This is a topic that’s come up several times in the blogosphere, and I’ve written about it many times before – in particular, when I was taking a class on environmental ethics a couple of years ago. I’m not going to hunt down those links, but you can find them by searching this blog and my old blog if you’re interested. The most recent contributions come from Levi Bryant and Michael at Synthetic_Zero. I find their cases compelling, and only want to add a little more to what they have to say.
Before I get into the ethics issue, there is a conceptual question that both Levi and Michael raise – the question of “Nature.” Michael poses the issue perfectly:
As Levi outlines, Tim Morton has done great work to deconstruct the concept of nature in its traditional and romantic guise. If we abandon the notion of Nature, as Morton suggests, we terminate the operating binary preventing us from further ecological revelation and thus open the conceptual field to begin to think about exactly how we are embedded and forever inside of the mesh of ecological beings and relations collaborating in the shell game of appearance and relation.
However, both Michael and Levi are reluctant to give up the concept of Nature, preferring instead to reconfigure the concept in order to allow for new possible connotations and associations to emerge. With this sense, both Levi and Michael talk about humans and human practices as being within nature. This is certainly not a new conceptualization – philosophers and activists from the earliest days of environmental awareness have promoted such a view. However, it concerns me. I know it’s not what Levi or Michael intend, but the conception of Nature as a container, in my opinion, conveys the wrong message. Containers delimit and define boundaries. They serve as a ground for the things that occupy them. My fear – perhaps unjustified – is that defining Nature as the new container for everything (as opposed to the dualistic containers of Nature/Culture) – no matter how open and undefined that container is depicted – will lead to an interest in defining the boundaries of the container. Nature becomes the new standard by which we measure everything. Again, this is not what Michael and Levi intend, but without a great deal of conceptual work to reconfigure the notion of Nature (as well as the idea of a container), there is a very real risk of misinterpretation in talking about Nature as a container. I prefer, instead, to think of existence as a continuous process of composition where beings come together in complex ways to build relations, form new beings, and construct new ways of existing. In this conception (and I believe that Michael and Levi share it), there are no containers, no boundaries, and no grounds except those which are constructed – always historical, always contingent, and never totalizing. In that sense, I don’t know what to do with the concept of Nature. I am also hesitant to abandon it if only because every concept has its potentials and, in certain frameworks, could prove useful or beneficial – for much the same reason, I am reluctant to abandon the concept of culture despite all of its attendant problems. Perhaps we could talk of Nature as process rather than object (container). I put that aside for now, because it’s not the question this post is meant to address and is, I think, peripheral to the question of ecological ethics. So, with that, let’s move on.
The question is, what is an ecological ethics for the anthropocene? First of all, why an ecological ethics and not some other kind of ethics (deontological, virtue, utilitarian, etc.)? The answer is that these forms of ethics are not equipped to deal with the complexities of life in a world where human existence has become so imbricated with the existences of non-human others. Prior ethical formulations depend upon some kind of ontological grounding, and such groundings, in our world, do not exist. So how do we think of ethics without a ground? How does an ecological ethics differ from those prior ethical formulations?
First of all, an ecological ethics is profoundly relational. It’s not about “being good” or even “doing good,” but about the way we interconnect with others and the effects of our actions on others. Secondly, it can be neither proscriptive nor prescriptive – there are no “thou shalts” or “thou shalt nots” (at least, not in specific form), because these depend on a ground to define right from wrong. Instead, an ecological ethics is about the processes of forming relations rather than about the specific kinds of relations that are formed. Furthermore, it recognizes that all actions are problematic – there is no action that is free from negative consequences, and there is no standard by which negative consequences can be weighed against one another (e.g. in utilitarianism).
All of this seems to imply a breakdown of ethics, and the potential for an “anything goes” attitude. If there is no ground for judgement, no pre- or proscriptions, and everything has some negative potential, then why should we not do whatever we like? And, in some sense, this is true – an ecological ethics would open us to experimentation and exploration. It would make possible new forms of interrelation and connection, allowing us to figure out what works. But an ecological ethics also makes demands. Living in a world of interconnection, lacking any ground except that which we compose – a world that is profoundly collaborative and constructed, in other words – demands a degree of humility. In spite of the connotation of “anthropocene”, we cannot consider ourselves the center of existence as we have before – we are beings among beings, and we share this world with myriad others. Furthermore, we depend upon these others for our own existence – nothing exists in a vacuum, and the individual is an illusion of Modernist ideology. In order to exist in such a world, we must have humility. This is an injunction, but not of the kind mentioned above. Instead of focusing on specific forms of relations, this injunction forces us to consider the way we go about engaging in relations with others. We must be always aware of and empathetic towards the others with whom we are relating. We must be open to those connections, must make ourselves vulnerable so that we might feel their reactions and responses. We must be willing to communicate – to let others know how we are experiencing our relations. It’s through this process of opening, communicating, and being sensitive to others that we can work on composing relations that are mutually beneficial. We might never avoid doing harm, but harm might be accepted willingly and voluntarily if there is a flow of communication and a sense that something better will come of it.
An excellent example of this kind of ethic comes from Donna Haraway’s book When Species Meet. Haraway’s approach to animal ethics is profoundly different from other approaches I’ve encountered. Rather than exploring the ontological grounds for ethics and attempting to extend human ethics to animals, Haraway argues that the basic tenet of an animal ethic is the injunction “Thou shalt not make killable.” Now here we have a “thou shalt not”, which I said earlier was not part of an ecological ethics, but, again, this is not about a specific form of relation but about the way we go about relating in general. To make something killable is to define an arbitrary boundary and disregard the problematic nature of such decisions – “we can kill animals because their lives are not as important as our own and we need them for food and medicine.” What Haraway is asking is not that we do not kill animals, but that we recognize the problematic nature of that action, and that we are sensitive and vulnerable to the pain and suffering of the animals we use. Clearly defined boundaries make us insensitive – they justify and absolve us of guilt. But, in some sense (and when not abused), guilt is a good thing. It makes us slow down and think about what it is we’re doing and how it affects other beings. In some sense, that is all that can be asked from an ecological ethic – an attentiveness to others and avoiding the premature closure of connection.
I think there is much more to be thought through as we approach an ecological ethic. The work that Michael, Levi and Haraway are doing is an excellent start. With time, and more discussion and contemplation, we might craft an ecological ethic that will bring us through the anthropocene and into a new world of interconnection, collaboration, and sensitivity. This is my hope, at least.