Finding Ground for a Relational Ethic

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The important attempt to broaden the scope of eth­ics to include non-human entities has been only partial­ly successful; this project requires more attention to cultural and social contexts and a stronger philosophi­cal rationale. Here, the concept of “place” can make a significant contribution. Leading scholars working on various aspects of place-based perspectives have sug­gested that environmental ethics cannot successfully abandon anthropocentric assumptions as the broader environmental discourse continues to encapsulate a fundamental mind-world ontological dualism. This dualism explains our need to disengage with messy social (and natural) contexts in order to find universal truths—whether in science, anthropology, or ethics. As a result of this simultaneous dualism and disengage­ment, our ontological grounding supports an unques­tioned faith in an abstract and impersonal system of rights and rules to govern our moral conduct. Morality that is determined by abstract rights and rules fails to accommodate the actual relationships that we uphold in our everyday lives and the kind of moral behaviors that such relationships entail.

Many scholars who aim to overcome our current ontology propose a relational framework of environ­mental ethics, starting with the notion of a relational self. An ethics of relations is sensitive to the intimate bonds that we already have with our human and non­-human others. Mick Smith’s An Ethics of Place: Radi­cal Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory brings the discussion of ethics back down to the places that we inhabit, where our senses of morality towards oth­ers are the strongest. Smith’s ethics of place supports a relational self (which he calls an ecological self); how­ever, his proposal does not provide specific details on the ontological foundations. When placed within our modern, post-Enlightenment cultural framework, an ethics of relations becomes controversial, because it comes into friction with two fundamental tenets of moral thought: impartiality and rationality (as deter­mined by the dictates of universal reason). In what kind of world does the relational self emerge? What sort of being or ontology does it have? And what do human–non-human relations look like through a view of the ecological/relational self? Moving in the di­rection of finding an answer to these questions—and serving as a useful complement to Smith’s work—is the anthropological lens of Perceptions of the Envi­ronment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill by Tim Ingold. In this essay, I focus first on Mick Smith’s critique of abstract modernist paradigms, after which I describe Ingold’s appraisal of abstract modern onto­logical frameworks. I conclude that Ingold’s ontology of dwelling provides the foundations through which a relational self has potential to emerge.

An Ethics of Place contains both a critique of mod­ernist paradigms and a proposal for an ethics of place. Smith aims to uncover the social and historical con­texts of our ethical debates. He argues that, like our economic structure, governance, and pedagogy, our moral frameworks reflect the social formations of a particular place and time. If we can point to the under­lying contexts of an unsuccessful environmental eth­ics, we may be able to transcend our current modes of thinking to find a more dynamic and innovative moral discourse.

Smith writes, “ethical debates are not simply about the kind of world we should inhabit, but the kind of so­cial environment we actually do inhabit.”[1] And, follow­ing Ingold’s lead, we might add that such debates are also about the particular ontological framework that the social environment involves. According to Smith, contemporary ethical discourses, whether they are classified as utilitarian or rights-based, are rooted in a particular ontological context of industrial capitalism that he refers to as “modernity.”[2] Our dominant ethi­cal debates are invariable in the sense that they main­tain the moral framework (and hence an invariable ethical content and form) of modernity. This modern context is one that regards a person as a bounded, atomistic, and autonomous individual. At the same time, it is one that reduces morality to an abstract, for­mulaic set of rules and codes (in other words, an ethics of formal rationality[3]. In attempting to account for non-human others, contemporary ethical discourses merely “reproduce the particular social and natural relations pertaining to industrial capitalism” (p. 25). On this premise, Smith suggests that the platitudinous environmental disagreements between economics and ethics, or anthropocentrism and biocentrism, are fu­tile. From the point of view of their ontological foun­dations, these perspectives are virtually the same.

A prime example of anthropocentrism is neoclas­sical economics, which measures the value of nature through a survey of human values, and even then, re­duces them to a kind of market index of an individu­al’s or society’s willingness to pay (WTP). This form of evaluation, without further objective substance, deter­mines the ethically right course of action.

