Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Consequence of My Being

A reflection paper for a grad school ethics class...

The Consequence of My Being

The other day I watched a community of ants foraging on a mortally wounded caterpillar. They did not step on the caterpillar but, having found it, they dismembered it and carried away all its soft parts. Then they hoisted its dead empty shell and carried it from the middle of the sidewalk to the shelter of the grass and then presumably to their ant hill. Was this a moral act or merely instinct? Even if the ants had deliberately killed the caterpillar they would have been acting on instinct. What of the person who stepped on the caterpillar? What if he, merely a lumbering monster operating on a completely different scale, simply did not pay attention, crushed the hapless insect without notice, and continued on his way? When we crash through the world on autopilot, relaxing our hold on our self-awareness, perhaps we are just animals too. But if he did it on purpose was the action ethical? Or was operating at a level of animal consciousness that finds amusement in senseless and avoidable destruction just another example of some atavistic instinct? Attending a seminar on the Ethics of Social Responsibility will make some people ponder such things.

I admit I began the seminar with only a crude estimation of the nature of ethics. “Ethics are a voluntarily assumed and self enforced code of conduct that may be shared by others.” I said, “They are what we do when no one is watching.” I was soon to learn this idea was far too constrained a definition. Others in our seminar we defined ethics as “personal behavior that affects the collective.” Better. Better yet was the idea that ethics represent “Thought, intentions, and actions taken in the interest of the greater good.”

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Descartes, Hume, Kant. The Buddha. Jung, Heidegger, Buber. Jacob Needleman, Mary Oliver, Bent Hamer. I was, and remain, awash in concepts, lines of reasoning, world views. Our mind is the perception of self-awareness. Ethics occur at the boundary with the Other. There is a profound difference between being and doing. With proper attention the subject-object relationship, the I-It, might become an I-Thou experience (Levinas on Buber). This is so much richer than I imagined it could be, “a voluntarily assumed and self-enforced code of personal conduct” indeed!

Minerals have the properties of existence. Plants enjoy the features we call life. Animals – at least the more complex forms – experience consciousness. Human experience self-awareness; we know that we know. In addition to we survivors of the hominid lines, the primates and cetaceans may also experience self-awareness. Given its close similarities to hominid humanity I suspect the chimpanzee is prone to doing. If the dolphin is burdened with self-knowledge it would be comforting to imagine it may be better at being than us or our cousins.

Animals are conscious? That initially was a surprising concept. Then I recalled that Homo Habilis made stone tools several million years ago, and Homo Erectus used fire for nearly a half million years, but apparently neither of our ancestors had speech, art, music, or religion. They may have been merely conscious. They left no record of being self-aware. There is some reason to believe Homo Neanderthalensis experienced at least a glimmer of self-awareness, evidenced by their apparent knowledge of their own mortality.

Homo Sapiens is self-aware, or at least can be, but most of hominid history was probably accomplished without self-knowledge. Pascal thought there is both an animal and divine nature in us. There are times, when participating in meaningless entertainment, indulging in creature comforts, and even when we are driving our car through our neighborhood when we humans may operating at the level of mere animal consciousness.

In Paul Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune the protagonist Paul Atreides is tested by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. If he fails to apply his self-awareness to overcome his fear he will be instantly killed by the prick of a poison needle. Paul passes the test, proving he is not an animal but a human being.

“Man does not meet, he is the meeting” (Levinas on Nietzsche). Ethics occur in space between beings. Being is played out in relationship (Levinas). By bringing self awareness to relationship we can move from self knowledge to right behavior and on to ethical conduct.

Levinas. Wow! There is a lot more work for me to do here. The idea that I am here at the cost of other lives; that I am obliged to “fear for all the violence and murder my existing might generate” strikes a heavy chord. “One has to respond to one’s right to be” (Levinas). What a heavy burden the horrors of the Second World War must have been to him. That each of us bears responsibility for the Other, for the death of the Other, even the murder of the Other is not something one thinks about without prodding. How am I to ground this in my mundane, middle-class, suburban life? I cannot wrap my head around the immensity of the concept. But I can see if one sliver of pie cut from the circles of association is illustrative.

For my personal ethical reflection I considered the morality of being overweight. At 230 pounds, I weigh some 50 pounds more than is appropriate for my height. This is the simply result of eating much more food every day than I require. Much of the time I eat with only animal consciousness, feeding unexamined sources of hunger, thoughtlessly unaware of my obligations to myself, my family, friends, peers, and community – my circles of association.

At the level of self I must take responsibility for both the quality of my life and its finitude. Not paying attention to what I am doing means I am not the being I am called to be. I am called to be awake. I must pay attention, exhibit control, and apply personal discipline. I do this simply to rise above the level of animal consciousness and become human.

By caring for myself I protect my family from fear. By acting to live a longer and healthier life I will be better able to provide for and protect them. Resources I do not waste can be used to better their well-being.

To my friends I am, for good or ill, an example. By being self-aware I model responsibility. I am an “expression of being in creation.”

To my profession I must choose to be an image of fitness. The perception of my peers and clients that I am self-awareness, awake, and in control of my being is critical to their confidence in my abilities.

To the community around me I am responsible for social justice. I cannot justify being a fat, middle-aged man when children anywhere go hungry. There are people – other self aware sparks of the divine light – who would use the extra energy I waste to create better lives for themselves. Who am I to risk high blood pressure, diabetes, and early death from overeating in the face of the Other who is malnourished or starving?

At the level of the planet I am responsible for agriculture that is based on the consumption of irreplaceable resources and the contamination of the environment. I own feedlot run off. I own the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. I own my carbon footprint.

My “wild and precious life” (Oliver) affects many for good and ill, whether I choose to or not. I am here by right, an “expression of a being in creation” (Levinas). I am responsible in the face of you, the Other, Thou, for “the consequence of my being.”


Needleman, J. (2008) Why can’t we be good? New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Herbert, F. (1965) Dune. New York: Chilton Books.

Levinas, E. (2001) The levinas reader S. Hand, (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Note: Many of the concepts and quotes used in this paper were taken from notes written on the fly during the seminar. I regret that I did not always capture the name of the philosopher associated with a particular concept or that I may have attributed them incorrectly.

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