“As soon as one man was recognized by another as a sentient, thinking Being similar to himself, the desire or need to communicate his feelings and thoughts made him seek the means to do so.”
Commenting on Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, Walter Benjamin sketches a disturbing philosophy of history remarkably prescient for our own time. “This is how one pictures the angel of history,” Benjamin writes. “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay . . . and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned. . . . This storm is what we call progress.”
The future behind us into which we are being thrown is also a maelstrom born out of the catastrophes of the past. Part of the wreckage piling up at the feet of history is a distinctively Western and modern way of understanding the human individual that has served the needs of political economies during the fossil carbon era. We are now coming to appreciate how broken and ill-suited to the needs of the future this idolatry of individualism is. It has provided some types of liberation for some people. But it has also distorted and truncated moral aspirations so that, on balance, its historical legacy is problematic. Its future value and sustainability are in doubt.
What is propelling humankind into this nightmare, as Benjamin sees it, is not the force of evil or fate. Instead, it is one of modernity’s prized ideals and constitutive achievements: progress. We have yet to reckon with the illusions and the costs of progress, as it came to be understood in the first century of the carbon era (ca. 1850-1950). Progress can be manifested in many ways—increased health or the reduction of violence among human beings and between human beings and nature, for example. In fact, however, progress has come to be equated with affluence, which relies on the increase of technological power over the material world, and with economic growth, which equally relies on the increase of technological power over the social world. Through the media of technology and commerce, progress has come to be understood as that which alters the lives of human individuals by expanding the scope of their consumptive choices and extractive agency. It is time to rethink progress and possessive individualism in the political morality of freedom.
The Core of the Civic
As the last two years have tragically reminded us, in attempting to mitigate disease and social disruption, public health relies on persuasion, trust, and authority as well as science. And for the last twenty years, at least, we have been reminded of the same thing in the attempts to mitigate global warming and climate change through environmental governance and social movements for climate action. Many of my students believe that both climate governance and health governance proceed sequentially: experts first compile scientific information and infer from that evidence appropriate measures to be taken, then public health or climate policy analysts inform and guide policymakers and the citizenry. Finally, scientists sit back and watch while their findings are trusted; rational—indeed ethically obligatory—steps are taken; and their recommendations are followed.
Surely, we now know that empirical scientific study alone is not sufficient for either health or climate governance. Ironically, this comes at a time when the entanglement of human health and global climate change is rapidly manifesting itself in a raft of “known unknowns”—future disruptions we can reasonably forecast without yet knowing the precise form they will take or the extent of their consequences. When extended for a prolonged period of social time, such certain uncertainty breeds fear and a narrowing of intellectual and emotional attention. Psychologically, wish-fulfillment tends to displace a resolve to face up to the mutuality of hardship. People newly faced with the precarity of future expectations and the loss of attachments to habitual ways of life tighten their grip on them, no matter how objectively unsustainable, and turn toward blaming the other, the victims, rather than extending empathy and solidarity toward them.
As I use the term here, “governance” is not limited to the official activities of government alone. Governance in the broad sense is an interlocking system of collective action steering mechanisms ideally guided by impartial rules of law and comprised of the administrative and representative political institutions of government, economic and sociological institutions, and cultural systems of norms, meanings, and relationships. In a democracy, the steering of these systems of collective action is ultimately subject to judgments concerning the justice and legitimacy of current and proposed future governance by a discursive participatory citizenry. This citizenry continually engages in a process of pluralistic debate refereed by reason and the persuasive force of the better argument. Such participatory dialogue is often referred to as the civic or “public sphere” of society. It is a place of norms and ideals—a declarative place of what is the case, and a subjunctive place of what could be the case.
Discourse within the public sphere signals the normative will of the democratic citizenry to the steering institutions of governance. It also articulates and rearticulates (expresses and reshapes) the core of the civic, the vital beating heart of a democracy. This core is a political morality of intentional action motivated by reasoned understanding and moral imagination. In the political morality I see emerging, the separation of the political and the normative is subsiding. Conceptually, power and right are becoming entangled rather than bifurcated.
It is not by erecting fences between power and right that governance can be steered toward justice, but by entangling power within solidarity, care, and other modes of right relationship. This is precisely what the recognitional practices I discuss in this essay do in human-to-human and human-to-non-human relationships. The political morality on the wane is largely confined to the historical tenets of the narcissistic and anthropocentric freedom of global carbon capitalism and possessive individualism. New political moralities on the rise can have different focal points of attention and compass points of direction. Old humanisms can be configured anew. A different political morality of symbiosis and mutuality is being born.
