Can philosophy demonstrate value? Is there in fact a fact/ value divide?
Can we transform how we see the world and how we live our lives through shifting our perspective on reflections on our own consciousness, on our awareness, attending to the present? These are old practices for philosophers. Yet language matters, and philosophy is also the art of possibilities with how we tell the story of ourselves. We need to reconsider the role of philosophy in how we present the world to ourselves. Philosophy is as fundamental as plumbing in this regard, as Mary Midgley, Kent Peacock, have both so eloquently and engagingly put it.
Our current predicament is this ecological emergency: climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, urbanisation, and also ideological adherence that creates attitude polarisations like ‘populism’ versus ‘elitism’. Thus, fragmentation takes place not just in the systems that created and sustain us, but also in the systems through which we view the world, our own allegiances and the perspective we use to see things from.
Let us focus first on how philosophy might create a basis from which to respond to what is going on. Philosophical practice is a way of seeing and doing with as great an awareness as possible of the premises on which we build our frameworks. Our present situation makes such reflection more urgent than ever.
Philosophy can be both therapeutic, and consolatory, as it was for the ancients. It can offer a way of seeing by offering a technique for reflecting on what is being looked at, by examining the underlying beliefs and assumptions about what we are seeing with, as well as what we are seeing.
While we must acknowledge the external fragmentation of systems, we can also look within and recognise the concurrent fragmentation within ourselves. If human and more-than-human communities and systems seem fraught, or broken, we look at the continuum that leads from out there to in here. We can envisage a different place from which to tackle the fragmentation, a place that takes us back to ancient East Asian thought, indigenous thought, that treats our experience as indigenous, and even as wild.
We do not control the wild and nor do we control our past, which is all that has led us to this point. This insight need not depress or terrify us. Rather, it can empower us, making us realise that we need to look at our interactions as means rather than ends, the manner of our interactions being the very tools through which transformation takes place. Not fiery manifestos, then, or dialogues to incite more drama. But the calm at the very eye of the storm, using words that mirror the work of integration, of seeking to connect, rather than inflame.
It is not cheapening, or shallow, to attempt to communicate complicated ideas simply. It is the very heart of philosophical work. Philosophy, after all, asks how we can live well, and wisely, and the ecological emergency gives the question a new urgency. We do not have time to further fragment or undermine those whose job is thinking. We need to roll up our sleeves and dig into common ground, find metaphors that allow for regenerative work, for what is good not just for being human, but for being in the more-than-human world.
Grass needs water, whether or not it knows it. There are conditions that are good for other organisms, just as there are conditions that are good for us. It matters not a jot whether or not organisms understand or consciously seek out these conditions: they just are the conditions which, together, are good for organisms. Humans evolved just as all organisms evolved: by the blind feel of evolution’s probing for viability. When we understand this, we recognise that we hold no special status. When we absorb both the understanding of what is ‘good’ for organisms, and our lack of privileged status in the pantheon, this elicits, according to Paul Taylor, an attitude of respect.
An attitude is a little like an emotion. Taylor maintains it gives us the basis for an ethic. But what is elicited is not an ethic, but an attitude. The attitude that arises as a result of our recognition of our own and all other systems’ enmeshment is compassion.
If we divide rationality and emotion, we run into dualistic difficulties. We can know what we ought to do, rationally, and yet fail to do it, and the reason is largely governed by our emotional beliefs, which are pre-rational, and which lie in the depths of our subconscious, and are influenced by such factors as family background, culture, and so on. If we think we can create a policy to make people act in a particular way, and they have no emotional investment, we are as a sounding trumpet. Most policies are exactly that: sounding trumpets, proclaiming a moral or social code to which very many are at best indifferent, at worse resentful or resistant. However, if we reconsider the dualism of emotion and rationality, we can easily see that there is no clear boundary between them. Emotional responses have a logic, and therefore a rationale, to them. There is a good reason for our feeling painfully lonely when we recall looking out of the dormitory window, aged eight, and seeing our parents’ car rolling away and out of sight. Rational responses, when we dig down, are fundamentally illogical: we take a leap of faith that the universe will stay still long enough for two and two to equal four. (Perhaps not much of a leap, improbable events happen rarely, by definition). We believe, in an act of faith, that the world will behave in reasonably predictable ways, that humans will behave in reasonably predictable ways. If we lose our basic belief in the predictability of the universe, the world, or humans, we will be reduced to rubble, or jelly. We will have no structure with which to approach the world. We — and it, in our view — will fall apart.
