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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A PLEA FOR AN EXISTENTIAL ETHICS OF THE ENVIRONMENT

 

 In the anglosphere, the philosophical discussion about the environment often tends to be about rights and rational choice.

I think it was Anthony Giddens who pointed out that, within modernity, conversation about social matters in almost all spheres tends to translate things into a juridical vocabulary – one of rights. As a pragmatic matter, it might be the case that this is the best available way of presenting environmentalist causes.
However, philosophically, I see a missing dimension here, which also helps us understand the social meaning of “nature”. This is the existential dimension in which the human and the other-than human are involved one with the other. In this dimension, there is more going on with such things as forests, animals, rocks, rivers, oceans, the sky, etc., than rights talk.
In a wonderful essay, A person not completely like the others: the animal and its status (L’homme 1991 31(4) – which I don’t think has been translated into English, but should be - Sergio della Bernardina surveyed rituals of hunting and sacrifice to understand the human/animal interface. And his data showed that, far from thinking of animals as “things” – what Martin Buber called the It domain – hunters and even those committing ritual acts of cruelty thought of their prey and victim as persons. One might think that personhood is a protective status: we recognize a person and accord them “rights”. But in fact personhood is, della Bernardina claims, firstly a matter of being capable of being found guilty.
At the center of della Bernardina’s essay is an account of the Ainu bear sacrifice ritual.
Bernardina quotes an ethnological report about it. In the Ainu village, the villagers first capture a bear cub. The cub becomes the pet of the village. It is cuddled. ‘Even officially” it is treated like a person.
Then comes the fatal day of the ceremony. “He is given a tour of the village, and all the details of the ceremony are gently explained to him, compensation for all the tribe of bears for the future ones put to death. It is necessary that he can recount all the grandeur of the ceremony in order for others to be happy to come to men who treat them so well and not to feel that anger which can destroy the huts of the village.”
Then, according to the ethnologist who Bernardina is quoting, “for reasons that we didn’t quite grasp”, each begins to mistreat the bear, to make it angry, to strike on it from all sides, to poke it with branches, etc. At last it is lead to the center of the village, where everyone is assembled, and then the chief of the ceremony shoots at it with an arrow. Theoretically, this should kill it right away – actually, everybody begins to shoot arrows at it. Then the bear, either dead or dying, is dragged about. Someone breaks its neck.
What the anthropologist doesn’t understand is why this cruelty has to be exercised. This is Bernardina starting point. Far from being an expression of plebian sadism - a very popular claim - Bernardina thinks that the cruelty actually plays a structural role. And that role is about transformation.
His notion is this: there is an idea out there that an animal is a thing. A machine. But Bernardina claims that we have no evidence that the direct human experience of an animal is of a thing. The tendency we find across cultures is that an animal is a person. It has “rights” in the sense that it has a certain personhood. For Bernardina, the idea that an animal is a thing or a machine only makes its entrance when the animal is put to death. It is here that the animal must be demoted from person to beast. The cruelty it is subject to is not, he claims, derived from some sadistic substratum, but is a way of making the beast appear as a beast. It will lash out. It will prove that it is guilty. And it will be put to death.
Bernardina’s notion is an interesting conjunction of Rene Girard’s notion of sacrifice and David Graeber’s notion of debt.

This is where I’d like to think Buber’s theory of the dialogic encounter makes a good case for environmental ethics. But I’ll save that notion for a later post.  

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