Tag Archives: humanity

Cary Wolfe on “Another Moral Vocabulary”


Friday on the stoop.

This is from Natasha Lennard’s 2017 interview with Cary Wolfe in The Stone:

On the one hand, rights discourse is Exhibit A for the problems with philosophical humanism. Many of us, including myself, would agree that many of the ethical aspirations of humanism are quite admirable and we should continue to pursue them. For example, most of us would probably agree that treating animals cruelly, and justifying that treatment on the basis of their designation as “animal” rather than human, is a bad thing to do.

But the problem with how rights discourse addresses this problem — in animal rights philosophy, for example — is that animals end up having some kind of moral standing insofar as they are diminished versions of us: that is to say, insofar as they are possessed of various characteristics such as the capacity to experience suffering — and not just brute physical suffering but emotional duress as well — that we human beings possess more fully. And so we end up reinstating a normative form of the moral-subject-as-human that we wanted to move beyond in the first place.

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

Having said all that, there are many, many contexts in which rights discourse is the coin of the realm when you’re engaged in these arguments — and that’s not surprising, given that nearly all of our political and legal institutions are inherited from the brief historical period (ecologically speaking) in which humanism flourished and consolidated its domain. If you’re talking to a state legislature about strengthening laws for animal abuse cases, let’s say, instead of addressing a room full of people at a conference on deconstruction and philosophy about the various problematic assumptions built into rights discourse, then you better be able to use a different vocabulary and different rhetorical tools if you want to make good on your ethical commitments. That’s true even though those commitments and how you think about them might well be informed by a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the problem than would be available to those legislators. In other words, it’s only partly a philosophical question. It’s also a strategic question, one of location, context and audience, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we can move more quickly in the realm of academic philosophical discourse on these questions than we can in the realm of legal and political institutions.

A Note on Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?”

A report in the New York Times the other day about the Federal District Court case naming the Colorado River as plaintiff led me to Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Justice Douglas drew on Stone’s arguments to formulate his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, and since that time the essay has been widely influential, a classic that helped define a field.

For Stone, a river or a lake, a mountain or a forest, a species or the biosphere can have roughly the same status as other “legal incompetents.” A human guardian or, as we might say nowadays, a protector brings a complaint for a natural entity that has suffered some injury. The case is brought “at the behest of” the river or mountain, without having first to prove injury to the guardian or some third party (e.g., a fishing guide whose business has suffered as the result of stream pollution); and the natural entity itself would be the beneficiary of an award or remedy ordered by the court. So, for instance, a judgment against those who have polluted a stream might direct them to undo the damage done to its waters, mitigate erosion of its banks and depletion of its plant life, restock its fish, and so on. The stream would have a “right” to be made whole again.

Stone recognizes that his proposal “is bound to sound odd or frightening of laughable,” but that, he notes, has been true of any movement to confer rights on rightless “things”:

There will be resistance to giving the thing “rights” until it can be seen and valued for itself; yet it is hard to see it and value it for itself until we can bring ourselves to give it “rights” — which is almost inevitably going to sound inconceivable to a large group of people.

Stone’s thinking can seem way ahead of its time — and ours (even if the writing here is sometimes redolent of Southern California in the early 1970s). This is especially true toward the end of the piece, where Stone moves from making strictly jural arguments for the standing of rivers, trees, and other natural entities to broader observations about the “shift from the view that nature exists for men”:

…the time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se. Consider, for example, the disputes over protecting wilderness areas from development that would make them accessible to greater numbers of people. I myself feel disingenuous rationalizing the environmental protectionist’s position in terms of a utilitarian calculus, even one that takes future generations into account, and plays fast and loose with its definition of “good.” Those who favor development have the stronger argument — they at least hold the protectionist to a standstill — from the point of advancing the greatest good of the greatest number of people. And the same is true regarding arguments to preserve useless species of animals, as in [the case of sea urchins endangered by a nuclear power plant.] One can say that we never know what is going to prove useful at some future time. In order to protect ourselves, therefore, we ought to be conservative now in our treatment of nature. I agree. But when conservationists argue this way to the exclusion of other arguments, or find themselves speaking in terms of “recreational interests” so continuously as to play up to, and reinforce, homocentrist perspectives, there is something sad about the spectacle. One feels that the arguments lack even their proponent’s convictions. I expect they want to say something less egotistic and more emphatic but the prevailing and sanctioned modes of explanation in our society are not quite ready for it. In this vein, there must have been abolitonists who put their case in terms of getting more work out of the Blacks. Holdsworth says of the early English Jew that while he was “regarded as a species of res nullius … [H]e was valuable for his acquisitive capacity; and for that reason the crown took him under its protection.” (Even today, businessmen are put in the position of insisting that their decent but probably profitless acts will “help our company’s reputation and be good for profits.”)