Although we would typically pit ethical theories—whether utilitarian or rights-based—against economic theory (which traditionally claims to be “value free”), Smith suggests that, fundamentally, both are derived from the same ontology. Both were developed with­in the confines of modernity. Hence, moral theories based on biocentric holism provide conclusions that are no “better” or “worse” or more radical than de­cisions based on an economic rationale. Biocentric theories merely aim to extend our present axiology to include non-human others. However, as Smith argues, “each encloses what it regards as morality within a codified and explicit rubric, whether this takes the form of consequentialist calculus of benefits and loss­es, or of written law or predefined procedures” (p. 156). Neither a dialogue of extended rights nor one of expanded utilities that account for non-human things adequately transcends the moral framework imposed by modernity’s formal rationality. Therefore, neither reflects the contextual contingencies of our moral val­ues.

Another important problem with modern ethical discourse is one that Smith refers to in his description of an “Economy of the Same.” An ethics rooted in an unreflexive modern paradigm does not make room for difference and diversity in moral discourse. An envi­ronmental ethic of modernity determines moral con­sideration and intrinsic value through an emphasis on the bounded and atomistic self. This search requires a disregard of difference and an emphasis on sameness, a rationale of modern man that “reduces all others to imperfect copies of himself” (p. 182). For example, in an extended moral theory of animal rights or welfare, we may discover that a cat matters morally because the cat is sentient, just as I am. The cat’s differences from me have no place in the discussion of ethics. In this formulation of ethics that places self at the center of moral considerations, an Economy of the Same not only is shamefully anthropocentric, but also depre­ciates the ways in which we value and are moved by diversity in itself. The problem with dominant envi­ronmental ethics is that they fail to account for “the diversity and beauty to be found and experienced in being party to the wider, natural community and of communing with that nature” (p. 168).

In the modern era, we believe that concepts of the good and the right must be decided in a place above our messy social and ecological contexts. Smith writes, “the end result of this process of rationalization is the complete alienation of the person from their moral potential, from the values that would make them real rather than abstract and impoverished individuals” (p. 159). Smith’s formulation of the alternative, an ethics of place, is based on the idea of a relational, ecological self, rather than an abstract and autonomous self. Un­like the atomized self, the relational self requires oth­ers—both non-human and human—to become and to exist: “self-formation, becoming an individual,” Smith writes, “is inextricably caught up with the recognition of and respect for different others” (p. 217). As a re­sult, an ethics of place that is grounded in localities and messy contexts captures the relationships of care and respect that we hold with the others. These are re­lationships that constitute our selves. As Smith writes, “ethics is then the flow of things in desire and won­der, it is a relation that lets things be, conserving and sustaining them in love and/or difference” (p. 184).

Perhaps the greatest weakness of Smith’s book is that his meticulous critique of modern paradigms is not matched by an equally coherent alternative in his ethics of place, as intuitively attractive as it ap­pears. However, Smith’s analysis of modern moral frameworks leads me to question the possibility of an ethics that transcends our existing paradigms, even with increased reflexivity. For example, are we still constrained within the social context of the modern epoch? Is an ethics of place modern, post-modern, or counter-modern? If ethics is constrained by social formations of a particular historical and geographi­cal context, then does it follow that we must alter our present social formations in order to develop a more relational ethic? What would the underlying social structure of a relational ethic even look like?

In Perceptions and the Environment, Tim Ingold also espouses a vision of a relational, rather than au­tonomous, self. As a social anthropologist, Ingold’s analysis primarily provides a critique on cultural rela­tivism and its persistence within our dominant eth­nographic methodologies and epistemological frame­works. His arguments regarding modern ontological frameworks mirror Mick Smith’s in many ways. Eth­ics and ontology join forces in these two works. In his comprehensive analysis of the natural sciences and anthropology, Ingold provides examples of alternative cosmologies within non-Western hunter-gatherer so­cieties, in which a relational self and an ethics of place emerge. These alternatives constitute Ingold’s dwell­ing perspective, a view of the relational self in which awareness and activity in and of the world are rooted in an organism’s active engagement with the world.[4]

