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01 September 2010

Environmental Ethics: Prelude

Today I had my first class of the semester - Environmental Ethics with Thomas Hilde.  Wasn't much to it, of course, just syllabus stuff and introductions, but as part of the class we are to write one page analyses/questions for the readings each week.  This is just to ensure that we do the readings and that we are thinking about the readings and prepared for discussion - I think it's a good exercise, not simple busy work, but not overly taxing.  In any case, I thought what I'd do is to write up my short analysis and post them here each week, then just copy and paste them to a document and bring them to class.  This will do a few things.  First, it will ensure that I do the work.  Second, it will ensure that the work is at least somewhat thoughtful.  And third, it will hopefully draw responses from my many many (sarcasm) readers, which will provide me with more to think about and more to bring to the class.  Anyway, we'll see how it goes.

So to begin with - and this isn't really part of the assignment, since we haven't done any reading yet - I just want to post some thoughts on ethics in general.  Levi has a nice post up about ethics, and his Introductory Ethics class, in which he discusses the argument that ethics are simply a tool for those in power to control the rest of us (this is not his view, but just a thought experiment he underwent with his class thanks to Peter Singer's book Ethics).  It's an interesting argument, and makes sense on a certain level - David Graeber argues something similar (for etiquette, not ethics, though) in a few of the sections of his book Possibilities - but obviously it's not true.  The fact is, a lot of people engage in thinking about ethics, not just those in power.  It is quite possibly the most common form of philosophical thought, which means that, while the powerful may use ethics to their benefit in some ways, ethics cannot be reduced to a form of domination. 

So what is ethics?  Obviously the straight forward answer is that it's people trying to figure out what's right and wrong, and the best way to live.  Professor Hilde suggested further, that it is the attempt to find some universal understanding of right and wrong.  I'm thinking of it empirically and pragmatically.  That is, what is it that we do when we engage in ethical thought?  And Professor Hilde touched on this as well - we make assertions about what is right/wrong or the ethical nature of the world and our lives, but we also make arguments to support those assertions.  If we don't make an argument to support them - even if the argument is simply that God said so - our assertions would simply be rejected.  That means that ethics must be composed - assembled from prior knowledge and past assertions (drawing on Latour and others here, of course).  If our assertions and the arguments supporting them fit the current state of the world - they are well composed- then they have a chance of being accepted (though, I suppose this is no guarantee that they will be).  If they don't fit our world, then they will likely be rejected.

It occurs to me, also, that different groups would have different prior knowledge and assertions (different worlds) - whether it's academics, lay people, or a different social group.  Does this mean that all ethics are relative, and that there is no ground for a universal ethics?  No, it just means, as Latour says about so many other things, that a universal ethics does not exist a priori.  It's unlikely, I suppose, that a universal ethics would ever be fully composed, but there's no reason why it couldn't be in theory (assuming that this is a desirable end).

That's it for now.  Stay tuned for more posts on this topic in the coming months. 

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