Aug 6, 2011

Which ISME Do You Mean?

Last week, with my partner, I participated in and presented in an excellent, fruitful conference of one of the two ISME organizations with which I am involved.  There are, as it turns out, at least four associations bearing that acronym (as well as a women's fashion catalog, not surprising given that Philosophy also names a skin care product line, and Orexis a rather dubiously successful male enhancement pill).  I've been a longstanding member of the International Society for MacIntyrian Enquiry, and more recently became involved (in a currently much more amateur manner) with the International Society for Military Ethics.

Last week's conference was the meeting of the former organization -- and I'll write more in posts soon to come about selected highlights of those sessions -- but I was not the only attendant to belong to -- or even note the anacronymic ambiguity of -- the two organizations.  The MacIntyrian ISME as a matter of deliberate policy -- since this is in fact what the tradition-dependent moral inquiry Alasdair MacIntyre espouses requires -- invites keynote speakers who are not for the most part MacIntryre scholars or even admirers (sometimes, they are strong critics). One of the keynote speakers, James Connelly, began by noting that he was more accustomed to thinking of the second organization, in whose conversations, projects, inquiries, and debates he was very active.  His presentation dealt with two different fields of ethics, typically called and thought of under the rubric of "applied ethics":  military ethics and environmental ethics.  And the guiding question, which he developed into a stark and detailed contrast, was: what are thought of, spoken about, or advocated as "virtues" in these two fields?

In military contexts, virtues, or at the very least virtue-associated terms and concepts are routinely (though often imprecisely, even counter-productively)  invoked and used.  There are good reasons for this, which steer military ethics along the direction of virtue ethics in general and perhaps even the current of MacIntyrian virtue ethics in particular.  Courage, one of the cardinal virtues, has been reasoned about in military terms and by way of military examples since Plato and Aristotle.  Situations of deadly force, threat, conflict still remain one of the paradigmatic proving grounds for that virtue, and there are longstanding communities bound closely by friendships of certain sorts and by traditions to which one can belong in which this is played out, participated in, made precise. 

Virtues are needed precisely where rules and decision-procedures break down, conflict with each other, do not apply well, or require some exercise of judgement -- and that is the type of situation often faced by the soldier or marine, the non-com or officer.  The agent doing, choosing, deciding, advocating the right thing in military environments needs to develop a state of character which can reliably lead to the right thing.  Virtues are learned, and vices are unlearned by training, discipline, habituation, by emulation of example, by taking on patterns of life and action handed down just as much as inculcated -- and while teaching plays a role, particularly in the late modern world, in rightly identifying, understanding, and cultivating the virtues needed, the pedagogy is often practical, narrative, experiential rather than straight out theory requiring only to be applied. Virtues are one of the necessary components for a moral stance protective and preservative of certain goods at risk not only because of other hostile agents but also because of one's own nature as a combatant, as a wielder of deadly force, as a being subject to all sorts of temptations to defective moral reasoning precisely when the stakes are great.

We might add -- as did Connelly, that virtues are most adequately conceived, understood, and thereby lived out within the context of a life, of the kind of being that one's chosen character impresses upon one -- and upon others as well, who for better or for worse evaluate one's stances, actions, words, even emotional reactions and values.  Possession and exercise of the virtues, understood within the framework of traditional virtue ethics, is one central requisite for a genuine full life, for the mode and modicum of happiness one is to enjoy, for being able to carry out one's duties, roles, and offices well, as well as for the degree to which one enters into, grows within, and deeply enjoys one's relationships.

Within many military contexts, as within the broader context of virtue ethics, virtue is thematized in more or less agreed upon ways.  It is taught or inculcated in a variety of manners -- often mutually reinforcing, equally often jarring to some extent -- by practical as well as intellectual means, within cohesive communities organized around clear common goals and goods, in accordance with traditions and recognizable roles some of which go back centuries or millennia.  It takes its root in the nexus of character, habit, and choice, and both is a good and is productive or protective of goods for ones own self, one's comrades in arms, those one is to protect, even perhaps in some cases (e.g. the virtue of justice) one's enemies.

