Don’t take it personally

It’s funny; I first read the posts which prompted this over a week ago, and have been thinking about this ever since.

To set the scene as briefly as I can, the first post can be found here, which details some highly questionable practices from a particular nature photographer, but admits that this is not isolated. The post covers everything from posed subjects to animal abuse, but the critical-thinker in me interrupts with a reminder of the distinction between “evidenced” and “inferred” – a few too many accusations in that post aren’t substantiated very well.

Now, just that single sentence in itself is enough to send too many people off into the accusation that I’m making excuses for the photographer, or think he was doing nothing wrong, or any variation of trying desperately to cram the whole issue into just two bins, “approve” or “disapprove” – this is partisan thinking, as if there are only two choices. However, that sentence means nothing more than exactly what it says; I issue this as a helpful guideline, because if anyone can’t understand that distinction or count higher than two, this post is going to be way over their head (Sesame Street is probably way over their head.)

The first post then linked to this “must-read” from Nicky Bay, a seriously accomplished photographer himself. Bay gives a detailed description of the proper ethical approach for nature photographers – or at least, his own take on it. Because the bare truth is, the term ‘nature photographer’ really only means ‘someone who takes mostly nature photos,’ and implies no particular approach, goal, education, ideology, or anything else. Everyone has their own preferences, and their own reasons for having them. For instance, Bay frowns on any kind of studio shot, and any kind of interference, up to and including getting leaves out of the way – he cites the negative impact he created once when doing so.

However, it’s not hard to find numerous nature photographers who not only violate these, they have good, rational reasons to do so (though the definition of rational is, naturally, a bit subjective.) More interesting though, is what you find when you start to examine the issue in detail. There is, quite distinctly, no such thing as “zero impact” – everything that humans do has some affect on their surroundings. While Bay may not wish to disturb a leaf because of his personal experience, I think it’s safe to say that he did not obtain his equipment by picking it up from under the Nikon tree where it fell naturally, nor does he live in a cave and use the all-natural internet. Walking up to his photo subjects undoubtedly wiped out thousands of tiny critters, as does simply going down to get the mail, to say nothing of hurtling through space in a car or airplane. I don’t want to pick on Bay here, since I’ve seen ethical guidelines from numerous different photographers, I’m just using his as an example.

I could point out that humans are not an unnatural species on this planet, having evolved with everything else, so the distinction of natural doesn’t have a viable meaning. I could point out that the leaves he purposefully avoids disturbing are continually eaten by herbivores or dislodged by storms. Both of those indicate that quantifying ‘impact’ in either a negative or positive manner requires a purposefully narrow perspective. I could also let this whole idea delve into trying to define avoidable and unavoidable impact, but that’s an unending argument, and one that moreover misses the crux of the matter. This crux is missed by damn near everybody, which is funny, because it comes from the very word that everyone uses blithely and assumes has a good definition: “ethical.” This stumbling block is always present, and nearly always ignored, often by people that should know better.

So, let me ask this: What does ethical mean, or if it’s easier, what is the goal of ethical behavior? If someone says, “We shouldn’t harm other species,” the first thing I’d point out is that this is manifestly impossible. Then I’d ask why we think our species should have special rules that other species don’t have, since the predator/prey thing, as well as the host/parasite concept, is everywhere we look. I’d also start messing about with the obvious history of mankind as an omnivore, and ask what makes this new ‘no harm’ rule functional?

It doesn’t take much to realize that ethical is defined solely by personal opinion, but it takes a little more thought to recognize that it’s a bare emotion masquerading as a discrete concept – while anyone can create a rationalization of it, you’d be hard-pressed to find even a broad consensus of what it means, or should mean. And even that ‘should’ part is loaded, because who or what makes us think anything should be, as opposed to simply seeing what is?

I’m going to save a lot of time, especially since I’ve been over this before, and say that our desire for an ethical state of affairs comes from badly mislabeled and misunderstood social behavior development. Because cooperating socially produced the greatest advantage to us, millions of years ago, it evolved to become an inherent part of our being. Like so much of our behavior, we feel better when we engage in certain social actions, because those worked better than any alternatives (such as being individualistic) – we might not like believing that we’re as guided by instinct as a housecat is when covering its excrement, but there really is no significant difference. And the primary ‘goal’ of any evolved behavior is survival. Or to put it more accurately, such behavior is what reproduced most effectively, so that’s what we ended up with – with any attendant imperfections as well.

This means that our desire for ethics is just an extension of survival behavior – and really has no application towards any other species not directly impinging on our survival. Whenever we say, “We shouldn’t harm other animals,” try asking why. What effect does it have? Should we care about how a bumblebee feels, or whether we’ve deprived a panda of its mate? How are we impacted by carrying a spider outside rather than squashing it? If, for instance, I don’t care while you do, does this make either of us right or wrong?

