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.