Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part I

biodiversity2

In November of last year the DePaul Department of Philosophy Department hosted Ted Toadvine, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, who spoke about the politics of biodiversity (“Biodiversity and the Diacritics of Life”). Toadvine argued that the concept of biodiversity is poorly understood by experts as well as the general public; nevertheless, it is consistently wielded as an argument against commercial development, for example. Some of us in the audience were wary of the neoliberal implications of this argument. If biodiversity, like climate change, is considered a hard concept to grasp, does this give the public license to ignore the environmental impacts of unbridled development?

I was personally more interested in Toadvine’s argument that maximum biodiversity is neither ecological desirable or aesthetically pleasing. Invasive species for example contribute to diversity, but are not ecologically desirable. Aesthetically we appreciate diversity, but in a context of harmony and balance. Toadvine offered a clever and memorable example of a table setting; we wouldn’t want every single piece of china and silverware to be different. He also pointed out that biodiversity is linked to our concepts of “nature,” and often stands in for a vague idea of an aesthetically pleasing landscape.

Toadvine also discussed biodiversity in relationship to identity politics. He reminded us that the concept of biodiversity arose with a focus on diversity in socio-cultural contexts, and argued that the value of social diversity undergirds arguments for biodiversity. While I agree that “diversity” as a social concept is doing rhetorical work in this context, I’m more interested in the broader genealogy of diversity as a value. Toadvine mentioned Darwin, for example, but I’m also reminded of Linnaeus and Enlightenment fascination with biological variation.

Toward the end of the talk, Toadvine adopted a sublime mode, making references to the relationship of human beings to much larger scale phenomena, up to and including the cosmos. I noted, then, that I was emotionally swept along, and subsequently reflected on the relationship between affect and aesthetics in this context. In the Q & A, I commented that the aesthetic may warrant greater attention, in environmental philosophy, because of its relationship to affect, and the arguments from neuroscience that affect underlies judgment. In other words, if our ethical decisions are influenced by our (emotional) attitudes, and our emotions are closely tied to our aesthetic responses, then ethics and aesthetics may be lost cousins—contiguous rather than opposing concepts. I assume that they are opposing concepts in some quarters for two reasons: the tendency in our culture to oppose surface qualities (the aesthetic) to deep truths (ethical), and the academy’s devotion to ethics at the seeming expense of aesthetics.

In the mid eighteenth century Edmund Burke articulated a popular set of assumptions that connected aesthetic response with feeling. The sublime was connected with pain, and the beautiful with pleasure. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful built on the psychological theories of his time and particularly the association theories of John Locke. Burke’s work reminds us that aesthetics has occupied philosophers for millennia, and his major arguments “consummate” the relationship between psychology and aesthetics. Though Burke’s argument was not overtly ethical, his interlocutor, Mary Wollstonecraft made the connection between ethics and aesthetics clear. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for example, Wollstonecraft performatively modulated the masculine sublime to her own feminine rights discourse. In the same work Wollstonecraft denounced superficial, feminine beauty and championed intellectual beauty in women. Indeed she redefined beauty in this context.[1]

MWBBC

Circling back to the idea of biodiversity as a proxy for picturesque landscapes, I wonder about the nature of our attachment to the picturesque in nature? Does love follow beauty, or does a judgment of beauty follow attachment to place? Can radically inclusive, neighborly love makes us see landscapes differently and appreciate biodiversity beyond our current, iterated aesthetic conventions? And if our experience of love/beauty became radically inclusive, how would this modulate given aesthetic principles? More in the next installment.

Image Sources:

MarineBio http://marinebio.org/oceans/conservation/biodiversity/

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pg5dr

[1] Skolnik, Christine M. “Wollstonecraft’s Dislocation of the Masculine Sublime: A Vindication.” Rhetorica 21.4 (2003): 205-223. Print.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Affect and Ecology, Art, economicss, Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology

4 responses to “Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part I

  1. “I was personally more interested in Toadvine’s argument that maximum biodiversity is neither ecological desirable or aesthetically pleasing.”

