, if not ideal studs, or if studs are already plentiful, they are killed, butchered, vacuum packed, and either retrieved by the owner or sold, for consumption either way.  Some are killed even younger, to satisfy the whims of those who prefer the most tender of human flesh.  Studs who have reared their last child, or women who show a decline in milk production following a number of children, are also killed, butchered, vacuum packed, and either sold or retrieved.

Given this state of affairs, the question I alluded to in the beginning becomes more than an academic parlor game.  Finding the answer to the question is then a matter of urgency, and our success could determine the lives of future generations for a thousand years or longer.  Since we have the capacity to communicate, to reflect, to recognize and appreciate freedom, to have desires and goals and ambitions with meaning to our lives, there is no need to argue that we would find this situation in dire need of remedy.

Say you are given the unique privilege of making the case for human sovereignty before the leader of this advanced race, and that somehow you are made able to communicate clearly with them.  You have one opportunity to say whatever it is you think will "stop them in their tracks when they come to take you away".  What would you say?

I have given this some thought, and asked a few other people.  I don't know as though I have a fullproof answer for this dilemma, but I think I have the only strategy that has any chance of success(though it does depend heavily on the audience).  Before I express my idea, let me take you through some of the ideas I have already considered and rejected:

1.  The first thought that sprung into my mind was an appeal to special-ness, something most religious people would begin, and presumably end, at for their choice.  It would go something like, "God(or allah/thor/etc.) made human beings specially, out of God-stuff."  This would, the arguer thinks, convince the advanced race by threatening them with the wrath of our protector.   I think this would fail utterly, as there is a pretty good chance they would either have rejected such supernatural mumbo-jumbo millenia ago, or have their own notions of ego-centrism that belie such a claim on our behalf.

2.  The second would be an appeal to basic morality; this sort of action isn't proper for one species to engage in upon another.  If, as is assumed, the species being petition is sufficiently advanced, the easiest response would be a gesture towards our raising of cattle.  Alternatively, if they have their own religious notions, they could just claim we lack souls (or whatever aether substance they feel no other species has). That brings me to the runner up for best response:

3.  This third option would be an appeal to our capacities to think rationally, to be self-aware, and all the things that distinguish the human species from our cousins in the animal kingdom; and more importantly, the things that should engender a sort of kinship with the advanced race (i.e. appeal to shared special-ness).  I don't think this would be compelling to them if the gap is substantial enough that they can easily overpower and domesticate our entire species.  I also think it would suffer from the second objection in #2.

That brings me to my idea for best response.  In such a situation, I would simply ask them the very question that plagues me.  I would ask them, "If you found yourself in my position, what would you(as me) say to you(more advanced species than yourself), in order to extricate your species from this bondage?"  This sounds like something Socrates would come up with(or has, I haven't read much of Plato), or at least would be in keeping with his style.  I think any convincing response that they could give would essentially do my work for me, and an inability to respond adequately would highlight a conflict between their actions and rational reasoning.

What do you think?


*I am not saying anything substantial about our current (or, plausibly, future) relationship with cattle.  I have no concrete opinions as of yet in regards this, and so I am hoping no one reads too much into my post.  I think that the differences between humans and cows are significant enough, in our capacity for rational though and introspection, to set us apart, at least for the sake of argument.  Moreover, since the domesticated cow(that being, afaik, the only cows still around) is without the selective pressures that engineered(sorry Prof. Dawkins) our evolution towards higher mental processes, I don't find it plausible that cows will develop these capacities in the future, and therefore this difference will remain, and remain salutary.

**I am not going to entertain a discussion of what freedom might mean, or whether it has a meaning, for cows.  This is an interesting question, but not relevant to this post.

***There is no reason to suppose that some afterlife awaits cows, or that they suffer or experience anything following the first sentence of the paragraph containing this reference.  This may be a controversial claim in some circles, but this is an uninteresting side-note, irrelevant to the main thrust of my post.


  1. Dave misplaced his phone last night, and we were joking that one of the heifer's got a-hold of it. This comment is PROOF!

  2. Hi Lee, I came across you blog via a comment you left on the thinkingmatters site (it was refreshing to see someone contributing there with clarity of thought!)

    This is a fantastic question and I like your recursive solution. If the superior beings lack an ability to empathise then we're pretty much screwed. But if, like us, they're roughly hard wired to feel the feelings of others then we might have a chance. Although if they are superior to us as well as societal then I doubt they'd tolerate causing suffering in other creatures in the first place (a trend that's developing over the centuries in humans).

    I have to say the thought of an immensely powerful but religiously dogmatic (and therefore ultimately sociopathic) species gave me the willies!

