Tag Archives: life

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.

Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post about Masha Gessen’s “Trump: The Choice We Face,” I remarked that the opposition Gessen sets up in her essay between realist and moral reasoning seems a little too clean and stark. It is also not one we can carry over, intact, into political life.

We should like to be able to choose, always, between right and wrong, and do what is right; but life does not present itself in these terms, and it’s easy to imagine cases in which moral reasoning might prevail and political action would thereby be limited, or impossible; where strict adherence to the moral could usher in its own Robbespierrean terrors; or where we simply failed to take into account the extent to which moral reasoning is already conditioned and determined by the actual, by the real.

Of course we should try to temper realism with moral reasoning, but we should probably not complete Gessen’s shift: we can never operate entirely from one side or the other.

It’s important to recognize the shortcomings of the transactional and still reserve the power to deliberate about what to do and outcomes we would like to see. A balanced view wouldn’t force the choice between realism and morality, but allow for the fact that sometimes people have to get their hands dirty; and when they must, they can and should act while remaining fully aware — at times they will be tragically aware — of the moral difficulties in which they have entangled themselves.

It’s rare in life, and in political life rarer still, that we are able simply to substitute moral reasoning about right and wrong for practical deliberation, just as it’s always cold and inhuman to reduce practical deliberation to a calculation of costs and outcomes without consideration of what we owe to ourselves and others.

A Mark I Once Made

I’ve owned this old paperback copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra since the late 1970s. Ever since then, it has been my constant companion.

It was this very book that first awakened me to the pleasures of reading philosophy and the possibilities of doing philosophy, when I was still innocent of all serious philosophy.

I do not know why I first bought the book — it was not exactly recommended reading in the public high school I attended — but I seem to remember that I first read Zarathustra on a hiking trip in the Black Mountains. I know that it was night and there was a fire burning.

Was it The Stillest Hour? I would like to think so. I was reading by candlelight, when the words of Zarathustra’s Prologue leapt out at me. I’d never read anything like this! Whose words were these? In an uncanny way they seemed to be mine — or at least I wanted them to be mine. I couldn’t say I understood them fully but knew those words to be true and I wanted to live their truth.

So I dripped wax on the page, to mark it.


I left my mark in wax — as if I could make these words my secret, as if sealing a letter with wax. A letter, but to whom? To Nietzsche? More likely to myself, promising I would return.

It was just the first, not the last time that the beauty, the passion, the madness and the truth of Nietzsche’s writing in Zarathustra struck me, stopped me in my tracks, overcame me. But I believe it was at that moment that I began to tell a new story about myself and about the world, or at least it was one of the first times I understood that I might have a story to tell. I was 17 years old.

Now, I have little claim on Nietzsche. I am not a professional philosopher and I am not a Nietzsche scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I once wrote a few words about Untimely Meditations in a review of a book by Bernard Williams; and when, in the 90s, I included Nietzsche in my Western Civilization courses I usually taught The Birth of Tragedy or The Genealogy of Morals. But curiously enough, I never taught Zarathustra or wrote about Zarathustra, which of all Nietzsche’s writings has arguably — no, undeniably — had the strongest claim on my life and my imagination. The book has done its quiet, subtle work in my life for nearly thirty five years.

“The dew,” Nietzsche writes, “falls upon the grass when the night is most silent.”

“The Lake Is Alive” – A Note on Maps and Language

…the most vital of all issues — the process of life itself.
-Pierre Trudeau, on the signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, April 15, 1972.

When I posted the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission’s latest map of Lake Superior mining over the weekend, I didn’t expect it to generate nearly as much traffic as it already has. Save the Wild UP put the map and a link to my blog on its Facebook page; other organizations and individuals picked it up from there. So I’m looking at a little spike in traffic and trying to figure out what it tells me.

