Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is my take on today’s post, “Why Tell Koko About Robin Williams’s Death?“.
According to press reports, Koko, the gorilla adept at sign language, seemed saddened to hear the news of the death of Robin Williams, whom the gorilla met once in 2001 (and bonded with immediately). I cannot fathom the ethical reasoning behind telling Koko about Williams’s death. What is the point of telling her about the death of someone she met once, 13 years ago? The press reports dwelt on the fact that she appeared sad. I don’t think any of us can know if she was sad or not — but even if this news opens the possibility of making her unhappy, it seems cruel to bring this into her life. What moral purpose does it serve? RITA LONG, OAKLAND, CALIF.
My Answer: I don’t know if anyone else sees it this way, but this country seems to have a big problem handling death reasonably. Let’s get this straight: I’m going to die, you’re going to die, everyone you know is going to die, … everyone is going to die.
It goes crazy over unhappy emotions too. Everyone feels unhappy sometimes. You know unhappy emotions because you’ve felt them. They aren’t the end of the world. They aren’t necessarily bad. They are no worse than physical pain, which you probably recognize helps you stay healthy. People who don’t feel pain cut and burn themselves in ways people who feel pain learn not to do. I’m going to feel unhappy some time, you’re going to feel unhappy, everyone is going to feel unhappy sometime.
Koko would have faced death and sadness, or whatever gorillas feel, if anything, no matter what.
If you propose telling some sentient creatures about death but not others, where do you propose drawing the line? At children? At non-human animals? The idea of a line seems absurd to me, though I could be missing something.
We humans learn about death at young ages. What are you supposed to do otherwise? Protect people from emotional pain until they can handle it? How do you determine when they can? And how do you explain people disappearing from their lives otherwise? It seems as likely that protecting someone could prevent them from learning to handle it, creating greater problems later.
Koko being able to communicate using human language doesn’t likely make her suddenly able to understand death more than she would have without the sign language. Gorillas have dealt with deaths among their families and friends for millions of years. Who knows how they feel about death anyway? Or the death of a specific person? Or how learning about a particular person’s life affects them overall in the long-run?
The New York Times Answer: Let’s start by looking at this from a slightly wider angle: What is the moral purpose of “talking” to a gorilla about anything? What’s the ethical justification for teaching Koko sign language and trying to communicate human ideas that have no bearing on her life?
The best possible answer to that question is that we might learn something that will amplify our understanding of both apes and of ourselves. We are not talking to this gorilla to make idle conversation. We are communicating with this gorilla to learn about consciousness. And if Koko were authentically saddened by the news of Robin Williams’s suicide, we would learn a great deal.
Koko met Robin Williams only once. And since an ape can’t comprehend the concept of “celebrity,” that meeting should be no more intrinsically meaningful than any one-time interaction Koko shared with anyone else. It’s not as if Koko sits around constantly rewatching “Moscow on the Hudson.” So if Koko was still impacted by that 2001 meeting in the year 2014, it would suggest something pretty profound about ape consciousness. I mean, can gorillas vividly recall and contextualize every interaction they experience? Do gorillas feel empathy for all mammals equally? Do gorillas have the ability to sense (and mentally catalog) specific interactions with “special” individuals (and did Robin Williams fall into that class)? Do gorillas simply want to please their human masters and reflexively display whatever emotion they assume is expected? Can gorillas comprehend what death is? Do they understand that they, too, will die (and that death, though natural, justifies sadness)? If any of these questions could be irrefutably affirmed, everything we think about gorillas would need to be re-examined, along with our entire relationship with all nonhuman mammals. So the moral question might not be “Is it wrong to tell Koko about a human’s suicide if that information will make her sad?” The moral question might be “If we tell Koko about a human’s suicide and her sadness is rational and authentic, what else are we obligated to tell her?”
Now, the counter to this reasoning is simple: Gorillas are believed to have the cognitive ability of a 3- or 4-year-old human. This means telling Koko about the death of Williams is akin to telling a 3-year-old child that a random uncle she met last Christmas is now dead and buried, and that this event is tragic. Framed in those terms, the whole idea seems cruel (and suggests that anything we’d supposedly “learn” from such an exchange could just as easily be deduced through common sense). Yet shielding her might be even less humane.
“I would question the ethics of not telling Koko about this death,” says the veterinarian Vint Virga, the author of “The Soul of All Living Creatures” and the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine article about the interior lives of animals. “I would set aside the issue of the animal’s cognitive intelligence and focus on the concept of an animal’s emotional intelligence, which studies continue to show is much greater than we previously imagined. Animals and humans both experience joy and sadness throughout their life. Why would you want to shelter a gorilla from that experience? I believe a gorilla absolutely has the ability to understand the loss of someone who was important to her, and animals are often able to deal with grieving and loss more effectively than humans.”
Virga argues that the only reasons for not telling Koko this information would be if we thought the death itself was insignificant or wanted to spare the ape from emotional distress. He thinks the latter motive is shortsighted. “There is nothing inherently wrong with stress,” he told me. “All living things need a degree of stress for their health and well-being. Just because an animal shows the recognition of loss doesn’t mean it’s being inordinately distressed. It just means animals feel things.”
What ultimately makes this question impossible to answer definitively is a chasm we cannot traverse: As humans, we can only think about a gorilla’s experience in human terms. Everything we imagine about Koko’s worldview involves the imposition of human ideas and values upon a consciousness that is fundamentally alien to our own. Is it moral to tell a gorilla bad news? We may never really know. But we certainly won’t know if we never try.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees