Sunday, December 16, 2012

Moral Interconnectedness

Humanity needs a consensus on a new outlook, a new ethic, to deal with the challenges that we have created for ourselves.  The pioneering environmentalist Aldo Leopold 70 years ago called for a "land ethic" to expand our sense of moral community to include mother nature, and we are lagging far behind in doing so.  Leopold, like nearly all environmentalists, clearly saw how human beings are connected to and dependent on other animals and organisms in the natural environment, and to the entire biosphere itself, and this was the starting point for his call for a morality that included nature.  It is an inspiring vision.

It seems to me, too, that a new ethic will need to be based on greater awareness and recognition of the fact of interconnectedness.  Interconnectedness is a basic prerequisite for morality, and perhaps it could reasonably be thought of as the basic prerequisite.  A moral relationship between two or more beings presupposes that those beings must first have any sort of relationship at all, i.e. that they interact in some way and affect each other, or put simply, that they are interconnected.  The fact of the interconnectedness of all things in our world thus seems to be a good place to start thinking about a new morality, especially since globalization has expanded and intensified that interconnectedness.  Of course, we will end up arguing and debating specifically what that means and how to proceed, but if we're looking for a place to begin moral thinking, this seems like a useful place to start, and I hope you agree. 

Next, a basic moral goal seems to emerge: if morality presupposes interconnectedness, and if morality is also about determining what is good and bad, right and wrong, then a morality of interconnectedness would be about promoting good, healthy, mutually beneficial relationships between things that interact with and affect each other -- not, say, maximizing utility or some other goal. 

Now, saying that interconnectedness is a good place to begin is not to say that it is the absolute foundation or essence of morality -- only that, if we have to start somewhere if we are to proceed at all, this basic prerequisite for morality seems a good place, practically, to do so. 

An ethic of interconnectedness seems to me especially apt for our times, given the systems that must be overcome: as Marx and many others have argued, alienation is the main social effect of capitalism, and I would say that that is true of modernity in general.  Alienation means a separation of things which should not be set apart from each other: Marx argued that capitalism separated people from their work, from each other, and from their creative powers.  Modern or "classical" liberalism takes respect for healthy individuality and ramps it up to a hyper-individualism that socially (and in some ways physically) isolates people from each other, thereby dissolving communities and cultures.  And modernity alienates humanity from the natural world too, by setting it up as something to be conquered and exploited, rather than respected and cherished as the source of our lives and of life itself.  So it seems to me that an ethic that emphasizes healthy interconnection is just what the doctor ordered for our times.

However, that new ethic shouldn't be, and probably won't be, religious.  Religions have historically been, and remain today, a source of division and violence; witness the Crusades, the Inquisition, Europe's religious wars, or today's various fundamentalist extremisms.  Religions create identities for different groups of people and gives each group the impression that it has god's sanction, thus setting them against each other rather than creating healthy, strong interconnections.  A look at long-term trends suggests that the burst of religious zealotry that has gripped parts of the world for the last 30 years is waning, with increasing numbers of people abandoning religion for some form of non-belief, or with a distrust of organized religion combined with a general belief in something bigger than themselves that connects us all. 

Indeed, no essentialist moral theory will do, religious or secular, for,  essentialism too involves a quest for certain truth that is itself divisive, and thus breaks the bonds of interconnection between people, and between people and the world.

Furthermore, spiritualist, non-materialist outlooks have been philosophically indefensible for a long time, despite residual theological apology.  You simply cannot prove, empirically or logically, the existence of spiritual or essentialist forces that exist beyond the physical world, whether they are divine beings or some version of Platonic forms.  Such arguments are, at base, speculative, whereas we know through simple, shared observation that entities exist in the world, and that they affect each other.

Therefore it seems we need to build a materialist morality of interconnectedness. 

However, that doesn't mean that a new morality will be rooted in modern science, as it has been practiced for the last 500 years.  While I respect the scientific method and see it as a highly valuable form of inquiry, science, like any other form of human knowledge, has its limits.  Over the last decade or so we have witnessed a spate of scientism that goes beyond rigorous, careful science and slips into ideology.  Along with claims that "philosophy is dead" have come assertions that science is on the verge of delivering an objective morality.  I will present arguments why such claims are overblown and overconfident; for example, enthusiasts of neuroscience who believed that understanding the brain would lead to objective morality are now starting to understand the limits of functional MRIs.  Hopefully soon they will understand that morality isn't even about individual brains at all.  For now, I will just say that science is a method of inquiry, not itself a philosophy or even a worldview, and it is a method of inquiry that itself rests on certain philosophical assumptions.  As a method it is useful for some human purposes, but not all, and one area where it has huge difficulties is the realm of morality.  

One of the main reasons, in addition to the oft-cited fact/value distinction, that science will be very unlikely to determine a  new morality is that science has a very strong tendency to methodological reductionism, breaking things down to analyze the parts.  It is a key component of it.  This approach of looking at smaller and smaller things has broken our view of reality down to the sub-atomic level, and has yielded many tremendous technological achievements which deserve genuine praise and respect.  But that doesn’t make it suitable for all subjects of inquiry.  Morality is about interconnectedness and interrelationship, about how parts fit into contexts, up to and including wholes, and thus diving down into the microscopic levels is to looking in the wrong place or, more accurately, to look in the wrong level.  Examining the smaller bits of things where physical mechanics occurs, rather than the larger and wider context where morality is operative, is to apply the scientific method to a subject that is outside its limits.  A reductionist approach of analyzing parts is incapable of producing a moral code, which is not about microscopic mechanics but about the mutual connections between the parts, the connections of the parts to the whole, and of the whole to the parts, and how it all fits together in the big picture. 

That isn't to say that science can't tell us helpful things and make contributions to moral discourse, but it has never been, and will not be able to, determine moral values.  For that we need to fully recognize and respect a plurality of intellectual methods and approaches: scientists are going to have to learn to value the contributions of the humanities and other forms of scholarship.  Humanism ought to revive its Renaissance ideal of mastering multiple methods of inquiry and applying them to the subjects for which they are appropriate.

As I will argue in my next essay, the key intellectual shift that I think we need to make in order to create a non-religious, non-scientistic morality is to recognize that materialism and reductionism do not have to be married together: we have gotten used to thinking that materialism means atomism, and forgotten that the objects of the world exist as real, as really real, at higher levels of analysis too.  The examination of the small is only one level of analysis.  A table exists as a collection of particles, but it also exists as a mid-level object that we call a "table"; and furthermore it exists as an element of wider systems, such as an economic system and the Earth's biosphere.  A human being exists as a collection of cells arranged into a certain anatomy and  a certain kind of brain, but also exists as the mid-level object we call "person," and as part of larger systems such as a society or, again, the Earth's biosphere.  All of these levels are descriptions of things that are real and actual, physically speaking, and none of those has a privileged place.  The physical is not merely the particulate. 

Thus, the aim should be, in my view, to develop a materialist, non-reductionist worldview of morality, politics, and good and virtuous living based on the facts of interconnection with other humans and with the world.  Not religious, not spiritual, not scientistic, and not anthocentric, but a multi-discourse outlook of materialist interconnectedness.  That's what seems to be needed to counter the debilitating, destructive atomistic individualism of modernity.

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