Child-eating sharks galore!!! Ethics, objects, death and Darwinism

by Arran James

Thus, when people obtain the right to life, the fact is that they are no longer able to live. – Jean Baudrillard [1] 

 There have been all sorts of things posted about flat ethics recently. My previous post was on the same topic but I’m peripheral to the whole thing, just an interested observer. I particularly like this point though, made by Alex Reid:

In [a] soccer match, those ethical relations are mediated by a grass field, white lines, goal posts, nets, flags, a soccer ball, uniforms, shin guards, cleats, a whistle, a timing device, etc. They are also mediated by language,which is also nonhuman. In fact, one could (and often does) say that one must compete not only against the other team but field conditions, weather, ref calls, and so on. So in imagining ethics, a flat ontology requires us to see that there is no such thing as “human” ethics. All ethics are nonhuman in the sense that “human” refers to a particular modern, ideological context. As such perhaps it is better to say nonmodern ethics than nonhuman ethics.

I also like Jeremy Trombley’s point:

I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction.  What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to?  What would the court system think?  Is the shark an endangered species?

(emphasis added)

 All ethics are nonhuman ecologies in which humans may appear.

 

Yet I think it is crucial to remember that in the first quote the key word is that the ethical relationships between players of a football (soccer) game are mediated by nonhuman operatives. Likewise, a trip to the zoo is mediated by the animal feed producers, train operators, railway lines, animal handlers, money, the machinery used to produce a ticket handed over at the gates… but would we say that a trip to the zoo consists of these things? Or rather, would we say that the ethics of a trip to the zoo consisted of these things?

 

I think we would. If the ticket-machine were produced by a corporation who exploited workers in order to  produce that machine, or some other of its product line. We might feel the same way if the animal feed being given to animal X were made out of intensively farmed animals of the same species as animal X. Yet while we might say they are agents within an ethical ecology, that they are composite operatives within an ethical system, I doubt that we would ever suggest that  either the ticket-machine or the animal feed are ethical agents in that ecology. To risk a paraphrase of poor taste, they really are ‘only following orders’; the banality of evil become the banality of the object. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that it is wrong for the animal feed to allow itself to be fed to animal X.

 

I suppose the thing I’m getting at is that an ethical relationship is much like the love relationship that I believe (I think I remember) Levi Bryant theorised a while ago on his blog; a third, independent object. There is me. There is my partner. We do not fuse into a singular object (two does not become one) but both of us remain autonomous, nested within the third object called the relationship. While we are busy talking about ethical relationships we’re forgetting that each particular ethical ecology is singular (which is the point in Trombley’s quote). the point here is that the ethical ecology is an ontological ecology and not an ecology of ethical actants. In the original shark-child relationship nobody thinks to include the ocean, the sand on the sea floor, the moon and it’s capacity to effect the tides, sea-going vessels.

 

It appears absurd to me to include these things in an ecology of ethical operatives even though they are ontological units involved in the original ethical ecology, playing a part in determining the shark’s behaviour. Likewise, we might consider why the child is near the shark. Is this a holiday bought by its parents? Should we then include the travel agent that sold the holiday in the ethical ecology, or at least as an operative that aided in the sculpting of process of causality that arrived at that juncture? I suspect we wouldn’t.

 

That there is a flat ontology does not necessarily imply that all the things that build or generate a particular situation should be considered being ethical agents. I suspect that because things exert an influence on each other, that is because they have powers or capacities to act and act in concert with each other to generate the situations in which ethical problems arise, it is easy to be led to think that they too are subject to ethics. To labour the point let’s return to Alex Reid’s example. There is a football game. A problem of ethics arises in the playing of this game. This ethical problem is mediated by nonhuman things, including language. Here was the ethical problem:

 

Last week, we found ourselves winning 6-0 about 15 minutes into a 70-minute game. I pulled our strongest players, but we were still up 9-0 at half. In this league, goal differential is a potential tie-breaker for determining the champion, so I suppose there is potential motive for running up the score. But that’s just not something you do with 11 year-old boys. At half-time a instructed the boys that only those who had not yet scored that season should really try to score and that otherwise their job was to make good passes. Again, I kept my best players mostly on the bench, and the final score was 11-3. It probably could have been 22-0. And I’ve seen scorelines like that in my time as a coach, though our team has never been on either end of one.

 

The question is over the ethics of competition and whether it would have been unethical to give the opposing team a thrashing. Reid suggests that in part this is done out of respect for the game of football. To have won the game by 22 clear goals would be to play football ‘out of the spirit’ of the game, to disrespect football as ‘an emergent object’. Yet why would football care? It can’t care. Here Reid alludes to a kind of spirit and to respect. A sense of fair play and tradition then? I don’t understand why one would need a flat ethics to highlight two pretty standard reasons for playing the game without taking the piss. (A far more compelling reason might be that if you keep playing games where your team- Reid is the coach of child’s football team- constantly embarrassed other teams- composed of kids- you may risk losing having anyone to play with).

