Berries and Partridges: the nature of the culture of egoism

Wendell Berry characterises two opposing perspectives on Nature: that of the group which sees no inherent conflict between the good of Nature and the good of humanity, on the one hand, and that of the group which sees the good of Nature as being in direct conflict with the good of humanity. His detailed response to this is one I laid out earlier (I’ll repeat his points in brief below, because they bear repetition:

1. We are tiny in relation to the wilderness in which we live.

2. This wilderness is the universe. We depend on it, yet it will kill us at some point.

3. We cannot solve the ‘problem’ of our endangered state. It does not have a solution.

4. But we can live in harmony, more or less, with our native wilderness. We cannot achieve this harmony simply or easily but it can become, indeed it is, our life’s work

5. It is not possible for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively: we cannot intend our own good, in the long run, without intending the good of the place

6. ‘To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently practical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world. Practice can only be local’.

7. ‘If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.’ )

We cannot help but use nature. But if the reflective biofeedback mechanisms, the reflections on the energetic flows within which we exist, alter our perspective and even create a realm for possibilities to open, we can help but exploit it. We can use our natural extravagance to imagine ways of living that allow us to protect natural biodiversity by investigating the impact of our activities and the culminative impact of the activities of our communities, businesses institutions and even cultural paradigms. This can determine how we can best effect a balanced consideration of interests.

What I am attempting to articulate here is a position which is beyond both ‘humans as natural’ and ‘humans as artificers’, a position which recognises that our understanding of Nature, and more broadly, of ‘the environment’, is culturally-shaped (but that many interpretations of cultural imperatives exist within every society). This means that, to the degree that we can reflect on culture, we can also reflect on Nature and our relationship to it. Humans are artificial to the extent that they are acculturated, and they are free to question that acculturation to the extent that the culture allows for self-critical reflection. The act of reflective questioning is itself an act of freedom that requires exploration if it is to take full advantage of the extravagance that is our species’ key characteristic.

Ernest Partridge, on the other hand, along with any other philosopher who has considered the point carefully, justifies Paul Taylor’s division. While in one sense it is perfectly legitimate to make the logical claim that humans come within the sphere of the natural, from the point of view of examining our relationship with the rest of the natural world, it makes perfect rational sense to talk of natural in opposition to, ‘of human origin’. In the same way that it is possible to talk of psychological egoism, says Partridge, as a theory which claims that all human action is selfishly motivated, and yet to question the impoverishment that such a theory imposes upon any understanding of how humans act (since it reduces Gandhi’s response to the human situation to the same status as Attilla the Hun). A discussion of the human as a subset which is nevertheless separable from the natural is a perfectly legitimate way of enriching any understanding of how the two spheres interact, or fit together. (I will talk about the reductionism of egotism in a later post).

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