Against Environmental Ethics

Polemics are popular in philosophical and theological discourses. I don’t know why we humanists enjoy them so much; perhaps they are a refreshing breath of boldness within a contemporary academic scene where we have to hedge so much (“What I would like to argue in the course of this paper is that there may be some contingent relationship between theories of Mickey Mouse and late capitalist re-production of the ‘image’.”) Ok, for my colleagues in the sciences, we, or at least most of us, don’t really write sentences like that, but still there is something that attracts us to polemics and so let me offer one here with an abrupt thesis: environmental ethics perpetuates an un-ecological form of thinking that exacerbates the very problems it claims to be addressing.

Alright, I think that’s more than enough polemic for a blog. What could I possibly mean by this statement? And am I not biting the hand that feeds me by attacking one of the few niches philosophers and theologians have carved out for themselves in an environment increasingly hostile to the worth of the humanities? Well, maybe, but niches aren’t readymades, they are created by the species and so my gamble is that we won’t lose our place in the academic ecosystem, but may actually be more productive of multiple lines of relations between the sciences if we can move away from the dominant form of environmental ethics.

This is an argument that I make more explicitly in my doctoral thesis, “Ecologies of Thought: Thinking Nature in Philosophy, Theology, and Ecology”, which I’m currently editing in the hopes of publishing soon. The gist of it is derived from François Laruelle’s general critique of philosophy, which he calls “a science of philosophy”, where he argues that every philosophy allows confuses itself with “the Real” (a common French phrase that doesn’t really have a equivalent in our ordinary language) or the thing itself that it claims to be thinking. It sets itself over and above that thing and instead of allowing that thing to determine the form of philosophy, philosophy always thinks that the thing is determined philosophically. He means this in a literal sense, that philosophy has as a kind of faith, the belief that philosophy determines the object, the Real itself. Now, while I think that Laruelle offers great resources for thinking through some environmental problems, especially questions related to the practice of thinking the humanities alongside of scientific ecology, so important to us at INC, this isn’t the place to get into those specifics. But what is interesting, and what Laruelle locates in a way that seems missing in OOO (to pick one popular form of thinking amongst some INCers), is its accounting for philosophy as material. While there may be some lip-service to philosophy, or theory more generally, as object in OOO, Laruelle provides over the course of a number of a books a truly rigorous account of the material nature of philosophy or theory and goes on to theorize how they may be thought democratically. Not through some democratic theory, but in the very act of thinking it would perform democracy. (I should add that this is material in the sense of building materials, not the all-too-philosophical question of “matter as such”.)

So what does this have to do with environmental ethics? Well, quite simply, I think that philosophers (as well as theologians) working in environmental ethics have practiced in precisely the way Laruelle locates. They treat their object, something like “the environment” and its ethical quandaries, as if it were something to squeeze through pre-established and determining ethical theory. This is a common problem not limited to the dominant schools of Anglophone philosophy under their two misnomers of Analytic and Continental. For while the Continentalists may always write an environmental ethics under the name of a philosopher, say Heidegger or Levinas or whomever, the Analytics also must sign an already-existing name to their argument, this time deontological or utilitarian or whatever. In the end the result is the same, a problem that is in many ways new is forced through a pre-existing mold. All too often the philosopher or theologian simply ignores the fissures that this forcing causes and sometimes they even ignore that the mold has broken all-together.

Let’s remain within the declarative style of the polemic: Environmental ethics must serve ecological creatures (including the dead and never-living aspects), ecological creatures were not made for environmental ethics. In other words, environmental ethics needs to conceive of a more democratic and more ecological form of thought itself. Of course there may be some contradictions here between democracy and the ecological form of the biosphere, but in both cases there is a proliferation of lines of relationship. Instead of looking at an ethical problem emerging out of some ecological finding and immediately jumping to old philosophical standbys like “ought/is distinction”, the task for philosophers and theologians may be to think ecologically within itself. And here, where I have fallen out of polemic with my hedging “may”, I must stop and open up for others to respond.



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8 responses to “Against Environmental Ethics

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Quick responses. 1) Could thinking ecologically be connected with complex systems thinking as a kind of self-symmetry, where thought mimics ecological systems? 2) Do you mean to suggest that traditional ethics are prior to ecology or somehow out of sync, or neither? 3) Are ethics haunted by history in a way that’s wholly irrelevant to the task at hand?

  2. Some tentative and quick responses:

    1) Yes, I think so, but this mimcry will always be ecological too and so there is no copy/mimic thing happening here. Just as there is no natural/artifical split in general, there is never a true (let’s say Platonic) notion of an ecological system, but there are instead good and bad systems (though the normative level of this stuff is where it gets murky).

    2) I mean to suggest that traditional ethics are authoritarian with regard to scientific ecology, but it is a sad authoritarianism where the subjects it thinks it is in authority over do not care about them at all. Or very few do. It is a kind of out-of-syncness, I suppose, but only in the sense that it has a very narrow niche and isn’t very implicated in the wider system.

    3) I don’t know… can you say more?

  3. Christine Skolnik

    I’m not sure If I can . . . it’s getting dim . . . is ethical thought somehow dependent on precedent or tradition in a way that renders it ineffective or at least inflexible. I might refer to the Bergsonian possible-real cul de sac (that the real always constraints the possible . . . that a given ethic restrains ethical possibilities.) Or a prosaic example, like the religious person who’s actions are so determined by their culture that they are incapable of a moral act.

  4. Randall Honold

    Great post, Anthony, and comments, Christine. I think those of us trained in the phenomenological tradition ought to (sorry for the insertion of an ethical term!) be more diligent about holding back and paying heed to the matter at hand before applying an ethical, scientific, Heideggerian, Levinasian, or other framework to it. Is this something artists do better than philosophers?

  5. Jeff Tangel

    Ok, new here and a bit out of my league, but here’s my two cents anyway. Anthony, I am sparked by you raising democracy in thinking and how that might inform ethics— “In other words, environmental ethics needs to conceive of a more democratic and more ecological form of thought itself.” And by Christine’s comment, and your affirmation, about complex systems theory.

    Democracy in its purest form could be thought of as both ecological, in the sense of diversity, and as evolutionary, in the sense that its complexity yields more complexity. Ethics then, if we are not to be authoritarian, is a mimic of that complexity. So this got me to thinking about Jane Addams’ notion of association on which she bases her book, Democracy and Social Ethics. Here’s a lovely quote:

    “…we are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences, since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life. We know instinctively that if we grow contemptuous of our fellows, and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of life, but limit the scope of our ethics.”

    And so: to the extent that we can maintain and foster complexity we can continue on in some recognizable fashion (sustainability). Democracy of a radical sort seems critical. Our problem, it seems to me, is the concentration of decision making power in the hands of the few, whether in ethics, policy or resource use—this presents as a spreading homogeneity (think global strip malls), ecological destruction and societal malaise.

    Might a more democratic form of thought be radical democracy itself?

    Now penniless and hoping someone will buy me a cup of coffee!

    • Christine Skolnik

      Appreciate your comments which are also in conversation with a piece I just delivered to be posted in Feb. Will happily by you a cup . . . in Lincoln Park?

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