The major debates within environmental ethics have been to do with two main areas, but I want to bring in two others. The first debate has been about where to centre value. So the issues of whether or not anthropocentrism, biocentrism and the rest are the most important places to locate value have been going on and on (Robin Atfield has written and debated extensively about this, as have Val Plumwood, Dave Foreman and the initiator of the debate, John Passmore among many, many others. I’ve written extensively on this and will fill in the gaps later). My question has become, why have these debates? Why bother worrying whether or not ‘good’ is located in the human psyche only (a dualistic view, evidently, and not one that I buy) or whether, like Robert Pirsig, you think that quanitity and quality are mutually complimentary perspectives on existence but only that (and therefore that there’s no centre, no heart to the matter, because the matter is all heart)? This approach is demands a radical shift in perspective, not least because so much potential confusion arises when I attempt to decentre the human view. But this section of the work will look at the possibility that where to centre value isn’t a debate at all if non-dualism can show that there’s no point in looking for a locus of value. That, though, is more complicated to show than it looks. Apart from anything else, if you’ve got a perceiver, you’ve got a viewpoint, and that viewpoint comes with baggage, a whole personal history and context, that shapes what it percieves. Yet it’s precisely this baggage that begins to float when you take a meditative approach recognise the links in the chains between events, see the whole shimmering structure of cause and effect strung out like lace between everything, and then realise that this structure is built on probabilities but also on possibilities, on numbers. You begin to recognise that the point from which you’re doing the observing is a moving, shifting set of relationships itself. This rather undermines the idea that what’s going on has anything to do with whether or not I value it. Value doesn’t come into it. Good or bad doesn’t come into it.
That’s all very well to say if you’re a molecule being shunted around through a series of relationships. It’s rather more difficult if your relationships include kinships and alliegances, loves and affections. I don’t want to be indifferent to the fate of my kids, even if I know there are no guaruntees for their safety, that the next ten minutes could shatter any one of my most fundamental relationships with the indifference of a meteorite or a viral infection. More bizarre, more tragic things have happened. So what’s value in all of this? I’ll put the case that value is compassion, that this is the core value. That our aesthetic sense is a sense of the harmonious nature of the relationships that exist in certain patterns and combinations (and that we can base a sense of respect on this aesthetic sense because it is as though something in our perceptual structure is echoing something in the structure of the things we’re perceiving). We can name compassion all those feelings that draw us to want to care for other people and we can broaden that out very quickly to encompass the relationships beyond the close ones, although the cultivation of compassion for rocks and trees, buildings and roads, is easier if we link it to the asthetic sense, to the sense in which it harmonises, chimes with our sense of inherent recognition. Two things: this doesn’t mean we only love beautiful people. Many of the most harmonious relationships we have with one another are the way they are because of some profound unevenness or inequality in the relationship. We cultivate compassion (or maybe it cultivates itself, I’m not sure) when we’re confronted by necessity, wehn we hold a child’s hand who has Down’s Syndrome, or are forced to rely on someone to push our wheelchair. The compassion we have in these circumstances arises, in the way that multiplied numbers arise, through the reflective space that we develop through mindful, or meditative awareness.
So that’s the first discussion I want to dissolve, or re-rail: the discussion about the locus of value. The second discussion that was discussed in the field of environmental ethics was the discussion about monism and pluralism. The idea was that you could either develop a huge and intricate monolith of an ethic, a single approach that would fit all circumstances, a one-size-fits-all philosophy that would include my relationship with you, your relationship with your dog, with the sheep in the abbatoir about to die so you can eat, with the bacteria in your gut and at the ocean floor, with the ecosystems on the islands of the South Atlantic you’ll never visit, and all else besides. That this overarching principle would be easy enough to state in one or two sentences, and that it would have a common core. This is a game that’s been played in philosophy for a long time: can I find the overarching ethic? It usually only applies to people but the ecophilosophers were looking to extend it. Warwick Fox has done an enormous amount of work in this (in A Theory of General Ethics: Human Relationships, Nature, and the Built Environment). I haven’t managed to read this but I read Towards a Transpersonal Ecology and some other papers and on the whole, the ideas are very close to what I’m trying to argue for, only in two respects, they are different. Firstly, I imagine his view has something in common with Ken Wilbur and if it does, then I’d probably have to side with David Chalmers, because it seems to me that Wilbur commits, as Chalmers says he does, the cardinal error of imagining that decentring the self implies the self is infinite, rather than illusory. I’m inclined to think that consciousness, and the idea of the self, are illusions, and therefore this idea that there’s a sort of panpsychic level of existence, and that, at core, I’m God, takes me back to dualism. I can’t buy it. I’ll go into this in much more detail because it’s such a core element of my description of what it is I’m attempting to synthesise. Fox said, ‘one’s self is not limited by the boundaries of one’s skin but by the boundaries of one’s identifications,’ and I think this is right, and this is another reason why it makes sense to look for synthesis, even as I defend non-dualism.