    I am reminded of the pernicious linguistic addiction whereby humans become excited about words and absolutes, without recognizing the deceptive nature of both. For example, one often hears truisms such as ‘we only use 10% of our brains’. The meaning of this is bizarre, since, if one were to ‘use 100%’ one would explode. We see here the exchange of quantity for health, properly oriented structure, developmental purpose and state, and many other features of a brain or mind. So quantity simply ‘replaces’ all the actually important pivots we would otherwise see.

    It is similar with ‘biodiversity’; what we should be referring to is the relatively unadulterated and healthy developmental constituency of (in modern times, idealized) ecosystems. We do not mean ‘diversity’, so much as we should be meaning something like ‘an actively healthy ecosystem largely or completely unthreatened by human activity or attention’. And ‘an anciently evolved relational hypersystem whose organs have not been amputated in response to human intention or activity’.

    So we mean something more like ‘a healthy ecosystem whose organs are intact’, rather than ‘more diversity is equivalent with goodness, trueness, better function, health, and so on’. The same form of relationship applies to each human body as regards the commensal microbiome. The origination and maintenance of the progenitive diversities (acquired in early childhood) and the healthy and unadulterated developmental (evolution at fast scales, actually, since ~350 trillion bacteria are involved) efflorescence are the natural order. What happens in a human life today is a wildly bizarre and different thing entirely. Although 90% of the cells in our bodies are bacterial, we have essentially not only ignored this, but regularly burn them down and re-establish mutated resistors with ‘antibiotics’ which we imagine to be ‘medicine’. The remains of what might have been our commensal microbiota, as modern adults exposed to antibiotics, bear little resemblance to the ecologies that might otherwise be established, sustained, modulated by relation and developed over a lifetime.

    Yet here, too, the goal is not ‘diversity’ per se, but rather insuring that the populations are at ‘naturally’ self-organized and evolved, without the sudden catastrophic intervention of modern human agendas or ideas whose effects, in general, are omnicidal. In many cases ‘biodiversity’ is a code word meaning something like: ‘What organisms and ecosystems naturally establish and sustain prior to human intervention’ and ‘The results of ordinary ecologies protected from arbitrary attrition of their elements’.

    More diversity is not better. Authentically intelligent and originary diversity appears to be an asset.

    • cskolnik

      CS: Apologies for the late response! I’ve recently suffered a serious concussion and have had access to what seems like 10% of the 10%. See my 1-2% capacity comments below, after each quote.

      “We see here the exchange of quantity for health, properly oriented structure, developmental purpose and state, and many other features of a brain or mind. So quantity simply ‘replaces’ all the actually important pivots we would otherwise see.”

      CS: Yes, we’re all hoarders now. Maybe we should look at the OCD research to address this.

      “And ‘an anciently evolved relational hypersystem whose organs have not been amputated in response to human intention or activity’.”

      CS: A wise person said something like this at a small meeting in L. A., in the context of social sustainability: If we allow one limb or organ to suffer, one segment of society, how can we expect the social body to remain healthy?

      “Although 90% of the cells in our bodies are bacterial, we have essentially not only ignored this, but regularly burn them down and re-establish mutated resistors with ‘antibiotics’ which we imagine to be ‘medicine’.”

      CS: Yes, and re. microorganisms on land, in the oceans, etc.

      “Yet here, too, the goal is not ‘diversity’ per se, but rather insuring that the populations are at ‘naturally’ self-organized and evolved, without the sudden catastrophic intervention of modern human agendas or ideas whose effects, in general, are omnicidal.”

      CS: I part company with you here. Seems like a vague, wordy, dare I say rhetorical, value statement.

      “More diversity is not better. Authentically intelligent and originary diversity appears to be an asset.”

      ***CS: Some of my Philosophy colleagues have pointed out, off line, that Toadvine is looking into and through the biodiversity concept precisely to discover/”invent” stronger ethical perspectives and arguments. That was not at all clear in my summary and comments.***

      Editorial disclaimer: if this doesn’t make sense, please attribute to brain injury. Aftereffects may last up to six months.

  2. Yes, ethics is certainly connected to aesthetics and, one could also say driven by our sense of beauty. On the other hand, we could also say that ethics is connected to our symbolic universe, our rituals, our myths, our philosophy and our science – all ‘work together’ in our human psyche. We could also say that ‘together’ they give us the tools for an ecology of participation in the universe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s