 

Reid is the coach of this football team and he writes about what he can do to have an impact on the emergent object of the game in order to highlight how we can have an ethical relationship the thing called ecosystem:

 

 As a player or coach, I can’t affect the game directly. As a coach I can put players in different positions, suggest tactics, and prepare players in practices. As a player, I can make decisions about how I play. Those decisions participate with others to create the game experience. I can modify my decisions in response, but there isn’t a direct relationship with the game only with other actors in the game. The extent to which I realize that whatever decisions I make to win require that the overall game continues

 

Neither Reid, nor myself or any body else, can have a direct relationship with the ecosystem wherein they can directly affect that ecosystem. Instead, Reid might be able to affect petrochemical companies through lobbying against them by joining a lobbying group with other people. You might organise a coalition of environmental or ecological activists to carry out direct actions ranging from tree-hugging, to consciousness-raising, or from occupying an airport to committing acts of ‘ecoterrorism’. I might simply be the kind of person who refuses to recycle and thereby assists in the mass anonymous effort of building the giant debris filled landscapes of landfills (which, I must admit I do find aesthetically pleasing and intriguing). None of these decisions and actions will make direct contact with the thing called ecosystem (things are withdrawn), nor could it ever do so in a unilaterally determinative manner (just as the coach is within the football game, so I am within the ecosystem), and finally because the ecosystem as a thing is emergent from all those other things that we have made contact with (other people, lobbying organisations, parliaments, airports, just as much as trees, oceans, clouds, frogs, catfish and children and sharks).

 

In Reid’s example we ought to act in a way that allows the game to continue, so by extension we should also act in ways that allows the ecosystem to continue in order to consider ourselves as being ethical in relation to the ecosystem. For Reid these considerations mean that  ‘I am engaged in an ethical relationship’.

 

A couple of brief problems before returning to the ethical. First, I’m not sure if we can say that winning a game of football 22-0 would mean we were no longer playing a game of football. Playing by the rules and regulations, associated objects (a football etc), the people required (players, coaches, referees and linesmen) are all that are minimally required for us to consider ourselves playing a game of football. In the absence of any of these elements we are not playing football; these are the things in the assemblage that minimally form a game. If we play outside of the spirit of the game, if we do not respect it as an emergent object, we are still playing football but we are playing badly. The second point is whether Reid is talking about a specific game or the game of football itself (is there a ‘the game of football’ that exists in any other form than metaphor? Surely that would be a kind of ideal game or ur-game?)

 

This reveals the actual problem of the ethical here. Each ecosystem, including that planetary ecosystem as a whole, must be considered in it’s singularity. Isn’t that the point of object-oriented strains of philosophy? If we treat all ecosystems the same, and if we treat ecosystems the same as games of football/the game of football then aren’t we performing a kind of reduction of the singularity of each to the abstraction of all? The pragmatic deployment of Reid’s metaphor might have a material impact on how we conceive of the ethical relationship we have to the ecosystem in a way that draws attention to the complexity and partiality of that relationship but I still don’t see that this is something new to an object-oriented approach or that is inaugurated by a flat ethics.

 

The original question was whether or not the shark should eat the child. This question is the question of the shark’s ethical relationship to the child, of whether it can be considered an ethical operative. Is a shark the same as a football or a football player? A shark is no more the same as these things as it is the same as a ticket-machine or a batch of animal-feed. The point I’m making at some length is that it makes no more sense to say that the shark should or should not eat the child than it does to say that the goalpost should or should not be an obstacle to scoring. And there is a very good reason for this that Alex Reid hits on: the ethical relationship is one burdened with decision. A shark cannot be said to count within it’s capacities that of making an ethical decision. This is not to say that no animals can make ethical decisions, it is probable that many of them can. This is also not to say that no nonhuman nonanimal things can (or could) make ethical decisions. If we listen to the technoevangelists and transhumanists it might soon be possible for AI to make such decisions, or to simulate them so perfectly as to baffle these considerations even further.

 

 

I believe that the entire issue of whether we should let the shark eat the child is centered on this mistake. A shark cannot be held responsible. It can only be held accountable. We can say ‘the shark is going to eat the child’ or ‘the shark ate the child’ but the should has no place in anything. (The question of whether we should kill the shark for what it has done is a separate issue).