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” warned the poet William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming.” No doubt provoked by Yeats (who isn’t?), Chinua Achebe took the measure of that warning in novels concerning a governance distorted by the legacy of colonialism and the pressures of post-colonialism. Moreover, lest we think that our own vital centers are fine, much to their chagrin colonizing nations of the global north are finding themselves colonialized by financial extraction and exploitation in the global economy. In the governance of affluent nation-states, and of regional governmental units within them, the background social and cultural factors upon which any governance—especially democratic governance—relies are literally falling apart, and the wreckage is piling up at the feet of history.
Better Dead than Green
The governance of human health strives to identify the social determinants of health and wellness in societies at both the individual and the population levels. For climate governance an analogue is to identify large-scale economic and technological determinants of disruptions in planetary atmospheric, oceanographic, and other systems. For these and other domains, a key factor in governance is the moral ethos (the habits of civility, customs, and traditions) of the political culture. A political morality is the self-reflexive eye of that ethos; it is the critical moral point of view that informs an underlying political and moral psychology. Here the political must be understood in both the sense of the exercise of power and in the normative sense of respect for rights and justice. Politics and morals are entangled, as are power and duty.
At the present time, American political psychology and culture are chronically ill. In 2011, Naomi Klein attended the Heartland Institute’s Sixth International Conference on Climate Change and quoted Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who said, “You can believe this is about the climate, and many people do, but it’s not a reasonable belief.” As Horner and many in this libertarian movement saw it, climate change is not a question of scientific truth, but of political morality, principally market freedom and consumptive choice. It is a question of what our staunch moral commitment to preserving such liberties will permit a society and a governance system to do in order to mitigate climate change, largely for the sake of future people. The answer is that climate change mitigation will require restrictions and measures of enforcement that are incompatible with individual freedom, and are therefore judged unacceptable, no matter what. While Horner and others say we should not take such steps, others, like UN Secretary General António Guterres, say we must. Anticipating the Conference of Parties (COP 26) held in Glasgow in November 2021, Guterres said: “There must be no new coal plants built after 2021 . . .Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy.”
“Better dead than Red,” as people used to say when I was growing up in America’s heartland during the Cold War. Apparently, it’s better to be dead than Green now. That argument is made in public with a straight face. It is not enough, then, to interpret climate denial (as well as vaccine denial, and even pandemic denial) as merely venal or ignorant, though much of it is that. This denial goes deeper and is more philosophically significant because it is rooted in a broken conception of individual freedom in a political morality whose time is passing, if not already past.
The freedom objection to effective climate governance says that we must make a tragic choice on behalf of freedom. We must choose the loss of some present and future lives in order to preserve a way of life, the lynchpins of which are individual freedom, private property, steep social and monetary inequality, economic growth, and energy-intensive production and consumption. Yet the lives some would choose to lose need not be lost if the right and the good—living up to the best in our humanity and being morally responsible—were seen in new ways. To be sure, a new way of seeing could lead to loss of dignity, oppression, and even greater inequality; there are many historical examples of that. But there is also the open horizon of new ways of being that are more humane, more authentic, more just. This horizon is what political theorist William Connolly refers to when he says: “Today perhaps it is wise to try to transfigure the old humanisms that have played important roles in Euro-American states into multiple affirmations of entangled humanism in a fragile world.”
Political Morality and Practices of Recognition
Political moralities die when the social and natural worlds present anomalies that their concepts cannot explain. These are unexpected things that could be and have become things that are. Some ignore these discrepancies and devote themselves to the questions that the prevailing morality can answer. Others are led to develop new and revised theoretical frameworks that have a better fit with the world.
As noted earlier, the primary function of a political morality is to bestow or withhold legitimacy to the steering mechanisms of a society in light of critical moral norms and subjunctive ideals. In other words, the successor political morality needs to oversee and tutor a form of democratic governance suited for a less human-centered and more ecologically oriented world. I believe that this can be achieved better in a democratic regime than in an authoritarian and hegemonic one. It is high time to attempt the work of reconstruction in the political morality of contemporary democracy. That new political morality should provide a new conceptual vocabulary in which old words can take on new meanings. Like their counterparts in climate science, ecology, and public health, many philosophers and social scientists around the world are working on this. They stress that the as is world of symbiotic life demands an as if democracy that says yes to activities that support the web of life and no to those that undermine it. The declarative perspective of science and the subjunctive imagination of democracy complement rather than clash with one another.
