Ontological Egalitarianism, Or, Can We Derive an Ethics from “Life”

My colleague and friend Matthew Taylor has a terrific essay in the current issue of PMLA (Vol. 135, No. 3: 474-491 [May 2020]).  His topic is the “new materialism,” aka “the ontological turn,” although it also crops up under various other aliases.

Most simply put, the “new materialism” declares that all matter is animate; humans lived surrounded by other entities that should be recognized as having agency, as possessing “life.” Specifically, all things act to sustain themselves, perhaps even to better themselves (William James’ meliorism).  One version is Latour’s “trajectories of subsistence” contrasted to a more static notion of “substance.”   The idea is a) to reduce any qualitative distinction between humans and other entities; and b) to introduce a dynamic interactive web of relationships in which both humans and non-humans are entangled to replace the more traditional subject/object split where activity resides in the human subject who works upon passive material objects.  In that traditional view, all the entities have their stable identities, their essences, their abiding substance.

Matt’s essay ties current thinking along these lines back to the “philosophies of life” current in the post-Darwinian intellectual world of (roughly) 1870 to 1920.  I am more familiar with the characterization of Bergson, Nietzsche, James, Pater, and Whitehead as champions of “life.”  Matt shows how “hylozoism” or “panpsychism” (basically, the assertion that all matter is “alive”) was the prevailing view of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century biology as well.  From this point of view, Nietzsche does not look like an outlier, a lonely rebel (as he loved to portray himself), but very much in tune with the dominant intellectual orthodoxies of his time.

Current day versions of hylozoism often think there is an ethical pay-off.  There are two ways to go in an ethical direction from the assertion that all matter is alive.  First, you can preach a deontological respect for “life,” basically extending the Kantian “kingdom of ends” to include everything—thus erasing the privilege of “the human” to arrive at “posthumanism.”  Second, you can use life (as Ruskin wants to do in “Unto the Last”) as your ethical standard.  Whatever promotes life is good; whatever harms life is bad. 

In both cases, it is easy to see that the ethicists among the new materialists are driven by a concern about climate change.  The “respect” position addresses the massive extinctions of our era and bemoans an exclusionary focus on what is good for humans. 

The “promotion of life” position is basically utilitarian.  We judge actions in terms of whether they serve the interests of life—or not.  Since climate change will be a disaster (is already a disaster) for many varieties of life (human and non-human), it is ethically wrong to perform actions that fail to work against that change.

Matt is having none of it.  He does not think you can derive an ethics from an allegiance to life.  I want to consider his reasons for this conclusion—some of which I agree with and others that I want to resist.

He presents four major arguments (as I understand the essay).

1.  There is a central—and fatal—imprecision lurking in the term “life.”  No one is ever able to nail down just what “life” means or entails.  It is hard to deploy something so vague as a standard.  I don’t quite know what to do with this argument, so will leave it be.

A different, but related, argument along these lines seems to me to have real bite.  If you say mountains are alive as are protozoa as are human beings, you obviously need to have a very capacious (and perhaps vacuous) notion of life.  However, at the same time, you can’t simply ignore the differences between mountains, protozoa, and humans.  Inevitably (in other words), forms of life are going to be differentiated within the overarching category of life.  And Matt argues that this differentiation will lead to a hierarchy; some things will be deemed “more alive” than others; there will be “degrees” of life. 

This is the familiar post-structuralist insistence that wherever there is difference, there will be the privileging of one term over the others.  Humans just aren’t equipped (mentally? in terms of the deep structures of thought?) to be egalitarians.  I have always been suspicious of this transcendental move—transcendental because it posits a fundamental form that is endemic to all human mental processes.  I always suspect “false necessity” at such junctures.  Why can’t we equally value things that we recognize to be different?  I don’t see any logical or ontological or psychological impediment to that possibility.

2.  But Matt has a much better argument for the inevitability of hierarchy.  Ethics, he says, requires judgments about better and worse.  You don’t have an ethics is you have a pure egalitarianism.  If you value life, then you must declare some actions harmful to life, even as you applaud others as life-sustaining or promoting.  What is our stance going to be toward the mosquitos that carry malaria, the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and the virus that causes COVID-19, not to mention white supremacists?  How are we going to avoid valuing some forms of life over others when some agents pose a threat to other agents?  In other words, the new ontology repeats the classic liberal mistake of imagining a conflict-free world.  But ethics is precisely about conflict—about choosing between competing visions of the good.  The mosquito who infects me is pursuing life; from its point of view, its actions are not harmful. 

