Saturday, October 17, 2009

Thesis question articulation VI: Moral attentiveness

Moral attentiveness: part two
Series begins back here.
Uniting all three responses is a deep fear of loss and death. Facing this predicament may be the first time some people are faced with their own mortality and impotence to prevent loss. But the threat is broader than personal demise or suffering; broader even than family and loved ones also being in danger. If the present form of society comes to an end or undergoes radical transformation to a lower level of complexity, then the loss encompasses an entire cultural identity: familiar places and rituals; narratives that make sense of the world; feelings of belonging; a sense of self.

Part of what justifies the negative evaluation of these responses is the deleterious effect they have on the clarity of moral attentiveness. I am drawing here on some of Professor O’Donovan’s recent work articulating the character of moral thought as attentiveness. He argues that there is a process of moral awakening in which we are called to pay attention in order to understand and respond well. We must pay close attention to our situation in the world, to the time in which we live, and to ourselves as moral agents lest our actions fail to grasp the goods that lie before us.

Therefore, the topic speaks of attentiveness rather than merely attention. Everyone pays heed to this or that at various times and so attention can simply refer to the latest distraction. Attentiveness, on the other hand, is a habitual disposition, a comportment of coherent focus. Moral attentiveness is a way of being in the world that seeks to understand action.

The focus of moral vision is not generally helped by apocalyptic fears of the imminent end of society (at least as we know). On the contrary, social breakdown is often imaged to mean the suspension of morality for the sake of survival. An aphorism attributed to Mao Tse Tung articulates this widespread sentiment: “Food before ethics”. In other words, survival is the highest good, coming before all other moral considerations. Perhaps particularly when the situation is not simply personal survival, but the dynamic interaction between personal survival and the continuation of society, then the possibility of moral thought declines further. When collective survival is at stake, all other bets are off and all means justify that overarching end.

Indeed, Hans Jonas has made this the centre of his ethics of responsibility. This is the one truly categorical imperative: to keep human society alive. To this, all other ethical impulses, principles and insights are to submit (including the impulse to protect one’s own life). This is one way of attempting to avoid the panicked fragmentation of moral thought in the face of grave societal danger, but in the end it treats all other ethical norms as distractions from the single unifying survival imperative.

This project seeks a different and more nuanced kind of coherence through relativising the importance of survival (both personal and societal), believing that moral attentiveness is a more complex (and important!) phenomenon than merely the pursuit of continued existence.

The reasons for rejecting the false coherence of survivalism and the possibility of a different kind of coherence are found in the term modifying moral attentiveness.
This post is part of a series in which I am outlining my current research question. My present working title, which this series seeks to explain, is "Anxious about tomorrow": The possibility of Christian moral attentiveness in the predicament of societal unsustainability.
A. Societal unsustainability: part one; part two
B. Predicament: part one; part two
C. Moral attentiveness: part one; part two
D. Christian: part one
E. Possibility: part one
F. Summary: part one


Mike W said...

Is there a place for exploring how the current level of social complexity has already brought about losses which

"encompasses an entire cultural identity: familiar places and rituals; narratives that make sense of the world; feelings of belonging; a sense of self?"

Could a lowering of social complexity make the space to regain some of these?

byron smith said...

I'm sure there is a place somewhere, just not in my thesis! :-)

Though it is a good point. Various aspects of industrialism are already a spiritual and social disaster even before they have become an ecological and agricultural one. Though it is important to distinguish between a society that more or less holds together in which the majority of people are more or less able to live lives with a measure of predictability and meaning (which I take it is where we are now - more or less) and a situation in which these are not true: where most people's lives are erratic, filled with physical violence or the threat of it and where the origin of one's next meal is a genuine unknown.

Also, I don't think that complexity per se is the issue. There are better and worse forms of societies at a given level of complexity. And so a shift to a lower level of complexity is not necessarily an immediate "solution". Also, you need to remember that shifting to a lower level of social complexity has never really been achieved without widespread violence, suffering and loss of life. Maybe I'm just forgetting some examples, but I can't think of any right now.

byron smith said...

Colin Butler: The weaknesses of lifeboat ethics/survivalism.