I started to write this post in response to Paul Ennis’ recent remarks about correlationism and the ethico-politico place of animals, but it quickly turned into a diary of its own so I’ll post it here. Ennis writes:

One argument was that anti-correlationism has a deflationary effect on the special status usually assigned to humans by continental thinkers such as Hegel and Heidegger. The anti-correltionist stance shows that such a status is a fabrication or at least not as evident as usually portrayed. This is one way to open up the critical animal debate.

Rather than restricting the question of the ethico-politico implications of non-correlationist thought to questions of the ethical and political status of animals, I’d like to situate the question (I don’t have any answers here, so all this is exploratory) within the framework of the ethico-politico status of nonhumans in general. Here the issue isn’t one of excluding the human, but of asking how the domain of value might be extended beyond the human, without humans being at the center, or all questions of value pertaining to nonhumans being questions about the relationship of humans to nonhumans. In other words, the litmus test of whether or not something fits the bill of a non-correlationationist ethico-politico theory revolves around whether that domain of value would continue to be a domain of value even if humans cease to exist. That seems to be a pretty tall order or very difficult to think, though Lingis has certain proposed on such ethical system that meets this litmus test in his book The Imperative.

read on!

These sorts of issues– not just about animals, but about nonhumans in general –have been giving me real headaches. To what degree is a non-correlationist ethics possible? I think it’s safe to say at this point that non-correlationist metaphysics or ontologies are possible or that compelling arguments have been produced against the anti-realist’s “full nelson” argument. I go back and forth, however, on whether this is true in the domain of values as well. It could be that non-correlationist metaphysics are possible but that the domain of value, whether in ethics, aesthetics, or political philosophy, is necessarily correlationist such that humans must necessarily be placed at the center of the picture. As someone writing about my recent post “Inhuman Ethics” on another blog put it, “it’s still humans making the judgments.” This a rejoinder that any non-correlationist value theorist would have to address, just as the object-oriented ontologists and other variants of Speculative Realism have had to address anti-realist arguments pertaining to the manner in which objects are only ever objects for a subject.

If it is true that correlationism is the only game in town where value theory is concerned, then it looks like the only sorts of arguments we get for a sort of defense of the nonhuman from human exploitation are either utilitarian (this exploitation will come to bite humans in the ass) or some deontological: we have some sort of deontological a priori duty to the nonhuman as shepherds or something. No case could here be made that there’s something of intrinsic value in nonhumans such as animals or the planets. Rather, we would be committed to the thesis that there are only relative values of some sort or another. And here the relativity in question would be that of relationality. The planet, for example, would only take on value-predicates in relation to humans. Were humans to not exist, the planet would neither be valueless or valuable. It would just be. It seems to me that environmental theorists and critical animal theorists interested in object-oriented ontology and, more broadly, speculative realism are looking for something a bit more robust than these sorts of correlationisms. I sense in their remarks and interest, that they are looking for something like a trans-human axiology.

If one takes the non-correlationist route where ethico-politico questions are concerned, we need a deep meta-ethical inquiry into those concepts that are assumed by any and all ethical philosophies so far put forward. In other words, it is necessary to wipe the slate clean, suspend our belief that we know what the domain of the ethical or value is, and carry out a critique of the central concepts of traditional ethical thought. A Heideggerian might say that we require a “deconstruction” of the history of ethical thought. This requires an inquiry into the ethical subject, concepts of duty, obligation, intentionality, debt, etc. that function as the shared conceptual space of ethical thinkers of very different persuasions. Is it really true that ethics revolves around these concepts, or are they myths or fictions of some sort?

In my “Inhuman Ethics” post I called into question the very concept of the human. A correlationist thesis about the primacy of the human in ethical thought is premised on the thesis that the ethical subject is identical to the human. In other words, I argued that ethical thought is premised on an ontological assumption: that it is the human that makes ethical judgments. This is true even in ethical thinkers like Badiou where the Subject (which would be better referred to as a “Group” or a “Subject-Group”) necessarily supervenes on a human body. In my post I raised the question of whether or not it is in fact true that the ethico-politico subject is human.

