The language of the voiceless: Some questions about ecological ethics

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We humans are not who we thought we were, not nearly as rational, unique and intentional as we imagined ourselves to be. Instead, we are intrinsically connected with all the life around us. Which ethics would be appropriate if the current ethical approaches are based on outdated ideas? Do we have to have ecological ethics in which people are just a part, next to everything that also lives and moves? Not in every regard, I think, modern thinking has produced an ethical and political system that enables us to make autonomous collective choices democratically – something we need to maintain. On the other hand, this system is based entirely on language, while ecological ethics would also require the voiceless to have their say. There is no simple answer; trade-offs between anthropocentric and ecological approaches remain inevitable.

Ethicists are mainly concerned with relationships between people; connections between people and non-people are of secondary importance. But humans are by no means singular organisms; we are symbiotic beings consisting of humans and microbiomes, the latter composed of billions of bacteria, fungi and yeasts. That microbiome may have more cells than body cells and plays a role in almost all bodily processes.

In addition to ecosystems in themselves, people are also part of ecosystems in which everything is connected with everything. And all this is again part of a biosphere, a belt of about 10 kilometers that spans the earth and in which, as far as we know, all the life of the universe resides.

Our actions affect all that life, and it would be hubris to restrict ethics to humans. Instead of anthropocentric ethics, we should develop ecological ethics in which the connections between humans and their environment are central.

This is also what is argued by Donna Haraway. She argues that we should no longer start from the premise of humans as exceptional beings but instead emphasize the kinship between ourselves and our living environment. In addition, Haraway states that living beings do not just do things on their own, but always respond to the actions of other living beings. According to Haraway, always in favor of an ugly neologism, living organisms are ‘response-able’. With all these responding creatures, a web of coherent relationships is created, of which humans are only a part.

Bruno Latour comes with a similar approach. According to him, agency is not reserved for people or even for everything that lives, but for everything that is: both beings and things act. The points of departure of Haraway and Latour are slightly different. While Haraway is a biologist who mainly looks at organisms, Latour is a technology sociologist who primarily looks at things; these are not considered neutral objects but, just like us, actors in a network in which people and things determine each other’s actions.

In our everyday life, the latter is actually quite evident. We are surrounded by technologies, from the knife we ​​use to make a sandwich, the bicycle we use to move, to the internet and electricity-connected computer we use to email, order, work, and so on. The things around us constantly determine what we do, just as we determine what things do.

Latour started with the actions of technologies but realized he shouldn’t limit himself to things. The climate problem shows that not only technologies do something, but nature acts. Gaia, Latour’s name for everything that lives within the narrow biosphere that encompasses the Earth, is also a network of interdependent actors.

Thus, The climate problem can be seen as how Gaia reacts to our industrialized activities. The same is true of the coronavirus pandemic; the worldwide spread of microscopic living creatures is a response of nature to our hyper-dynamic lifestyle, globalised economy, and diet. A reaction that creates a new reality, to which we as humans have to react again.

The actions of Gaia are not just judgments; it is mainly up to us to label them ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Haraway and Latour’s ethical lessons diverge. Haraway argues that nature teaches us that as rooted individuals, we must take more care of our relationships. In contrast, Latour argues that we must give a political voice to everything not yet represented in political and institutional forums: technologies and manifestations of Gaia, such as water, soil, forests and air.

What binds both approaches is the message that we are not that special and must, therefore, be fully aware of our inescapable connection to the biosphere. This seems a necessary starting point, but I’m afraid it’s not enough: care and representation alone are not enough. Besides their neologisms, the problem of Haraway and Latour is that they turn modern philosophy into a straw man. Modern thinkers are portrayed as naive minds who have made people important because they make choices based on their exceptional rationality. In doing so, they ignore important insights, while a fully-fledged ecological ethics can only be successful if it does justice to responsible and meaningful action. We cannot do this without the modern principles of rationality, exceptionalism and intentionality, but we have to understand these differently. I will review these three properties here and briefly indicate how we can interpret them differently.

Modern ethics is indeed an intrinsically anthropocentric discipline, in which it was first determined what makes humans human, after which the moral rules that go with it were derived. Animals and other living organisms are treated poorly. For example, according to Descartes, animals are only mechanical automatons. Even for most philosophers, this is too ridiculous an idea, but Kant’s idea that animals are not autonomous and rational like humans (or at least so much less that it is negligible) is pretty widely held. Because what makes us unique, according to most modern thinkers, is our ability to think independently and logically.