Cultural relativism and formal rationality face the same ontological impasse, perhaps—as Smith might argue—because they were derived from the social structures of the same time and place. This impasse is characterized by a discourse of disengagement from our lived experiences in the world, in addition to an obdurate faith in some form of universal reason that explains reality and dictates our moral values. Ingold writes,

The anthropological claim of perceptual rela­tivism reinforces the claim of natural science to deliver an authoritative account of how nature really works. Both claims are founded upon a disengagement of the observer from the world. . . . Both claims, too, are underwritten by a com­mitment to the heart of Western thought and science . . . the commitment to the ascendancy of abstract or universal reason. (p. 15)

Like Smith, who argues that moralities are plu­ral, Ingold believes that cosmologies—and their cor­responding ontological frameworks—are also plural. Western thought does not lie in a plane above other non-Western understandings of the world; in fact, the view that it does is itself simply one cosmology among many. Western thought is one that divides nature from culture, where human-environment relations are understood as instrumental and biological, or else, merely metaphorical. Ingold’s support of a relational self offers transcendence from our mundane anthro­pological and scientific understandings of human–non-human/environment relations. Ingold suggests,

We need to descend from imaginary heights of abstract reason and resituate ourselves in an active and ongoing engagement with our envi­ronments . . . replace the stale dichotomy of na­ture and culture with the dynamic synergy of organism and environment in order to regain a genuine ecology of life. (p. 16)

As expressed through the title of his book, Ingold is concerned about perception. This concern lies at the heart of his conception of a relational self in an ontology of dwelling. Ingold’s analysis of perception and ontology leads him to support a notion of person­hood in which “self is seen to inhere in the unfolding of relations set up by virtue of positioning in the envi­ronment” (p. 261). Ingold compares and contrasts the works of two influential anthropologists, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Gregory Bateson, and he ultimately favors the relational framework of Bateson’s ecology of the mind. Lévi-Strauss supports a mind-world dualism, in which mind, as a “processor of information,” grasps a world that is out there; he sees the world and the mind as separate and bounded entities. Perception consists of disengagement and then representation of the pat­terns and information gained from the outside world. In contrast, Gregory Bateson’s ecology of the mind is one in which the mind emerges through our entangle­ments with the world. Ingold describes Bateson’s theo­ry of perception as one in which “mind is immanent in the whole system of organism-environment relations in which we humans are necessarily enmeshed, rather than confined within our individual bodies as against a world ‘out there’” (p. 16). In addition to Bateson, Ingold was also strongly influenced by ecological psy­chologist James Gibson, whose notion of organism-in-its-environment provides the foundation for Ingold’s dwelling perspective.[5] Like Bateson, Gibson rejected both disengagement and duality between the mind and the outside world. Gibson’s theory of perception is of an organism-in-its-environment rather than self-contained individual confronting an external world (p. 171). Perception is achieved not through a mind within a body but through an exploratory movement of the organism in the world. 

By drawing from Gibsonian ecological psychology and the works of prominent phenomenologists (such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty), Ingold sketches out an alternative ontological frame­work for an ethics of place. This alternative, relational framework constitutes Ingold’s dwelling perspective. In his development of the dwelling perspective, Ingold starts from a premise that Smith failed to acknowl­edge: how we relate to the world is inseparable from how we value things and act morally. An ontological framework of dualism and disengagement would sup­port an ethics that is vastly different from one of en­gagement and a relational self.

Ingold borrows the concept of dwelling from Hei­degger who states, “we do not dwell because we have built, but we build and have built because we dwell.”[6] Through this statement, Heidegger and Ingold suggest that we do not build a world in our separate and bound­ed mind before acting upon it; instead, building and dwelling are the symbiotic activities of the mind and body that constitute our being in the world. Ingold’s ontology of dwelling is a perspective that  “[takes] the human condition to be that of being immersed from the start like other creatures, in an active practical and perceptual engagement with constituents of the dwelt-in world” (p. 42). To Ingold, “apprehending the world is not a matter of construction but of engagement, not of building but of dwelling, not of making a view of the world but of taking up a view in it” (p. 42).