After persuasively laying out why the virtues both necessarily and naturally arise as key components for any military ethics adequate to late modern military training, life and action, Connelly drew a clear contrast to what goes on in environmental ethics. Are the virtues equally important, equally needed, equally regarded and reflected upon, for environmental ethics?

One easy way of answering this from a MacIntyrian virtue ethics perspective would be to raise these questions to a higher level of generality, so as to ask these sorts of questions and frame these sorts of concerns:  in order to live a life full in this respect -- in order to safeguard, to continue, to renew, to enjoy, to foster the sorts of goods inherently and perhaps uniquely involved with the environment --  in order to develop step by vulnerable step human nature in concrete human beings in relation to the myriad non-human components of their environment -- in order to deliberately detour, locally, regionally, globally, from trajectories of exploitation, degradation, impoverishment, even catastrophe -- what settled, to some extent deliberately chosen, dispositions of character must be identified, adequately conceptualized, practically fostered?  And, how is this to be done?  How are these virtues to be fitted and framed withing contemporary human culture and lives?  -- And likewise, what about the numerous correspondingly opposed vices?

There are some key differences which come into play, though, when you get down to details, between environmental ethics and other "applied" fields, stemming in considerable part from the key difference that the attention is focused precisely on the impact of human action, practices, choices, institutions upon the complex and dynamic non-human environment.  Although Connelly did not himself put it this way -- I say this not so much as to claim any originality but simply so as not to attribute to him a position he may not hold or find well-said -- the emphasis in environmental ethics shifts away from the good or poor, fostered or stymied, properly understood or misunderstood development of the human being as such and in social relation with other human beings to the encompassing, often in most of its parts invisible, unappreciated, encompassing ecological network -- how it ought to be conceived, what attitudes or actions one ought to adopt towards it as a whole, and as portions.

I leave aside for the moment the question whether that is a fair or accurate assessment of environmental ethics (here's the spoiler:  I'll admit that it's not, but it does provide a starting point), and return to what Connelly did say about environmental ethics and about virtue ethics, which is very interesting because it sets out a problematic and an opportunity for some potentially productive dialogues.

In military organizations and in the panoply of discourses and institutions which center upon them, there are, and have long been, spaces where practitioners can and do think about how to identify and inculcate specific and germane virtues.  Often, admittedly, this does not occur successfully, often not enough work is done -- for it has to be redone with every generation of personnel anew, in response to changes, but also maintaining vital continuity -- to distinguish spurious or derivative configurations of character, habit, emotion, and action from the enduringly real shapes of the genuine virtues -- but there are there are these spaces, there are affective, practical, organizational continuities that can be called traditions.  What answers to these for the environment?  Does anything, and analogue correspond to these in environmental ethics?  At present, Connelly maintained, the answer is no.

It is not as if there are no environmental advocacy groups, some of which have rather clearly defined missions and motives, which do take in new members and provide them with principles for practical reasoning, narratives, evaluations, projects and engagements, as well as some sense of community.  It is not as if there does not now exist something that might be called a "tradition" (in a rather different sense than the MacIntyrian one) of literature and thought consisting not only in advocacy, but also articulate enjoyment, narratives, and conceptualizations of the environment and human relations to and within it.  But, other than being "for" the environment, regarding it or at least (and more often) certain elements and certain configurations of it as valuable, goods in need of defense, what is lacking are overlapping communities of practice inhabited and oriented by a common ethos stemming from the goods and demands of those practices.

Could there be something like a  robust, reflective community oriented around what Connelly called "virtues of environmental citizenship"?  Given the variety of stances, all of them with their own starting points for practical reasoning, constellated around the notion and vocabulary of environment -- many of them at odds with each other on what is meant by that slippery term, what goods are at stake, what the most pressing dangers are, what imperatives they acknowledge -- it is possible to identify what he called a "sustainable common environmental good" through some shared and dialogical processes of practical reasoning? 

