On Wild Ethics

All of man’s mistakes arise because he imagines that he walks upon a lifeless thing, whereas his footsteps imprint themselves in a flesh full of vital power.—Jean Giono

ALTHOUGH “ETHICS” is commonly equated with a set of rules or principles for right conduct, the heart of ethics has more to do with a simple humility toward others—an attentive openness not just toward other persons but toward the inexhaustible otherness of the manifold beings that compose this earthly world.

When we consider the palpable earth around us as though it were an object—when we conceive of nature merely as an objective set of mechanical processes—we tacitly remove ourselves from the world we inhabit. We pretend that we are not corporeal creatures co- evolved with the rest of earthly life, but are rather disembodied minds pondering reality from a godlike position outside that reality. In this manner, we free ourselves from any responsibility to the rest of the biosphere. We give ourselves license to engage other animals, plants, and natural elements as a set of resources waiting to be used by us, as a clutch of fixed and finished entities waiting to be manipulated and engineered to suit our purposes. To look upon any entity only as a determinate object is to sever the possibility of real relationship with that being, and so to forestall any need for ethical reflection.

Illustration by Lawrence Santanello

If, however, we acknowledge the myriad presences around us not as objects but as bodily subjects in their own right—as open- ended beings with their own inherent spontaneity and active agency—then we swiftly become aware of the relationships that we sustain with those beings. For only then, when we recognize the things we experience as sensitive beings like ourselves, do we notice that we inhabit a common world. And in truth, it is not only the other animals and the plants with whom we actively share this world, but also glacier- carved mountains and meandering rivers, the asphalt street underfoot, and the wind surging through the skyscrapers. Every aspect of the sensuous surroundings can be experienced as an active, animate power, able to respond to the beings around it and to influence them in turn.

When we speak of earthly nature in this manner, not as a collection of passive and determinate objects but as a community of living subjects, then we straightaway begin to feel ourselves as members of this community, and to wonder about the quality of our relations with the other beings in our neighborhood.

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Source Citation

Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 1: 13-15


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