Joanna Zylinska

Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

    7. Ethics

    Fig. 8: Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 8, 2014
    Fig. 8
    Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 8, 2014

    Ethics is a mode of human locatedness in the world which involves a recognition of the processual and unstable nature not only of any such locatedness but also of the human that is thus located. It also involves the human in giving an account of the modes of relationality that ensue. In this sense, ethics is not just about being-in but also about being-with. The processual and co-emergent nature of what we are calling the world applies to all sorts of thickenings of matter across different scales, as argued earlier. All beings in the world exist and emerge “with”. Humans are not the only beings that are capable of relating to and collaborating with others; they are also most probably not the only sentient beings that are capable of communicating with others, grasping others’ pain, causing violence to others but also withholding or at least minimizing violence. It is quite likely that what we conventionally refer to as moral behavior—actions that are compliant with a given group’s customs and social codes and that are aimed to produce beneficial outcomes for this group, on a material or spiritual level—is just a set of reactions to external and internal stimuli, [1] reactions that then become a form of learned behavior and that, in the human language, get elevated to the status of “goodness”. It is primarily the linguistic labelling of certain types of behavior as “good”, “noble” and “honorable” that differentiates human acts towards other human and nonhuman entities and processes as “moral”. As a consequence, beings that humans designate as “animals” are always kept on the other side of morality, in a denigrated position described as “animality”. [2] As John Mullarkey points out, “members of one group, Homo sapiens, have distributed among themselves every right and privilege through the course of an enlarging enfranchisement”. They have achieved this state of events by “invoking an identity that necessarily ostracises a vast out-group (‘non-human animals’ so called) to the extent of either defining them in some jurisdictions as non-sentient beings or practically treating them as such in most others” (97).

    The point of the argument presented thus far is not to expand the notion of ethics to other sentient beings beyond the human. Indeed, such conceptual “expansionism” only ends up confirming the singular human moral subject, with other beings (dolphins, apes) assessed on the basis of how closely they replicate human behavior and thus how closely they approach the human’s “humanity”. [3] Instead, I propose to see ethics as a relatively narrow cultural practice, worked out by humans across history, as a form of regulating ways of co-existing and co-emerging with others. This cultural practice also involves providing an account—verbally, experientially, or aesthetically—of these processes of co-existence and co-emergence. In others words, ethics could be described as a practice of not only becoming in and with the world but also of working out possibilities for what we will decide, through deliberation, policy work and conflict resolution, to be ways of becoming better in the world. Once again, this is not to deny that so-called animals are incapable of enacting conventionally understood moral behavior such as empathy, cooperation, fairness or reciprocity, or that they may even turn out to be more successful than humans at displaying such behavior. It is just to propose to reserve the term “ethics” to that narrow spectrum of humans’ affective-cognitive responses and actions that involve giving an account of these behaviors, via the conventionally (even if not exclusively) human cultural practices such as philosophy, story-telling and art. Put yet otherwise, ethics is a historically contingent human mode of becoming in the world, of becoming different from the world, and of narrating and taking responsibility for the nature of this difference. There are no prior limits to the applicability of this ethics, which is why we could say that it involves accounting for something as wide and abstract as “our place in the sun” (Levinas 1989: 82-5). This account is necessary because any place in the universe I temporally occupy, and from which I build, consume, love and destroy, is never originally and duly mine: I am just a wayfarer through matter’s planetary unfoldings and thickenings. There is therefore a story-telling aspect to ethics.

    The defense of ethics as a “better” mode of philosophizing, one that precedes ontology and that makes a demand on being, comes from the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. This precedence takes place on the level of justice: if ontology is a “philosophy of power” that reduces any ideas about what we are calling the world and its unfolding to the conceptual apparatus possessed by the cognizant subject (Levinas 1969: 46), ethics can be seen instead as the suspension of humans’ epistemological and hence domineering pretensions. This is not to say that we humans have to remain ignorant; it is just to suggest caution in getting to know things all too quickly and then constantly producing and reproducing behavior and action, or ethics and politics, on the basis of this knowledge. Turning to Levinas in any work that aims to promote post-anthropocentric thinking the way this book does is of course not without problems, given the significant role ascribed to the human face as the source of ethical demand in his writings, and the marked (even if historically comprehensible, given the context of the Shoah) disinterestedness in other nonhuman forms of being and becoming. However, I argued elsewhere that Levinas’ “error” is first of all scientific and historical rather than philosophical, in that he does not consider seriously the limitations of his own concept of the human as a speaking being with the face, rather than a sentient being reaching to—and touched by—others in a myriad different ways (see Zylinska 2009: 57). Yet do we really know with whom we can enter into a discourse (a refugee? a dolphin? a computer bot?) and what this “entering into a discourse” actually means? Levinas’ ethics also does not go all the way in recognizing the mutual entanglement of “us” and “the world”: the boundaries of Levinas’ “other”, even if not fully knowable, are nevertheless transcendentally posited, rather than seen as immanent, as differentiation-from-within—which is the line of thought adopted in this book.