While openly cknowledging the only nascent status of such a community, Connelly does think something like an environmental virtue ethics is possible to articulate, and he set out some elements of this in his provocative talk.  His proposal, if I rightly understood it, identifies a set of virtues which are not in any manner new ones, and align with dispositions also lauded as needed in other areas or concerns of ethics:  hope, compassion, moderation, responsibility, thrift, and thoughtfulness.  In addition to the earlier noted problematic difference in the inculcation of these virtues (i.e. the lack of a coherent community of practitioners), he also points out a vital and perhaps equally problematic difference in the orientation of these virtues.

This difference is crystallized in a fundamental question which he raised, a perennial concern for any virtue ethic:  Is environmental virtue actually beneficial to the virtuous agent?  There, it seems to me, he has set his finger on an absolutely central issue which must be addressed and resolved -- though not necessarily completely or finally -- for any environmental virtue ethics attractive to any who are not already committed to some view represented under the (often ideological) umbrella of the environmental "movement" to get off the ground, to attain traction with those who are not already so committed.

Unless one is to simply preach to the converted, it is not enough to say to people: this is good, and you ought to do this for its own sake -- even though it requires sacrifices to be made by you.  Some reconnection to the goods of the acting person must take place, goods that go beyond, e.g. already valuing the environment, or at least an image of it, a subjective stance towards it (or elements of it) -- or fitting into a group one enjoys or desires membership within.  But there is the problem:  environmental virtue risks being understood -- and it must be to some extent so understood if it is to do any justice to its determinate object -- solely and strictly in terms of the relation to the non-human elements or totality of the environment, or perhaps in relation to often-romanticized other people living an existence closer to "mother earth" and thereby much more directly vulnerable to environmental dislocations or damages.

Not to diminish the impact upon or values of these concerns, there is still a need to work out in concrete, realistic, attractive terms -- corresponding to full development of human nature and happiness -- the goods involved for human moral agents acting in ways beneficial to the environment, all the more for those who would be steered towards, even deliberately espouse and cultivate virtues beneficial to the environment.

I'll end with three brief suggestions, the first of which I made in the Q&A follwing Connelly's plenary address.  One (admittedly heterogenous) group in which -- at least among some of its membership and organizations  -- one can find attention paid (in practice though not necessarily in theory or deliberation, though at times partially so, e.g. here) both to the environment and to the virtues are contemporary hunters and fishers.  More needs to be said about this, which I'll do in another, later blog entry, but I do want to note that with that community and in those agents well formed in terms of the practices, goods, and virtues specific to that community, there is a consciousness, one which seems to be long-rooted but recently growing,  of the connection between virtues and practices fundamentally good for the enviroment and at the same time good for the virtuous agent and those falling with their ambits of concerns.

A second suggestion is this:  environmental ethics, unlike military ethics, is by its nature (pun intended!) one which would tend towards encompassing, towards assuming an architectonic status.  Given that, its varieties of goods and its specific virtues must be reconnected explicitly, argumentatively to those involved in the full development of human nature as contemporary virtue ethics explores, understands, articulates these.  Put in another way, it is up to those legitimately concerned with environmental ethics to explain persuasively to their interlocutors how becoming deeply concerned for one's environment is now a necessary and interpetrative component of an adequate moral theory.  (I should note that such a project is, as if often the case when it is being called for, already to some extent underway, evidenced by one recent set of essays, Environmental Virtue Ethics)

My third and final suggestion is, I grant, less worked out even in outline, and is simply to note that within classical virtue ethics, there are precedents -- waiting to be transformed into resources -- for addressing the problem of virtues and goods oriented towards and enjoyed by others and the self.  One of these is Aristotle's discussion of complete justice, which encompasses all of the virtues, but, as he says, now oriented towards others.