(I don’t know whether it matters, in fact, whether you go with Fox or me. I think Fox, Attfield, and even people who take a religious view, like Rolston, are all worth listening to because the bottom line is that they care enough to write about the problem. If we all argue about who’s right and wrong, we get into exactly the same situation that we’ve been in since philosophy was dethroned (was it ever throned? Should it be enthroned, or enshrined, or otherwise thought of as a kingly pursuit? That’s another story). Obviously we have different perspectives but surely if there’s a common care for what is going on then we can begin to look for common threads, for areas where we can build some lines of approach that are practical, rather than looking for the minutiae of theoretical differences just so we can prove that one of us is cleverer than the other? Again, this is another story but it’s worth mentioning in passing because it’s worth recognising that we have in common much more than, for instance, those who want to argue that there’s nothing to be done, or that we have a god given right to exploit. Those are the attitudes we really need to work to challenge, although they say, in political and rhetorical circles, that you shouldn’t bother trying to change the minds of those who refuse to even think about their views and who cling onto them regardless. There’s no point, either, in attempting to shift the views of those who are already on your side. What you want to do is find those who are open to persuasion. Which reminds me: I was told one the exact opposite of this, and that the job of a philosopher was not to persuade (that is the job of a sophist….) but to clear away falsehoods, errors and other interferences with the truth. It’s a negative job, really, since it can only ever say what things are not. In this sense, I’m interested in clearing away what the relationship is not, and hence non-dualism. But I’m also interested in synthesising, in Carl Rogers’ idea that we don’t need this to be a dialectic where one side is always wrong. OK. I finally admit it. I’ve digressed).
The second approach, pluralism, is the idea that you have to have different ethical approaches to different kinds of relationships. So, for instance, you couldn’t expect to have the same set of obligations or duties towards your lover, your business partner, your dog, the sheep in the abbatoir and a rain forest (one distinction I want to bring in here is the one that Paul Taylor used between human to human relationships, human relationships with the bioculture, and human relationships with the wild. In a sense this is a false distinction since one bleeds into the other, human to human relationships aren’t all at one level, and include human to wild relationships, since there’s, if you like, a wilderness within, and human to wild relationships are always overshadowed by the fact that humans have had an influence on every aspect of the global environment (and even beyond, since the objects in our atmosphere, quite apart from CFCs, include vast quanitities of human generated waste, as well as thousands of satellites.) and even in places where they don’t have a direct effect (like the rainforest areas that are still free of human intervention, or the Arctic) there are still indirect effects (aeroplanes flying over the area, pollution and influences from other areas through interference in mitgratory patterns, climate change, and so on).
The view of pluralists is that you have to have lots of ethical theories, or at least a number, to describe your duties and obligations to different groups. You might have an ethical theory based on respect for persons as ends in themselves, a sort of Kantian approach, to humans. Then you might have a stewardship approach to wilderness, based on the view that we have an obligation to look after the global house, or ecology, as it were, because it is ultimately in our interestes to do so. A sort of extended anthropocentrism. Then you might have a view that you have to minimize zuffering when it comes to animals in captivity on the basis that they are sentient, a sort of utilitarian view, and so on.
The view looks muddled, doesn’t it? How can you have a context-based response that resorts to different sets of rules, particularly when so many areas are not separable? Yet, on reflection, this is the only approach that makes any sense and it’s in perfect accord, of course, with the idea of Zen reflective activity as enlightenment. You watch, and you realise that your response is an unfolding of the system of awareness, reflected back and feeding back, biologically, into the potential ways of responding that arise as a result of the conditions, of which reflection becomes one more layer. Emergent possibilities show one what is happening, and how we are happening, how our activity and the activies of the relationships within which we’re embedded interact, and how the observation of this interaction adds to the interactional possibilities. Naturally, we chose that action that accords with the flow of activity, in the moment, most comprehensively and most harmoniously. It’s never perfect, and it depends utterly on our state of awareness that is as ephemeral and as hard to maintain as any climber’s ascent of Everest, and yet it’s also instant, just the reflection on what is happening right now, and the determined attitude of observation, made compassionate because it is not a choice that led us here but a whole set of conditions we are only just beginning to bring into awareness.
To sum this section up, I want to move the debate on from what the centre of value is, to a consideration of what a non-dualist perspective might have to offer, and I know that people like Naess and Fox and other so-called deep ecologists have done this but I actually want to take the name, ethics, out of the whole equation. Secondly, I want to suggest that rather than a monistic/pluralistic (or relativist) approach, we look east at the Tao, at Hans Georg Moeller’s interpretation of the non-moral nature of the Tao, and we consider the problem that is posed by our attitudes towards the ecosphere as one that is really about the old questions asked in the global South – how to live – not in the global North – what is there?
