Saturday, June 26, 2010

Flat Ontology, Flat Ethics: More thoughts on Bennett ch. 7

Following up on my last post on chapter 7, this post is mostly a response to Adrian. So make sure to read his first.

Let me begin by agreeing that I find Bennett mostly an ally. If it has come out any other way, let me apologize for being unclear. The disagreements I have with her work, and the limitations I find in it, are real and important. But if everyone shared her beliefs I am pretty sure the world would be a significantly better place (for humans and all sorts of nonhumans). A polity with better channels of communication is something we can all agree is both needed and needs to be worked toward. But differences remain. I love Adrian's description, "At least Bennett and Scu are moving in the same direction, one more hesitantly, trying to keep the laggards on board with her as she proceeds, the other more intently and insistently." Though, the question of hesitation with Bennett is one I am curious of. In describing Bennett as trying to keep the laggards on board, there is a suggestion that maybe her actual beliefs are a bit more radical. That she slows down for the sake of others she is convincing. I assumed the hesitation was her own.

I also agree with Adrian when he says that a flat ontology does not necessitate a flat ethics. Far from it, many people have tended to use the flattening of ontology to reassert human exceptionalism. The most common example for those of us who argue for egalitarianism between those beings who are called The Animal and those beings who are called The Human is a common objection. Aha, says the humanist: What about plants? Sometimes this is a sincere objection, frequently it is the humanist performing a version of Freud's joke about the broken kettle. So, there is a certain type of person who seems to misunderstand ethical vegetarianism and veganism as being about creating a morally innocent way of eating. That concern for plants translates somehow into a criticism of veganism only makes sense if you assume ethics is about innocence. Nothing is innocent to eat, says this type of humanist, so everything is innocent to eat (except humans, for no particular reason)! Ethics is not about finding innocence, but about living after innocence. Ethics is about thinking and living in our postlapsarian world without alibi.

Now, let me be clear, nowhere does Bennett come across as the type of humanist I described in the preceding paragraph. She seems honestly committed to complicating our relationship with the nonhuman. But that is why her random moment of humanism is so odd. It isn't an appeal to not knowing, but rather an appeal to a bit of simplicity. That when it comes to humans they are still top ape. Adrian engages in a few abstract questions of if I have to save an infant or an ant, I save the infant (which after watching Toy Story 3, an amazing movie, raises the question: What would it mean to save a plastic toy vs an infant?), or a slightly more complicated one about electrically shocking people who shock chimps. I agree with Adrian on these. But let's point to a different example. I have two cats, I fed them, take them to the vet when they get sick or for check-ups, buy them treats and the occasional toy. I bought an expensive carrying bag for the one time one had to go on a plane. What I am saying is I spend some money on these felines. And while this world is filled with pets who are neglected or abused, there are quite a few pets (particularly dogs) who are pampered far more than my cats. Who have a lot more money spent on them. What if that money didn't go to dogs and cats and other pets? What if, instead, all that money went to Oxfam (or wherever)? How many humans could have basic needs met? And yet many people, many people who claim that humans always come first, have made the choice to give a certain animal a well cared for life. And that's just pets. What about the people who spend lots of money keeping classic cars running well, looking after musical instruments, preserving odd buildings, maintaining gardens that don't even provide food, and on and on. People always say that they would choose the infant or the human and yet daily many of us don't make that choice.
And this is important, because almost all of us have chosen to spend time and money on developing relationships and supporting the well-being of nonhumans, and that money and time could be spent directly helping humans. So, when Bennett says human's health and lives are more important, what does that mean? Does that mean when the philosopher asks the abstract question: A Picasso or an infant, we all say an infant? If so it's an empty promise. Things are already more complicated. We are, as Adrian points out, already entangled. Already bound up in so many obligations and commitments and loves and relationships. To think ethically will mean to think from this situated entanglements. I think in our intellectual circles such practical ethics have gotten a bad rap. People want to replace rigorous ethics with strictly intuitive jumps at that moment. Intuition matters, but rigorous ethics will always help transform and shape our conatus, our desire and intuition (one might start thinking here of an intuitive method in the sense that Deleuze speaks of in his work on Bergson).