Monday, January 16, 2017

Rhizo Classroom: Human Intention

I've been rethinking my take on ethics in light of complexity theory, and from the beginning, I've realized that I have a major issue with intention. My old view of ethics assumed human intention as an essential aspect of ethics. In other words, we should not be held ethically accountable for actions that are not the result of our conscious intentions. If I make an unconscious boo-boo, I am somehow freed from the ethical liability of my unfortunate actions if not from their consequences. My new, emerging view challenges that assumption. My new view assumes that ethics apply regardless of our intentions. Ethics are an integral aspect of all the choices we make about how to engage the various flows of energy and information available to us and how we redirect or stain those flows. Our choices cross all scales, from the atomic to the cosmic, and are seldom conscious. They are ethical nonetheless.

I really need to sort this out, and I think it will take much more than this one post, but here's a start.

First, I want to minimize the privilege of human consciousness as the crowning jewel of the Universe. My readings in actor-network theory and object oriented ontology have convinced me that consciousness is a useful tool that provides us humans with some real affordances, but it also blinds us to the integrity and value of the rest of creation. Tardigrades, whales, and lichen can all exist quite well enough without us, and in fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify any real value that we provide the rest of creation. While consciousness has provided some benefits to humanity (I, for instance, value writing this blog and value reading the blogs of others—both activities the fruit of human consciousness)‚ I cannot make a strong argument about the benefits of this blog for the rest of creation. In short, creation is not a mere backdrop for a strutting consciousness. Complexity theory (itself a product of consciousness) helps me see that consciousness is one complex, open system like all other complex, open systems. It has its own integrity, but not at the expense of other systems. Indeed, without those other systems and without the fundamental flows of energy and information, consciousness would not exist. Furthermore, it is outrageous hubris for me to think that human consciousness is the crown jewel of the Universe. We humans are hardly a cloud of electrons floating in an obscure atom on the fringe of some barely noticeable molecule of a galaxy. Given the persistent insistence of emergence—the unfolding of ever more complex entities—how can I assume that we humans are the final, crowning achievement of Life? That strikes me as utter silliness. We have always been the blindly firing neurons in some larger mind, the cells in some larger organ. There is no final end to life, and even if there is, we ain't it. If we are the culmination of life, then it seems like an awful waste of a really big, rich multiverse.

So for me, ethics is not dependent upon human consciousness; however, this does not mean that human consciousness is irrelevant. Along with all complex, open systems, consciousness makes real quantitative and qualitative contributions to the flow of information and energy and the emergence of life in the Universe. I know that eventually I will have to prove that statement, but for now, I'll let it stand as is. Furthermore, in many situations, human consciousness is a most important player. To rephrase Ian Bogost's quip, while all entities equally exist, in any given situation they do not exist equally. In education, for instance, human consciousness figures prominently, though I intend to argue that even here it is not as important as we typically think. Still, I am not dismissing human consciousness. I'm just trying to speak of ethics without depending upon human consciousness.

Even when speaking of human actors, intention is not as prominent or as important as I have believed. I am reminded of a post by Maha Bali "Contextualizing Microaggressions" in which Maha says:
I was so relieved the day I learned the term “microaggression”. It described all the little ways in which micropower is enacted on a daily basis to reinforce more macro power dynamics. It helped me see how critical pedagogy as a grand narrative is enacted in our lived experiences. It’s a useful term. And it’s also very useful to know, as Yolande Flores Niemann says on her interview w Bonni Stachowiak on Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, that most microaggression is not intentionally malicious – I think it’s an internalized form of discrimination that is so subtle those of us who enact it aren’t at all aware of what we are doing. Much of it is reflexive. But becoming aware is important. And it’s also important when you are on the receiving end of it to conextualize it.
I agree with Maha that "most microaggression is not intentionally malicious" and that most of us "aren't at all aware of what we are doing". However, the absence of intentional malice does not relieve us and our actions of the ethical stains. I suspect that Maha might agree with me when she insists that "becoming aware is important", but I'm further insisting that ethics apply even if we remain unaware. The ethics of microaggressions apply even if both the aggressor and the victim are unaware, even in those cases where the victim is so accustomed to the microaggression that they no longer notice or where they actually support the microaggression as natural and/or deserved. All human interactions carry an ethical stain regardless of the intentions of the actors.

This does not mean that intentions are irrelevant. Intentions, if present, add to the complex ethics of the interaction; however, their absence does not remove the ethics. So ethics do not depend on intention, but they are perturbed by intention. Intentions count -- they just don't count for everything. Often, they don't even count for much.

Minimizing the importance of human intention to ethics also allows me to extend ethics beyond human actors to include other actors in nature. I recently read How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013) by Eduardo Kohn, and Mr. Kohn convinced me that we humans should seriously consider the abilities of other creatures, plant and animal, to think about their world and how they interact with it. In other words, we should consider other creatures as actors in their own rights. While Kohn does not specifically address ethics from the forest's perspective, and while I know that I do not yet have a workable view on non-human ethics, I want to be open to it. It seems reasonable to me that other creatures—certainly mammals, but likely all creatures—can assess their situation in the world, weigh their options, and make ethical choices. By ethical, I mean that they can make choices that support their flows of energy and information and enhance their inner and outer states.

I reminded of a YouTube video I saw of a leopard that hunts and kills a monkey only to discover that the monkey is carrying an infant, now bereft of its mother.

To my mind, the interactions among the leopard, the mother monkey, and the infant all carry ethical considerations because of the range of options inherent in the situation, and the choices each actor made in the little drama. We can start with the mother monkey who chose to keep her infant though abandoning it might have increased her chances of avoiding the leopard. Then the leopard must choose between benefitting from her hard won and perhaps desperately needed meal and caring for an abandoned infant. The infant monkey has the narrowest range of choices given its infant status. It simply clings to its mother, even after she is dead.

As I see it, each actor has choices to make that extend beyond mere self-preservation, or the law of the jungle. I cannot pretend to know the ethics of monkeys and leopards, but I do see here the choices these actors made, and I think they could have made other choices. I don't think they are merely following hard-wired instincts. This leopard chose to tend to the infant, another leopard might have chosen to attend to the meal.

Of course, I may be wrong about leopard ethics, but this little vignette has allowed me to clarify what I am coming to mean by ethics: the choices we make about the flows of energy and information that we engage and how we stain and redirect those flows to perturb all the actors, including ourselves, in a given situation. The leopard is caught between two competing flows: food on the one hand and care of infants on the other. I don't want to anthropomorphize this choice, but I can say that both flows are vitally important to the leopard and her world, but she finds herself in a situation where she cannot engage both simultaneously. For whatever reasons a leopard might have, this leopard chooses to leave her meal to the hyenas and to attend to the infant monkey.

So is this a good or bad ethical choice, a skillful or unskillful choice, a helpful or harmful choice? Can we assess the value of the ethics in this situation? I cannot. While it's easy to turn this little movie into a Hallmark moment or a Jungle Book scene, the leopard has lost her meal, and likely she will lose the infant. The leopard is in a complex situation with multiple flows (don't forget the hyenas waiting in the wings—now, there's a flow of energy, matter, information, and organization for you), and she has to decide rather quickly which flows to engage and to redirect so as to best benefit the complex, open situation she finds herself in. For whatever her leopard reasons, her maternal considerations outweigh her nutritional considerations in this situation.

And this brings me to a next consideration for a subsequent post: ethics is not just about making choices but about making good choices rather than bad choices, skillful rather than unskillful, beneficial rather than harmful. Ethics are supposed to help us assess the value of our options and to choose wisely. Can complexity theory guide us here? I think so.

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