Building on several of my recent essays in Minding Nature, I offer some new notes, if not a new key, for a political morality of entangled humanisms. This is a relational political morality, which opposes the belief that politics and morality are inherently individualistic and transactional. It offers a new magnetic pole for the ethical compass of ecological governance. Whatever form it takes, it must concentrate on two things long neglected and now all but lost in a neoliberal political morality of accumulation and possessive individualism.
The first is the importance of trust in any social order and particularly in a democratic society where it must function not simply among narrow elites but also throughout mass publics. Further, the very idea that trust can flourish in a pluralistic society is in question now. The American political mind seems to have lost—or to be in the process of losing—its capacity to mount the kinds of dialogues in which pluralistic trust can even be discussed, let alone cultivated publicly (as civic virtue) and privately (as inward autonomy and authenticity). Where such dialogues happen matters because a sense of trust and a sense of shared place are entangled and interdependent. Civic trust erodes when common senses of mutual aid and shared—not merely cohabitated—place and time break down under the pressure of economic and social inequalities.
The second is the fundamental importance in any morality or cultural ethos of what I refer to as “practices of just recognition.” These practices are key to sustaining pluralistic trust that extends beyond the private sphere of kinship or friendship to achieve mutuality and moral recognition among strangers in the public sphere.
By practices I mean patterns of social action that give people standards to meet and norms to follow. Practices mediate our relationships with others in strong and persistent ways. By recognition I mean the ways in which human beings perceive one another and how they position themselves toward one another. Perception and positionality communicate meaning and confer status. I speak of just or right recognition because I mean to use “recognition” in a normative sense not merely a descriptive one. Recognition of membership in the human moral community is antithetical to removal or erasure from it. Built into the idea of recognition is a deep logic of hospitality—embracing difference and inviting inclusion. Recognition has to do with a just and morally right perception of what each of us owes to other human beings. The affirmation given in solidarity and the attention paid in caring, for example, attest to the moral standing of others. Such relational practices of recognition avow that concern and respect are due to others as persons of inherent, not simply instrumental, worth.
Understood in this way, practices of recognition are dynamic and subject to change but nonetheless exhibit a certain endurance and continuity in a society, a culture, and in the personality and self-esteem of individuals. They generate action-guiding reasons and motivations. They affect authority, power, distribution, and exchange and can contribute to the re-interpretation of social rules, roles, and relationships, out of which large scale social change emerges. As human beings aspire to be recognized, so they strive to recognize.
The notion of practices of recognition covers a wide range of moral cognition, emotion, and interdependency. Among these I would include four concepts to be touched on below—solidarity, care, autonomy, and citizenship—as well as many others such as atonement, community, empathy, belonging, loyalty, reconciliation, membership, mutuality, friendship, and kinship. Finally, I view the nexus or ensemble of all practices of recognition as comprising “a common good,” if not “the common good,” of a society of free and equal persons worthy of respect.
Solidarity and Care
Consider first the closely allied recognitional practices of solidarity and care. Solidarity involves the affirmation of the moral and the civic standing of others, especially those whose standing is being denied or is going unrecognized. Solidarity is standing up for and with and as the other. Solidarity is standing up against the power of those who deny moral standing to the other. In so doing, the practice of solidarity affirms the moral standing of others. Moral standing is not only something that the law and courts bestow. It comes into being through the ways in which people treat one another. Conceptually and attitudinally, practices of solidarity shift away from individualism and independence toward mutuality and interdependence.
The posture of care is a directed gaze of attentiveness—that is to say, paying or giving attention to another and paying heed to another’s needs, above all the need for moral consideration and presence (fidelity and non-abandonment). Caring is the promise never to forsake. When attention is paid, people become visible to one another as subjects of acknowledgment and respect. Practices of care shift away from the individualism of self-reliance to an individuality validated by reliance on others.
Solidarity provides affirmation; care provides attention. The practices of solidarity and care are called forth when a common background condition of potential fragility, vulnerability, insufficiency, or mortality takes center stage in the lives of persons in need or trouble and in the lives of those around them.