One thing it tells me is something every how-to on blogging will tell you: images work, and they work better than text. The conventional wisdom is that online readers aren’t necessarily interested in reading essays and disquisitions, or reflections on language. They want it very short, simple and preferably with funny pictures. I don’t know how much there is to that conventional wisdom (and it’s encouraging to see it challenged), but my writing tends to run against it, and so, this morning, did my thinking about that map of Lake Superior mining. You can run with me for the duration of this short note, or go search for gifs. It’s entirely up to you.

Three-quarters of the traffic spike on that mining map came from the United States, most of it from Michigan, where Save the Wild UP has a constituency and where people have a real stake in the new mining around the Lake. Almost all the rest of the traffic came from Canada, where most of the new mining, leasing and exploration are concentrated.

Of course, water knows no borders or boundaries. So when studying this map it’s important to see the Lake and its environs as a whole freshwater ecosystem, a biosphere, a living place, and understand the pressures that mining on both the Canadian and the U.S. sides will exert — or, to go back to what I said at the end of my last post, is already exerting on the Lake and the life it sustains.

That big-picture perspective on the Lake is one I’ve been trying to develop and appreciate, but I feel I haven’t yet found the right language. Talking about whole freshwater ecosystems and biospheres and so forth doesn’t quite capture it, at least not for me; I find it boring and much too predictable, all very late-twentieth century, the vocabulary of a muted, quasi-scientific environmentalism that people have gotten used to ignoring.

Maybe it’s better simply to say, the Lake is alive. That is something a map like this can’t quite convey, as it tries to give the impression that the Lake’s geography is fixed in place. Instead of drawing or studying a map that describes the static geography (or geology) of the Lake, let’s try to appreciate the simple truth that the Lake that is a fluid place, and understand that what’s happening right now in Thunder Bay or on the Keweenaw Peninsula, or at the mouth of the Michipicoten or St. Mary’s rivers, isn’t just isolated or restricted to that place; it’s happening on Lake Superior and in the life of the Lake. The task, then, would be to map not a static geography or territory but an incessant, fluid deterritorialization.

Actions and events ripple and flow and move across the Lake; and at the same time the Lake is so much greater than the mere sum of all the actions and events that will diminish its life-force and force it, from all sides, to become something other than it was. Why? Because the Lake is alive, which means the Lake is already, incessantly, in millions of movements and in billions of ways, becoming something other than itself.

Those who live around the Lake are also alive in the Lake and the Lake is alive in them. Listen to Pierre Trudeau. The process of the Lake is the process of life itself; the story of the Lake is the story of life. In the most famous telling of that story, in the book of Genesis, the spirit of God moves across the waters — Gitchie Manitou, the Great Spirit, over Gichigami, the Great Water — to create life; but after that first movement, life is in the water and the water moves in everything that is alive and everything alive moves in it. It is life itself.

New Life and a Dying Ocean

The big news out of the J. Craig Venter Institute last week may have been eclipsed by coverage of the ongoing environmental crisis in the Gulf, where the Deepwater Horizon wreck continues to spew somewhere between 5,000 and 95,000 barrels (who can say?) of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP continues to dump tons of toxic Corexit (which, despite its clever name, hasn’t really corrected or set anything right again). But both stories are big science and technology news, and in the past few days I have been thinking about how they are connected – or how they might be versions of the same story.

On the face of it, one is a story about “life” (I put that word in quotation marks for a reason, which I’ll get to in a minute) and the other about death. The ongoing environmental catastrophe in the Gulf – not merely an “accident,” as Rand Paul or BP and its apologists prefer to say; “crime” might be closer to the mark; but let “catastrophe” stand for now – is the story of a dying ocean.

Last week’s announcement from the Venter Institute, on the other hand, was pretty widely heralded as a story of progress, a scientific breakthrough: A Synthetic Cell.

[A] scientific team headed by Drs. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison have achieved the final step in their quest to create the first synthetic bacterial cell. In a publication in Science magazine, Daniel Gibson, Ph.D. and a team of 23 additional researchers outline the steps to synthesize a 1.08 million base pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome, constructed from four bottles of chemicals that make up DNA. This synthetic genome has been “booted up” in a cell to create the first cell controlled completely by a synthetic genome.

