The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Circles of Belonging

Fractals and CirclesI’ve recently been reading about some Hollywood folks who are very concerned with how women are treated.  One of them, the director Lexi Alexander, tweeted the following:

A crew guy just said that he follows me on Twitter & wanted to thank me because he has 2 daughters. Will it always take daughters to care?

This is the fundamental problem suggested by my article on ethics vs. morals, and discussed by more philosopher and social scientists than one could possibly list. What does it take to care about people we don’t and will never know?

I care about how women are treated because they’re humans.  Why wouldn’t I care?

But why stop there? The murder of dolphins and whales, who are sentient, offends me greatly as well. Why prioritize human intelligence?

Where does the circle of belonging, of inclusion, stop?  Where do we say “That person’s problems are not my problem?”

It’s perfectly natural to care about our families, our loved ones, and especially our children, more than we care for others.  We are responsible to them to an extent we aren’t responsible to someone who lives half the world away—responsible for feeding them, housing them, clothing them, and indeed providing love to them, a need that virtually all sentient creatures have. (Remove whales or dolphins from their mothers and they are profoundly effected; while elephants clearly mourn their dead.)

At the same time, to overly prioritize those we know is to become monsters.  To say “my child is worth a hundred other children’s lives” is to have crossed over the abyss and descended into hell. The hells created by those in the “I’ve got mine, screw you, Mack” crowd are legion.

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The history of human civilization can be read as expanded circles of belonging—from bands (not families, bands) to tribes, to kingdoms and empires and on to nations.  The national impulse, responsible for so much evil, also saw the rise of benefits like pensions and unemployment insurance and universal healthcare.  Those who belonged to my nation deserved such things.  They were “one of us.”

For the longest time much of this was done through religion: The Zeus cult allowed those who belonged to it to not be strangers. People who belonged to the cult, even if of different polis or tribe, could trade together, because they were members of the same cult. If they did not treat each other properly, they believed Zeus would punish them.

Powerful, self-identifying groups of this nature, from followers of Confucius to Christians, from secular humanists to enlightenment thinkers, have brought people together and forged bonds of trust, duty, and belonging that crossed barriers of tribal, local, or even other religious circles.  The humanist claims a duty to all of humanity, believing that everyone has certain rights, including to food, shelter and fair law (justice).

There are those who go further, giving rights to non-human sentients and even animals that are traditionally our food animals.

One can make a full ethical case for all of this, but one can also make a pragmatic argument. Healthy, happy people are better to live around. Economic cripples don’t contribute to civic or economic life nearly as much as they could; the poverty of others, whether material, spiritual, or ethical impoverishes me, because I lack whatever they could have given to the world, were they able.

The same is true of the larger web of life. As animals and plants die, what they contributed to the ecosphere is lost and that loss diminishes the world in ways that will effect me, whether through loss of seafood, loss of oxygen, loss of key nutrients, or loss of potential scientific discoveries, now impossible. Every dead species is lost genetic code, code which may have held secrets to make us much richer: medicines, chemicals, genetic modifications, and so on.  We are killing the web of life which supports us and killing the wealth that nature has created for us.

The pragmatic argument is important, but pragmatics alone are never enough: Without an ethical argument, many people will violate the norms as soon as it is convenient to them; while without the pragmatic argument others will violate the norm because it makes no sense to them. (Why not kill if it’s in my interest?  Sure as heck the people who lead us have no qualms about doing so.)

To manage an ecosphere, and to manage a world full of sentients, requires valuing them intrinsically, as well as functionally—both for what they do for us and for themselves, irrespective of their utilitarian value. Until we create an ethics which does this, not only will we be far less happy and prosperous than we could be, but we will lurch from ecological disaster to ecological disaster.

The creation of an ethics of inclusion, a broad circle including all life and much that is not alive, is one of the key tasks before us.


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  1. jump

    Well said Ian.
    Our connection with others and our world is the crucial awareness that can inform our decisions in creating a just, ethical and sustainable world. Respecting others, other life and our environment is the necessary condition to making good judgements going forward–that our own well being depends on that awareness.
    The cynical side of me asks, ‘where is the money in that?’ Our current cultural thinking is bogged down in separation, violence and greed with a lot of historical precedent. That is a big chasm of thought to cross.
    I think it can be done but it will be a long slog. We can act in the local to engage others in reciprocal relationships and economy. Getting from the local to the global is the part I haven’t figured out. It may well take global disasters, wars and hardships that take us to the brink of survival before the light dawns for many of us.

  2. Just checking in.

  3. grayslady

    The personal is a critical element leading to understanding of issues that affect more than the members of your immediate tribe, whether immediate family or extended family. When we were trying to pass the ERA, we were faced with numerous state legislatures filled with mostly men. A key argument we used was: Do you think it’s acceptable for your daughter to receive less pay for the same job simply because she’s female? We had to personalize those issues so male legislators could understand the potential impact of their votes. Other social and economic rights campaigns have used similar tactics.

    Using the personal as a starting point in creating change doesn’t mean that the argument is an appeal to selfishness. Rather, people understand the world through the personal first, so that’s where you need to start when attempting to shift outlooks.

  4. Jeff Wegerson

    I am not so much concerned about death and dieing as I am concerned about the interruption of the processes of life and death. Everything living, of course, dies. But a road, for instance, interrupts a place that once supported entire ecologies of life and death.

  5. Stefano Gorda

    This reminded me when I heard JW Bush saying that the US of A were just defending American interests around the world: was I the only one to feel the deep wrongness of such a statement?

  6. Dan Lynch

    Agree with everything you said, Ian.

    But …. most people are tribalists. It’s in our DNA. It’s what we have evolved to be.

    Only a few will rise above tribalism. But those few can be influential.

    Leadership matters. Most people are simply followers. If you have an empathetic leader, like MLK, people will follow him. If you have psychopathic leadership, then people will follow that — Germany under Hitler, or the US today.

  7. We are less, not more, tribalist Then are near competitors. both living and dead. That doesn’t mean where not tribalists, mind you, but the direction is going the other way. It’s not DNA, nor in the stars.

  8. X

    I think the world is waking up about this, that we are all one entity. It’s what religions, at their core, have always said. It seems to be confirmed by modern science, in ideas about how space and time, as we have traditionally perceived them, are illusory. And our climate, and weapons are making this understanding rather urgent. I think most of us would like to live in a peaceful, forward-thinking world. And as we have reached this pretty amazing turning point in our lifetimes, (an amazing gift, if you look at it in a certain way), I think there is another thing that we need to do, and that is to begin to sort out the bullies. I mean really look at this as a problem for our species’ survival, that some people don’t want everyone to be equal. We need to sort out good and bad, or we are not going to make it. (X)

  9. Ysmene

    This is my first time commenting here. This essay really touched me… especially after reading ethics vs. morals. I care about the people in this world. I care about all the animals as well. If I let what is currently going on in this world inside my head, it begins to destroy me. I can’t do it. It just hurts too much. How do we teach ethics to people who just don’t care? It seems like there’s so many of them out here.

    grayslady mentioned trying to reach male legislators through their daughters to personalize the issue. Great idea. But the ERA has still yet to pass.

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