Practices of just recognition are not only interpersonal or inter-subjective, but they are also intrapersonal and intra-subjective. They overlay the space between and the space within. Recognition of others with affirmation and attention affects one’s own self-recognition. Consider, then, the notion of personal autonomy, which is often used as a synonym for liberty or freedom. Used as a timeless, abstract principle to be applied to human conduct from the outside, autonomy is often taken to reinforce and sanction an individualism more or less indistinguishable from libertarian freedom of choice. However, I argue that when it is understood as a relational practice of recognition (in this case, self-recognition), autonomy can pull self and other together rather than pushing them apart. This opens a possible connection between autonomy and symbiosis.
Autonomy comes from autonomia, from autonomos “having its own laws,” which in turn comes from autos “self” plus nomos “law.” On the other hand, symbiosis comes from sumbiōsis, “a living together,” from sumbioun “live together,” and from sumbios, “companion.” Now, anyone who has lived together with someone else knows that this condition does not readily lend itself to each person being a law unto himself or herself. The issue turns on what is meant by self-determination. When examined phenomenologically, self-determination is an active praxis of determining oneself, not a static property of having been determined by oneself. This active determination is oriented toward the future, not the past, for constituting a self of autonomy is never complete. This may reveal a relational and recognitional enactment both on the side of autos (self-construction) and on the side of nomos (norms of relationality).
Let me pose the question in the following way: Is the condition of autonomia fulfilled or undermined by the condition of sumbiōsis? Could it be that autos and sumbios—the most fully realized, best self and the companion—are two sides of the same coin; that is to say, entangled? This may not be as novel or far-fetched as it seems. After all, what are the fundamental impediments of autonomous self-identity and agency today? They are institutional injustices, culturally hierarchical meanings, and structures of excessive inequality and power. Individualistic thinking that proports to support autonomy—bootstrapping, every-tub-on-its-own-bottom sort of thinking—in fact serves the forces of “heteronomy” (being done to rather than doing) that negate autonomy. Understanding the autonomy of human persons requires deep understanding of how institutions (social habitats), as well as forests (natural habitats), think. Living autonomously well requires the support of symbiotic institutions and ecosystems.
While structural injustice and inequality do impede autonomy by fostering force and fraud, oppression and exploitation, these structural conditions also undermine autonomous self-recognition by impeding the psycho-social development integral to fulfilling the capability to be an autonomous self and agent. This is one convergence of symbiotic theorizing and the recognitional practice of autonomy. Through symbiotic practices, the assistance or “affordances” of the material and social worlds can be drawn on to actualize the inherent potential for autonomous action that resides in each human being.
In light of considerations such as these, I maintain that autonomy can shed the problematic individualism with which it has been saddled in the era of liberalism and carbon capitalism and can be reconceptualized as a practice of recognition that is dialogic and critically self-reflexive. As such, autonomy is a practice that recognizes and supports individuality but does not rest on an ontological foundation of individualism. And, needless to say, it does not rest on a foundational collectivist or totalizing ontology, either. Whereas other practices of recognition such as solidarity and care are directed outward toward right relationships with others, autonomy, I suggest, is a practice of recognition directed inward. Autonomy is reflexive: it affirms and attends to the moral standing of oneself. The autonomy of the person is required by both the concept of agency (acting for reasons rather than being forced to act by causes) and the concept of responsibility (neither praise nor blame are attached to behavior that is beyond one’s control). My working notion is thatautonomy is the recognition and authentication of one’s own capability to assume moral agency and responsibility in an interdependent world.
Citizenship and the Common Good
The time has come to round out the discussion of a new political morality for future democratic ecological governance by turning attention from specific practices of recognition to the entire nexus or ensemble of multiple practices of recognition in a given culture and society. Discussions of the particular phenomenological experience (the stance and posture) of each distinct practice of recognition can promote a kind of tunnel vision. It is important to bear in mind that showing solidarity, caring, or developing one’s inner agency and maturity are not isolated practices but are conducted within a web of other recognitions, each revealing but one facet of the multifaceted political and moral life of civic membership and mutuality. This larger perspective is offered by an analysis of citizenship and the common good. I begin with the idea of citizenship as being a practice entrusted with the preservation and conservation of the nexus of recognitional practices in a society. Then I move to the notion of the common good, interpreted not as a collective thing, a transcendent principle, or an abstract concept, but as the flourishing of the recognitional nexus itself.