Before diving into the ethical implications of In­gold’s ontology of dwelling, I want to first summarize some of the key points in his analysis of personhood and human-ness. Ingold’s conception of a relational self provides some interesting perspectives on what it means to be human. Ingold rejects a perspective that constructs the human being as constituted by two sep­arate but complementary roles: those of personhood and agency on one hand and of the biological condi­tions of humanity and animality on the other, where personhood is “a state of being not open to nonhuman animal kinds” (p. 48). This viewpoint starts from the belief that humans have somehow transcended nature, overcoming the state of animality, whereas non­-humans remain merely organisms, bounded in their animality by the dictates of biology. A disengaged ontological framework treats human-to-human rela­tions as social and human-to-non-human relations as biological or metaphorical; this view of relations is grounded in a premise that organisms and persons are distinct. Instead, he asks, what if the human is both an organism and a person? In Ingold’s dwelling per­spective, the social relationships of persons and the ecological relationships of organisms are inseparable.

From a dualistic and disengaged Western ontolo­gy, there is an absolute division between humans, who have agency, and non-human animals, who do not. Ingold suggests that this hierarchical binary is false, as “animals participate with humans as real-world creatures with powers of feeling and autonomous ac­tion” (p. 52). An ontology of dwelling overcomes this dualism through a view of humans and non-humans as participants in the same world, a world in which rela­tions are simultaneously ecological and social. As In­gold argues, “the domain in which human persons are involved as social beings with one another cannot be rigidly set apart from the domain of their involvement with nonhuman components of the environment” (p. 61).

This relational model of humans–non-humans/en­vironment leads Ingold to a discussion of ethics that echoes Smith’s ethics of place. Instead of a perspec­tive in which humans act upon nature, humans and animals are fellow and equal participants in the same world. In Ingold’s ontology of dwelling, relations be­tween humans and non-human others are character­ized by trust rather than domination. Ingold describes relations of trust as combining both autonomy and de­pendency, where the autonomy of others (both human and non-human) is recognized and retained despite our dependency on them (p. 72). Ingold writes, “caring for an environment is like caring for people: it requires a deep and personal and affectionate involvement, not just of mind or body, but of one’s entire undivided be­ing” (p. 69). In a relationship of trust, the autonomy of the other—whether this be livestock, plants, or other people—is retained as we provide it with the condi­tions of growth, thereby allowing it to flourish on its own (p. 86).

The ontological framework that Ingold supports in his book extends the conversation of both place and the relational self as discussed in Smith’s An Ethics of Place. Ingold offers an ontology in which a rela­tional self and ethics of place may emerge. However, we are still left to wonder if an alternative is possible when we are still entrapped in the social formations of modernity. Both Smith and Ingold emphasize the importance of reflexivity and grounded-ness in both moral discourse and anthropological discourse; these authors have illustrated our need to descend from the imaginary heights of abstraction back down to the messy entanglements of our lived experience. Although its primary focus is anthropology, Ingold’s book provides a captivating and comprehensive dis­cussion of how the dwelling perspective may unfold our understandings of hunter-gatherer societies, memory, art/architecture, language, the metaphysics of sensory experiences, and cartography, among other topics. An Ethics of Place and The Perception of the Environment supply us with interesting critiques of our dominant moral and ontological frameworks that, if read in succession, are complementary.

[1].  M. Smith, An Ethics of Place: Radical Ecology, Postmodernity, and Social Theory (Al­bany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 25. All subsequent references to this work will be given by page number in the text.

[2]. Smith distinguishes between modernity as a specific “epoch or a social formation with certain salient and distinguishing features” and modernism, which is “the dominant but not sole ideology/narrative within that society” (p. 10).

[3]. A term coined by Max Weber to describe the sociology of a modern society, formal rationality refers to a form of reason encapsulated within universal rules and regulations (often bureaucratic ones). Formal rationality relies on calculation, reason, and reasoning in contrast to personal insight, emotions, or myth.

[4]. T. Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000), 5. All subsequent references to this work will be given as page numbers in the text. 

[5]. J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

[6]. M. Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 148.

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