I deliberately speak of “liberation” in this blog and not “social justice.” Moreover, how liberation is understood is unique. This might sound confusing because often the two terms are used interchangeably.
At one level, liberation, like social justice, implies a freedom from social, political, and/or economic domination or manipulation. However, liberation goes somewhat further in purpose. Important to the liberative process is that the person, or subject, participates as an agent in her or his own freedom from oppression. Think of it like building dwellings for homeless people. While both social justice and liberation principles demand that there be an ethical duty to build a house, liberation principles insist that the people who are to live in the houses participate in its design and construction.
I said there is a unique understanding of liberation. What is unique about it? The uniqueness is in how we define “subject.” This line of thinking comes from Thomas Berry, the great thinker who has helped many people concerned about the environmental destruction we are creating to re-imagine who we are and what our relationship with the universe ought to be.
Working from what we understand from the latest science of cosmology, quantum physics and biology, Berry maintains that the universe is “composed of subjects to be communed with, not primarily as objects to be exploited” (See his book, The Great Work, 82). This makes sense when you consider that all things on or of Earth are composed of the same cosmic stuff. We are stardust, sisters and brothers with all creatures, connected not only to the first living cell, but to the supernova whose implosion led to the creation of solar system.
In this way, a frog is a subject, as is an ant. But so is a tree and a river. These subjects possess some form of self-organization and self-articulation. In other words, at the cosmic level, liberation entails following evolutionary impulses, which means it therefore applies to all creation.
If you still think this is odd, consider this biologically: we find within ecosystems a complex and diverse community of producers, consumers, decomposers, and detritivores, celebrating a certain form of subjectivity, all interacting within the boundaries imposed by their physical surroundings. Through time, and by the processes of mutation, niche selection, and natural selection, each member of the community helps shape life: the detritivore (an earthworm, for instance) will ingest, then digest dead organic matter, from which a producer (a plant, for instance) receives nutrients.
The global environmental destruction we are bringing about is therefore impinging on the subjectivity of all creation. These evolutionary dynamics are being radically altered by our actions: even large consumers such as cheetahs, hippos, and gazelles are no longer evolving in the wild, but through interactions with human structures and actions; their location, size, and populations are in many ways determined by humans.
So when I say ethics today that ethics necessarily has to be messy, you can begin to see why: we have to seek the liberation of all subjects. And this means we must consider the voices of not only individual humans and their communities, but the other-than-human, whereby these subjects also participate as agents in their own freedom from oppression.
In short, to the extent possible, liberation must include the voices and concerns of the entire Earth community. Messy? You bet! But there is more, ethics today must also include multiple ways of apprehending reality.