Once again, I could play with the various issues that arise, such as how this perspective introduces nihilism or some shit like that, but I can head them off handily by saying such arguments are the same exact thing already in discussion: whether someone likes the argument or not, whether their social instincts have kicked in where they do not have a distinctive impact on survival or even benefit.

There is no judgment being passed on this whole idea – see the bit above about partisan thinking. It simply illustrates that, to translate from, “I like/dislike this,” to, “this is important to us as a species/culture,” we need functional definitions of ethics and morality, which includes understanding what falls outside of such considerations. It shouldn’t be entirely up to what we feel, but what we have determined to be a useful goal. All of the philosophers who believe that science can not, or should not, mess about with morality somehow managed to miss this entire issue, and the huge difference between instinctual reactions (that are ridiculously subjective) and something with a measurable benefit.

Having thrown so much of our assumptions into question with all that, now I’m going to switch to another approach, because I have to have my fun too.

Using the images in that first linked post (repeat link) as an example, I can tell you that much of the reaction to the images, and especially the revealed techniques behind them, depends on what someone assumed about them in the first place. Any halfway knowledgeable naturalist or nature photographer knew at first sight that the images were staged. Red-eyed tree frogs don’t appear in those habitats nor around those plants (which in some cases are blatant fakes anyway,) raindrops do not appear that thick anywhere, nor rarely in such lighting conditions, and on and on and on. I can’t produce an accurate idea of how common or uncommon such image staging actually is, but genres like the greeting card industry adore such images – the byword is, “cute,” not, “authentic.” When acres of rainforest (and thus thousands of tree frogs) are being destroyed every day, what makes someone get all fired up over the staging, and potentially the stress, of a few isolated subjects? Mostly, it’s because they reacted to the “cute” while believing nothing untoward was behind it; they assumed circumstances without knowing. And in some cases, they then think someone else is to blame for their misconceptions. Yet, the greeting card industry is going to keep plugging right along, regardless of the implausibility of the images used, isn’t it? Because someone’s always going to buy them…

Now we can start asking all sorts of other questions. Does staging photos for greeting cards represent some form of illegitimate pursuit? [I’m going to ignore, for the moment, the purposeful misrepresentation of the conditions from the photographer, in that first link – let’s assume he admitted staging the images for this particular market, in open recognition that it changes other people’s perspective for no apparent reason.] If the market bears it, how does one define the ethics of it? What about paparazzi? They’re in public, getting images that magazines pay good money for, making a living with their particular skills – is this better or worse than a machinist for a defense contractor, one that specializes in ways of killing people? How often does someone bend over backwards to dismiss the latter situation as, “working hard to make a living”? Doesn’t the death of people rate a hell of a lot worse than abusing animals or annoying celebrities? Or do we separate the fabrication as a neutral pursuit, versus the end-use?

Paparazzi exist because so many people seem to think that a celebrity photographed on the street is somehow fascinating. So is it the photographer who deserves the derision, or the public that creates the demand? Before you answer, know that I can easily find a hot button for anyone out there, producing an ‘ethics’ question over the unhealthy nature of the food someone eats, or how little money anyone donates to charity, or the resources used to recharge and maintain goofy little phones that people love so much. And, to be sure, anyone can do the exact same thing to me. It’s easy to see that ethics should not simply be defined by disapproval.

This is the primary problem with generic ethics discussions, the kind philosophers love to believe they’ve got such a grip upon (while still not providing any useful insights after centuries of toying with the topic); ethical considerations remain completely vague and capricious unless a specific goal is defined. The feelings we possess naturally – empathy and commiseration and a desire for positive social interaction – are all survival-oriented; they worked better than other behaviors and thus won the selection lottery. So we could say that ethics should only deal with optimizing human survival. Yet, that’s not going to wash – killing baby ducks isn’t something most people will ignore, and they’ll fight to see that ethics includes this somehow, though the rationale behind it will either be vague, or overreaching, precisely because it is a rationale. There is no survival advantage to saving baby ducks; our instincts to protect infants just aren’t specific enough to exclude non-humans. Again, feelings, not functionality.

So what we come to is that ethics have to be decided for specific circumstances, with clearly-defined goals. In many ways, we already have this: business law, physicians’ oaths, athletic behavior, and many others. It’s possible to get a decent grip on ethics when it’s confined within specific circumstances, making it more like a corporate mission statement. This takes it out of individual interpretations and provides a base structure. Making the field or circumstances too broad is problematic, because few things that we might engage in can fall under giant umbrella rules without issues arising.