    The minimal ethics for the Anthropocene is therefore not Levinasian in any obvious sense but it does borrow its minimalist structuring from his rethinking of the edifice of Western philosophy, and especially of the relationship between ethics and politics. It also borrows from Levinas the sense of ethical obligation and responsibility as something inevitable that makes a demand on the human and that demands a response from him/her. It becomes, to cite Timothy Morton, a form of “radical openness to everything” (2010: 15). This openness in itself does not guarantee the taking up of the ethical challenge by the thus interpellated human but it does position her as always already involved, obligated, entangled. In a counterargument to neo-Darwinian theories of the selfish gene, Morton playfully argues that it is altruism rather than selfishness that can be said to be hardwired into reality, since “we are made of others: we’ve literally got them under our skin” (119). Indeed, Lynn Margulis’ research into evolutionary biology (1998) has conclusively shown that, thanks to the age-old processes of genetic symbiosis we carry within ourselves traces of our microbial ancestors. Rather than being seen as Dawkins’ teleological “lumbering robots” equipped with the task of transmitting and hence preserving DNA for future generations of living beings, humans are posited here as always nomadic, as transient and temporary stabilizations of life whose form emerges in relation with their environment. To use Bergson’s poetic language,

    life is like a current passing from germ to germ through the medium of a developed organism. It is as if the organism itself were only an excrescence, a bud caused to sprout by the former germ endeavoring to continue itself in a new germ. The essential thing is the continuous progress indefinitely pursued, an invisible progress, on which each visible organism rides during the short interval of time given it to live. (1944: 32).

    From this vantage point, humans do not have any pre-designed tasks, even at genetic level: they are just temporarily stabilized processes that are as accidental as any others, and shorter-lived than most at that.

    It is through Bergson’s attention to life—as outlined in his Creative Evolution but formulated in more clearly ethical terms in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, that I aim to draw on Levinas’ ethical intimations. Mullarkey justifies such a philosophical encounter by arguing that “Bergsonism may best be read as an ethics of alterity fleshed out in empirical concerns” (107) but also that Levinas’ idea of relationality qua responsibility which is foundational to ethics has been influenced by Bergson. Indeed, Mullarkey goes so far as to suggest that “élan vital itself is but another way of thinking about alterity”, with Bergson’s absolutely new becoming the Levinasian “Other” (109). [4] If life itself amounts to the creation of forms ever new, the nature of social relations is also “an ongoing creation” (Mullarkey 1999: 88)—a line of argument that returns in the work of many contemporary thinkers of entanglement such as Haraway, Barad or Braidotti. With this perspective, as Mullarkey explains, “Bergson sidesteps the frozen essentialism of reductive naturalists as well as the liquid relativism of culturalists: society is indeed moulded by nature, but by a creative nature which in part tries to break its own moulds!” (89).

    The fact that we humans have literally got others under our skin does not yet make us unique amongst other beings, but the historical practice of reflecting on such forms of relationality with others, via philosophy, story-telling and art, does. What is unique on the social level is therefore not the nature of these relations as such—indeed, they are part of the wider evolution of life—but rather the human possibility of taking (at least partial) responsibility for some of those relations, and giving (an equally partial) account of them. Our human responsibility can therefore be described as a form of experiential, corporeal and affective “worlding” in which we produce (knowledge about) the world, seen as a set of relations and tasks. This may involve relating responsibly to other humans, but also to nonhuman beings and processes, including some extremely tiny and extremely complex or even abstract ones (microbes, clouds, climate, global warming). Taking responsibility for something we cannot see is not easy. But, as Morton, argues, “it’s no tougher than taking responsibility for, say, not killing—you don’t have to come up with a reason; you just do it and figure out why later. That’s why it’s called an ethical decision. It doesn’t have to be proved or justified. You just do it.” This is not an advocacy of an “anything goes” form of ethics; only a recognition that “one can act spontaneously and consciously” (2010: 99, emphasis added). Our response is thus a way of taking responsibility for the multiplicity of the world, and for our relations to and with it. Such responsibility can always be denied or withdrawn, but a response will have already taken place nonetheless. However, an act of taking responsibility is not just a passive reaction to pre-existing reality: it involves actively making cuts into the ongoing unfolding of matter in order to stabilize it. Ethical de-cisions can thus be best understood as material in-cisions.