For my part, I would prefer a frank avowal that even making adjustments for esthetic improvements, what I am proposing is going to cost “us,” i.e., reduce our standard of living as measured in terms of our present values.

We may still not be “ready for it,” as Stone puts it; and, he goes on to say, there might be a more “fundamental problem” with asking human beings to put their own immediate self-interest aside and act on ethical principle, or to limit our rights in order to respect the rights of others:

Insofar as the proposal is not just an elaborate legal fiction, but really comes down in the last analysis to a compromise of our interests for theirs, why should we adopt it? “What is in it for ‘us’?”

This is a question I am prepared to answer, but only after permitting myself some observations about how odd the question is. It asks for me to justify my position in the very anthropocentric hedonist terms that I am proposing we modify. One is inclined to respond by a counter: “couldn’t you (as a white) raise the same questions about compromising your preferred rights status with Blacks?”; or “couldn’t you (as a man) raise the same question about compromising your preferred rights status with women?” Such counters, unfortunately, seem no more responsive than the question itself. (They have a nagging ring of “yours too” about them.) What the exchange actually points up is a fundamental problem regarding the nature of philosophical argument. Recall that Socrates, whom we remember as an opponent of hedonistic thought, confutes Thrasymachus by arguing that immorality makes one miserably unhappy! Kant, whose moral philosophy was based upon the categorical imperative (“Woe to him who creeps through the serpent windings of Utilitarianism”) finds himself justifying, e.g., promise keeping and truth telling, on the most prudential-one might almost say, commercial-grounds. This “philosophic irony” (as Professor [S. Morris] Engel calls it) may owe to there being something unique about ethical argument. “Ethics cannot be put into words”, Wittgenstein puts it; such matters “make themselves manifest.” On the other hand, perhaps the truth is that in any argument which aims at persuading a human being to action (on ethical or any other bases), “logic” is only an instrument for illuminating positions, at best, and in the last analysis it is psycho-logical [sic] appeals to the listener’s self-interest that hold sway, however ”principled” the rhetoric may be.

That logic may have its limits and ethical argument its attendant ironies should not deter us. “The strongest case can be made from the perspective of human advantage,” Stone writes; and after reviewing that case, he goes on to suggest that protecting the environment will actually raise our standard of living, if not in terms of our present values, then (this point deserves emphasis) in terms of new and more durable values.

Stone is even prepared to argue that “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems” (and the problems Stone identifies here, in 1972, are still very much with us and more urgent than ever before: melting polar ice caps, dying oceans, serious threats to water). “There are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness [Stone admits that he is uncomfortable with the term] from the point of making us far better humans.” Recognizing the rights of those whose standing once seemed “unthinkable,” to borrow Stone’s phrase, surely has.

On fateful turns. A Note from Bahia de Coronado

What if things never really can take a fateful turn? That’s how I put the question to myself as we made our way back from the beach yesterday.

The path is rocky and in some places steep. I was thinking about the Spanish word for path — sendero — a word to which I often return. (I can’t say precisely why.)

Erosion had exposed a tangle of roots in the center of the trail. As I stepped around them I was reminded of our host’s precaution about snakes. But there was no snake in the rut underfoot. Besides, he had said, they are more scared of you than you of them.

On the beach at low tide we’d come across tiny crabs tracing their turns in the sand, leaving trails — senderos, again; crazy squiggles, bizarre hieroglyphics signifying nothing, erratic, eccentric patterns the tide will wash away.

We might, I suppose, appreciate the irony of their situation, or see in their efforts a mockery of our grand human purposes. If witnessing their work does not free us from all anxiety (as the Catholic prayer for mercy has it), it may at least give us reason to believe that our own situation is less tragic than we tend to think.

