Right to Primitivism

 Posted by on 2 June 2008 at 11:56 pm  Philosophy, Politics
Jun 022008

My first thought on seeing the headline “‘Uncontacted tribe’ sighted in Amazon” was “Wow, what a fantastic opportunity for anthropologists!” However, on reading the actual story, I saw another agenda was at work. The article says:

Researchers have produced aerial photos of jungle dwellers who they say are among the few remaining peoples on Earth who have had no contact with the outside world. …

More than 100 uncontacted tribes remain worldwide, and about half live in the remote reaches of the Amazonian rainforest in Peru or Brazil, near the recently photographed tribe, according to Survival International, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of indigenous people. “All are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed or decimated by new diseases,” the organization said Thursday.

Illegal logging in Peru is threatening several uncontacted groups, pushing them over the border with Brazil and toward potential conflicts with about 500 uncontacted Indians living on the Brazilian side, Survival International said. Its director, Stephen Cory, said the new photographs highlight the need to protect uncontacted people from intrusion by the outside world.

“These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist,” Cory said in a statement. “The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct.”

I can understand a government wishing to protect the rights of primitive peoples living within its territory, as well as protecting them from exposure to potentially life-threatening diseases. Even presupposing an ideal right-respecting government, I see thorny questions about interaction and assimilation with such peoples. (Monica has blogged some good thoughts on this topic.)

Those are not the central concerns expressed in the article, however. Instead, the basic idea is that these primitive tribes must be protected from any contact with the modern world, as a matter of moral obligation and legal right. At first glance, that’s completely baffling. Since the tribe hasn’t been contacted, how can we know that isolation is what its members prefer? Moreover, since the tribe members don’t know about the rest of the world, how could they possibly make an informed decision about whether to remain isolated or integrate with it?

It makes no sense — until one realizes that the philosophic principle at work is that a primitive tribe unsullied by contact with the outside world is an intrinsic value, regardless of and perhaps contrary to the wishes (or would-be wishes) of its members. That’s the inane idea that makes possible all this nonsense of preserving uncontacted tribes.

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