Rethinking how we can know the world: Part III

Continuing from the last blog, ‘To know’ is relational; that means we should embrace the past and present of a subject along with her, his, their dreams and desires of a future. It’s not just the past and future.  We should embrace the participation from the voices of subjects from the entire globe, which includes the entire natural world (the immensity of this embrace is made easier by the importance given to bioregionalism, where the greater part of the conversation occurs – see blog 20 January).

Since there is this multi-strata to a subject’s story, knowing should occur in chorus with commensurate ways of apprehending reality: through sensory observation, at one level, for example or, in some cases, at an intuitive and even visceral level; the process of knowing uses dance, song, and poetry alongside rational discourse (think of it the way spiritual teacher Cynthia Bourgeault* puts it, as using the mind, the heart and the body!)

To facilitate all these ways of knowing, there is a particular stance toward the subject that is important. This was well discussed by philosophers Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston.** Cheney and Weston are concerned with environmental thinking, in particular, as it is challenging the current relationship between epistemology and ethics. It is forcing us to rethink basic assumptions concerning ethics itself, which makes it helpful in our discussion of messy ethics!

Cheney and Weston put forth a method for genuine means of discovery, one that is being applied by researchers and environmental writers in general: they refer to this method as a stance or “etiquette.”

By way of example, these philosophers relate a story that took place in an animal training facility where academics and the handlers (animal caretakers) of chimpanzees were observed in how they related with the animals. The academics, who were there to observe operations in sign language, were, “psychically intrusive and failed to radiate the intelligence of the handlers.”

In contrast, the handlers “walked in with a soft, acute, 360-degree awareness: they were receptively establishing . . . acknowledgment of and in relationship” with all of the several animals there (hundred pumas, wolves, chimps, spider monkeys and Galapagos tortoises). The handlers’ ways of moving took into account the animals’ own feelings and awareness. They fit into the spaces shaped by the animals’ themselves.

The infamous Koko who was great at sign language and her caretaker, Penny Patterson, play with a kitten at The Gorilla Foundation. Ron Cohn/The Gorilla Foundation

What is going on here?

Ethics, and the love that precedes it, become primary. Rather than constricting the way to knowledge – as some people might object as being too Pollyanna – they facilitate it.

  1. For one, there is no arrogant inquiry. Limits and inadequacies of knowing were recognized and accepted. This more humble stance contrasts with many ethical frameworks today where we must first know what animals are capable of, and only then decide on that basis and how we are to deal with them ethically.
  2. In their alternative view, Cheney and Weston write, “We will have no idea of what other animals are actually capable – we will not readily understand them – until we already have approached them ethically – that is, until we have offered them the space and time, the occasion, and the acknowledgment necessary to enter into relationship.
  3. In short, ethics – which is always relational – must come first.

Put another way, in contrast to conventional ethics, which have us treat the other-than-human world “as objects of domination and control,” we begin our inquiry of knowing by treating other subjects as valuable in themselves at the outset. There is no burden of proof necessary. All subjects have value, period!

And this stance should not rest just with other-than-human animals, but with other humans (think immigrants who are shunned, Indigenous women who are ignored, and the list continues), and with all of creation: trees and rivers too.

Ethics, and the love that precedes it, become primary. Rather than constricting the way to knowledge – as some people might object as being too Pollyanna – they facilitate it.


*Cynthia Bourgeault via Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation blog:

**Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston. “Environmental Ethics as Environmental Etiquette: Toward an Ethics-Based Epistemology.” Environmental Ethics 21 (Summer 1999):115–34.

What type of ethics is appropriate for our time? Part II

Photo by Skitterphoto on

The preceding blog entry reveals the inadequacies of conventional modes of ethical thought today. Within the reality of a complex interconnected world, simple, reductionist formulas (like utilitarian’s ‘greatest good for the greatest number’), rigid or decontextualized procedures (like deontology – who wouldn’t lie to save someone’s life), deny justice to countless subjects, endless communities and ecosystems. Even the concept of justice, while generally understood at the abstract level, when applied at a concrete local level, could mean adversity for countless other subjects.

No longer can we ignore what is right and good for other-than human subjects (more on that later), future generations, and subjects at the other end of the globe.

Take the concept of ‘common good’ a prominent principle of Catholic social teaching as an example. This principle refers to the ‘sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily’ (to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1906,which is really something Pope John XXIII wrote in 1961 in Mater et Magistra). What does the common good even suggest when the projected rate if biodiversity loss is human caused and so massive in proportion to normal species extinction rates, that it constitutes the 6th major extinction in Earth’s history?

In short, humanity is being faced with problems that seem to defy easy characterization, let alone clear solutions. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as ‘wicked problems’.

So what are we to do? Certainly doing business as usual won’t help. We cannot separate events from context, the local from global, nor – and this is the big one – the other-than human subjects (toads, giraffes, trees and rivers) from human subjects. An ethic appropriate for our time will have to embrace all these realities.

An ethic I am promoting to do this is what I am calling ‘messy ethics’, one that is complicated, difficult to work with, far more humble in what we can presume we know about the world, and lacking in precision. I will unpack what messy ethics consists of in the next blog.

~Simon Appolloni

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