Ironically, research shows that this ability doesn’t make us that special at all. Elephants and dolphins have larger brains, and experiments have shown that chimpanzees are less influenced by other chimpanzees than humans by other humans in their choices; they choose based on what they see for themselves and do not ape others as humans do.

This doesn’t imply that people are not unique; it means that most thinkers (and most others) have looked for that particularity in the wrong direction. As individuals, we are not very special, but as a species, we are truly unique. According to evolutionary anthropologist Joseph Henrich, humans have two unique qualities that explain the secret of humanity.

First of all, there is the ability to learn from others. We are not necessarily good at thinking by ourselves. Still, we are incredibly good at imitating successful others: we unconsciously select models who can do something very well and then copy their strategies. This way, we always follow the people we think are the smartest, most handy or resourceful. Because everyone does that, everyone is becoming smarter, more useful and more resourceful.

Second, we are unique in our ability to pick up and follow standards. We are virtuosic in recognizing social cues that indicate which actions are appropriate within a particular culture. In doing so, we assume that our universe is characterized by regularities; not only are there fixed rules that we are supposed to follow, but there are also lawful causes that explain certain events. The assumed regularities motivate our behavior and our beliefs.

These two qualities have led to many errors, such as choosing the wrong models or believing in nonsensical regularities. But they have also led to the emergence of ‘superorganisms’: cultures that have evolved in which people make smarter decisions than they would have individually. These decisions are based on an accumulation of smart choices from the past, which serve as generally applicable rules of action. Rather than being guided by our personal individual considerations and instincts, we base our choices on our collective intelligence.

I also see technologies as part of these superorganisms – in line with Latour’s ideas. We and our devices are elements of this superorganism that act according to specific rules.

In addition, language is also an intrinsic part of the superorganism. Language determines how we think, communicate, remember, categorize and give meaning to our experiences and impressions.

The norms, technologies and language are all aspects of an intersubjective reality that provides us as individuals with an unbelievably large repertoire of available knowledge, a repertoire that is only growing. Not that animals lack culture, technology or language, but on a scale that is incomparable to that of humans.

Thinkers like Haraway or Latour completely identify rationality with ‘instrumental’ rationality, which involves finding the right means for particular ends. It is a form of rationality that we see in the technocratization and bureaucratization of daily life. In this, meaning is imposed on our actions from an objectified way of thinking, also where it concerns our interactions with nature. Nature becomes a means to achieve a specific goal, for example, by supplying raw product materials. Nature is also presented as a mechanistic system consisting of analytically distinct blocks that influence each other according to the laws of nature.

Haraway and Latour have great difficulty with this mechanistic view because it offers no possibility of letting nature itself answer. Indeed, if nature is seen primarily as an instrumental resource, we are asking for problems − and certainly, we’ve got these.

But instrumental rationality is not all there is. When we look at Max Weber’s idea of ​​rationality, it is not just about instrumental objectification but just as much about making rules, values, goals and means explicit so that motivations and actions can be accounted for transparently. In other words, rationality refers to the ability to put thought into words and let those words be part of a dialogue. This creates a form of rationality that Jürgen Habermas has called ‘communicative’ that coexists with the instrumental form of rationality. Communicative rationality may be less visible, but it has nevertheless been decisive in how modern institutions and democratic politics are organized.

I have repeatedly described institutions as revolving around accountability: these structures force individuals to behave responsibly because they can be asked to give good reasons afterwards. In a democracy, it is about establishing rules and norms that everyone can agree to − even if only by agreeing on the procedures that must be in place to resolve conflicting positions. There is a shared understanding of the norms that prevail within a society, which statements are acceptable, how conflicts can be resolved, and how these norms can be adjusted if there is reason to do so.

The realization that we as individuals are part of a cultural superorganism has the necessary implications for our self-image as conscious actors, as modern thinkers have assumed. With Latour, we can say that intentions do not matter when we talk about agency; man and technology are both involved in an act. It does not make much sense to give either party a special status. In turn, Haraway puts the idea of ​​a singular personality into perspective: we are networks ourselves with everything that lives in and around us.