What links rationality and emotion is compassion, which is both entirely logical and reasonable, based on ‘the good’ of systems, and profoundly emotional, in the sense that the most fundamental need any organism has is what is ‘good’ for it.
How to create an emotional investment — how to feel compassion towards yourself, on the one hand, and the Earth, on the other (both being aspects of each other) — is key to responding to the ecological emergency. Investing in compassion, through understanding how and why to practice love, even towards our attitudes of indifference or apathy, is the only way to shift attitudes, or change how we emotionally engage with an idea.
Dualism, like fragmentation, is not helpful to us, whether it’s our attitude that we’re talking about, or rationality and emotion.
The attitude Taylor recommended — respect — is not unlike compassion (which is not entirely unlike ‘unconditional positive regard’). Taylor argued that respect is elicited when we reason out our relations with other organisms on the planet. I would argue that respect is not exclusively reason-based, and that we become compassionate when we align ourselves with ‘the good’ of systems, alongside our understanding that we are here as a result of myriad reactions over which we have had no control. What we can allow is the full expression of the attitude of compassion, the alignment with what is good, the recognition of the nature of systems as a series of reactions over which no element has choice or control until and unless a conscious organism, like ourselves, lights up the relationships with love.
Taylor wanted to ring-fence his environmental ethic. Only wild nature is included. Our attitude, though, extends through different spheres of our interrelationships. From intrapersonal to person-to-person relationships, through human culture, the bioculture (that realm of the non-human world over which humans have already exercised considerable influence, from agriculture to animal experimentation), to the many aspects of ‘wild’ nature we experience, both in the external sense that Taylor talks about, to the internal sense of ourselves as ‘wild’, with cycles, like the menstrual cycle, over which we have no control.
While we undoubtedly have the capacity to see beyond our own interests, by considering the interests of all organisms (usually in a very general way), we don’t necessarily escape them. Moral codes attempt to coralle us so we follow a prescribed path, even if it appears to undermine our own interests. To be guided by compassion is to unbolt the corral. What is in our interests, we begin to appreciate, is what is in the interests of the relationships that sustain and that created us. We have a strong interest in maintaining good relationships, by which I mean relationships that allow us to connect. Connection is a corollary of love. Love, I contend, is amoral. We have no code to guide us when we act compassionately, except a sense of what it is to love, and be loved. This is our ultimate good, the basis of our happiness. We know that ‘the good’ of other organisms and systems varies enormously. Imagining ourselves in another’s place, particularly if that other is a different species, or inanimate, or abstract, is challenging indeed. Yet it has been done. Education requires to a large extent imagining ourselves in other situations, and all school curricula should include classes in which the children imagine themselves as a fox, a badger, a wren, a frog, a virus, and a mountain.
Unbolting the coralle means we unlimit the moral circle, and in fact, we question the validity of a moral approach when compassion as an attitude can guide our actions. Of course compassion is egotistical. We are ultimately seeking to survive, individually, and as groups of families, couples, communities, and so on. But it is also a recognition that our passion to survive, to live and to love, is shared, in equivalent form, by every other organism (and, I would add, by every system).
When we imagine ourselves as being something other, when we experience the sense that they’re at that point because of a series of reactions over which they had no control, we can find love, or compassion, being elicited. When what is being considered is an organism, like a cockroach, or a virus, or a worm, or a bacteria, with which we have evolved in competition, we find it much more challenging to consider that they might have conditions ‘good for’ them that are not in conflict with our own good. Yet compassionate alignment considers a ‘least harm’ approach to be the most beneficial. Reducing attractants, using the least harmful biological or chemical deterrent, and finding ways to allow coevolution to take place, in as far as this is possible, is a much better strategy than going the nuclear route.
We act for lots of reasons: motivated by emotions, by aesthetics, by counter-rationalism as well as rationally, intuitively, and on a number of other bases I probably haven’t thought of. To ask humans to act rationally all the time is to ask us to become machines. We are and never can be the logically perfect Dr Spock types Taylor’s utopia demands, where ‘respect for nature is fully expressed in the character and conduct of all moral agents’.
Emotions motivate action. Even if we reason out why to act, based on beliefs about how we fit into existence, resistance arises. There are all kinds of reasons not to bother if acting compassionately requires more effort than, say, not acting at all. The compassionate attitude meets resistance with love. Love is the effort to keep attending to itself, without judgement or evaluation, and to seek to connect, and, if appropriate, act, in spite of resistance. This is the effort of attention that is guided by compassion.