The other day Jeremy Trombley recommended Ronald Sandler’s Character and Environment in response to one of my posts on ethics. I am only about halfway through the book right now, but so far it is among the most thought provoking books I’ve read in quite a while. Not only does Sandler present a nice overview of virtue ethics or eudaimonistic ethical orientations, but it explores a number of issues central to object-oriented ethics (OOE) with respect to the ethical status of nonhuman entities.

My thoughts are still scattered at the moment– and my brain is scrambled from writing quite a bit today –but I was particularly surprised to discover Sandler exploring ethical issues arising as a result of mereology (though he doesn’t use the term) in chapter three of his book. Recall that within the framework of object-oriented ontology objects do not need to be simple in order to be objects. A simple entity would be an entity that can be decomposed no further. For OOO, by contrast, all objects are aggregates; which is to say that they are objects composed of other objects. As Harman puts it in Guerrilla Metaphysics, objects can equally be thought as both networks of relations and as wholes or entities in their own right. As networks of relations, objects are composed of relations among other objects. As wholes they are unities in their own right. Within the framework of OOO this gives rise to curious paradoxes pertaining to mereology. Mereology studies the relationships between wholes and parts. Insofar as objects 1) are both aggregates of other objects, and 2) are objects in their own right, and insofar as 3) objects are withdrawn from one another and independent of one another, we get a curious situation in which objects are both independent of the larger scale objects of which they are parts and in which they are independent of the smaller scale objects that compose them. In other words, the parts of another object are never exhausted by being parts of that other object. They are objects in their own right.

read on!

Here I will have to skip a number of steps Sandler’s argument, so I hope readers will be charitable. Among other things, Sandler wants to account for why we should have ethical regard for nonhuman entities such as animals and entities in the environment like rivers and lakes. While he makes arguments about how these nonhuman entities contribute to our flourishing or eudaimonia (e.g., I’m dependent on clean water to survive and we need bees to pollinate plants), he also wants to argue that many entities are of worth for non-eudaimonistic reasons. That is, they are deserving of ethical regard for reasons intrinsic to them, to “their right to exist”, and not merely because they contribute to our flourishing. This, of course, has been one of the central questions for OOO since we began thinking about the implications of a non-anthropocentric ontology. Would this non-anthropocentrism simply pertain to being such that the claim is that other beings aren’t merely correlates of human thought, or would it extend to the ethical domain as well, such that we might begin talking about values and duties of things independent of human existence. Sandler– and many eco-theorists in general –have much to offer in this discussion.

I cannot get into all the bells and whistles of Sandler’s clearly articulated, yet complicated argument for the non-eudaimonistic ethical regard of nonhumans, but one step in his argument lies in arguing that for many entities there are natural goods. If I’m following Sandler correctly, natural goods are restricted to entities that are teleological or end-oriented in character, i.e., living entities. Now here it’s important to pause and proceed with care. At the mere mention of teleology I’m sure many of you are ready to click away from this post, crying “Poppycock! Darwin banished teleology from nature!” Quite right! And Sandler agrees. Sandler wishes to formulate an ethics thoroughly consistent with naturalism and Darwin and directly states that nature, as a whole, has no goals or aims. There is no plan or goal towards which nature is moving.

However, what Darwin does explain is how organisms evolve from random processes of natural selection, variation, and heritability that themselves have goals or ends. There are, for example, better and worse ways of being a panther. A panther that loses a tooth and therefore has trouble eating is less able to be a panther because it’s lack of nutrition renders it unhealthy. It’s survival is imperiled. Within this framework, virtues are those features of the organism that are conducive to achieving those ends, while vices are those features that inhibit the ability to achieve these natural goods or ends. However, we have to take care, for not every thing that stands in the way of the panther achieving its ends is a vice. In this connection Sandler gives the example of a panther that is unable to find a mate because there are no fellows of its species in its area. This panther could be entirely virtuous in the sense that it is strong, well fed, a handsome devil, smells stinky in the proper alluring way for other panthers, has a great throaty roar, etc., etc., etc, but is merely unfortunate because of its environmental circumstances. This is not a vice on the part of the panther, but the result of existing in unfortunate circumstances. And here, before proceeding, Sandler argues that one major difference between humans and organisms like panthers is that in the case of the latter natural goods or ends are largely fixed or predetermined, while humans do indeed have certain fixed natural ends (such as health) but also have a vast capacity to create and define their own ends.