The fallacy of Latour and Haraway is that they assume that without the idea of ​​an intentionally acting individual, modern philosophy and ethics will collapse. I don’t think so, for we have known since Freud that many of our actions are not taken consciously, but that has not led to the end of modern thinking.

I have argued more often that the idea of ​​an intentional individual can best be seen as a ‘contrafactual’ assumption: it is an assumption that makes it possible to hold each other accountable for our decisions afterwards. Then, we are forced to give good reasons that could have counted as intentions had we been wholly intentional beings.

This contrafactual intentionality is one with Habermas’s communicative rationality. It forces a person to make her motivations explicit so that these can be discussed and a collective judgment can be formed. Institutions such as the legal system have been designed based on this assumption, but it is also in everyday life that the question, ‘Why are you doing that?’ is often asked. Just think of the education of children or the reactions you get after a wrong pass during a game of football.

The importance is that with the possibility of confronting someone afterwards about their choices, ethical frameworks have been developed based on the individual’s primacy. People do not have to obey a prince or priest to behave morally right; they have internalized the prevailing moral standards.

In sum, you can say that modern thinking has produced a moral and political system in which we ourselves can give direction to the rules and meanings that we consider important. We control the superorganism we are a part of through democratic procedures structured according to communicative rationality. We are not dependent on tradition or existing power relations.

The fact that no individual prevails in the design of the superorganism can be attributed to how responsibilities are structured in formal institutions. Persons can always be held accountable if they misbehave. In addition, the freedom and equality of this system make it possible for individuals to contribute optimally to the ever-growing collective intelligence.

In all these matters, language is decisive. Language allows us to articulate our motives, communicate with each other, give and share meanings, and introduce and preserve new concepts. You could also say that our ethical and political system is language-centric rather than anthropocentric. The big problem is that this doesn’t work well for beings and things that lack language.

We must not forget that many people still don’t have a voice, with future generations as the most striking example. Those who are most affected by the decisions being made now cannot speak out yet.

But they are not the only ones. Despite all the democratic ideals, people often cannot express themselves on matters that concern them. One of the problems here arises from the instrumental rationality described above, in which reality is described in an objectified and mechanized way. If such a description is taken as true, people have no chance of forming their meanings. This also sets aside the possible plurality of cultures, perspectives and principles for a singular system of meaning, while communicative rationality is precisely about confronting world views made explicit and justified in a dialogue.

Symptomatic here is how technical innovations are thought of. With Latour, you can say that the technologies themselves have no say in this, but you could just as well say that people have no say in this, either. The decision-making regarding new technology is left to experts and funders who strive for instrumental rationality. In short, anthropocentric ethics also requires the reassessment of rationality, exceptionalism and intentionality.

Let us turn to ecological ethics: the great challenge is how to give a language to beings and things without a voice without compromising the achievements of modern ethics. Despite all his harsh criticism of modern thinking, this seems entirely in line with Latour’s views. After all, he argues for participation through a fairly traditional way of parliamentary or institutional representation, in which voters speak for beings, things and voiceless people. In doing so, he trusts that many representative voices create an effective barrier against the objectifying tendencies of instrumental rationality. The pluralism of voices ensures that the actions and responses of non-linguistic beings also find a place in political and moral discussions.

I don’t know whether this barrier is high enough. I find it difficult to estimate to what extent communicative rationality can accommodate non-linguistic actions and answers. It is clear that the foundations of democracy are under pressure from the dominance of instrumental rationality, but can we do without it? I don’t think so; we need objectified knowledge to know how nature is doing and a bureaucracy to guarantee neutral procedures.

Ultimately, we have to make a trade-off between the cultural superorganism based on language and the intertwined network of living beings in which everything responds to everything without speaking out.

Further reading:

Habermas, J. (1981). Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Vol. 2): Suhrkamp Frankfurt.

Habermas, J. (1985). The theory of communicative action: Volume 2: Lifeword and system: A critique of functionalist reason (Vol. 2). Boston: Beacon press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene: Duke University Press.

Henrich, J. (2017). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter: Princeton University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Facing Gaia. Six lectures on the political theology of nature’, Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, 18-28.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to earth: Politics in the new climatic regime: John Wiley & Sons.

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