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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Monday, April 30, 2007

    Unnatural ethics

    Unnatural ethics

    by Jim Macdonald

    What is the nature of nature? The phrasing of that question is fit for comedians and philosophers alone, and yet given all the talk about how great nature is, the question is as practically pertinent as anything is. It may not be natural to our way of speaking and thinking to ask what the nature of nature is, but perhaps we are better off occasionally doing the unnatural thing in the appropriate circumstance.

    On my travels to Yellowstone, I have arrived by car, by bicycle, and approaching the gates sometimes by airplane. I've hiked through the forests wearing Gore-Tex rain jackets, sleeping under tents of nylon, covering myself with bug spray containing God knows what. I've used telephones and watched satellite television. I've eaten food of all kinds, originating in most cases from places I couldn't tell you. Propane tanks, electric lights, power lines, automobiles and RVs, cameras and film, asphalt and silly looking people in tan and green uniforms have all been part of my experience. I wore blue-and-white checkers, myself, covered myself in rubber, though I never dared touch the obsidian that had been mined for centuries.

    In life, though I have a taste for meat, I no longer do so having seen the way that the meat industry abuses animals, takes up large swaths of land to feed those animals, and creates the energy conditions upon which the massive wars of the past couple centuries since industrialization have been fought. Yet, even though I eat only vegetables, the story of those vegetables is rarely one that is somehow pristine and pure. I can't - and won't - drink a Coca-Cola without thinking of labor abuses in Colombia or water infringements in India; I can't eat fruit without wondering about workers in the fields. I don't grow the food myself; and even if I did, gardening often involves a war with the plants that would otherwise have grown instead of one's crops.

    Most stunningly of all, I find myself overwhelmed by the prospects that I am going to be a father for the first time come the end of September. Inside of me, there is a feeling of joy and anticipation that overwhelms me; many would say that this is a natural feeling. Yet, when I stop and think about a world with so many people consuming so much of the planet, my feelings become tempered. The natural feeling of joy has been replaced in small part by the sense that where nature has led me is inconsistent with the needs of the world I find myself.

    I share all these feelings on a computer, typing away at a machine and over a network that will allow these thoughts to be shared potentially with billions of people. Since the printing press, we've been allowed to make statements about nature in what seems to be the most unnatural of ways.

    Of course, if you look carefully at my prose you will note distinctively different notions of nature arising up. One notion of "nature" is the distinction of "natural" from "artificial." That is, under this idea of nature, we consider something natural if and only if it comes to be without human construction. Noting the artificial contraptions in Yellowstone, the artificiality of agriculture would be consistent with that view of nature. The other view of nature that I casually used was a bit more subtle. In this case, "nature" refers to the tendency of motion. In a vacuum, if I find myself about to become a father, it is natural to be thrilled by the prospect. Everything else being equal, if I find myself with a scrumptuous dinner in front of me, I am naturally going to be overjoyed by the delicious prospects. However, when something else gets in the way, obstructs my e-motions (which might mean something else in a "virtual" reality), I am forced out of a natural state and into a different one. This notion of "nature" is much closer to the one that asks what the nature of nature is. What is nature originally before it changed into the puzzle that it has become? What gave birth to the reality of nature? After all, etymologically speaking, "nature" suggests birth.

    My sense is that the defintion of nature relating to the "course of things" or the "tendency of motion" (something akin to the meaning of physics, or the Greek φύσις - physis) has been foisted on the same word "nature" as in "what does not originate by human artifice" because there is a belief that human artifice as it has been used in history has been inconsistent with the "course of things." And, so now, when humans engage in anything, even if it is consistent with one's own nature, like giving birth and eating, it can often have the feeling that it's still somehow against nature. It can also lead to paradoxes that using lightweight, synthetic material on a trail that lessens the human footprint on a land, no matter how artificial, is somehow more natural than going through the forests and mountains of Yellowstone trapping and hunting deer, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep as had been done for thousands of years before the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The two senses of nature each become twisted up into all sorts of paradoxes, though I strongly suspect the meaning of the one actually has derived from the other.

    Thus, in the original - dare we say natural - sense of the word "nature", the world moves in a way that is not contradictory to itself. Those who speak of the demise of nature must first mean that something has moved it in a way that it has not and could not on its own. It has become something else altogether due to something else altogether different. To say that one's nature has changed is to say that something about it has been destroyed.

    The question looms, then, whether the nature of Earth has been destroyed. Such a question is vague because Earth remains a planet, and nothing has changed that. When people ask whether the nature of Earth has been destroyed they have a particular value judgment in mind of what they think Earth should be. Those who think that the Earth is outside of its nature believe it's been destroyed whether by original sin, by civilization, by industrialization, or what have you. All of that is premised on certain value judgments about what is most important that are rarely articulated in an explicit way. Those who believe that the Earth is still natural have a different set of value judgments.

    For me, I have trouble coming to terms with the idea of nature without thinking that something is wrong. I have trouble understanding how my own natural instincts to enjoy food, to share in the love of my soon-to-be newborn child, to play in the sunshine can be seemingly so out of whack with an earth that produces those things on the capitalization of animals, the mass consumption of land, and global warming. Those things which drive me to enjoy are the same things that seem to be casting ruin on the conditions necessary for their enjoyment. That is a contradiction, and that suggests a posteriori that something in the nature of the Earth is off kilter.

