Misanthropology: vulnerable children, vulnerable sharks.

by Arran James

Misanthropology is a new blog focussed on the prospect of ‘doing sociology with minimal references to humans’ operated by Craig McFarlane. This is an interesting project and accords with the current realisation of the relative unimportance of humans in any way other than to themselves. I also love the strap line of the blog, a quote from Hume that I constantly keep in mind when discussing suicide with colleagues in mental health:

There is one post on misanthropology at the moment. It is a response to Levi Bryant on flat ethics, a discussion in which Bryant tells us that a flat ontology (that the substance of all beings exists in equality, even if those beings exist to differing degrees qua capacity to operate on other beings) does not involve a flat ethics in which it is not an ethical problem if a shark eats a child. On this matter, McFarlane has this to say

I find myself in a strange position arguing against both. Against the critic I want to affirm the accusation–yes, of course, sharks should be allowed to eat children and there is no good reason why qua shark that we should prevent it; there might be good reasons qua fat, juicy, corn syrup fed child why “we” wouldn’t “let” the shark eat the human fatling, but this has nothing to do with the shark. Against Levi I want to argue that his position brings in anthropocentrism through the backdoor: humans are transformed into the un-eatable by mere virtue of being human.

This seems undeniably reasonable to me. In a cosmos where all that is contained within it stands with its own degree of autonomy as any other I can see no ethical objection to why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. In fact, if we broaden out to a more cosmological scale then the problem even seems ludicrous. Rephrased in another way: should  the inevitable expansion of the sun swallow the earth? This might seem silly but it is easy to see that the shark, the child, the sun and the earth are all parts of the cosmos, are all systems contained with and giving shape to that cosmos; they are all equal operatives, the life of the earth is of no greater importance to the universe than that of the child.
In the comments to Bryant’s original post he responds to McFarlane by drawing on the idea of conatus. When pressed to give a reason why one should a priori privilege the conatus of a human over that of a shark (or more generally a human over any given nonhuman), Bryants only response is to say that self-preservation is ‘a primitive fact’ and that he would not allow a shark to eat his child (Bryant is father to a daughter) ‘because I love her’. Perhaps this seems like terrible philosophy. Interestingly, here the issue isn’t his daugter’s conatus which contains her self-preservation instinct but something going on in and between the operatives marked as Levi Bryant and his daughter.
Yet it also seems intuitively like the only honest answer, and heralds the point at which philosophy and temperament coincide. Bryant loves his daughter. That is understandable. What parent would let their child be eaten? And I want to quickly depart from discussing a real little girl being eaten by a shark for much the same reason. Because there is a primitive fact going on. There is a bias that it may not be possible to argue for or against, in much the same way that it wouldn’t make much sense to argue against the existence of the sun or the earth or little girls or oysters. I think it is too much for Bryant to generalise this to humanity as such, in the sense that a parent’s desire to protect their offspring could justify anthropocentrism as such. Sometimes things are unjustifiable. Sometimes we, humans, do things because not to do them is not in our constitution, unless something has gone wrong in some sense.
The danger of this is that it seems like I’m risking saying that a nonhuman ethics is an ethics of evil, of monstrosity. Yet I’m really only saying that evil or monstrosity are integral to the human being. I can’t speak for sharks.
Should the shark eat the child? There is no reason why it shouldn’t, except that I don’t want it to. The answer might resolve around desire, or it’s absence, and the mechanisms evolved to rationalise those desires. The disagreement here is of a Wittgensteinian order, the order of two irreconcilable pictures being forced into the same frame; the antagonism is the result of the conflation of ethics and emotions. That might not be satisfactory but the cosmos doesn’t care if we are satisfied and, as I have discussed in relation to Stoicism, we couldn’t endure the condition of satisfaction- or at least not for long.
Or, in another direction, the reason the shark shouldn’t eat the child might be born precisely because of this fraught conflict between preservations and desires, a conflict of the indifference of each to the other other. The precariousness of existence might be the reason we ought to insist on the possibility of a nonhuman ethics beyond primitive facts of conatus or irrevocable evolutionary instincts and fears. In the comments to Bryant’s post someone makes mention of the fact the consequentialist ethics of suffering of a Singer (whatever suffers falls into the domain of ethical concern) excludes mountains, planets, ecosystems and so forth. Precariousness doesn’t entail such an exclusion.
By drawing on precariousness I am thinking of Judith Butler’s work in Precarious Life and Frames of War; humans are born to precarious lives, lives exposed to specific dangers that threaten our material existence and confront us with the thought, and experiences of proximity to, our own death. All humans share in this precariousness in that my continuance depends on the operations performed by other human beings. Going beyond Butler we must also say that we are dependent upon the operations of other operatives; of the sun, the earth, sharks, little girls, fathers, philosophers, oysters, ecosystems, the internet, and so on and so on, all the way up and down the cosmos. All of existence and all lives are precarious.
If there is a possible nonhuman ethics it might well be based on the thought of precariousness or, in more traditional terms, vulnerability. Any and all operatives- a term I’m here using as a catch-all term for whatever exists and is evinced by its power to operate on other things that exist- are vulnerable. This is also what I mean by ‘catastrophic thought’, using catastrophe in a double sense: 1) the Aristotelian dramatic connotation involving the displaying and working through of traumas and wounds and 2) the more Cioranesque sense of all operatives being headed towards their own death, disappearance or dissolution. Within an ethics of vulnerability these two senses overlap.
(As an unrelated aside, the term misanthropology reminds me of the concept ‘anthropathology’).
The thought has to remain underdeveloped for now. My partner is calling me to help as her kid is trying to destroy our internet connection. Is there any reason the child shouldn’t eat the internet?