Posts filed under ‘Rorty’

Why Anthropocentrism Works for Deep Ecology

In “The Deep Ecology Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects” and other essays, Arne Naess wrote that an anthropocentric system of ethics is not a sound foundation for deep ecology. This was true for Naess even if such an anthropocentric ethic seemed to support the goals of the deep ecology movement. On this point, I think that Naess has it dead wrong. While all the possible foundations that Naess mentions provide a very intuitive basis for believing in the deep ecology platform, it is possible to have an anthropocentric ethic and still believe that the goals of deep ecology are important to pursue.

Right out the gate, it seems like the deep ecology platform is opposed to an anthropocentric ethic. The first tenant of the platform, after all, refers to the intrinsic value of all human and non-human life. How can an anthropocentric ethic recognize the intrinsic value of non-human life? If recognizing the intrinsic value of non-humans means that we must equate their value with those of humans, than I’m afraid Naess has me. It would seem a contradiction in terms to think that an anthropocentric ethic could work in such a way and remain anthropocentric. If, on the other hand, we can recognize the intrinsic value of non-human life and then acknowledge that different beings have different value, and that the flourishing of a being means something different for each kind of being, then an anthropocentric ethic can work for deep ecology. I see no reason why this take on intrinsic value is incorrect.

Naess is concerned, however, that even this variety of anthropocentric thinking provides too shaky a foundation for the deep ecology platform. He writes in “Deep Ecology: Some Philosophical Aspects” that such a foundation does not effective enough in producing belief in the deep ecology movement. The deep ecological ethic “would surely be more effective if it were acted upon by people who believe in its validity, rather than its usefulness.” This brings to my mind Richard Rorty’s call for sentimental education as a background for ethics. Rorty identifies the difficulty human rights ethicists have in posing effective arguments to those racists or sexists who believe that those they persecute are less than human. He proposes an education that emphasizes empathy and sentimentality as a means of promoting human rights that bypasses the arguments and deaf ears. The difference between Rorty’s call and Naess’ is that Rorty is open about his advocacy of sentimentality on the basis of its usefulness and Naess is not.

By promoting certain kinds of foundations on the basis of their usefulness and then refusing to count a pragmatic ethic among them, Naess is being somewhat inconsistent. It’s fair to say that the usefulness of a foundation is not Naess’ only criteria for an adequate foundation for the deep ecology platform, but it should be acknowledged as one criteria among many. For Naess, however, acknowledging utility as a sound ethical criteria falls into the category of shallow (read: narrow-minded) ecology. I think that this is to the detriment of what should be the big tent of the deep ecology movement, especially as an anthropocentric ethic can include belief in the intrinsic values of non-humans and can be quite effective in motivating ethical action.

July 23, 2008 at 10:22 pm Leave a comment

On Rorty’s Decision to Teach Comparative Literature and Not Philosophy

A book I’ve been having trouble finding for the past two years has turned up three times in the last three months. Today, this time, I was able to sit with it long enough to read the introduction.

The book is Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It’s his first book, and probably his most influential. It’s also, for whatever reason, hard to find. Or at least it has been for me in the past. Over the summer, I found the copy he gave to Willard Quine in Lame Duck Books near Harvard Square. It’s going price is $1500, which doesn’t seem terribly exorbitant. Quine was one of Rorty’s primary influences, and to have the copy he personally gave (and was able to give!) to someone whose thought he admired would be an amazing piece of history to own. Needless to say, I couldn’t buy it. Almost next door at the Harvard Book store, the book goes for about $30 new. I couldn’t justify purchasing it to myself, so I lost out on reading it for a while.

There are two copies, however, in the W.E. Kennick reading room at Amherst College. I was there earlier today and was able to sit down and read the introduction. It was fantastic; Rorty’s writing is oddly spellbinding for someone who is constantly apologizing for having an analytic style, and his focus on extended metaphor as a model of thought (although he probably would have repudiated my phrasing it as such) is always interesting. Of course, it’s also full of hyperbole (calling the labeling and criticism of Dewey as a relativist a “mindless reflex” near the end of the introduction comes to mind), but, well, it’s Rorty. My feeling on it was probably put best by Daniel Dennet, in a term he invented partially as a joke,

rort, an incorrigible report, hence rorty, incorrigible.

and of course, then

a rortiori, adj., true for even more fashionable continental reasons. (from The Case for Rorts, 1996)

Just reading the introduction something I’ve always been confused about cleared up. Rorty taught philosophy at several major universities (Princeton, UVA), but ended up choosing to teach Comparative Literature (at Stanford) instead. I recall a comment made by him at some point that his treatment as a philosopher at Stanford was a very gracious thing conferred by the institution, but he felt he had no qualification for the title. Considering that he was an author of brilliant philosophy, I hope my confusion over his attitude towards his own status as a philosopher is understandable.

On reflection of the introduction to Philosophy…, however, I think Rorty was only attempting to live out the thoughts he articulated. In the introduction, and throughout his career, Rorty characterized philosophy as a declining discipline. Where it once stood to push aside the curtain of the supernatural, Rorty feels that curtain has largely been tied down. Where philosophy might have stood to create new cultural traditions, its inaccessibility caused it to be shouldered aside by fiction– novels, film, and music. Following the publication of a few books and a successful career in philosophy, why not focus on the thing which you think really matters? If fiction and stories are what create the reality for a culture, why teach philosophy rather than comparative literature? It’s amazing that it doesn’t seem like he, personally at least, ever looked back on something he articulated in the introduction to his first book. It’s also amazing that he ever published at all.

I’m very glad he did, although I’ll continue pursuing philosophy rather than fiction. At least, for now.

September 7, 2007 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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