Towards An Environmental Ethic of Specificity

Similar to any field within academia, the discipline of Environmental Philosophy and Ethics (as well as the related Ecotheological movement) is a growing one...

The Feminist Care Tradition and the Problem of Universality

Similar to any field within academia, the discipline of Environmental Philosophy and Ethics (as well as the related Ecotheological movement) is a growing one, constantly aiming to further refine its methods and conclusions for the sake of its cause in order that they might be more effective, accurate, and defensible. Constantly engaging new ideas from developments in evolutionary theory, the ecological sciences, moral theory, and critical philosophy, for example, Environmental Ethics eschews any sense of a static identity and works to be constantly self-critical of its own central assumptions and norms in the ultimate pursuit of the wellbeing and flourishing of nonhuman life in all of its forms. Accordingly, in hopes of furthering the self-critical progressive evolution of the discipline, I intend to briefly suggest one possible way in which Environmental Ethics could further advance both its theoretical and practical efficacy.

The development I have in mind attempts to deal with a particular problem that has characterized much of environmental literature, namely, what I will here refer to as the problem of universality. By the problem of universality, I am simply referring to the tendency towards the construction of totalizing generalizations and binaries often made by environmental ethicists and theologians (a problem familiar to any discipline’s claim of knowledge in our postmodern context). That is, whether in the realm of Land Ethics, the Animal Liberation movement, or Deep Ecology, just to name a few, there is often the presence and establishment of absolute principles, typically cast in the language of rights, that are supposedly inviolable regardless of context or situation. Much environmental discourse is thus flooded with strong language frequently employing terminology such as  “always” and “never” often leading to bitter and divisive internal conflict among differing approaches within the field. While there are surely many more, consider just a handful of popular environmental universals: The good of the whole always takes precedent over the wellbeing of the individual. The interests of the individual are always more valuable than the welfare of the group. Suffering is always wrong and should always be prevented. It is never okay to consume meat. It is never okay to intervene in natural processes when avoidable. Nonhuman animals should never be recipients of immediate human care… You get the point.

But the problem, of course, with these universalizing conclusions is that they typically fail the test of consistency when critically pressed, and it is usually quite easy to come up with a hypothetical situation in which the given universal is impossible to consistently uphold, utterly contradicts itself, or clearly won’t apply in the concrete. Take, for example, the issue of vegetarianism (which I will return to again as my primary example throughout this post). To the claim, “It is ethically wrong to consume meat”, an opponent might quickly respond that it is functionally impossible to draw the line of sentience in what counts as “meat”, or point to the practice of responsible husbandry or the complexities of dietary habits within impoverished communities. Consequently, in seeming to be the victim of self-defeating logic and inconsistency, the authentic validity behind a more thoughtful vegetarianism, collapses and is overlooked as a result of claims to abstract universal relevance. The same could be argued in relation to any of the examples listed above.

Of course, a tendency to push for the universal in ethics and moral theory is by no means unique to Environmental Ethics. Rather, a strong case could be made that in a tragic Kantian obsession, the entire history of Western ethics, with its hyper-emphasis on isolated individuals and their rights, went the way of the categorical imperative. It was, after all, Kant who influentially developed the rationalist rights-based theory of morality that grounded the good or the moral in universal principles that apply at all times and which were to be reached by means of cognitive reasoning. What one ought do is to be found in the realm of duty, which Kant concluded can be accessed only by the reliable means of detached and emotion-free rationality. In this sense, environmental thinkers who tended to think in the world of abstract universals and in terms of “always” and “never” merely correlated their ideas to the predominant philosophical assumptions of the time. Deducing what was best for the nonhuman world was merely an exercise of extended logic, that is, the requirement to inclusively apply absolute values relative to human interest to nonhuman reality (how this moves beyond a self-proclaimed “narrow anthropocentrism” is beyond me!). Hence, rather ironically, the founder of the Animal Liberation movement, Peter Singer, can claim that while he himself doesn’t personally care for nonhuman animals, the nature of morality and universal scope of reason demand him to begrudgingly consider their interests in his quirky utilitarian calculus. All that to say, the problem of universalization within environmental ethics was (and still is), in many ways functionally the result of a commitment to a familiar set of Western ethical assumptions.