We’ll return to nature photography for an example. What do you think are the chances of seeing the underside of a beetle without disturbing it? Pretty small, you say? So if you’re in a biology class and trying to learn about coleoptera anatomy, how is it going to be illustrated, or should it simply be left up to imagination because no one wants to disturb the beetles? The photographer that sells their work for textbook illustration and related uses has a different set of goals and approaches than the one that produces habitat images, or artsy shots, or yes, even greeting cards. It’s not really feasible to say that there’s a set of ethics for ‘nature photographers,’ any more than there’s a set of ethics for ‘farmers’ or ‘parents’ (I suspect many parents even have different ethical rules depending on the age of the child – lying, for example.)

It’s fine to have a personal set of ethics, and this might be used to judge what actions to take in regards to others – by not purchasing animal greeting cards, for instance. Someone can chose to be a vegan because they don’t want to harm animals; others may chose to drive small efficient cars in order to reduce environmental impact. But there’s a difference between personal choices and what anyone else should be doing, and this distinction is lost way too often – opinions and feelings do not translate into goals for human behavior. Yet there may be good, rational reasons to possess some viewpoint, and it’s these that should be used whenever ethical discussions arise; establish the structure and the goal, rather than the assertion or the ideology.

This also surmounts all of the issues with using religion, politics, or nationalism as a guideline for ethics, all of which fail the objectivity test against anyone else’s personal ideology. But once you’ve established an agreement on a goal or purpose, then the rest is much easier to define, and harder to argue against.

The other thing to remain aware of is how much ethics is driven by ego. Nobody thinks they’re unethical, and even dictating what ethical behavior should be to someone else is enough to start them bristling at the judgment being levied – truth be told, there are far too many circumstances where this is exactly how ‘ethical’ is wielded, producing a pedestal out of nowhere for someone to sneer down from. It shouldn’t ever be a manner of (de)valuing others, just a method of reaching acceptable, fruitful goals – that’s the only property of ethics that deserves any respect in the first place.

I have purposely avoided indicating what I do personally, or what my approach to nature photography is, because that’s just another emotional thing for someone to latch onto and potentially cloud their judgment. And I think emotional reasons are just fine – for actions affecting just the individual. Whether you squash the spider in the bathtub or carry it outside is something that ultimately you feel better about – and just mentioning it is enough to generate the idea that the decision might have been entirely emotional, isn’t it? Nothing wrong with that, unless the realization suddenly produces guilt of course (isn’t this fun?) But when it comes to what a group, cultural, society, or species-wide behavior should be, the emotions need to be recognized and given the appropriate weight against pragmatic goals.

Here’s an example that pops up from time to time (mostly as an exercise): in both Germany and Japan during WWII, some pretty horrendous medical experiments were performed on people – it’s safe to say virtually everyone finds these unethical (though certainly too few did at the time, enough that it occurred, and this presents some interesting examination in itself.) However, the question that is posed is how ethical it is to use the information garnered during these experiments; should we benefit from the gross mistreatment of other humans?

Responses can actually be influenced by how the question is phrased, curiously enough, which indicates that impressions and emotional reactions often have their say in the matter – how it’s phrased really shouldn’t make a difference, should it? And the question is little more than an exercise, for two reasons. First, that information is used the moment you know about it; you can’t intentionally forget something, and it’s rather stupid to pretend you don’t know something that can have an impact on a present patient. Second, most of the information is already incorporated into medical journals, so it’s all, pardon the phrase, academic.

More importantly, though, what is either action going to change? Why, for instance, would you not use the information garnered? It does not suggest any complicity or even approval of the methods used, nor does it insult any living relative. It certainly doesn’t change whatever happened. If anything, the knowledge gained could be instrumental in helping someone later on, and it is certainly better than rediscovering some form of medical trauma by accident. It’s kind of a stupid question, when it’s considered critically. That, of course, is where the issue lies: critical consideration is often lacking, and sometimes even discouraged (see above about how the question is phrased.)

So, while anyone can consider disagreement over any action to be an ethics issue, this really doesn’t tell us anything – it may even be gross misdirection. Find the goal or purpose to agree upon first, and then determine what action best suits this. That’s the functionality of ethics, and the part that gets buried under too much other garbage.

In one of these images, the subject was placed in position; the other was taken without interference. Can you tell which is which? Is it important? Does it change either, or make one better than the other? Or does it only matter if I lie to you about it?
In one of these images, the subject was placed in position; the other was taken without interference. Can you tell which is which? Is it important? Does it change either, or make one better than the other? Or does it only matter if I lie to you about it?

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