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.


Eco-tethered liberation & the preferential option for the rich

To counter this uneven playing field, we need to incorporate a preferential option for the poor.

Who is being left behind in negotiations on climate change? This question I asked in the last blog is a crucial question to consider within an eco-tethered liberation framework. Why? More often than not in climate deliberations, actions, even the intentions behind them – no matter how noble – are not carried out in a manner where those most affected have a fair and equal chance of succeeding. Right now, climate deliberations favour us in the global industrialized North.

Returning to the Bolivian situation discussed earlier (and we can include billions of other subjects within the global South), Bolivian subjects bear the brunt of climate change. Our myopic political debates have not considered the peoples, waters, land, flora and fauna of Bolivia.

To counter this uneven playing field, we need to incorporate a preferential option for the poor. Such an option does not mean that the subjects who are poor automatically get their way. It does mean that our stance toward them changes. We shift our attitudes to solidarity with the subjects who are suffering most, while striving to see the issue through their perspective. To do this entails a lot of listening – something that has not been happening at UN COP meetings.

If we listen, however, really listen to all the subjects of the global South most affected by climate change, it is likely we will begin to understand their perspective and realize what our immediate task is: to address the current global preferential option for the rich.


What does the preferential option for the rich look like? Ask yourself who is getting preference in these scenarios:

  • our freedom to drive gas-guzzling SUVs or the right of subsistence farmers in Bangladesh not to lose farmland due to rising seas?
  • profit for (Canadian) mining corporations in South America or the integrity of fragile ecosystems and local Indigenous communities that rely on them?
  • our unfettered consumption of manufactured goods or the drastic reduction of the frequency or intensity of flooding in Guatemala (brought about by climate change)?
  • exemptions from carbon taxes aligned to GHG emissions or African farmers not losing livestock (and livelihoods) to more frequent and longer lasting droughts?
  • mining of semisolid bitumen from Alberta oil sands or the beauty and stability of northern Boreal forests?
  • our deregulated unconstrained capitalist system with continued economic growth or the drastic reduction of the rate of species extinction on Earth (constituting the 6th major extinction in Earth’s history)?

There is a clear pattern here. Asking ourselves ‘Who is being left behind in negotiations on climate change,’ requires that we also reflect on who is getting preference. And in this case, preference continuously goes to us and our Canadian lifestyle.  

Now before you go challenging me for an ‘either-or’ fallacy (a common error in arguments, suggesting that solutions are only ‘either-or’), I wish to make a case that, in this instance, there might be something to this argument: that we live within a finite world with finite resources, and that there exists an enormous economic disparity between the global North and South can no longer be overlooked. There does not seem room for a ‘both-and’ scenario (the global South grows economically as do we). We can no longer grow.


Check out these resources:

  • Klein, Naomi. The Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate Change. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 2014.
  • “Climate Chaos in the South – The Victims’ Story,” Video by National Film Board of Canada, Antwerp: Wereldmediateek, 2010.
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