No fateful turns: just think of all the movie plots, horror stories, songs, diagnoses, epic conceits, and bad ideas about love and God and destiny we could sweep away. And maybe that would leave room for more salutary thoughts, and give us a chance to see ourselves as we are, in the here and now, as creatures and creators of our own history.

Of course, sometimes we have good luck, and sometimes, bad.

Balancing Innovation with Orientation – An Airport Postscript

Today I was at a business conference in Las Vegas where Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appeared, together, for a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion about the economy, regulation, taxes and education. At one point in the conversation, the two former presidents were asked to talk about how America can do more to encourage innovation. Clinton and W. both agreed that making the research and experimentation tax credit permanent would be a good first step.

This wasn’t terribly surprising, since both presidents had tried (but failed) to make the credit permanent; nor was it surprising that a business audience would greet their comments on this subject with polite applause. I, too, managed to put my hands together and restrained myself from jumping to my feet and exclaiming to the assembly that before we start giving tax credits for research, we need to revisit the idea of “research” embedded in the tax code.

So I did not end up having to explain to the secret service detail or my hosts that I had been agitated on this subject ever since I read Amar Bhidé’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and had just yesterday published a blog post on this very subject, where I wondered whether research into the human condition and the social world might not also deserve credit, provide much-needed checks and balances to the scientific and technical research the credit already covers, and yield new ideas of what constitutes true prosperity, real wealth, or sustainable growth.

Now, at the airport, waiting for a redeye back to New York, I am still in the grip of this idea, which, as I admitted in my previous post, probably sounds a little far-fetched. But there is a line of inquiry here I don’t want to lose: that research into culture and society, into language and history, into how people learn and how things change, will balance innovation with – I guess this is the word I would use – orientation: a sense of the right direction, an understanding of limits and where propriety and restraint should be shown, of where judgment needs to be exercised or informed choices need to be made.

Think, to take just a small example, of the concern within business organizations around social media. This goes far beyond the fact that many organizations don’t know what to do about Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn; that barely scratches the itch.

The conversation has turned from the occasional remark on the role of business in society to anxious chatter about the transformational role that society, or the social, can play in business. There is a growing realization that the social matters enormously to the way people collaborate, the way organizations develop and change, the way business goes to market, and to the bottom line. If, as I might put it, every enterprise is already a social enterprise, why would organizations be reluctant to devote some small portion of their R & D dollars to original research into how peering works, or how social networks function, or how individuals surrender, or refuse to surrender, autonomy in exchange for belonging, or how trust is built or won.

Still sound far-fetched? Maybe. I realize I am talking here in very broad terms, off the top of my head, and I’m also aware that some organizations are already taking these matters seriously, even if they don’t, or can’t officially consider them R & D. Still, it’s fair to say the vast majority are not dedicating resources or sufficient resources to these topics, primarily because, unlike scientific and technical research, they don’t promise to yield new wares, and because they seem soft, mushy, hard to define and pin down.

I realize, too, that the broad trend I am describing here may be a manifestation of a much greater anxiety. It may be that we are trying to harness the constructive power of the social now only because we sense a loss, a lack of social cohesion, the demise of traditional social values and the disintegration of traditional human groups, the atomization of social life and the erosion of trust.

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that how seriously organizations deal with these issues will bear on their performance, on their ability to innovate – broadly, as Bhidé would say — and to orient themselves in an increasingly disorienting world.

Unscientific about society

Social science may be able to account for society in part because it has remade society to suit its particular kind of knowledge (the “science” that I would call theory).

For most theorists who study society, there are great social forces at work, will we, nill we, and most of them do us no good; the self is a social construct; the individual is more patient than agent, subjected to a false or inauthentic subjectivity, often a victim.

But there are, interestingly enough, some resources for rethinking society in the history of the word society itself. Society, societas, denotes an elective or voluntary association, not an array of (dark, often hidden) forces that constrain and define and overwhelm the individual.

I want to think about the social not just as a precondition but as a human accomplishment, the fruit of liberty and free association, a state that human beings can achieve simply by choosing to come together, not just a gulag of the alienated, overdetermined self.

