Thursday, May 17, 2012

Provocations for thinking ethically

So, a lot of preamble at the top. Feel free to drop to the next paragraph. I have been absurdly busy since coming home from the non-human turn conference, so I have a lot of posts here I still need to make about an event that feels forever ago in blogger time. On top of that I still have a few outstanding emails I need to respond to (which I will get to tomorrow, I promise). But in order to try and keep up with blogger time, I wanted to make this post now.

Cameron, over at his blog, has a really great post up on OOO and ethics. Read that first, along with the comments. Don't believe me that it is worth reading, here is a sample:
I accept all of this. I fully believe that I, as a being, inscribe actions and relations with ethical qualities when they do not inherently possess them. There is no ethical quality embedded in the act of eating flesh itself. But I live the life of a conscious being who experiences the world in a very specific way. I have known fear and terror. I have know pain. Cut with a knife, hit with a saw, scraping the skin off my legs in large, painful slabs. These are experiences that I have known. Science tells me that pigs experience the same sensations. Their skin is similar enough to ours that my father was able to replace his black plastic flesh with pig.
And so, knowing my own body and observing the pig, I want to prevent that pain, and more importantly, I don’t want that pig to die because someone wants a spicy breakfast patty from Burger King. I make those considerations first. As Bogost claims, metaphors are a useful tool in order to talk about experiences of the world that are totally opaque to us.
The pig is me.

Okay, and there is also a worthwhile follow up over at Levi's blog (which is more centered on political issues of the commons, which I can get behind). 

What follows are not specific responses to either Cameron or Levi (though they both deserve it). Furthermore, what follows are not fully formed arguments. They are instead thesis and hypothesis , declarations and concepts, in other words, provocations for thinking ethically. (and for people who have read my articles, seen my conference talks, and followed my blog, I repeat myself a lot. Sorry).

(1) We need to seriously come to grips with what we expect from ethics. Ethic is not secularized redemption, or a manuel for right and righteous living. Ethics is not a pathway for innocence. Rather, it is about how to live after innocence, how to exist in a fully post-lapsarian world. 

(2) A lot of critiques made against people who are trying to produce ethical arguments, or even lead ethical lives, is that they fail in actually being innocent. Thus, while there are many people who are sincerely interested in how do we eat if plants are ethically important, so many people immediately see such propositions as being uniquely a challenge to vegetarians and vegans. Why is that? Wouldn't such an argument concern all of us? It works because these challengers don't care about ethics, they care about innocence. In this case, universal guilt becomes the same as universal innocence, no behavior is condemned because all behavior is condemned. For those of us concerned about ethics (even and especially those who are actually and sincerely concerned about the question of the plant), such a path is no path at all, such a move is just more desire for innocence. Such a move is, again, a refusal of the ethical. Either way, it is what Tim Morton calls (following Hegel) the beautiful soul syndrome. 

(3) Ethos, if you remember, originally meant habit and habitat. It was what you did and where you lived. As its cognate ethology should remind you, it is behavior and character. 

(4) The practice of most continental ethicists is to refuse the normative nature of ethics. What tends to be promoted is a double bind of pure radicalism on the one hand, and a pure emptiness to any practical or pragmatic reality of doing ethics. Ethical actions become like the Supreme Court on pornography: We know the ethical when we see it. In this move the hard and rigorous work of ethical argumentation and philosophy is pushed to the side in favor of phenomenology and slogans: we are all infinitely responsible for the Absolute Other! Which doesn't even begin to answer how to figure out transplant donations, or responding to global warming while also improving quality of life, or what to eat when nothing is 'guilt-free'. We are so found of the word aporia, but we never talk about euporias. We are all so interested in blocked paths, we never talk about the plentiful path.  So does ethics need deconstruction and aporia? yes. Does ethics need constructivism and euporia? A thousand times yes! 

(5) This means ethics will need what Whitehead (in a discussion not really about ethics) would call abstraction (think what Deleuze and Guattari call the concept, or Althusser the problématique, or Foucault the historical a priori). Abstraction is not about being removed from the situation, but rather prehending the situation. Global warming is an abstraction, but it doesn't remove us from the situation. Ethics will need abstraction, and it will need (as Bennett puts it) mutually enabling instrumentalizations. Ethics will need calculations. 

(6) But it will also need its uncertainities, its incalculables. It will need, what Matt Calarco puts, as agnosticism. We need an openness to the idea that ethical claims can come from anywhere. As Matt puts it "that insects, dirt, hair, fingernails, ecosystems, and so on" can become beings we can have an ethical relationship to. 

(7) How to take seriously 4&5 with 6 is going to be the problem and burden of any metaethical project that takes seriously the lessons of the continental tradition (or, following Kennan Ferguson, what we can call the intercontinental tradition, taking in traditions like the American pragmatists, Whitehead and process philosophy, decolonial philosophy, American style queer and feminist traditions, the work of radical women of color, and so many others). Versions of 4&5--systems of rules and prescriptions of properly calculated impacts--have dominated the analytic versions of ethics. Meanwhile, 6, with its aporias and its agnosticism have so often dominated the continental tradition. 

(8) When we start thinking ethics in this broad based non-human turn--with its realisms (speculative and otherwise), with its object-oriented ontology, with its panpsychism, with its spinozism, with its vitalisms (dark, material, and otherwise), with its animal studies (critical, continental, queer, dark, feminist, and otherwise), with its posthumanities, so many new questions come out. Sometimes, many of these questions seem answered (at least partially), by these traditions. So, spinozism can provide answers of conatus that I find entirely unsatisfactory. 

(9) For me, ethics is not first philosophy. But nor is ontology, or metaphysics, or aesthetics, or rhetoric, or politics, or epistemology. All philosophy is second philosophies. Ontology isn't rhetoric, and aesthetics doesn't provide the base for political philosophy; rather, each field/question is both discrete and entirely enmeshed and entwined with all others. Of course, this means doing ethics (or ontology, or what have you) is even harder within this rejection of anthropocentrism and correlationism. This means if you are interested about what to do when it comes to plants, or animals, or desks, or iphones, or economies, or Scus, or anything, means we will actually have to do the work of ethics. 

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