Democratic citizenship can be seen as a practice of recognition that protects and fosters just recognition. To be a citizen is to make an avowal (to declare and to assume a public trust). It is a pledge of allegiance but also a promise of trusteeship. Trusteeship of what? To become a citizen is to take responsibility for sustaining the conditions required to enact other recognitional practices. Democratic citizenship is a practice of recognition that integrates the values inherent in other practices of recognition—in particular, the norms of membership and mutuality. The administrative and norm-making authority of the government is affected by the exercise of citizenship though support for an impartial rule of law and constitutional rights, and by the civic learning that participatory citizenship provides.
The posture of democratic citizenship is avowal of rights and obligations of membership in a civic community. The rationale for this is the moral and political goodness of a civic way of living and the shared promise of human self-realization through interdependence. As such it is the exemplary, most inclusive form of membership; it is a precondition for the sustainability in the modern secular era of other expressions of membership in our lives—social, economic, kinship, familial, and intimate. Again, citizenship avows—makes a vow, takes on a trust—on behalf of a future of moral and political potential toward which it is reasonable to strive. Citizenship is iterative and ongoing; it provides continuity and provokes innovation; each generation of democratic citizens begins a new story of the demos and continues an ongoing one.
Is the common good toward which democracy strives itself best seen as a practice of recognition? I am inclined to think that the common good is not one of several practices of right recognition, nor even a meta-practice like citizenship. Instead; the common good serves as a regulative ideal to inspire citizenship in its maintenance of the ensemble of practices of recognition and to inspire the other recognitional practices in their specific domains. Perhaps we should say that the philosophical concept of the common good, and not the political morality as such, is the core of the civic. The common good does not stand over and above political being; it is imminent within the polis, the republic, the assemblage of democratic mutuality. It is the good of goods, the constitutive cultural and institutional architectonic blueprint to which the political and moral practical agents can refer from time to time as they construct cities, economies, and homes. Such worldmaking often falls short of its founding vision, the regulative idea of the common good. But its striving, imperfect, and fleeting accomplishments are part of the master plan, not deviations from it. Beware the person, party, or project that claims to be the incarnation of the common good. The common good is imminent within the polis in all its possibility, but it is never the embodiment of any one version of the polis. That way of thinking, always tempting, often deployed, never ends well. The common good is not something extra added on to what other practices of right recognition provide for a society. Instead, the common good shifts the frame and changes the subject of political life from the declarative as is to the subjunctive as if—the corrected fullness of equality, justice, and interdependent mutuality that are already but not yet.
A Politics of It Could Be?
In this essay my sights have been set on an entangled humanism capable of turning the angel of history around to face a future perhaps more demanding than past futures have been. The late, great essentialist humanism of progress, economic growth, and individualism thinks that a cup is full only when it overflows. An entangled humanism of the future will say that we should not pour until we know what being full truly means.
A declarative politics now presides over a technocratic governance, which is devoid of a demos engaged in civic learning, and a neoliberal global economy, where worth has been reduced to price. The old humanisms have not so much died as faded away. Alarms about the danger of climate change have been sounded now for so long that urgency is also fading, not the objective reasons for urgency—they burn more brightly than ever—but the willingness or even capacity in many societies to feel it. Indeed, countless Americans won’t submit to a Covid-19 vaccine even though this fundamental gesture of solidarity makes one’s life not merely safer, but better. But as Secretary General Guterres reminds us, there will be no vaccine for climate change. Americans might not take it even if there were. Where can we find the subjunctive politics we need?
Regarding climate change, it is as if humanity stands poised before two buttons: one is an economic and cultural reset, while the other triggers a self-destruct sequence. As a community of nations, we can’t seem to agree on which is which. Or, even if we did, we don’t seem to have the collective political will to stop those who seem intent on pushing the self-destruct button—in order, they say, to protect our liberty.
The moral vocabulary that climate activists and public health professionals use is not able to activate the moral and political imagination that effective ecological and health governance require. To respond to the recurring crises that are coming, the governance of complex societies must be able to reach the tap roots latent in their own moral ethos, politics, and motivational structures. A political morality of recognitional practices, as I have said, is only one necessary component. Trust—pluralistic public trust—is another. Now a third should be mentioned. That is civic learning. Ecological governance must be an ongoing process of civic learning, and it must rebuild a discursive or communicative environment that facilitates “thinking like a citizen.” But if we do build it, will we come? In order to become a “we,” do we have to be a “we” already? We only seem able to be a we not yet.
Acknowledgment: A version of this essay was presented to the Third Barcelona Congress of the Philosophy of Public Health, Barcelona, Spain, September 27-29, 2021.