The Ethics of Intervention on Killing

The 2021 Oscar Nominee film, My Octopus Teacher (2020, Netflix.com) depicts the life of a filmmaker who spends over 300 days swimming with an Octopus, and reflecting on the lessons of life he learned. In one scene, the filmmaker shows footage from, and tells the story of, a time when he sat back and watched while sharks attacked the Octopus. He said that he did not want to interrupt the flow of nature, which brings up the ethics of killing and whether a person should intervene when another animal is being attacked. Since humans have animal cells and are taxonomically classified as animals, one should group them into the same category as this octopus. Animal philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant and Mill have differing views on murder, and whether to intervene in it. While Aristotle would support stopping a murder from occurring, he does so from the position that it is in our nature to act for the good in life which is happiness. Kant would stop a murder from happening, but he would only feel he ought to do it, if any given other person would do the same every time. Finally, Mill advocated that happiness meant also to cease acts which cause pain, so he would advocate for at least trying to stop a murder, at least some of the time. All three philosophers would at least part of the time, advocate for intervention in murder.

Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics are still popular today as a form of virtuous moral code. In Book 1, he famously declares, “the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” To help us understand the concept of the good Aristotle expounds by stating, “the highest good attainable by action is happiness.” To contrast happiness with the least good possible Aristotle remarks that, “Death is the most terrible of all things.” Finally, on the responsibility of man to the good in life he states, “Not every wicked man is ignorant of what he ought to do and what he ought to abstain from; by such errors, men become unjust and bad.” To sum up Aristotle’s view, it is good to attain happiness in life and to avoid or forego death inasmuch is possible. Furthermore, people should do what is reasonable and aim at what is good, and not be ignorant.

In the Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant, the Idealist attempts to find reasons to adhere oneself to duty and to morality as a sort of law or code. He states there are hypothetical imperatives, which are, “the practical necessity of a possible action,” and there are categorical imperatives which are, “objectively necessary.” While Kant states that, “there is one end,” that all share, “and this is happiness,” he argues that categorical imperatives should take precedence in morality since hypotheticals are, “means to another purpose.” While he considers hypotheticals to be, “pragmatic,” Kant considers the Categorical Imperative to represent, “morals.” Employment of the Categorical Imperative means to ask yourself if the action you desire would be ethical, were it to be acted by any given person on earth; that if it were unethical for even one person, it shouldn’t be enforced as law.

John Stuart Mill advanced Utilitarianism to the forefront of the Liberal philosophies. He expounded on the work of his predecessors to avoid the fault of basing morality on mere pleasure, and spends a great deal of time distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures. Still, the foundation of his philosophy is generally that, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote…pain and the privation of pleasure.” Mill expands on this in claiming that the greatest good action then, is to promote the most happiness for the most people.

Perhaps the filmmaker would be a fan of Aristotle, because he seemed to have experienced a season of ignorance. Through interacting with the Octopus, the filmmaker became connected to another living being as if for the first time. So in reflecting on allowing sharks to attack the Octopus, one might conclude the filmmaker was overcoming his own ignorance. Upon review of his actions and how he felt, the filmmaker decided to feed the Octopus and nurse it back to health, breaking his original conviction. Aristotle would agree this is a good action. Perhaps the filmmaker would borrow from Kant’s system. He at first decided the imperative lay in an action that is pragmatic, because he admits he does not want to change what may occur in nature. He valued the lives of sharks the same as the Octopus, despite his own preference, as an attempt to remain objective. Eventually, the filmmaker found that there is value in avoiding the kind of unhappiness he experienced. One might conclude that the end justifies the means, if they conflate Machiavelli with Mill, because through the hardship the Octopus recovered and retained its skills of survival. It may have died if the filmmaker had not helped it. Still, there remains an open question of whether or not the Octopus would have been in danger, had it not been interacting with the filmmaker in the first place. In the end, the film maker was more happy in embracing the values of Aristotle, relaxing his strict application of Utilitarianism, and perhaps releasing it entirely.

Throughout My Octopus Teacher, both the octopus and the film maker went through changes which were both physical and of character. The film maker progressed from the strict conception of Mill’s Utilitarianism, through the throes of Kant’s Idealism, and came to rest in the comfort of Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics. Through the process of learning from the Octopus, the film maker was able to bond with his own son, and to learn the happiness of life that lay in the play of everyday living.

Source: Marino, G. (2010). Ethics – The Essential Writings. Random House Publishing Group. Pp.46-225.

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