This insistence that ethics must take sides, cannot be universally affirmative, is deeply troubling.  For one thing, this insistence is at the root of many tragic and conservative worldviews.  The tragic version is highlighted in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.  Freud expresses outrage in that text at the Christian injunction to love one’s enemies.  Such an injunction takes away the very meaning of love, Freud says.  As Yeats puts it, “hearts are to be earned, not had.”  But Freud adds that our only bestowing our love in some cases goes hand-in-hand with our aggressive feelings (and actions) toward those we cannot (or will not) love.  And numbered among those we cannot love is our own self.  The superego’s aggression is directed at myself—as well as at my “enemies.” 

Ethics—the self-righteous attempt to justify our aggressions—hoists us on own petard even as it stands as the crippling condition of an unending and inescapable tragedy: the tragedy of our uncontrolled and uncontrollable aggression.

Conservative thought holds onto the self-righteousness that the tragic vision (which deems all humans trapped in the same play) eschews.  Conservatives hold onto a strong version of the righteous few and the reprobate many; they scorn the idea of “social justice” precisely because it would bestow benefits on the unworthy.  Justice is about getting what you deserve—and thus the equal distribution of any good (whether it be health care, a decent education, or a basic income) is an outrage against morality. 

The liberal/left tries to use the notion of “social justice” to place some things out of the conflict zone.  The liberal must avoid the mistake of wishing away conflict, even as she tries to develop strategies for its mitigation.  More on that later in this post.  For now, Matt’s point against the new ontologists is well-taken.  A univeralist ethos of respect for all forms of life sounds wonderful, but it is so general, so vague, that it can’t stand up for very long when actually encountering facts on the ground.  “Life” pits some forms of life against others, so “life” itself can’t be the standard for adjudicating those conflicts.

3.  This last point—that “life” can’t be the standard—leads Matt to adopt a strict fact/value dichotomy.  You can’t read values out of “life” (or “nature”) is his fairly explicit position.  “Justice” or “equality” or even “reverence for life” are human notions; there is no evidence at all (in Matt’s view) that the world or nature or some basic “life force” cares for any of those human values.  Life carelessly and prodigally deals out death. 

Life, we might say, is deaf and mute.  It has nothing to say to us—and cannot hear anything we say to it.  Humans, like the other life forms identified/celebrated by the new ontology, are the random, utterly contingent, result of long evolutionary processes that were not aiming to produce what ended up being produced.  If ethical ideals are going to get any purchase in this evolutionary production, then it will because humans act to make their ethical values effective. 

      I want to be careful about adopting fact/value canyons.  I am going to skip that can of worms here, only gesturing toward my intuition that the dichotomy functions differently in different contexts, and should be resisted in some of those contexts.  But in this ontological context, I am inclined to accept a fairly drastic nature/human split.  I am uncomfortable doing so, but don’t see a good alternative.

     Two observations underline my willingness to accept that nature and life are amoral, while the human is the realm of value and moral judgments.  The first is that we humans are not inclined to morally condemn hurricanes or animals for their destruction of life.  We will bemoan the fact that the grizzly bear killed a person, but will not be morally indignant.  In other words, we do not hold nature accountable for life-harming actions the way that we do human beings. 

     The second is the point made so forcefully in Plato’s Euthyphro—and in the scene in Genesis where Abraham bargains with Yahweh about saving Sodom from destruction if a certain number of just inhabitants can be identified there.  In both cases, the point is that humans have self-generated standards that they wish/hope/try to get the non-human to adhere to.  “Innocence” is a human concept—and the gods and nature are to be condemned when they inflict suffering on the innocent.  The ethical standard is being imposed on the non-human—rather than the standard being derived from the non-human.  Oedipus at Colonus thus becomes an attempt to save the gods from human condemnation.

The upshot would be a kind of humanism that is hard to evade as long as you want to maintain ethics.  Nietzsche, of course, saw this clearly.  To escape humanism, you had to go “beyond good and evil” and simply embrace the ruthless indifference of the non-human to human values and to life itself.  Wanton destructive indifference, nature red in tooth and claw, is the fact of the matter—and you might as well join ‘em rather than trying to convert them over to (pathetically weak and sentimental) human values.  (Of course, there is also plenty of cooperation among living creatures as well, a fact Nietzsche neglects.  Sometimes, cooperation proves better than competition in advancing one’s life chances.)