The next section concerns key theories, ideas and concepts. I’ve covered a lot of this already but just to review, dualism’s key concepts are things like the self and the other, and how they can be understood from the point of view of non-dualism. This is quite hard to articulate but it’s been done before and I will name some names when I’m working on this. Next, the key ideas in Zen
and in particular, in Soto Zen, are the idea, but more important, the experiental practice of zazen, sitting meditation. This is also the idea, from another angle, of practice as enlightenment. Tehre’s no separation between doing the activities of enlightenment (sitting with the spine erect and the legs folded, hands together in the lap, eyes looking down, focusing on the breath and then on observing the thoughts and then on the space within which all this is taking place) and enlightenment itself. We are embodying a practice, becoming through the respectful attention to the moment by moment experience, exactly that state of consciousness that was realised by the buddha and by every individual who has put themselves into this position. This idea flows into the idea of respect as practice, that respect is extended to all activities, from typing and having tea to excretions and abloutions, and all in between. Awareness develops, so practice is meant in both senses, it is both a growing layered experience that deepens but it is also the practice, the activity, that from the first, opens up the potential for realisation. The next key concept is buddha nature. Buddha nature is the nothingness that is at the stem of all experience. All the exchanges of energy through systems take place as a result of some activity that happened at the beginning of time (and even that might be part of a larger cycle) but the beginning of all activityis not activity. Whatever it is, if it began, it began in what it was not. And it is that, what it is not, non-energy, if you like, that is still contained within all activity and energy, all manifestation of matter. What this is not, we don’t know, but we know that there is entropy when matter can no longer exchange information, and we know that the non-exchange of information contains only potential, unrealisable energy. This potential is the closest thing we have with which to understand the emptiness within which all existence takes place. And again, we have to be careful here because this almost suggests we are in a bubble of existence, surrounded by non-existence, but as far as we know, there are no edges to any of the things we are talking about, just changes in state. So, from being in existence, as organised patterns of matter dynamicaly exchanging energy and information, wee are flowing towards potential, disipating energy and matter. This seems to me to be an important metaphor (physicists have told me that this is too lose an understanding of the key concepts in physics, like energy and matter, for them to be able to wholly approve of the picture. They do, however, acknowledge that it roughly accords with a potential way of seeing how energy and matter exchange). The other important ideas are compassionate non-attachment. This is vitally important in the context of this study since without compassion, we could have no motivation to make the effort, to watch what is going on and to practice this observation and its consequences. Compassion emerges when we realise that we are just patterns of relationships and that we can’t take a lot of responsibility for being where we are, until we realise where we are. Then, of course, the whole reflective re-calibration begins, as reflecting on activity, on thought, on the spaces between judgments and criticisms, opens to offer space into which we can watch potential for responses emerge.
The final key idea and this is directly attribtable to Dogen, is the idea that the motivation to act emerges from this self-reflective awareness of the conditional response. We can act as agents, just not in the sense that we originally thought. We are agents of what emerges, what potential emerges when the patterns we are a part of open as we become more conscious of them into layers and layers of emerging possibilities, and a deeper sensitivity to the state we are in right now. Meditation is action, then, and the activities that happen in the meditative state, from sitting to cooking to loo cleaning, have a quality of potential that reflects the potential of all activity in the universe.
The next group of key concepts comes from evolutionary biology: interdependency and co-evolution are key ideas, as is aggressive symbiosis, symbiogenisis (Lynn Margulis’ idea), systems theory (this idea has been replicated in lots of fields and has different ways of being expressed but it’s important). As a subsection of this group, we have evolutionary morality and this brings up some more really key ideas and concepts that link with what I said earlier about physics and the scientific understanding of energetic flows and matter cycles. I’m going to say it again: self-reflective awareness creates a biofeedback system that allows an openness in the response to the current moment
It’s a paradoxical requirement, nevertheless, that some sense of self-other boundary is maintained (this is also the recognition of the core element of survival as the individual’s DNA structure, even if this is cooperatively coevolved through the realisation attributable to RNA, etc) and therefore a key element of the thesis will be an attempt to find some approach that honours both this core division and at the same time acknowledges the non-dualism. Zen is the key to this: respect but not without losing self-respect. Pragmatism at the core. You do what you can. As long as a compassionate non attachment is developed, the potential conflict of interests can be avoided. There is no ideal. Only an opening of possibilities according to an assessment of current conditions.
This involves the idea of looking at how patterns get stuck, or held, and the energy flow/matter cycle part of the approach shows that releasing these patterns allow a more fluid response. This is the work: it brings together Zen (how to live), environmental ethics (responding to the crisis), dualism (the point from which we’re perceiving what is going on, the paradigm), and evolutionary theory (scientific findings that support the possibility that we can shift our understanding of ourselves and of how we interrelate both as living creatures but also all the way down to the energy level).