  3. It is actually a combination of my most recent activities working on a farm, and a talk I heard given (and of course quoted endlessly) by Stephen Hawking. You are probably aware of it, but it was something to the effect of supposing our interaction with an advanced alien species to likely play out in the way Europeans (being the more advanced culture) treated the American Indians. The question suddenly cropped up one day while working, and I just had to put it down somewhere. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    As to "thinkingmatters" and my post there, thank you for the compliment. Although, it's nothing I haven't said before in any number of locations(or said by any number of others). I wasn't initially going to write anything, having, as I said, exhausted my opinion elsewhere, until I read that bit about DCT being "unassailable". What these fellas don't seem to get is that DCT actually pre-dates the Eurythipro Dilemma, and Plato's dialogues contained the first and arguably still the most powerful objection. This idea that DCT is a contemporary creation that circumvents an outdated (and thus impotent) objection is the merest fantasy, and as such, practically demanded a response. The best part, though, is that the OP actually linked to the SEP, which contains precisely the discussion that belies his claim to the intellectual high ground for modern Christian ethics.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Just thinking about this further, what would you say to a modern-day human regime that wanted to kill you? I'm thinking here of something like the Khmer Rouge who might have caught you and are torturing you in order to gain a confession about your imaginary involvement in, say, the CIA. After which you'll be executed. What words would you use?

    1. I think that situations like those don't have outs, frankly. Unless you have something they cannot get with you dead, or think you know something they need to know, the lifespan of a detainee in these international conflicts is rather limited. The words, if they do exist, would require an extensive understanding of the needs of whoever captured you.

  5. Hi there Lee, I wandered over here from the Possible Worlds review of the Harris vs Craig debate you argued in so well.

    Anyway, to the topic at hand. While I chuckled at your solution, I would argue to improve upon option 2, which somewhat leads into your option 3:

    "2. The second would be an appeal to basic morality; this sort of action isn't proper for one species to engage in upon another. If, as is assumed, the species being petition is sufficiently advanced, the easiest response would be a gesture towards our raising of cattle."

    It seems to me the error here lies in the assumption that large scale production and slaughter of so-called 'lower animals' for human consumption is morally permissible. This claim can be denied if one demonstrates that ones' moral worthiness is tied to their capacity for suffering (as Harris' moral landscape theory entails, who has himself said that there is no rationally defensible argument for eating meat but he does so out of laziness against procuring a different source of protein).

    Furthermore, it seems there is a disanalogy between your initial thought experiment of cattle who live a life or contentment and ease (who are then 'painlessly' killed) and the thought experiment on offer for humans. What humans require to live in 'contentment and ease' is different in kind to what less cerebrally developed mammals require. Your alien scenario seems more in line with factory farming of animals rather than the implied traditional farming methods of roaming pastures (which it seems you avoided intentionally because of the moral concerns of intensive factory farming). Our higher degree of self-awareness and desire for personal and collective autonomy precludes a life of captivity and enslavement from being one of contentment, no matter how 'at ease' we may appear to be.

    The only way you could convince your jailers that you deserve to live is to appeal to a desire or value they already possess, since it's impossible to rationally convince someone to adopt a value they SHOULD have if you aren't appealing to a value they already have: empathy for the suffering of others, compassion in the face of distress, concern for fairness, rational standards of argument and discourse etc. What evidence could I possibly show someone to convince them they should value evidence in their decision making? It's tautological. The only way you can begin is if they also hold that value already.

    If they don't possess any of the above traits then anything you could say to them would fall on deaf ears and you're on your way to the meat grinder. Considering the ghoulish nature of the description of humans being raised in this scenario, a) it seems unlikely that they hold these values, or b) they hold them, but only in relation to their own species.

    This is your only foot in the door, because you now have to convince them that they are being arbitrary in delineating their moral concern to their own species rather than to all sentient life: as they should if they value rational/moral consistency. They are acting no better than the racist who limits his concern to his own race, or the misogynist who limits his concerns to his own gender. The capacity for suffering seems, to me at least, to be the only non-arbitrary measure of moral consideration.

    This is predicated on them holding their own well-being as a value however. If they don't, it seems odd that they would go to the trouble of enslaving us, since if their own well-being means nothing to them they should be just as likely to starve to death rather than eat us.

    1. Apologies for the long-delayed response! You may find this hard to discern from my original post, but I do in fact agree with you. I think the fundamental problem is our treatment of cattle, and this little thought experiment was my round-about way of "getting to the point" as it were.

      The option I chose was simply the only one I could think of without radically revising our own actions in response to the implications of (2). That is to say, given how we behave at present, 2 is not available without suffering the rightful charge of hypocrisy.

      "Our higher degree of self-awareness and desire for personal and collective autonomy precludes a life of captivity and enslavement from being one of contentment, no matter how 'at ease' we may appear to be."

      It is hard to imagine a life form as advanced to us as we are to cattle; such a thing may even be impossible. But supposing for the sake of argument that it is possible, this life form, then our treatment of cattle is directly analogous to this life form's potential treatment of us. Could cattle's lives be improved? Probably, but it's hard to see the point considering their cognitive limitations (could they appreciate the difference to the extent that it is meaningful to us?). I could imagine the same thought coursing through the mind of ET when considering whether to release the barely sentient ape-like mammals who go so well with a dash of barley and pinch Kriptonite.