Tag: Wendell Berry

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).

Consciousness, intelligence and decision-making

‘we must decide how to live’ (Taylor: 48)

It is not indisputable either that humans ‘decide’ how to live in a way that is distinctive from other species, or even that humans ‘decide’ how to live in any meaningful way at all. In the first case, strong arguments have been made to show that a broad range of organisms make clear choices, and thus ‘decide’ in a way commensurate with our understanding of human ‘decision-making’.

Of course, it is clearer to us that humans decide than, say, that grass ‘decides’ which way to put out roots or shoots, but that may well be because we are human, and therefore human decisions (conscious as they are) have a particular resonance for us. Matthew Hall, Daniel Fouke and Charles Cockell, in a number of separately published and otherwise unrelated papers, all put forward strong arguments to suggest that organisms as apparently ‘simple’ as microbes (bacteria, fungi, and the like) or as structurally bounded as plants, nevertheless show clear signs of choosing through directional growth and other evidence ‘how to live’. There is evidence to suggest, for example, according to Hall, that a variety of species of plants clearly avoid directional growth which would lead the plant to encounter toxins, for instance, or other obstacles to growth. Hall goes so far as to label this level of agency “intelligence”, given that intelligent behaviour is, by his definition, behaviour which leads an organism to act to avoid certain harms (the definition of a stupid action, so they say, is one that is conducted in the same way repeatedly, with the expectation of different results each time).

In the second case, while it is claimed that human agents are the only entities we know about which have the capacity to rationalise, and to recognise and reflect on their own good, this claim is also open to dispute. All we can legitimately say is that some, perhaps most, humans, reflect on their own actions, while the vast majority, but not all, other natural biological entities, do not. It seems likely that it is difference in degree, and not in kind, which separates our agency from that of other biological entities.

Taylor points out that our ability to deliberate consciously on what kind of life to lead sets us apart as a species. Consciousness might well be considered a part of Nature (see Philos-L 15 March 2010) but, as Berry argues, consciousness is effectively enculturated, and it is within the artifice of culture that consciousness gives us our responsive domain. Conscious humans, more or less alone amongst living agents, “give direction to their lives on the basis of their own values” (Taylor:33). But surely these values are derived from our cultural understandings of ourselves and how these, in the crucible of our individual moments of self-reflection, allow us to locate ourselves in the physical, biological domain? A culture, for instance, that embraces a recognition both of the cultural and of the natural human would consider that in acting harmfully towards natural biodiversity we are acting harmfully towards ourselves. This holistic attitude might be misinterpreted as implying that “harm” is avoidable. But harm is no more avoidable than pain, or suffering, when these are understood as experiences within our self-awareness. Simply to be aware, let alone to move, eat, grow, reproduce or sense, are all replete with opportunities for suffering, even as they are all processes of our own survival which depend, more or less, on limiting or arresting the survival or survivability of other living individual organisms. It is meaningless, surely, to suggest creating a culture that promotes the avoidance of harming Nature, since our own survival depends upon such harm. What is important is to recognise that the self-reflective feature of our own consciousness gives us the potential space to create biofeedback loops that anticipate and extend possible responses to include those which minimise this harm, even as they acknowledge that the excision of such harm, like the excision of pain from life, is impossible.