But what if such often preconscious assumptions were both philosophically and ethically suspect? Is it possible, that concrete environmental/ecological issues, similar to most ethical dilemmas, are far too complex and multidimensional to be adequately addressed through sweeping rational generalizations? Not to mention, is it correct to assume that rational argument and appeals to rights are the most natural and effective way to further go about protecting the wellbeing of nonhuman reality? Perhaps a radical paradigm shift, one characterized by a far more nuanced approach, could shed some new and much needed light on an a pressing ethical dilemma …

While it may come as a surprise to some, what I am here suggesting as a potential remedy to this epidemic within environmental ethics is not rooted primarily in a familiar appeal to postmodernism and its epistemic critique of foundationalism. Rather, I am convinced that the successful future of environmental ethics is in many ways dependent upon an attentive listening to one of the most sophisticated, yet tragically under-considered, schools of thought within recent ecological discourse, namely, the Feminist Care Tradition. Functioning essentially as a critique of Kant’s rationalistic, universal, detached, and thereby categorically patriarchal, rights-based theory of morality, the Care Tradition alternatively opts to ground morality and ethics in the realm of sentiment, emotion (critically and holistically defined), and experiential empathy. In this sense, the Care Tradition aims to further develop an already rich tradition of ethical reflection having roots in thinkers such as Hume, Schopenhauer, Buber, Husserl, and Scheler, but with unique sensitivity to supplementing such with Feminist critique, insights, and values. Consequently, the ethical “ought,” or the moral in this schema, is not to be found in the realm of duty associated with abstract rights, but in regards to sympathetic and intuitive responses to the experientially immediate and contextual (a remarkably Darwinian approach fully on par with contemporary evolutionary ethics and epistemology). Consequently, the discourse here finds itself shifting from an individualistic emphasis on fixed rules, to that of communal and flexible relationships which require acute attention to the particularities of each unique situation. Perhaps the most significant founder of the Care Tradition, Carol Gilligan, succinctly summarizes the perspective in the following manner:

“The moral problem arises from conflicting responsibilities rather than competing rights and requires for its resolution a mode of thinking that is contextual and narrative rather than formal and abstract. The conception of morality as concerned with the activity of care centers moral development around the understanding of responsibility and relationships, just as the conception of morality as fairness ties moral development to the understanding of rights and rules.”

Thus, recognizing the inescapable reality of a multiplicity of conflicting values in environmental ethics (Gustafson), the Care Tradition encourages us to ground morality in an informed sympathy to the concrete particularities of each unique circumstance: To engage the particular “life-world” (Husserl) through the mechanisms of what Iris Murdoch helpfully refers to as “Attentive Love.” Far from being detached, cerebral, and universal, ethics in the Care Tradition are primarily emotive in source (but not to the exclusion of the rational), pluralistic, and contextually nuanced.

Given the specific problem I identified at the beginning of this post, I would hope that the implications of a serious consideration of the Feminist Care Tradition are clear. We here have the philosophically and ethically sophisticated mandate for the specification and localization of environmental ethics: the shift from rules to relationships: a transition from the universal to the particular. Ethical action is guided more by intuitive empathy in response to a specific context than by detached cognitive reasoning. To make the issue more clear, allow me to briefly return to the practical issue of vegetarianism …

From the perspective of the Care Tradition, the conversation concerning the ethics of meat consumption shifts from a debate over the generic declaration, “It is wrong to consume meat”, to a contextually nuanced discussion considering the ethics of eating meat in a particular locality, say, for example, in the modernized West in which 98% of meat is unavoidably produced in ethically despicable factory farms. Accordingly, familiar counter-arguments that have functionally nothing to do with the contextually-immediate issue, such as appeals to the possibility of responsible husbandry, the reality of predator-prey relationships in the wild, the reciprocal relationship shared between Native Americans and the earth, and the reality that particular socio-economic realities might prevent some access to the possibility of a fully plant-based diet, are excluded from the outset as being morally irrelevant and vacuous distractions from the concrete. What is being offered is an informed and empathetic response to a specific reality, not an appeal to a cognitive universal. This same demand for contextual specificity could be applied to any environmental/ecological issue. In regard to the familiar circular issue of holism verses individualism, the Care Tradition recognizes the validity of both perspectives and claims that which alternative one opts for is wholly dependent upon immediate circumstances. As far as intervening in natural processes and the relationship between humans and nonhuman subjects, clear distinctions are made between wild and domestic contexts and the ethical mandate is therefore dependent on the particularities of a situation.

Ultimately, my purpose has not been to argue the superiority of the Care Tradition over the Kantian ethical paradigm in any full or sophisticated sense. The arguments between these two camps are vast with a long history, and a much longer conversation concerning human nature, ethical theory, and the evolution of morality would be necessary in order to do this complex conversation justice. Rather, I have intended to briefly suggest an alternative approach to environmental ethics that I have personally found persuasive and believe has not yet received the public attention it deserves. Desiring a robust and holistic approach to environmental ethics, I by no means hope to establish my own binary absolutes or to see an end to the cognitive/rights based dimension of the conversation, but rather hope to temper such a dominant voice with an alternative position often neglected. In adding this dimension and perspective to an extremely complex issue, I am fully convinced that the discipline of environmental ethics will find itself moving forward both in terms of praxis and theory.

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