    It isn't unnatural to hunt for food, to use one's hands to build shelter or to grow gardens, to have sex and produce children. Nothing could be more natural to the nature of most of us. It's not unnatural to want to be comfortable and therefore travel through the woods as lightly as possible and to do things with the earth that would provide that comfort. All of this is consistent with our general tendency of motion. When I think of how natural instincts can produce an unnatural sense about the entire Earth, perhaps the only thing that I can think of that produces the unnatural from the natural is the self-contradictory sense that we have something in addition to our natural tendencies. What I am getting at is the belief that we have a right to those things which we long for naturally. I have written about this at some length on my essays on John Locke and property rights, and I will not rehash that (the most pertinent section relevant to this discussion is here), but I think that is worth mentioning.

    So, if we find that there is a conflict between our nature and the nature of our planet, whatever the genesis of this conflict, is the resurrection of the union of our nature with Earth's nature possible? I don't have a good answer for that except that I have equal trouble seeing why it should not be possible. However, since we are in some sense cursed into unnatural acts, whether they be unnatural to the well-being of Earth (whatever that is) or unnatural to our own well-being or perhaps both at the same time, what are the best acts in a world that has fundamentally changed from what it should be? When should one put technology to the side, when should one use it, when should one have babies, when should one refrain? When should one eat meat, when should one not? What are the best kinds of actions that would tend to undo or even improve on what has been done?

    I have no idea. I don't believe that anyone has any idea. Yet, that realization I think perhaps is our only hope. Our conflict with our own nature has arisen because people have had ideas which have gone beyond what was evident. That would be okay except those ideas have been intrinsically self-contradictory. It's one thing to guess about the weather; we have to, and maybe we'll be wrong. Who cares? It's something else to build an ethical system based on our guess about the weather; that we never had to do, and now all of us should care because we are all stuck in this mess. It seems to me, then, that actions which tend toward stripping us from building absolutes from our guesses about reality are the only ones absolutely worth paying attention to. It's not whether someone eats meat, goes to war, minimizes their use of technology, and produces babies that's the issue so much as why one has gone down that path. In a great many cases, that why may have to be resisted.

    Having said that, I can't say that I am having a child for the right reasons. I wouldn't know what those are. I am torn up inside over the prospect of bringing a child into this world (and that's assuming that the choice were actually mine, and it's not). It's not a blessing necessarily, and yet at this point, I can see no other choice but to pour my heart into my child and hope for the best. Perhaps, it's an opportunity for me not to try and control the outcome or the child and to live by example, one that is in some ways fundamentally unnatural. Yet, though everything may be fundamentally unnatural in this world, I hope it's one that is most self-consistent and therefore most likely to restore that balance. We won't be more natural simply by eliminating the symptoms; we can only hope that removing all the contradiction that can cause the paradoxes of our lives will resurrect a natural condition. That's a verbose way of speaking about love; in love alone is the hope of resurrection. Yet, where it goes and how it leads us, that is not for me to say. It's a wild fire, as wild as the child when she or he is born.

    So, to my future child, I already love you with all of my heart. That love is our only hope.

    I'm not sure what else can be said. If people have answers, then I hope they will share them over this unnatural medium. The nature of nature via the unnatural; that's no small topic, perhaps one fit for a savior if any are out there.


    Blogger Mapmaker in DC said...

    Hey, congrats, father to be!

    5/1/07, 9:20 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    It's ironic...people think of me as the ultimate nature lover, tree hugger, etc., and yet, when I am most honest with myself, I admit that I do not like the way nature functions in a fundamental way: I am disturbed by life having to consume other life in order to survive. I know it's the way things are, and there's no getting around it, but that aspect of nature is something I can't quite come to terms with. However, I know that my "coming to terms with it" is totally irrelevant, and humans remaking the world is thousands of orders worse on every level than the world we evolved into...because, not only are we practicing consumption on a massive and grotesque scale, but we have a sense of righteous entitlement, of creating and defining absolutes where none exist, of trapping ourselves in a narrative which disconnects and absolves us of responsibility.

    But, I've said all this before ad nauseum. One point I want to make that perhaps I never have is that sometimes human ethics (even in the best of cases) seems to me arbitrary at best, a joke at worst. For instance, many pacifists declare that they will not kill another human being, not even if the person is threatening their life. Yet that same pacifist may eat meat on a regular basis. Now, I know we can point to the natural world and say that many animals survive by eating each other; nothing could be more natural. But I have never known a moment of consciousness where killing an animal (be it dog, cat, bear, cow, chicken, rat, etc) is not as painful or unethical as killing my neighbor would be. Even if there were no such thing as factory farms, and people hunted down their food as tribal people and other animals do, in the "natural" way, it would still feel every bit as unethical to me, if ethics indeed exist, as killing a person in cold blood. To kill a conscious being who has desires and suffers pain and dies for her young, etc., even if it is to eat (which is really self-defense perhaps if you want to look at it that way), is a tragic and cruel action, even if it can be viewed as a necessary cruelty. And it bothers me that so much of life is based on that. Of course, eating plants is questionable too, although admittedly less bothersome to me since I see no evidence of the type of pain and fear and agony which is apparent in all animal species, although a different sort of consciousness altogether may certainly exist in plants; I intuit that it does.

    Obviously, I am using the example which is nearest and dearest to me, there are countless others, but I find ethics to be as big a dilemma as natural vs. unnatural. Is it even possible to be ethical in a world in which life devours other life in order to survive? In certain moods and frames of mind, I genuinely wonder...


    5/1/07, 8:01 PM  

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