Lived Nonhuman Ethics

My core concern, both academically and also personally, is working through the question of what it means to be ethical to nonhumans. Most often that takes the form of the human ethical relationship to animals.

That said, my ethical concerns definitely extend further than animals. What does it mean to be ethical toward a computer program? A plant? A piece of metal? My interest in speculative realism, and object oriented ontology, has largely been because of these ethical interests–decentering the human being (in Meillassoux’s words, rejecting correlationism) is, for me, critical to getting to a real nonhuman ethics. Once we realize that the world does not exist merely for humans, that we will end, then we can really get down to the business of understanding the human impact on ecological systems, animal lives, and nonhuman assemblages and actors.

This post isn’t a list of things to do in order to be more ethical toward nonhumans–I’m very much in the James Stanescu camp that we are in such an ethical position that our ethics should be about minimizing violence, not pretending that we are cleaning our hands of the whole thing. In other words: we’re already damned; now what do we do?

I recently stumbled upon an example that I think might be a way of thinking through obligations toward nonhumans. There is a small thing right outside my door. I don’t know what it is called. It holds small, free newspapers that get updated twice a month or something. I really don’t understand it.

Historically, and by “historically” I mean “the entire time I have lived here,” the thing has served several purposes. Sometimes there is trash on top of it–used coffee cups, empty plastic bottles, or just stuff that might be toilet paper or rags or whatever. Someone wrapped up in the thing‘s life, its caretaker, its lover, comes every now and again. The lover dutifully cleans the thing. The caretaker fills it up with new papers. The next day it is covered in trash again.

Last week, someone did this:

magazine thing


You can probably guess what happened. The trash is gone. No one has filled the thing up or stacked trash on top of it. When the thing began to speak, or when someone helped it speak, or when someone spoke for it because it could not, the state of things changed. In Rancierian terms, the distribution of the sensible was radically altered; that which was background became a speaking subject.

Theoretically, I think this is fascinating. The sign itself generated, on some level, a flat ontology. The trash makers now have to look at the thing as something that can be offended, that has a speaking voice; more importantly, the thing is now a being with a recognizable body that can be hurt. It is a nonhuman body, and when trash is stuffed into it, it is understood to be violated and wounded; the viewer, when seeing the hurting thing, is shamed.

The common response to what I have just written will probably go something like this: “the sign is written by a human, it shows that a human has vested interest in the thing, and so people don’t want to hurt/offend/piss off that human.” That, I am sure, has a lot to do with it–but we already knew that a human had a vested interest in it. There’s a sticker and a phone number. And I think, based on past “this thing is now a trashcan even though it is not supposed to be” experiences, that if someone had put a sign on the thing that said “STOP PUTTING TRASH ON THIS” that it would have been ripped off, crumpled up, and become-trash.

A speaking thing. An implicit recognition of flat ontology. We are aware of it, therefore we can change our behavior.

I read Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres 1: Bubbles earlier this year, and he briefly discusses animals and (I think) Levinasian ethics. Short summary: Levinas says that beings with a face call to each other with infinite obligations that can never be fulfilled. Therefore, we have to do all that we can for those beings. The problem with that is the notion of the face–what is it, what has one, and so on. Levinas was never really clear on that, and kind of flipped back and forth, especially on the animal question.

Generally, the response to this is to throw it out. Phenomenological ethics, which is what Levinas is “doing,” aren’t really a good way to plot out ethical stances. It is hard to combat the existence of factory farms in that framework; in fact, impersonal and systematic forms of exploitation and violence become difficult to combat, period. Sloterdijk’s response to this way of thinking is his spherical system; his practical response to Levinas, however, is to proliferate faces. Instead of attempting to find them, we should recognize that the face is placed by the human–there is an implicit choice in the act of recognition. Make a face, change the makeup of the sensible; make a face, practice an ethics.

The sign is a face. It is a makeshift mask that works. It is a way of generating a lived, practical ethics of the nonhuman. Does it shatter the world or correlationism or solve global warming? No. But it does, maybe, show a way out.


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3 Responses to Lived Nonhuman Ethics

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    Cameron, any literature you can suggest that explores what non-human ethics are derrived from, predicated on?

    • kunzelman says:

      Nonhuman ethics isn’t really a “thing”–animal ethics definitely is, so from that side Glissant and Haraway are both huge influences on me. Also James Stanescu’s article in Hypatia is great, as is his Journal of Critical Animal Studies article. For the response, that is, “nonhuman ethics are impossible,” I would say Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology is the best response.

  2. BH says:

    I remember when I was young, about six years old, walking in the mall with my mother. They had an indoor garden planted in the main corridor, and they had a sign on the edge of the soil, reading, “Please don’t step on us! Plants have feelings too!” This revelation that plants could supposedly feel immediately changed my relationship with plants for the next five years, to the point where I would ask bushes if I could have a raspberry before I picked one off of them (if there was a little too much resistance to my tug, I would let the bush be).

    Just last year, I discovered the works a Bengali scientist who lived during the late 19th, early 20th century and who extensively studied the physiology and feelings of plants. His name was Jagadish Bose, and he gave his botany books such titles as “The Response in the Living and Non-Living” and “The Irritability of Plants”. It’s very interesting how he likens the curling and quivering of plant leaves to heat and touch to our own reactions to external stimuli. I’ve linked to the full text of The Irritability of Plants below. Page 98 starts an interesting chapter titled “Death Spasms in Plants”.

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