Flat Ethics (Reprise)
After a long and unwieldly discussion on Twitter, Levi and I have come to the conclusion that we are on the same page, but reading from different texts. In other words, we seem to agree on vague and general goals, but we remain at some distance on the requisite concepts and their theoretical elaboration. Since then James has weighed in on the issue of flat ethics and Levi has responded to him, so between those two posts, I don’t have much to add. While James and I have our theoretical differences, we are much closer to one another than Levi and I are. In short, these are the differences that I see:
- Conatus: in Levi’s (and Spinoza’s) formulation of the concept, I don’t see its use in terms of a flat ethics or in terms of an ethics that minimizes the centrality of humans; i.e., a weakly anthropocentric ethics. We have a number of weakly anthropocentric ethics–such as the deontological abolitionism of Gary Francione and utilitarian liberationism of Peter Singer. I don’t see what adding in a quasi- or pseudo-Spinozist ethic could possibly achieve. There are three primary reasons for this. (1) as formulated by Levi and Spinoza, conatus relates to maintaining “bodily” integrity or unity over time, hence it devolves into an ethic which places self-preservation at the core; (2) as formulated by Levi and Spinoza, conatus privileges interactions with similar bodies (the human’s conatus “likes” the conatus of other humans) and denigrates interactions with dissimilar bodies (this is odd at the level of ethics for an object-oriented ontology and a social analysis based upon object-relations); (3) as formulated by Spinoza (but not necessarily Levi), the human conatus needs to be immunized from contact with the conatus of non-human animals. None of this amounts to an un- or anti-anthropocentric basis for ethics.
- Self-preservation: as formulated by Levi, self-preservation is at the core of ethics. This seems odd to me. Certainly, there is a biological and psychological need for self-preservation. Organisms are organized in such a way to facilitate survival and self-preservation. While the relation of the self to the self can be a component of ethics and, indeed, an important component of ethics, it isn’t the primary or most important one. Ethics concerns the modes in which selves relate to others, whether that other is completely alien (e.g., a squid or worms in hydrothermal vents) or completely familiar (such as close relations of the same species). Indeed, even when we talk about ethics as a relation of the self to the self, we are talking about the self treating the self as though it were other. My point here is that ethics is that mode of interaction that privileges the needs, demands and desires over your own. This does not imply a mysticism of the other, as you might get with Levinas, but it does involve accepting the other as other and relating on that basis.
- Anthropocentrism: combining these two points, we end up with a hierarchical and closed ethics rather than a flat and open ethics. The result is that the potential for an alternative ethics is destroyed in the name of self-preservation and the self-preservation of that which is most like you. We don’t need another ethics to do this because this is the ethics that we already have. It could be the case that ethics is grounded in species and therefore is coloured by species-membership; the differing capacities of different species to act ethically must be taken into account. However, ethics is not simply a matter of humans having responsibilities and obligations to other humans and non-human animals without those non-human animals participating in the process and ethics is not limited to the human species–it is clearly evident that moral behaviours are evolved traits and, thus, are not limited to higher primates or even mammals.
It is possible that as we fight it out over the coming months we will find further rapprochement, but insofar as Levi clings to the above (and, again, it could be the case that I am misunderstanding him), I don’t see much avenue for progress, but we can remain hopeful.
(Just as I posted this, Levi posted on flat ethics again calling for a symposium on the question.)