First of all, let me say that I apologize for the relative inactivity of this blog over the past month. I’ve been bouncing from place to place a lot, and it’s difficult for me to keep up with blogging when I’m traveling. Just as a recap of what I’ve been up to – in mid-May, I traveled to Rhode Island for the Society for Cultural Anthropology conference. There I presented a talk on the worms work I’ve been doing, which I’ve posted here. After I got back, it was the last week of the semester and everyone – including my girlfriend, Jen – was preparing for graduation. That was a busy week spending time with Jen’s family and then doing graduation. The day after graduation, I traveled up to Maine to do more worms research. This was mostly helping the SERC group sort through worm weed for little critters – very tedious and mind-numbing labor, but worth it in the end, we hope. Then I had a few days back which were mostly filled with getting caught up on things here and meeting with people before I headed out again. This time I went on essentially a vacation with Jen. We went up to her home state of Michigan and spent the week traveling around, seeing the beautiful state. It was really amazing – the view of lake Michigan, the sunsets, the sand dunes. It was beautiful, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that relaxed. Now I can come back, refreshed and ready for a summer of work and play.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to, but now I’m getting back into a more regular schedule and this means I’ll have more time for blogging. While I was away, there was a lot of talk about ethics – see Levi Bryant’s posts (here, and here) and Scu’s post at Critical Animal. I don’t have a ton to add to this discussion because I’m not up on my philosophical ethics, but I have a few thoughts that might add to the conversation a bit.
To begin with, I don’t think ethics reside in the ontological status of beings. That is, beings don’t contain ethics simply because they exist. Instead, ethics reside in the relationships between beings. The question is not, then, “what intrinsic qualities does this being possess that I must consider in order to respond to it in an ethical way” but rather “what is my present relationship to this being and the other beings that it and I are relating to, what do those relationships require, and what kind of relationship would be best to cultivate in this particular circumstance?”
As a result, I’m wary of the idea of intrinsic rights, however, I recognize the value of a rights-based discourse for constructing better relationships between beings and collectives of beings. In that, I have a kind of pragmatic view of the idea of rights – to the extent that the discourse promotes better relationships it’s worth pursuing even if the concept itself is inaccurate or misleading. I think it is possible, however, for a rights-based discourse to muddle things rather than make things better. In these cases, we ought to look for a different approach based more on the construction of relationships rather than the intrinsic qualities of beings.
None of this, I think, gets us much closer to an answer to the challenge posed to Levi: why shouldn’t we allow a shark to eat a human if it’s a matter of life or death for the shark? I imagine the scene this way: the shark is absolutely starving and on the brink of death. It sees a small child swimming in the water nearby – no other food is available, and the shark will die promptly if it doesn’t eat this child. I’m standing nearby and see the shark heading for the child. I can make it to the child quickly enough to snatch it from the shark’s jaws, without harming the child or myself. However, the shark will die as mentioned above. Let’s even assume that the child is a complete stranger to me and not related in any meaningful way. Why, then, should I snatch the child from the shark’s jaws? Doesn’t the shark deserve to live as much as the child? Or am I more ethically inclined towards the child because s/he – as a fellow human – is “kin” to me?
I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction. What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to? What would the court system think? Is the shark an endangered species? And so on. Certainly this isn’t easy to do, and, as Scu mentions (following Haraway) there is no innocent position here. Any choice we make will be fraught with ethical problems. The only thing we can do is to cultivate an ethical awareness towards all beings, which doesn’t guarantee a wholly ethical (read innocent) action in any given situation.
I realize that isn’t much of a position – no definitive answers, only the cultivation of awareness – but the emphasis on relationships between shifts the discourse slightly and hopefully in a positive direction. Again, not being a philosopher, I can’t delve into the complexity of philosophical ethics… so don’t be too harsh on me