One step in Sandler’s argument consists in arguing that we should have ethical regard for the natural goods of other entities even where those natural goods do not contribute to our own flourishing or eudaimonia. Just as I respect and promote my daughter’s ends or goods even where they do not contribute to my own flourishing (e.g., I might assist her in pursuing her love of music and dance even though this doesn’t directly contribute to my own self-actualization), and just as I should respect and have regard for the ends of a stranger, refusing to unnecessarily intervene and them and destroy them, I shouldn’t go about pulling the wings off of dragonflies for sheer amusement because such activities interfere in the natural good of that entity. If naturalism is true and we’re all organisms, then there’s no plausible, non-tendentious case that can be made for a special or privileged place for human beings such that we ought to be able to do with other entities whatever we like. There is an intrinsic worth to all such entities that grants them some minimal status as moral subjects. Now here, I’m sure, you’re all saying that this would mean that we can’t eat anything, kill microbes, etc. Sandler addresses these arguments and shows how they don’t lead to this conclusion. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but merely wish to point out that he’s aware of this criticism.

Now an interesting moment occurs in the third chapter when Sandler turns to the question of whether or not collective entities like ant colonies, species, ecosystems, the Catholic church, governments, groups, etc., have the sort of intrinsic moral worth he grants to entities like dragonflies. This is where, I think, things become really interesting as we here encounter the conundrums that arise with respect to OOO’s mereology. For Sandler whether or not an entity is a moral subject will depend on whether or not it is teleological or has natural goods. Sandler concedes that certain collective entities are teleological such as ant colonies such that there is a natural good for the ant colony itself over and above the members of that colony, while he’s skeptical as to whether things like ecosystems are suitably teleological to count as moral subjects as, he thinks, while we can talk about the health of ecosystems we’re really talking about the welfare of the individual entities that populate the ecosystem (he also argues that we can’t really determine where ecosystems begin or end, undermining the possibility of treating them as distinct entities).

With this concession Sandler opens a whole can of worms well worth thinking through, for he’s argued both that the status of an entity as a moral subject, its status as having moral worth, depends on whether or not its teleological and that there can be competing teleologies. In other words, the good of the ant and the good of the ant colony can be two very different things (ants regularly sacrifice both their lives and possibilities of reproducing for the sake of the colony). In cases such as these, how do we navigate the conflict between the ant and the larger scale entity, the ant colony, to which the ant belongs? This is not a remote or idle question pertaining merely to ants and nonhuman natural entities, but pertains to relations between humans and nonhuman social entities as well. Presumably, by Sandler’s criteria, nonhuman entities like the Catholic church, corporations, nations, clubs, etc., are moral subjects insofar as they are teleological or have ends of their own. Yet the ends of these larger scale entities can be at odds with the ends of the persons that belong these larger scale entities as parts. This would be the case, for example, with a larger scale hyperobject like capitalism. When we begin taking into account the mereological relations between these entities we discover that it’s not enough to simply claim that if an entity is teleological, if an entity has ends, we should have moral regard for that entity and not unnecessarily interfere in the functioning of that entity. A virtue for a corporation, a way of acting that is conducive to its ends, can be quite different and opposed to a virtue for a worker and the ends of a worker. There is no pre-established harmony here. Here then we get a whole set of ethical riddles– and my intention here is only to pose the question or problem, not solve it –pertaining to these entities and conflicts that arise among these entities. Having ends, I think, is not enough for determining when interference and destruction is warranted.

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