Over at Critical Animal, Scu has a great post responding to my earlier post on flat ethics. There he criticizes me for evoking conatus or our endeavor to persist in our being as a ground for ethics. Before getting to that, I wanted to clarify some remarks I made about the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethics. When I expressed skepticism towards the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethics, all I meant was that even when we talk about ethical regard for animals– something I advocate –we’re still working in an anthropocentric framework. We’re talking about the attitudes we should adopt towards nonhumans, rather approaching nonhumans as seats of value making themselves.
To see this, let’s return to the fraught example of the shark we discussed in comments in my post Flat Ontology/Flat Ethics. Suppose we say that we shouldn’t kill the shark because the shark has a right to live (something I also believe). Here I hasten to add that I’m very nervous about talk of “rights” because of how the concept functions in neoliberal thought, but let’s run with the example. In making such a claim we might believe that we’ve entered the domain of a posthuman and non-anthropocentric ethics. After all, we’re extending ethical rights to nonhumans, whereas traditional ethics tends to only see humans as having ethical duties and rights. For example, as Kant says “always treat humans as ends in themselves and never as means to an end.”
While I think it’s a positive development to extend ethical regard to nonhumans, I nonetheless fail to see how this constitutes a posthuman ethic or a non-anthropocentric ethics. Why? Because we’re still treating humans as the seat of value in evaluating the world. We’re talking about the way in which humans ought to relate to sharks, rather than exploring the manner of valuing engaged in by sharks, seals, killer whales, bacteria, coral reefs, etc. This is still an anthropocentrism. It’s a positive extension of anthropocentricism, but an anthropocentrism nonetheless. In this regard, it’s difficult to know what it would mean to extend ethics to nonhumans– though I suspect it might work in the case of some nonhumans like primates, dolphins, octopi, etc –because ethics seems to involve choice of some sort. I’m ethically culpable because I can choose. The reason that we can judge the moral worth of my action with regard to the shark is because I’m capable of deliberating as to whether or not to kill the shark. It’s much harder to see how this could apply in the case of sharks. Would it make much sense to treat sharks as ethically culpable? That would seem to require the shark having the ability to deliberate and choose between eating or not eating the seal. I find this very hard to imagine. This could either mean that a non-anthropocentric ethics is impossible, or that we need to significantly revise our understanding of what ethics is about.
This is all I mean when I say that all ethics strikes me as anthropocentric. When I say that, I am not making the claim that all ethics ought only treat humans as the only being of ethical worth and regard, but that I have yet to come across an ethical doctrine that is truly posthuman in treating nonhumans as a seat of valuing. This is what I think a flat ethics would have to argue or defend. If I was unclear on this, my apologies.
Now on to the issue of conatus and Scu’s post. Scu writes,
I worry about the move toward the conatus when talking about ethics, particularly as it relates to decisions of hierarchy and putting the human first (see both Levi’s post and some comments, but also Jane Bennett’s otherwise impressive Vibrant Matter, specifically p. 104). There seems to be a great deal of passivity when talking about conatus, as if we are forced to simply want to promote bodies that are the most like ours. And yet, this seems strange. Not only do many people support and sustain bodies that very dissimilar to their own, but Spinoza is deeply suspicious of this being the case. On the first part, not only do people cherish and love their pets, instead of, say, giving that money to OxFam International (more on this, see Kennan Ferguson’s article “I <3 My Dog”), but also people care for all sorts of non-living beings. Think of the people who spend money and energy on old cars, or atari systems, or the various other objects and things that attract our money and attention. These pleasures come from combining our bodies with bodies that are very dissimilar to our own (dogs, video games, cars, artworks, books, what have you).
A few points here. First, I evoked conatus in a very specific context. Craig had asked, “why should we preserve the child over the shark in the case of a shark attack?” I get the sense that Craig took the alternative as that of either the child dying or the shark dying. I think we can imagine all sorts of other alternatives, such as simply pulling the child out of the water before the shark gets it, in which case both live. Craig wanted reasons as to why we would privilege the child over the shark in this instance. All I could come up with is that, just like the shark, we privilege ourselves and our offspring because all beings have a will to persist in their being. I was not making the suggestion that somehow humans are ontologically privileged in the order of nature or existence; only that we seek to preserve ourselves. In other words, I did not take myself to be making an ethical or unethical claim. I take it that it’s no different in the case of the seal defending itself against the shark by swimming away or jumping up on the ice.
However, I do think Scu defends a rather narrow view of how far conatus can get us. While he admirably pulls on disturbing textual evidence on Spinoza and his attitudes towards animals, I think this is an inconsistency in Spinoza’s deployment of the concept of conatus, not a problem with the concept of conatus itself. Scu worries that if we follow the Spinozist route we’ll be left only attending to beings that are morphologically just like us, i.e., humans. This misses a few points in Spinoza (that apparently Spinoza misses in his own thought). First, it misses the fact that for Spinoza, all bodies are similar in some respect or other. In other words, it misses that our capacity for identification with others is, in principle, infinite. This is an argument that Bennett makes as well in Vibrant Matter in her defense of conatus. She sees the potential of conatus and the sympathies it can generate as extending well beyond morphological similarity.
