Messy ethics: a recap thus far

This is probably a good time to review what we know about messy ethics, based on previous blog entries. We’ve discussed much, but there is still a ways to go, so a short recap now sounds in order.

  • Messy ethics is just that: messy. There is no one way of approaching ethical problems today, no ‘must dos’ (i.e.: must not lie) set in stone, except, perhaps, as general principles; no off-the-shelf manual for doing things (i.e.: the greatest good for the greatest number). Messy ethics takes into account context (global and local; immediate, past, and future), addresses the concerns of other-than-human subjects and not just humans in a complex interconnected world. For this reason, messy ethics assumes a more humble stance on what we can know about reality.
  • Messy ethics is focused on the liberation of all creation, not just justice (in all its forms). Moreover, this is an eco-tethered liberation where we simultaneously consider the voices of not only individual humans and their communities, but the other-than-human subjects as well. All subjects must be allowed to participate as agents of their own freedom from oppression or reckless interference in following their evolutionary impulses.
  • In this manner, the common good becomes a truly universal reckoning, not some anthropocentric calculation: a river, a tree and a human share in a relational mutual obligation of care.
  • Messy ethics calls us to get over paradoxes of our existence – those puzzling aspects of death and life that we spend far too much of our time escaping. In this way, we cease seeking to avoid the suffering that is part of our existence: growing old, dying. That does not mean we accept meaningless suffering, grief brought upon by wrong (either thoughtless or selfish) human interventions. Making this distinction between meaningless and what by contrast would be meaningful suffering actually frees us from worrying about realities we cannot/should not escape (self-limiting, death), and allows us to concentrate on realities we should avoid, such as injustices, infliction of harm.
  • Messy ethics nurtures liberations by seeking out conversations with the larger biotic community always with the goal of reciprocity; negotiation (among all subjects) becomes the means for fostering liberation of all creation.
  • Such a communal conversation is best carried out within and amongt bioregions. All humans have the task of molding ourselves to place (not the other way around). This implies learning how to live well (not better) within ecosystems and the natural economy.
  • Messy ethics follows the principle of a preferential option for the poor. Preference implies putting the needs of those subjects most marginalized before the wishes of those subjects doing not so poorly (in the human world, the rich for instance). With regard to the above communal conversations, messy ethics always asks, “Who is being left behind in negotiations?”

There is more than just ‘ethics’ to the messy ethical approach above though. We also need to reformulate how we know the world (what in philosophy is known as epistemology), and how we understand ourselves and our roles as subjects in the world (what in philosophy is known as ontology). We’ll go into these aspects of messy ethics in the coming blogs.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

In the meantime, you have undoubtedly figured out that pursuing messy ethics will require much work; it is indeed difficult to work with, but the alternatives – using simplified, decontextualized or rigid formulas to decide what is right and good for all subjects, now and in the future – is indefensible in light of the deepening poverty of countless human beings, the destruction of distant and future communities, the extinction of countless species, the acidification of our oceans, and the warming of our atmosphere. This is why I use the metaphor of a crowded train commuter station: rigid decontextualized formulas won’t do the trick. As stated in my November 3 entry, messy ethics is viable not in spite of the “messy” character to it, but because of it.


An Eco-tethered Liberation Part I

So far, we’ve established what a messy ethics might generally look like, and why it is liberation and not simply social justice that should be the thrust behind it; we also touched upon why we must seek the liberation of all creation, not just humans. Before dealing with multiple ways of knowing (as I suggested in the last blog), we are first going to have to dig a little deeper into this inclusive understanding of liberation, because, ultimately, I want to explain a new form of liberation, one that is crucial to the functioning of messy ethics: I call this eco-tethered liberation.

A sign at Ignatian farm in Guelph, Ontario. What speed is Godspeed when liberation of all creation is at stake?

Let’s be clear: it is the destruction of all creation – not simply humans, certainly those that are poor and/or oppressed – that is at stake. As liberation philosopher Enrique Dussel puts it, we live at the end of a five hundred year-old hegemonic (a fancy term for living under dominance of others) system that has reached “absolute limits,”* the ecological destruction of the planet and the destruction of humanity itself. As a result, he maintains, we find ourselves constantly searching for solutions to problems we have to think about for the first time.

This is where messy ethics (and, as we will see, eco-tethered liberation) fits in: conventional modes of ethical thinking are not helping us create sustainable and just communities. How we live in our globalized world matters; yet, as we have seen, the right action is not always so obvious.

It is for this reason that the liberation of each subject becomes vital: each subject (person, toad or tree) must become the author of her/his own story if we are to foster a just and sustainable world; and to make this happen, a communal conversation must take place (hence, multiple ways of knowing). But I am getting ahead of myself.

At this point, consider that since the environmental crisis sprouts from the same roots of economic, racial, and political oppression, liberation ought to be universal.  The logic that exploits peoples for the sake of a few rich and powerful, is the same logic that destroys ecosystems; in other words, there is a causal relationship between the exploitation of humans (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals where the poor live, as they don’t have the clout to fight us”) and the natural world (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals into the ground, after all it is just matter, an object to be exploited; besides, it has no legal standing”). That’s why I love what ecotheologian Charles Birch writes:

It is a cock-eyed view that regards ecological liberation as a distraction from the task of liberation of the poor. One cannot be done without the other. It is time to recognize that the liberation movement is finally one movement. It includes women’s liberation, men’s liberation, the liberation of science and technology, animal liberation, plant liberation, and the liberation of the air and the oceans, the forests, deserts, mountains and valleys.**

So how are we to understand liberation for all creation?

It’s going to take a few blogs to fully explain this. I only touched upon it in the last one. To be sure, in discussing the impulse for liberation of other-than-human creation, a scientific cosmological perspective is helpful. As I stated in the last blog, the thinking of Thomas Berry is needed, but so is the thinking of mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme.

Here, assuming the form-producing dynamics of evolution to be the same at every place in the universe, Swimme and Berry suggest that three principles or intensions govern the universe.*** The authors identify these as differentiation, communion, and subjectivity. Only when we understand these three governing principles, they maintain, can we begin to understand the cosmology or, as Berry prefers, the story of the universe, which they portray as a cosmogenesis (to denote its constant creation or changing and developing nature).

While neither Berry nor Swimme ever proposed the word liberation, my contention is that these same principles form a basis for an evolutionary impulse to liberation.

On the subsequent blogs entries, I will explain these impulses as described by Berry and Swimme, starting with differentiation.

~Simon Appolloni

*Enrique Dussel, Ethics of Liberation: In an Age of Globalization and Exclusion, trans.
Eduardo Mendieta, Camilo Pérez Bustillo, Yolanda Angulo and Nelson
Madonado-Torres (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 39.
**Peter W.
Bakken, Joan Gibb Engel, and J. Ronald Engel, Ecology, Justice, and Christian Faith: A Critical Guide to the
Literature (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995), 10.
***Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1992).