Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Leopold: A political animal like any other

Warning: My criticism of Leopold is based only upon cursory familiarity with his work. I should want to learn more.

When Leopold, his various disciples, and others who shy away from taking responsibility for the adventure that is human artifice endorse their particular vision of a "natural" order of human communities (which, as Carrico has observed, often includes an appeal to nature as a moral category), they are still exercising their distinctive emotional and cognitive muscles with which only we, as political animals, have yet been endowed. No act of powerful human volition--not even the act of dreaming of a "state of nature" where humans try awkwardly to disrobe themselves of their artificial clothes (by "clothes" I mean everything we build atop the edifice of nature, including our political institutions, symphonies and financial markets)--can expunge that volition. There aren't very many kinds of animals (or cyborgs or other agents, if any) who could do what Leopold did, or who could do what Leopold wanted us to do with our politics (assuming the particular desires Leopold happened to proclaim are even possible to achieve in practice). And so far as I can tell, all of those exceptionally-endowed agents fit reasonably well in the category of the "human". Not even Leopold could escape from embodying human exceptionalism! (Nonetheless, one wonders whether he actually thought he had plucked his vision from an ethereal Tree of Truth rather than simply used his imagination--like all political animals--to invent his vision.)

Whether we like it or not, we are increasingly responsible for life on this planet. Rather than deny our special role, why shouldn't we embrace it?

(I'm trying not to sound human-racist, but as usual, it's difficult.)

(Acknowledgment: Thanks to Walter Truett Anderson for inspiration.)


davidpauldorn said...

I must agree Jon, that we are incresingly responsible for this planet.
However, I am interested in more of what you say about what specific things we should actively be responsible for? The insitutions supporting our excess (resource management) or object of our necessity (resources themselves)?

As a side note, I am incresingly of the opinion that there will not be an event! which makes humans act other than they do now. I believe that a series of worsening events will eradicate the sustainabliilty of the planet, and perhaps only then will these events rob us of an unproductive volition.

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

Interesting question: What, really, is the shape of our responsibility? What is the ideal attitude of "Homo faber" (man and woman as artificer)? The scope of your question, clearly, could quickly become unmanageable. I've been thinking a lot about this since the summer.

Here's my humble opinion. We have to start by taking moral reasoning very seriously. I mean we have to really read Aristotle, Kant, Mill, even the Federalist Papers and Amartya Sen, and figure out what they mean for our lives (even if we disagree so strongly with some of it that we decide, as Hume did, to cast it into the flames). Once we figure out what our moral and political aspirations really are, then we can start acting in a way that might bring about their actualization. It's difficult, but we live in challenging times!

Your framing the issue as one of resource management is helpful. There are so many different kinds of resources available to us--some abundantly infinite, others running out as we speak. Renewable and non-renewable energy resources. Water resources. Genetic resources. Economic resources. Intellectual resources (think art and science). Public domain resources. Creative Commons resources. Temporal resources. Emotional resources. Computational resources (think neurons and transistors). Even the institutions that use or try to control those resources are themselves resources. During every moment of our lives we are, in some way, directing the flows of those resources. (And whether those resources fit into some archaic category of the "natural" or the "artificial" is the most irrelevant question we could possibly distract ourselves with at this point in our cultural evolution. Too bad we've inherited a language--a set of semantic norms--that so often trick us into doing it anyway.)

My hope is that ethical principles (understood as priceless ideas *invented* out of the "crooked timber of humanity" [1], *not* discovered out of the stately perfection of "redemptive truth" [2]) can guide the flows of all the resources that pervade our experience.

[1] A phrase from Kant
[2] A phrase from Rorty