Asleep at the Wheel

While most of the business press was focused on Ford Motor Company’s recent announcement that they had called in Alan Mulally to revive the ailing automobile giant (or at least to help it die a graceful death), I was busy looking at the way Volkswagen runs its US operations.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m intrigued by the creative destruction taking place at Ford, but I’m not a business journalist, so I’m not bound to comment on it. (As you may notice, I’m not even bound to update this blog on a regular basis, which is probably the only reason I’ll continue to update it.) Nor am I an automobile industry analyst who holds a brief for Ford or Volkswagen or any other automaker. As far as the auto industry is concerned, I’m much more important than any analyst or expert, or at least I ought to be: I’m a customer. And last week I wanted to find out what kind of trade in I could get on my Honda Civic toward the purchase of a VW Beetle.

Ordinarily I would have taken my Honda into the dealership, swallowed the bile I feel rising in my throat every time I have to talk to a car salesman, or a salesman of any sort, and started the conversation. But when I went to VW’s website to check the MSRP on the New Beetle, I was invited to take care of things right there, or right here, from my desktop. For those who share my aversion to salespeople, VW (like most manufacturers) has created a “build & get a quote” feature on its site. After you choose your model, and decide which features you’d like, the site then gives you a list of dealers in your area. Choose one or as many as you like, email them the list of specs you’ve created, and they will contact you by email or telephone with a quote.

Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. And, if you read the hype from IBM and SAP about the CRM installation they did for the German car manufacturer, that’s exactly how it will work, driving sales, improving the bottom line, making the whole operation smoother and more efficient. The only thing they won’t tell you is that they can’t really guarantee that your people are going to do what they’re supposed to do as customers fill the network with data, requests, preferences and choices. So after I designed the Beetle of my dreams, or at least the Beetle my budget would permit me to design, chose a nearby dealer, and sent a request to the dealer specifying that I would like to be contacted with a quote by email only (and not by phone, thank you very much), I was led to believe that I’d have a response within pretty short order.

But nothing happened. Nothing at all.

Maybe I’d somehow projected my dislike of car salesmen when I submitted my request. Or maybe I am a victim of a technology glitch. But isn’t it more likely that somebody at my local VW dealership just failed to do what he or she was supposed to do when the CRM system did exactly what it was supposed to do?

You can deliver the leads directly into the salesperson’s inbox, you can track the lead to determine whether the salesperson has read it or needs another notification to follow up on it, but none of those measures will matter — none of the technology will matter — if the salesperson simply doesn’t care enough to follow up, or can’t be bothered to look, or if the prospects coming into the showroom are hotter than anything coming from online. Maybe the showroom clerk can do better slapping on the same cheap cologne, sidling up to the same uncomfortable looking prospects, and talking in a cheeky way until they’re sitting down and signing their name to a lease. Maybe most car shoppers are still old-fashioned tire-kicking empiricists: they’ll brave the sales pitch to take it for a spin, look under the hood, smell the new interior.

IBM of course doesn’t deal with such issues in their case study of the VW CRM installation. Like most technology pitches, theirs assumes that people are already on board with new technology, that people are (wholly) rational actors, that “training” will do the trick, that people are not just lazy or that somehow they simply will do what they are supposed to do. But as many companies have learned to their chagrin, you have a much greater chance of success when you organize technology around people, and not the other way around.

It’s a nice idea: make the machines serve people, not people the machines. If you design a business process (like a new customer to dealer process), design it around people; don’t ask people to put themselves at the mercy of your processes. And don’t put your entire business at the mercy of people who find themselves at the mercy of a business process designed by consultants pushing technology solutions to human problems.

And this, in a nutshell, seems to be one of the big lessons business brahmins learned after the dotcom bust: people still matter. Some will say they’re the only thing that really matters. That’s why so many organizations today have a people strategy, or talk about people with the passion they used to reserve for technology, or when asked to define their greatest strategic resource answer with — you guessed it — people.

Roll your eyes all you like. There may be something to this people stuff, though. After all, business — getting the right people to work for you, getting people in the door, putting your stuff in people’s hands in exchange for their money, which they earn working for and with other people — business, commerce, the economy, is really all about people. What else could it be about?

Business consultants, especially the kind whose main job is to sell you a software package, will try to tell you that they have “solutions”; but people can and will resist solutions, find ways to survive them, outwit them, or just plain ignore them. Which brings me back to the slacker at my local VW dealer — with whom I now feel a kind of solidarity.

Humanity doesn’t have a place in solutions. It is the very thing solutions can’t account for.