Just as I was getting ready to wind up the Bennett discussions yesterday, Scu posted a substantial piece about chapter 7, and promised more to come on chapter 8. I’m glad to see it, since I thought there could have been more discussion about both (and about some general issues throughout the book).
Picking up on the same lines I had noted (“Since I have challenged the uniqueness of humanity in several ways, why not conclude that we and they are equally entitled? […] To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me “horizontalize” the world completely”), Scu writes:
this is a fairly classical move: Deontology for humans, utilitarianism for everything else. […] Her justification for this human exceptionalism is perhaps the worse part: Her conatus makes her. Seriously? Maybe Bennett needs a new conatus. There is nothing here to explain why species difference is an ontologically, ethically, and/or politically important difference or coherent category. […]
He’s right about this. I had overlooked the lack of argumentation (“my conatus made me do it” not really being an argument) and simply moved on to the next part (“The political goal of a vital materialism is not the perfect equality of actants, but a polity with more channels of communication between members”), which is the kind of compromise position Bennett is very good at articulating, without necessarily pursuing the implications of the different options along the way.
I may find this move disappointing, but I also don’t have solutions here. I have occasionally been attacked as simply replacing an anthropocentrism with some sort of animal-centrism. Not entirely fair, but partially true. In that I think that figuring out how to integrate animals into our political and ethical systems is hard enough for now. I could say: Democracy for all! Which is fine if I simply want to work in slogans, but far more complex to actually have some sort of flat ethics. I have repeatedly come out that I worry that a flat ontology can justify its own humanism. I think this is one example of that.
I wonder, though, if Bennett’s conatus defense couldn’t be seen as a way of acknowledging that ethics is different from ontology, and that therefore even a “flat” ontology does not necessitate a “flat” ethics. Ontology describes the world; ethics assist us in acting in it. Even if humans and other entities are all entities of a certain, comparable kind — or, to use DeLanda’s flat ontology as an example, even if all things are morphogenetic processes which, for all their differences, follow the same kinds of form-generating principles — acting amidst them always involves our own placement within and between them.
In concrete situations, things get tangled. If I had to decide between saving a drowning baby and saving a drowning ant (don’t philosophers just love these kinds of unlikely scenarios?), the choice for me would be an easy one (save the kid, not the bug). Like Bennett, I’ll admit that that’s because I feel for the infant: I understand its cries, its looks, and what those looks mean to human adults. I like ants, and am fascinated by their societies, but I don’t have the same feel for them. My understanding of them, furthermore (which I guess means my ‘ontology’) tells me their moment-to-moment decisions may not have as much intensity as a human’s, if only because their genetics and nervous system don’t provide as wide a berth for decision-making, emotional responsiveness, etc., as that of a growing human child. Whether this means they are worth less than an average human or not I’m not sure. The question seems to me too abstract (though the fact that there are more of them than us seems somehow relevant in the equation). This isn’t utilitarianism; it’s more like deontology, where the duty I have toward an ant is different than the duty to a fellow human.
If, on the other hand, I had to decide between delivering a non-fatal electric shock to a chimpanzee and delivering the same electric shock to a human whom I had just witnessed torturing that chimpanzee (an even less likely scenario, at least with my being at the switch), the choice would also be fairly easy for me: save the chimp from more torture, let the human get a bit of his own medicine. I suspect that Bennett, even with her mildly pro-human conatus, might act the same under the circumstances (as, I’m more sure, would Scu). The decision isn’t based so much on an ontology (though that factors in) as it is on the ethical demands of the situation, which includes my feeling for that situation — its beauty or horror, its potential for bringing about certain ethical ends (extending solidarity with the chimp, teaching the human a lesson, etc.), and so on.
In real-life situations, I think there are always these other kinds of considerations to take into account. Moreover, ethics aren’t just situation-specific in this micro sense, but they are evolving in a more macro sense — which is why Scu’s and Bennett’s desire to extend more consideration to nonhumans is an issue at all in our time, and why Scu’s dilemma — “democracy for all!” versus “let’s work on bringing the animals in for now” — is an understandable one.
But then that’s probably just me being a processual ontologist and an ethical pragmatist (in the best sense of the word). Like James, Peirce, Dewey, et al, I prefer to see ontology and ethics as open-ended, evolving, and unfinalizable, part of a process of trying to figure things out, individually and collectively. But at the point where we think we’ve got them figured, they (the things) will always have become sufficiently different to render our figurings incomplete.
At least Bennett and Scu are moving in the same direction, one more hesitantly, trying to keep the laggards on board with her as she proceeds, the other more intently and insistently. The direction, however, whether it’s thought of as moral extensionism, biocentrism, post-humanism, or whatever, seems appropriate for our time. It’s far from the only direction things are heading, of course (and one person’s progress may well be another’s nightmare), but that’s where we have a choice of how and where to align ourselves.