Second, this misses the point that in Spinoza (and Spinoza misses this point in his own thought), that our ability to identify with our fellow humans is every bit as fraught and difficult as our ability to identify with nonhumans. Spinoza feels that he must give an argument to show that we should have regard for other humans? Why? Because all humans have different constitutions and are therefore as dissimilar as they are similar. It is as hard as it is to identify with your fellows as it is to identify with your dog. Indeed, it’s often easier to identify with your pet. Spinoza’s argument as to why we should have regard for our fellows is that “nothing is more useful to man than man”. In other words, he tries to show all the ways in which others benefit our conatus. If we ought not harm our fellows, then this is because we benefit from them in all sorts of ways and harming them tends to produce disruption in ways that disrupt the flourishing of our conatus. It’s notable that this is precisely the sort of argument that Marx makes in his political writings. Far from making a case for pure altruism, Marx shows how the common benefits us far more than pursuing our own isolated self-interest. Marx makes an argument from enlightened self-interest. It takes knowledge and an imaginative leap, however, to see why this is so because it’s necessary to see how we benefit from the work of others as well as their flourishing.
Now why is all this important? It’s important because the case is no different from nonhumans. In a state of ignorance we only see the shark eating the fish we’d like to catch to eat or coming at us to eat us. When, by contrast, we understand the nature of ecosystems and our place in ecosystems, we come to understand both how our exploitative actions can be destructive of ourselves and of the world on which we rely. This can heighten regard for these nonhumans and perhaps lead to different practices. In my own case– and I suspect I’ll catch hell for this –I find arguments about the destructive ecological nature of big agribusiness, especially with respect to livestock farming, far more persuasive as to why I shouldn’t eat meat than arguments about the ability of the animal to feel pain. The point is the same with arguments for higher taxes to fund education for others. I find the call to fund the education of others– all the way up through grad school if they’re so inclined –not because I necessarily have some altruistic regard for my fellows, but because I feel the social and economic world is better when people have opportunity. It strikes me as more reasonable to pay for education to create a populace that has more opportunity and that is more intellectually enlightened (and therefore less dangerous), than to pay for more cops on the street. Such a society, in my view, is one where I’m more likely to flourish. Hopefully I don’t sound too heartless in saying this.
However, I do not deny Scu’s thesis that we can also relate to nonhumans and our fellows for non-self-interested reasons. As I wrote at the end of my post Flat Ontology/Flat Ethics,
On the other hand, the other face of Joy’s ethical proposal pertains to generosity. Generosity is an attitude towards alterity, towards different universes, towards different phenomenologies (or as Bogost puts it, towards alien phenomenologies). And these universes are universes of both other humans and nonhumans. If an OOO/new materialist ethic cannot embrace the dictums “love your neighbor as you love yourself“, or “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself“, or “act in such a way that you can will the maxim of your action as a universal law of nature”, then this is because all three of these imperatives, in their focus on your self and the universal, fail to enter into the domain of alien phenomenology or alterity. Not every being’s needs and desires for a flourishing conatus are the same. Treating them as the same can issue in horrific cruelty. If you’re able to experience anguish when you walk by a harpy eagle enclosed in a small cage at the zoo, you already have a sense of what generosity and its relationship to alien phenomenology is. You experience that anguish because you discern that this is no way for harpy eagles to live. Likewise, if you are attentive to the desires (in the Lacanian sense) that animate your child– to their obsessions –even where they differ quite markedly from your fantasies and ambitions, and if you make yourself an agent that helps to foster those desires, then you have a sense of what alien phenomenology and generosity are. If you work to create a workplace that’s cognizant of the needs of people with young children– if you look to find ways not to make that a penalty for them –you have a sense of what alien phenomenology and generosity are. You are opening on to the ethical calls of alterity, whether it be with people different from yourself, animals, or any number of things.
It’s surprising that Scu missed this as it’s exactly the sort of thing that he’s calling for. We can have a pure regard for both our fellow humans and nonhumans that isn’t based on abstract calculations of self-interest, but that is simply based on the principle of promoting those other entities along the lines of their ends. At the end of Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan says that the analyst has an impure desire, a desire for pure or absolute difference. The analyst is an advocate of the analysand’s desire, even if that desire differs markedly from her own. There is no reason that a similar principle can’t be extended to nonhumans. The reason that I attend to my cat isn’t simply that my cat gives me pleasure, nor is it because my cat does work for me or is a source of food (they’re not!), but because I want my cat to be happy and this entails knowing something of my cats desires. Likewise with the harpy eagle. If I feel sadness when I see the harpy eagle imprisoned in an absurdly small cage at the zoo, then this is because I know that this can’t possibly satisfy her desires or conatus. I can see that there’s something deeply wrong here. This is not self-interested in a crass sense, but is a regard for the other as other.