4.  Matt also argues that hylozoism almost always leads to a form of Platonism.  He doesn’t put it that way.  But I think it a fair account of the argument.  Basically, the idea is that the general standard (or “form” if we use Platonic vocabulary) of “life” renders every actual instantiation of life an inadequate copy of that ideal.  The logic here is endemic to versions of evolution that see each novelty an improvement on what went before.  (For that reason, hylozoism in the 1870-1920 period was very, very often tied to eugenics, as Matt demonstrates.)  Nietzsche’s “uber-mensch” displays this kind of thinking.  The “true” or “ideal” embodiment of life is always out in front of us, which renders current forms unsatisfactory—perhaps even suitable for sacrifice in order to usher in the better future, just as Stalin and Mao murdered millions in the name of a world to come.  (But, then again, Christianity committed similar murders long before the justification of a warped Darwinism.)

“Life” thus becomes the bringer of, the justification for, death—an argument found in Foucault and Agamben, but perhaps lurking as well in Arendt’s emphatic contempt for “life.”  Certainly, Nietzsche (in another of his guises) points the way here.  Platonism and Christianity preach a disregard for, a nihilistic rejection of, the here and now.  With Christianity, we get the added hope that a non-human force will “redeem” the human—and the whole world.  Against that nihilism, Nietzsche wants to find his way to “affirmation.”  How can we affirm what is here before us, instead of whoring after strange gods and wish-fulfilling futures? 

I am not convinced that an affirmation of “life” necessarily leads to a denigration of the life currently available.  I don’t, in other words, buy the paradox that a stated commitment to life in fact generates a murderous aggression against actually existing life.  I am, however, convinced by Matt’s other argument, i.e. that a bland egalitarianism cannot do the ethical work that needs doing.

So how would I propose going forward?  At this point, I actually think pushing hard at the fact/value dichotomy might prove productive.  We (everything that exists) are not going to be redeemed from the natural (and evolutionary) conditions that set the stage for singular life spans.  But there is a social/cultural world that humans construct in their efforts to respond/adapt to that natural setting.  That social world develops notions of what a “good” or “flourishing” life looks like (where the notion of flourishing in no way needs to be confined to only human life forms).  Life (“bare life”) is a good, but a very minimal one if the means for “flourishing” are not available. 

Egalitarianism is tied to ideals of “social justice” when we define what resources are required to afford the possibility of flourishing—and the political/ethical imperative is to work toward social arrangements where those resources are afforded to all. 

This is a minimalist position.  What goods are needed—clean water and air, enough food, a decent education, health care, security from violence, etc.—to have a life that escapes the sufferings that social arrangements can alleviate?  What tribulations are remediable—not in terms of a redemption from the terms of existence, but in terms of having what is needed to cope with those terms?  These are questions that can only be answered through political processes of deliberation and negotiation. 

The liberal gambit is that providing those necessities to all would mitigate conflict.  Yes, there is conflict now over doing such providing.  But for many countries the idea of providing health care is no longer a live issue.  Constitutionalism is a strategy for removing certain questions from the realm of conflict, of deciding them once and for all.  Not a fool-proof strategy, but it works some time for certain issues.  And some seemingly dead issues can rise again, zombie fashion. 

But the liberal social democrat has this basic agenda: to increasingly make the provision of “basic goods” to all a matter of settled social practice.  That is a way to serve “life” without promoting the death of those currently alive.  But it is serving “life” in relation to human standards of what a “good” or “flourishing” life requires.  So, in that sense, Matt is right to say you can’t derive those standards from life itself.

What about non-human forms of life?  What about climate change?  I do think that comes back to where I started.  We can take the position that respect for all life forms is an ethical imperative—although that will run us into the kinds of problems Matt identifies (namely, that such universal respect is not possible where some life forms actively harm others).  The utilitarian position seems more plausible.  The new ontology can help cement the lesson that human flourishing is dependent in various ways on the larger ecological network of relations in which humans are embedded.  Destroying the planet for short term gain is suicidal.  Still, utilitarianism also has its limits.  It is not utterly convincing to say humans could not flourish if the snow leopard went extinct.  That’s why the deontological argument of respect gets trotted out so often. 

Such puzzles remind us that ethical positions—despite the hopes of philosophers like Kant, Bentham, and Rawls—are never logically air-tight.  Much more important, in my view, is ethical sensibility.  What things outrage us?  What things do we admire?  Unless unnecessary deaths and lives lived in abject poverty strike us as unacceptable, as demeaning to our human capacities to make life well worth the living, we humans cannot expect either rational arguments nor non-human entities (like “life” or “god”) to generate the ethically affirmable life we claim to desire.  Similarly, unless the extinction of the snow leopard strikes us emotionally as a diminishment of the world, we are unlikely to be argued into caring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s