It’s definitely a philosophy, but it’s also a practice

I will, eventually, begin to categorise these posts, although it’s hard to do so with any real accuracy since the boundaries between philosophy, yoga, and my personal musings are not at all obvious to me very much of the time.

This piece is adapted from an outline of the first chapter of my thesis, however, so it has some clear delineations: it’s definitely philosophy. But the philosophy implies, and creates, a practice. The practice arises out of considering a couple of questions: what are the key aspects of the narratives with which we approach the issue of the ecological emergency? What are the practical implications of focusing on these key narratives?

The first thing is to understand that there is a spectrum of approaches to the ecological emergency. While others have laid these out before (from deep to shallow ecology, for instance, or from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism; from utilitarian to deontology, or from blue-green to red-green), my focus is on how ‘agency’ is envisaged across the literature and from the different points in the spectrum of approaches.

The narratives of how to respond to the ecological emergency, from a philosophical perspective, fall almost entirely into the field of environmental ethics. Here, they depend on various views of how humans are seen to fit within other physical systems and indeed what kinds of responsibilities humans have, and to whom.

Since I am focusing on human agency, I look closely at how the distinction is drawn between the capacities for response that humans have (and their responsibilities for their impacts) and the capacities that other organisms, communities or species have. This leads me to the view that our most developed understanding of how humans fit is summarised by the narrative of enmeshment that Tim Morton has developed and explored. How we view ourselves has implications for how we see our responsibilities, and therefore for how we respond. In other words, seeing ourselves as enmeshed has implications for how we see agency.

I put this in the context of Paul Taylor’s view of human agency because I want to return to the field of environmental ethics so that the thesis I come up with emerges from that field. This is the context from which I approached the issue, and it’s also the most potentially potent area for influencing political or strategic policy. Think of Peter Singer influencing the debate on animal rights, or the way that philosophers (including Singer) have influenced the debate on poverty reduction. I wasn’t interested in developing a thesis that had no practical applicability and the field of practical ethics seemed quite a promising place to begin (it turned out I was wrong about this: practical ethics was not the approach I ended up advocating, but that comes later in the story).

Taylor had written a brilliant, thorough and timely investigation of the question of shifting how we see how humans fit, and indeed how we see other organisms, communities and species. It was as a result of his thinking about other organisms as being somewhat directed towards, or teleological, beings that he realised that not only humans have interests that need to be considered. If we allow that humans have interests to be considered (‘goods’ of their own, in Taylor’s language) then we have to allow that other organisms have interests, and once we allow this, there’s no reason not to consider them. In fact, not to do so would be unjustifiable. They want to live and survive and thrive just like us. We don’t have the right to stop them. So we have to take them into account when we’re deciding how to live.

This was quite a radical proposal (Taylor wasn’t the first, and there were more radical proposals than this, like Leopold’s ‘community of life’ ethic, and Naess’s ‘self-realisation’ ethic) but this was an analytical approach. It was reasoned out. It was a logical extension into ethics from the most recent explanations given to us by the natural sciences.

I was really interested in Taylor’s idea that we see other organisms, communities, etc as having their own interests that they had just as much right to pursue as we did. It set us in context. But I was also curious about how he could claim that we were moral agents if we were just as much evolved beings as everything else. I decided to review how we might understand our agency. I had to set aside the idea that we were ‘moral’ in any sense for the purposes of this review (I came back to it later).

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