Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Some thoughts on Ethics and Affect

Levi has an smart post, following up on some work from Bennett. Check it out. Levi is concerned here with the question of the how of ethics, rather than the why or what of ethics. In other words, not how do we figure out what is ethical, but rather how is it that we sometimes act in ways we know to be ethical, and sometimes we act in ways we know to be unethical. For Levi, this relates to the psychopath. The psychopath is interesting, but few of us are psychopaths. However, the failure to act in ways we find to be moral is a rather common failing. That we regularly fail to live up to what we believe is right is a rather mundane point, but one that has to haunt every ethical enterprise.

This question is, shall we say, more than a passing interest of mine. It follows from the belief that, as Colin McGinn argues, "vegetarianism is a won argument" (see his Minds and Bodies, pp. 207-214, h/t Bill Martin's Ethical Marxism). This was before the rise of the popular localvore movement, and McGinn is mostly focused on the industrial aspects of animal production. And in my general experience, I have met very few people ever willing to defend the industrialized production of animals and their flesh. I have, for example, never found an article on that defends industrial production of animals on ethical grounds. Jonathan Safran Foer is fond of explaining that he expected a large push back from agribusiness when Eating Animals came out, but all he got was silence. His conclusion, and one I agree with, is that animal agribusiness wishes to not draw attraction to the actual practices that go on.

That brings us to the recent comments by Laura Wright:
I was following Hal's lead, after he'd read from his book a particularly graphic passage about the lives of factory farmed hens. I stood up and started talking about my veganism and then realized that no one was listening to me at all. Everyone looked vaguely traumatized by what they'd just heard; indeed, they should have been traumatized. I backed up, and we talked about how the information that Hal had conveyed had made the students feel. One said, "kind of guilty about having just eaten Chick Fil A for lunch." Yeah. So we processed.
Yeah, who hasn't been there? Whenever I give a public talk about animals, I always try to limit the graphic nature of the talk. Mostly because if one nightmarish example is not enough, I really have no reason to believe that more will do anything. And while some of the students may honestly not know how terrible factory farms are, in general such an ignorance falls under the category of what the philosophical aphorist Donald Rumsfield referred to as "known unknowns". So, while many people are ignorant of what goes on in factory farms, frequently it is because of a willed ignorance. They fear that the horror of the factory farm will force changes on them they do not want to make. This brings us back, obviously, to affect.
As J.M. Coetzee notes:
We [...] are where we are today not because once upon a time we read a book that convinced us that there was a flaw in the thinking underlying the way that we, collectively, treat nonhuman animals, but because in each of us there took place something like a conversion experience, which, being educated people who place a premium on rationality, we then proceeded to seek backing for in the writings of thinkers and philosophers (Cavalieri's The Death of the Animal, p. 89).
I think there really is something here, and I want us to turn our attention, now, to David Hume. David Hume understood politics and ethics against other state of nature theorists of the early modern period. For Hobbes and Locke the fundamental political question is how to limit the egotistic, atomistic individual. However, for David Hume this completely misses the central political and ethical question. We are not fundamentally atomistic individuals, but fundamentally partial. We are born not into a state of nature, but rather into a series of partial sympathies, into a family for Hume. The problem is not one of limitation, but rather of “inequality of affection.” In this understanding justice is not finite because of the inherent nature of humanity, but rather provisionally finite based on our partial nature. Instead the ethical question is how do we transform ourselves and society to extend partial sympathies.

When Isabelle Stengers thinks of an example of the cosmopolitical question, it is about the gray areas of animal issues. "Apart from the multiple cases about which we could say 'there is abuse,' futile or blind cruelties or systematic reduction of farm animals to the status of meat on legs, what interests me are the 'difficult' cases where the refusal of the experimentation and a legitimate cause-- the struggle against an epidemic, for instance-- are 'balanced against each other' (Latour and Weibel (eds) Making Things Public, p. 996). I think an equal cosmopolitical question is about the cases that are not difficult. How is it that we can extend our partial sympathies? How can we combat the known unknows? How can we address, as William James put it, a certain blindness in human beings (also see Cary Wolfe's short essay of the same name in The Death of the Animal, pp. 123-133)?
What are the institutions, practices, and artifices we can create to overcome these limitations? What are the affects and the abstractions, the precepts and the concepts, we can multiply and circulate? This is why rhetoric and aesthetics are as important philosophical fields as ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. To alter what Ranciere refers to as the partition and distribution of the sensible is always a cosmopolitical question.