The press release from the J. Craig Venter Institute goes on to summon the image of the scientist as Master Programmer: “the ability to routinely write the software of life will usher in a new era in science.” The Wall Street Journal said that Venter had given humanity “a new power over life.” We were asked to anticipate “new products and applications such as advanced biofuels, clean water technology, and new vaccines and medicines.” Hope for humanity, or at least, in the short run, for industrial bacteria, sponsored by Exxon Mobil – one of the big corporate underwriters of the J. Craig Venter Institute.

Of course we have been treated to the usual concerns from “ethicists,” and some news reports fretted that the Catholic Church took a dim view of this scientific advance; but these concerns are already part of the scientific process. Indeed, the Venter Institute took pains to make it clear that “throughout the course of this work, the team contemplated, discussed, and engaged in outside review of the ethical and societal implications of their work”. The sages at the Venter Institute admit that the new science of synthetic cells will have an “impact…as long as this powerful new area of science is used wisely. Continued and intensive review and dialogue with all areas of society, from Congress to bioethicists to laypeople, is necessary for this field to prosper.”

I can’t be the only member of the laity who would like to participate in this dialogue with the high priests of this new science. Unfortunately, the J. Craig Venter Institute does not indicate where the layperson should apply or where or on what dates the dialogue will be held. Where is the plane tree in whose shade we will all recline and discuss the question whether the creation of synthetic cells and the exercise of this new power over life is a wise course for humanity to take?

This much seems clear. Venter himself is eager to call this “‘a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,’ suggesting that the ‘synthetic cell’ raised new questions about the nature of life.” But in my layperson’s view this new scientific success comes about as close to philosophical failure as I can imagine — the moral imagination in full retreat. Then again, I suppose Venter and I have different ideas about philosophy, just as we have different ideas about the meaning of “life”– the word and the world, the creation it describes.

For example, I’m pretty much unable or unwilling to allow that anything synthetic could ever be called living, except figuratively speaking, just as I’m unwilling to allow that intelligence can be artificial. In this view, Venter and his associates may have invented an organism, but it’s a question whether they’ve created “life.” James Collins of Boston University came close to making this same point: “I don’t think it represents the creation of an artificial life form…. I view this as an organism with a synthetic genome, not as a synthetic organism. It is tough to draw where the line is.”

Tough, unless we are careful about how we use language or decide that “life” and language are ours to guard or lose. It’s clearly an abuse of language to speak in terms of “the software of life,” as if computer technology is the ultimate referent of all creation. Life is not something that is or can ever be created in a scientific eureka moment. That’s the way science works in science fiction. But that view overlooks or deliberately ignores what seems to me the starting point of thinking about life: the very basic understanding of life as the becoming of all creation, together. “Life,” in this older and, if you ask me, fuller sense of the word, implies relationship, reciprocity, an ever-changing balance. When we speak of the “life” of a specific place, a farm, a forest, a stream or an ocean, we grasp this simple truth; we do the same when we talk about our lives, which are lives lived in relation to things and people and places. My dog has such a life; so does the peony growing in the front yard. So do we all.

I realize with growing sadness that old philosophy cannot really contend with the scientific narrative of conquest and new frontiers. It is the latter to which we now owe our cultural allegiance and on which all the money is riding. And Venter is a great master of that conquest narrative – or at least he has some very good PR people. The scientific narrative is about limitless possibility; what I’m calling the moral imagination – which belongs to a tradition of thinking about humanity and the creation — recognizes human ignorance and prescribes limits, counsels restraint and reminds us that we are more likely to produce unintended consequences than great triumphs over life and human destiny.

Which, of course, brings me back to the disaster, the crime still unfolding in the Gulf, and the dying ocean. I am not suggesting some catastrophic synthetic cell or grey goo spill is in the cards; I understand that that, too, may only be a science fiction story. But I am suggesting that the narrative of scientific conquest and new frontiers, to which we entrust our lives and on which we have staked our futures, sometimes helps us forget how ignorant we really are of how creation works, or what life is, and how we ought to keep it.