Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Seeing should not always be believing.

In the car this morning, listening to CBC Radio, I heard the start of a report on "Animal Law", and the change in thinking about animals, in terms of rights and our seeing them as possessions.

It made me think, not of animal rights or PETA or vegetarianism, but about "perceptual ethics". (Yeah, I'm weird like that.) I BELIEVE I just made up that term, but what I'm thinking of is an aspect of information ethics that is concerned with our perceptions and understanding of our ourselves and our environment. Perception is an action so we can be conscious of it and manage it to some degree, so therefore there can be ethical behaviour regarding perceptions. In other words there can be a "good perceptual act" and "bad perceptual act". The two issues that come to my mind in terms of perceiving in an ethical way would be in questioning the biases that we bring to an instance of perception beforehand, and in determining appropriate assumptions and actions that result from perceptions.

It might not be obvious that it is the actual act of perceiving that is to be consider good or bad (the above two aspects can be seen as pre-perception and post-perception) and I'm not sure how to resolve that. But the act of perceiving is not easily distinguishable from these pre- and post- "acts" and they are certainly consistently connected so I believe that the label "perceptual ethics" is still appropriate.

In the animal rights example above, for example, most of us probably see no or insufficient evidence of any awareness like ours in the animals around us. From this, we leap to two conclusions: (1) that it does not exist, and (2) that therefore we can treat them as we wish. I don't think either of these follows in any well-justified way. We are acting unethically in our perceptions of animal awareness.

I am not aware of any literature on this topic, so if you come across anything, send it my way!

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