 

A further point emerges from Trombley’s quote- and from others- regarding evolution. Levi Bryant has written in the past about how we have failed to take Darwinism and the lessons we have learned about evolution seriously. Nature, all of nature (and there is nothing that is not nature) is utterly pointless. That is, it is without ultimate purpose. Nature, life, existence, is useless. I think that Levi Bryant hasn’t taken this lesson in fully either. I don’t think any of us can really. We are nature…the pointlessness of the cosmos and of the subatomic particle is the pointlessness of arranjames who is sitting here typing. All ethical problems arise in this context, to those species that have an evolved moral sense…a moral sense that is, in impossible last instance, useless. Yet because the final cause of ethical decision making is pointless does not mean that the affective life of the one making the ethical decisions are pointless; they are immediate and do not require much of a point beyond themselves.

 

Should the shark eat the child? From the ontological position there is absolutely no reason why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. It would upset me, that is all. Human ethics boil down to ‘this is good, this is bad’.

 

So it is that I agree with Bryant’s assertion that there is no nonanthropocentric ethics. It is always humans judging what it is that they consider ethical, making their ethical decisions. Other animals might also make such decisions and so might other beings in the future- thus it might not be a human ethics that remains human for all time. The separate question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should hold that which cannot be held responsible responsible. Why would we do this? I think because, in some sense, our ethical attitude to other things arises from the blind, stupid, pointlessness of the evolutionary processes that compel us to fear death and reproduce. The question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should pretend to ourselves that their is a meaningful, ordered universe. The clash between the stupidity of nature and our desire for a meaningful (or just) nature is what produces the question of the shark. The shark eats the child because it is a shark; we kill the shark because we are terrified of a cosmos in which children can be eaten.

 

Like Levi Bryant I don’t think the shark has a right to live. At the same time I don’t think that the child has a right to live either. Bryant’s concern is with the way neoliberalism has deployed rights-discourse, and one could also point to Deleuze’s concerns over rights-discourse being a (non)political sleight of hand where the rabbit is pulled out of the hat only to disappear in a puff of cigarette smoke [2]. I am not concerned here with rights discourse as such but specifically with the idea of a right to life. Life is something that simply happens. As Thomas Ligotti [3] has cogently argued, it is also a phenomena that doesn’t always get off the ground (abortions, miscarriages, still-births, mother and neonate dying during labour). It is imaginable that some process in the Big Bang could have failed or that the Earth did not exhibit the conditions required for the emergence of life. That a conscious operative, capable of making ethical decisions, were somehow to survive a possible Earth swallowing blackhole created by the CERN particle accelerator, could we really imagine that being bemoaning the right to life of all that died and was destroyed? I don’t think so, but I’m sure it’d be extremely upset. There is nothing new in claiming that the right to life is little else than a hangover from a society still enthralled to Divinity; the shark and the child’s right to life are equally fictions pertaining to the sacredness of life that is directly contradicted by the science of evolution; the right to life is a Sacred Left-over. And here, in the divine, lives are considered something inaugurated for a purpose, given a purposeful function, guided and developed…in short Created by a Creator. An ethical Creationism.

 

It is possible that the ethics we set up, as we necessarily will and do, are rooted in our fear of death, our evolutionary heritage, and our emotions. In the mixture of all these elements. It is a question of finding ourselves with questions about our conduct, questions that are often immediate and in no sense hypothetical (I’d take this juncture to remind people that I’m a nurse), where we don’t know what to do but know we must do something. As such ethics remains a human problem…for now. It is a human problem that is intricately bound-up with (often radically) nonhuman beings.  It is even possible, I am spontaneously inclined to the thought- the feeling,  the sense- that our ethics are a kind of therapeutic aesthetic; a production in the Ballardian sense of a real that finds its reality as a stage-set that may be pulled away. The therapeutics of ethics in this sense would be that ethics are that production that codifies our monstrous awareness of suffering, of ontological vulnerability, of the Inevitable; the disavowed denial of the metaphysical truth of Darwin. None of which prevents there being better or worse ethics, and none of which prevents the production of ethical truths being real or any more or less worth holding on to. It is just the case that in this instance we realise ‘a definitive recognition of nature as waste’ [4], and there is nothing that isn’t nature. To borrow from an earlier post by Alex Reid not concerned with all these sharks and children, it is possible that ethics are a therapeutics that we deploy in order to fix the glitches of reality.

 

 

All ethics are human problems embedded in fragile nonhuman ecologies. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A disclaimer: if I misrepresent anyone’s positions, any ideas or arguments I take fully responsibility for that.

 

 

 

References:

 

[1] Baudrillard. 2007. Darwin’s Artificial Ancestors and the Terroristic Dream of the Transparency of the Good. Read here.

[2] Deleuze. 1996. On Human Rights. Read here.

[3] Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy against the human race.

[4] Baudrillard. Ibid.

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