The Moral Arc and Animals, Animal Intelligence, and People Who Don’t Read Books

Just these three topics for today, one focusing on Ray Nayler’s SF novel The Mountain in the Sea.

Here’s an example of how philosophers consider extending the “moral arc.” (Cf. Shermer.)

Vox, Sigal Samuel, 25 Jan 2023: You may be thinking about animals all wrong (even if you’re an animal lover), subtitled “Philosopher Martha Nussbaum says humans should grant equal rights to animals, even in the wild. Is she right?”

I’ve heard of Nussbaum for years, but haven’t read her.

Martha Nussbaum is a very, very big deal, the kind of philosopher who, when she publishes a book, makes waves well beyond the ivory towers of academia. Her new volume, Justice for Animals, plunges into the animal welfare debate, billing itself as a “revolutionary new theory” in how we humans think about other animals. Which makes it all the more surprising that, at its heart, her theory isn’t very revolutionary at all.

The core idea here resembles Shermer’s pretty closely.

Nussbaum first co-developed the capabilities approach in the 1980s with humans in mind, working with its original architect, the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen. The theory argues that a just society should give each human the chance to flourish, which requires the opportunity to access some core entitlements to at least some minimum degree — things like good health and physical safety that any living thing requires, but also social relationships and play. These aren’t random; they’re things that human beings have specific reason to value because of the type of creatures we are.

The writer goes on to quibble about her ideas as “iffy.” He reviews the existing ethical approaches to animals and where she thinks they fail. Humans repeatedly underestimate the cognitive complexity of other species. We suffer an anthropocentric bias, while other species have their own kind of smarts. She has issues with the utilitarian approach of Bentham and Singer. She approves of Kant’s approach to treat people, and animals, as ends to themselves, to means to ends. Her approach is about capabilities. The writer quibbles, citing Frans de Waal and Daniel Dennett along the way.

Fascinating stuff. I won’t pretend to try to draw my own conclusion from this. But the writer’s conclusion is unassailable:

…philosophy actually has a crucial role to play: If it acknowledges that our moral beliefs are conditioned by cultural context, it can help show us that there was nothing inherently “normal” or “natural” about our ancestors’ cruel practices toward animals, and that those practices are mostly not necessary now. It can free up our culture to tell a new story about ourselves and other animals.


New Humanist, Jay Owens, 23 Jan 2023: Intelligence is everywhere, subtitled “From AI to cephalopods, a new strain of “nature writing” explores the frontiers of non-human sentience.”

This piece is about several recent books, including the science fiction novel The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler, first published in October 2022, and from what I’ve gathered the most acclaimed SF novel of the year, likely to win awards in 2023.

The Mountain in the Sea is also a story about the meeting of more-than-human minds, encompassing humans, other animals and human technology. In the novel, rumour spreads of an unusual pod of octopuses living on a shipwreck off the Con Dao islands in Vietnam. They’re collaborating, signalling – perhaps even using (can it be?) language. Marine biologist Dr Ha Nguyen, who has spent her whole career researching cephalopod intelligence, is fascinated – and so is transnational tech corporation DIANIMA, which has bought and sealed off the archipelago and parachuted Dr Nguyen in, alongside the world’s first android robot, to find out what is going on.

Will the creatures offer unprecedented breakthroughs in artificial intelligence technology? Or do they just want to be left the hell alone? Nayler’s debut is equal parts page-turning near-future thriller and a profound exploration of language, communication and otherness.


For Nayler, it seems that The Mountain in the Sea was a lifetime in the making. “I wrote a report when I was maybe in fourth or fifth grade about octopuses,” he told me. “And then I had spent this time in Vietnam as the environment, science, technology and health officer at the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, and especially on Con Dao, working on a few different projects.” Through his career in the United States Peace Corps and Foreign Service, Nayler lived and worked all over the world. But he found something exceptional in the remote Con Dao islands, off the southern coast of Vietnam. “I just grew to love that place, this very troubled environment: it’s a national park with a lot of issues with poaching, overfishing and other environmental degradation from the human population. And that place stuck with me as a place that I wanted to set a story.”

Why octopuses specifically? “I wanted a first contact story that wasn’t with an alien, but with a species here on Earth. And that wasn’t about finding intelligent life – which is such a misnomer, because I think that wildlife is incredibly intelligent in very different ways – but that was about finding contact with an animal that had a symbolic level of communication, like we do.”


The Atlantic, Thomas Chatterton Williams, 25 Jan 2023: The People Who Don’t Read Books, subtitled “Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character.”

I know people like this, but sometimes as learners of the English language as a second language, it’s because it’s not easy for them to do so.

The article seems inspired by comments from recent news makers Kanye West (who said “I am not a fan of books” and “I am a proud non-reader of books”) and Sam Bankman-Fried (who said “I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”) And then:

There’s an expression in journalism: “Three is a trend.” Unfortunately, I have a third example of a prominent book skeptic. In a feature reconstructing the undoing of Sean McElwee, the 30-year-old founder of Data for Progress, New York Magazine noted, as McElwee “would put it, books are dumb—they only tell you what people want you to know.” I confess, I don’t really understand what that means, let alone why McElwee thinks it’s profound.

McElwee is someone I’ve cited or quoted in several posts. His reputation seems to have floundered.

“Cool” is one way to describe these confident young men’s fiscal and political interventions; abysmally ill-informed, maliciously incompetent, and morally bankrupt also come to mind.


It is one thing in practice not to read books, or not to read them as much as one might wish. But it is something else entirely to despise the act in principle. Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character. As Ye once riffed (prophetically) during a live performance, “I get my quotes from movies because I don’t read, or from, like, go figure, real life or something. Like, live real life; talk to real people; get information; ask people questions; and it was something about, ‘You either die a superhero or you live to become the villain.’” As clever as that sounds, receiving all of your information from the SBF ideal of six-paragraph blog posts, or from the movies and random conversations that Ye prefers, is as foolish as identifying as someone who chooses to eat only fast food.

After detouring through Anna Karenina, and writer concludes,

When I was in my 20s and writing my first book—I know, I really fucked up there—I came across a quote I can no longer find the source of that said, essentially, “You could fill a book with all I know, but with all I don’t know, you could fill a library.” It’s a helpful visualization, perhaps the most basic and pragmatic justification for deep reading. And though correlation is not causation, I submit that we’d save ourselves an enormous amount of trouble in the future if we’d agree to a simple litmus test: Immediately disregard anyone in the business of selling a vision who proudly proclaims they hate reading.

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