This question was there based on ontological considerations pertaining to relations between objects or bodies. The thesis would be that when we relate to something we literally become a different entity. Levi-1 without a hammer in his hand or who is not sitting at a computer is literally a different entity than Levi-2 that has a hammer in his hand or that is working at the computer. Here the idea is, somewhat following Deleuze and Spinoza, that entities are individuated by their powers or capacities. The proper being of an object is what an object can do or its generative powers. An entity that enters into a relational network with a hammer or a computer has different powers and capacities than an entity that does not exist in these relations and is, therefore, by this logic, a different entity. In ethical terms they are literally different agents.

A few interesting consequences would follow from such a thesis. First, notice that the ethico-politico domain is no longer a domain pertaining to the human, nor was it ever a domain pertaining to the human. The condition for the possibility of the human would be the suspension of a “human” body in a pure void, de-sutured from all relations. But such a being does not exist. Rather, we are always in relations of some form or another in the world about us, and by virtue of this we are different entities, even over the course of our own lived timelines. The second consequence is that the ethico-politico domain has never been a homogeneous domain, but has always been a domain pertaining to diverse or heterogeneous entities pertaining to issues of how these entities are to relate to one another. In other words, the thesis that the ethical subject is always the same, a human subject, would, under this thesis, be shown to be a fiction. Paraphrasing Marx from a different context, the serf and the factory worker are two entirely different entities. And as Deleuze and Guattari put it, the work-horse has more in common with the ox than with the race horse. There would thus not be an ethical agent (i.e., a universal shared by all particulars), but rather ethical agents. A third consequence would thus be that because entities always open on to a network or assemblage greater than themselves, their being is bound up with entities that might initially seem to be outside of the domain of the ethical. For example, many of us are bound up with industrial, agricultural, animal, geographical, etc., networks that sustain us in being the sort of being that we are. We would not be the entities we are without these networks and therefore these networks enter into the axiological domain. In other words, where the traditional facts/value distinction mirrors the nature/culture distinction, our ontological premise generates a collapse or breakdown of the nature/culture distinction preventing the exclusion of the domain of the natural from the domain of the ethical. We would be unable to draw a clean distinction between these two realm.

Tentatively, this simple ontological thesis would also call for a substantial rethinking of ethico-politico categories like responsibility, duty, debt, etc. It will be noted that these are categories of judgment. Since the late 18th and the 19th century, ethical thought has revolved around questions of judgment or the formulation of rule-based systems that would allow us to evaluate the moral worth of certain claims. However, such an aim was based on the thesis of a formally identical ethical subject or agent that would remain structurally identical despite persons and circumstances being very different. While empirically Melanie and I are very different persons, from the standpoint of this sort of ethico-politico thought we are formally or structurally identical as agents. It is this thesis of formal identity or structural identity within and across diversity that serves as the condition for the possibility of identical duties, obligations, and powers of judgment despite our empirical differences from one another. And it is this structural or formal identity that guarantees debt in the face of ethical infractions or violations of universal laws.

If ontologically we cannot presuppose the formal identity of agents across diversity– indeed, if we cannot even presuppose our own identity by virtue of the fact that we become new agencies when we enter into new relations —rule-based ethical systems are out the window. Or perhaps, less dramatically, rules, criteria of judgment, are effects or results, not grounds. Yet if the domain of the ethical is not the domain of rules that would allow us to evaluate particular circumstances according to universal rules, then what is it? Perhaps, rather than judgment, the domain of the ethico-politico field is the domain not of judgment, but of problematizations. In other words, it would be the domain wherein problems of the coordination of networks or assemblages are formed. What we previously referred to as norms or rules would instead become attractors, tendencies, paths towards actualization of collective-bodies (groups, assemblages, or ecologies, all of which are objects at higher orders of scale and complexity).

But again, all of this is very vague and experimental, murky, marking my attempt to think through just what an object-oriented ethics would require and trying to get straight on just what the issues and questions are. So take it with a grain of salt.