Saturday, January 30, 2010

A complication to flat ethics and relational ethics

I am absurdly busy this week, so of course one of the more interesting cross-blog conversations has broken out. Let's see if I can trace this for everyone. Paul made the original post, following up on a discussion we were having about anti-correlationist thinking and the animal. Levi followed up by combining some of his earlier analysis on inhuman ethics with Paul's post. That then generated an excellent discussion in comments (read them), Peter made some short comments on his blog (here and here), and then both Paul and Adrian followed up on stuff they had said in comments in full length blog posts, and of course Levi found the time to already respond. (oh yeah, meanwhile Craig also decided to write an interesting post at his blog you all should read, even if it isn't directly a part of this conversation).

I don't have the time to respond to all of this stuff. Really any of it right now. So a short problematic that needs to be worked through in both flat ethics and relational ethics (not that those are necessarily different?). The problem is similar but slightly different for each.
In flat ethics we are trying to talk about how we can conceive of ethics (is it appropriate to say do justice?) that isn't just anthropocentric, or animal-centric, or even biocentric (right, Levi?), but rather does justice to all entities that are real. So, that's hard enough to even formulate the proposition, much less answer. But the fear is that such an extension could cause a defacto anthropocentricism (or pick your favorite -centrism). Let's bring this discussion to something those of us in the CAS movement understand, which is the extension of ethical treatment towards plants, which we dealt with briefly before on this blog. It is not uncommon for someone to respond to finding out someone is vegan (or vegetarian) by responding "What about plants?" sometimes this is meant as a joke, usually it is meant as an excuse not to explore the ethical. Though perhaps in the strongest formulation you will find this concept as part of what Derrida calls eating well, or what Haraway translates into the notion of killing well. If in order to live we have to eat/kill, than how should live in such a way to eat/kill well? In Derrida there isn't much to go on in his formulation, and it is a frustrating and interesting interview. In Haraway's boook When Species Meet, she develops her notion of killing well. And there is some thoughtful writing here about other animals, and balancing issues of ecology, etc. But she (and in many ways Derrida as well) doesn't deal with the question of killing humans. In short, it is hard to imagine she has created the same system for killing well humans as she as for animals. While human actions are under scrutiny in the work, an implicit anthropocentrism still seems to have hold over her notion (and I'd love nothing more to see her more directly take up this issue). By extending the ethical, we have to make sure that it doesn't foster a type of anthropocentrism (because I am concerned of plants and socks and Harry Potter and my cat and the bird he tries to hunt, etc) we end up declaring that tough choices have to be made! that still somehow excuses those same choices being made about humans. Obviously this is not at all a problem inherent in flat ethics, but is a problem that must be repeatedly and obviously guarded against.

In the relational ethics we have a similar issue, as I see. Adrian writes that:
But maybe there is a difference here after all... It's quite possible that an object-oriented ontology makes it easier to measure things that are fundamentally of the same kind (objects as defined in such and such a way), and is therefore more amenable to egalitarianism to the extent that "equality" is considered a kind of sameness that is distributed across a certain set of entities. A relational ontology, on the other hand, prefers to focus not on equality but on qualitivism -- that is, the notion that we should act in a way that preserves and enhances the quality of relations. I’ve argued elsewhere for an “ethic of circulating agency,” where what we value is that the ability to act, to pursue one’s goals, to respond to others, to grow and to flourish, is kept in motion , i.e., that it is actively distributed across the terrain within which the capacity emerges for such action, pursuit, responsiveness, and growth. I have yet to develop that idea in any philosophical depth, but I think it’s consistent with a poststructuralist and post-constructivist process-relational approach to politics.
First, let me clarify. By egalitarianism (which is my emphasis with the concept of flatness with ethics) I do not mean sameness, homogeneity, static being, etc. As I stated in a comment over at Levi's place, ethics means affirming both equality and difference. This is obviously a tricky thing, and my favorite formulation of it, perhaps weirdly, is by Peter Singer (I hesitate to ever bring him into discussions, because of how much weight dragging his name into a conversation tends to have. So let me state I do not mean to bring his philosophical apparatuses in whenever I quote him. I sometimes don't even mean what he means when I quote him, sometimes I just like his formulations), when states that we have to give equal consideration of interests. Now, he has some technical meanings for the terms interest and consideration, but of which I think we might be challenging. But this is what I mean by equality, in which an exceptionalism doesn't form in our ethical relationships. I like the idea of an ethic of circulating agency. But I would too wonder what it does with something like the notion of killing well or eating well. In short, how does an ethic of circulatory ethics deal with situations that are not win-win? How does it deal with situations where choices have to made that for some being to continue flourishing means that another being cannot continue to flourish? This is where egalitarianism becomes all the more necessary, otherwise some group or person or whatever will always cheat at these moments. Will claim that their interests are obviously more important than others. (And this might also be a good way to rethink interests, in terms of collective relations toward flourishing, rather than an individualistic utilitarian calculations). Again, not something inherent, but something that needs to be watched and guarded against.

Anyway, I think this discussion has been wonderful so far. I know we are all busy, but I hope it continues. And maybe when the blogging begins to slow down we can formulate some sort of more concrete exchange (special journal issue, formalized virtual conference, real conference, etc.).