    The language of incisions and cuts highlights an important aspect of the ethics outlined here: the inevitability of violence as its constitutive element, rather than as something that should be expunged and overcome the way Morton seems to suggest (2010: 127-8). For me, dependency and violence are inevitable conditions of relationality and “worlding”. Given that the latter involves the voluntary and involuntary shaping of matter across the geo- and biosphere, it may incur changing its temporary stabilizations, destroying things, causing pain to sentient beings or even killing them. Of course, such practices “should never leave their practitioners in moral comfort, sure of their righteousness”, as Donna Haraway poignantly emphasizes (2003: 75). The recognition of the inevitability of violence in any relation does not take away the injunction to both minimize the violence and reflect on it. In other words, it involves working towards what Levinas termed “good violence” (1969): a rupture within the self which is made to face the difference and relate to it. There is no mutuality here: as mentioned before, this ethical responsibility is only ever not so much even human as it is mine. It is therefore singular, singularly allocated and enacted. Yet the subject of this ethics has nothing to do with the individualism and self-possession of normative moral theories: instead, it is decisively posthuman. Such a subject can be defined, after Braidotti, as relational, “constituted in and by multiplicity”; it is a subject “that works across differences and is also internally differentiated, but still grounded and accountable” (2013: 49). An ethical theory that embeds violence into its framework—rather than just sweeping it aside in a fantasy gesture of moral purification—promises to address the question of co-emergence and co-dependency in all its complexity. This does not imply imposing moral equivalence between all forms of violence and all forms of dependency, even if we accept that “[a]ny act of identification, naming, or relation is a betrayal of and a violence toward the Other” (Calarco 2008: 136).

    Injunctions with regard to what this human should and should not do are of course never self-evident. There exists a long list of rather diverse and contradictory injunctions issued by various philosophical and religious traditions, rooted in specific ideas with regard to the order of the universe and the human’s place and role in it. It is not my ambition to arbitrate over those injunctions. I also aim to keep adding to this list to the minimum. To offset many moralizing aspects of such injunctions, the ethics presented here is therefore itself positioned as minimal, even though it operates at such large planetary and geological scales. It inscribes itself in “the philosophy of ‘less than’” (Morton 2010: 119). As Morton puts it, “Seeing the Earth from space is the beginning of ecological thinking. The first aeronauts, balloon pilots, immediately saw Earth as an alien world. Seeing yourself from another point of view is the beginning of ethics and politics” (2010: 14). Paradoxical as it sounds, the minimal injunction presented here is to think big, perhaps as big as we can, and then to issue the smallest injunctions possible that will allow us to avoid a moralist trap. It is also to consider the philosophical and material possibility of human interconnectedness with other beings—and with cosmic matter itself—but also to see the human him/herself as one more temporary cut made into the flow of matter.

    Any such cuts into matter most often occur outside and beyond human consciousness, yet their recognition becomes vital in the production of the historically specific practice called philosophy—and especially ethics. This latter statement gets us out of the dilemma of whether nonhuman animals can also think, perhaps in more complex ways than we realize. Deep skepticism with regard to the uniqueness of human faculties does not mean denying the specificity of descriptive and normative cultural articulations by the human—even if we are to agree that culture is just biology with a shorter time-span. The difference of time difference, or thinking responsibly across and within different scales, is precisely what the minimal ethics for the Anthropocene outlined here stands for.


    1. Steve Shaviro’s edited book, Cognition and Decision in Non-Human Biological Organisms, provides a helpful account of the problem of decision-as-reaction. His introduction to the volume is an excellent attempt to throw non-humanist light on our conventional ways of understanding such human-centric notions as thinking, decision-making and free will. return to text
    2. This point is most cogently argued by Jacques Derrida in “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)”. return to text
    3. I have previously described this kind of argument, which can be seen, among others, in the work of such moral philosophers as John Finnis, John Harris and Peter Singer, as merely postulating a “stretched scale of personhood” (see Zylinska 2009: 11-17). return to text
    4. Mullarkey is careful, however, not to suggest an all-the-way equivalence between the two thinkers, insisting that it is equally important to ponder the differences between them. He writes: “Bergson’s philosophy of life is too ontological for Levinas, too creative and active. Creation itself presupposes something more fundamental, according to Levinas, namely the revelation of human alterity. The philosophy of the élan is flawed because ‘it tends toward an impersonal pantheism’. This charge is undoubtedly true: Bergsonism is not a humanism but primarily a philosophy of time extended to all being. Levinas’ humanism is wrapped up in his phenomenology, for he clearly views time anthropologically in its essence […] Without being rationalist, Levinas’ primacy of the subjective still remains classical in as much as it disregards the value of non-human forms of life. […] however, Bergson’s anti-reductionism extends his vision of ethical irreducibility beyond the human psyche towards anything that genuinely endures” (110). return to text