The Banality of Ethics in the Anthropocene, Part 2

What is it worth? NASA/Bill Anders

You can read part 1 of this essay here.

Yesterday in Part 1 I argued that the most enduring of the great crimes of the 20th century will surely prove to be human disruption of the Earth’s climate. Its effects are already locked in for thousands of years. With modern technology humans have become so powerful that we now rival the great forces of nature, so much so that we have diverted the planet from its natural course, taking it out of the Holocene’s 10,000 years of climatic stability and clemency into a new, unstable and dangerous geological epoch, the Anthropocene. If this feat is a crime then before the enormity of what humankind has now done, the grand constructions of international law and all modern ethical systems appear frail and almost pathetic.

Penal codes proscribe offences against property and the person. Some codify crimes against humanity. But where in a statute book would we look for the crime of subverting the laws of nature? What penalty would a court impose for killing off a geological epoch?

If not unlawful then these monstrous acts are surely unethical. Yet to see them as the result of a miscalculation about how to maximise human welfare, or a failure to act according to a Kantian universal maxim, as the dominant ethical theories would have it, somehow trivialises the magnitude of what has been done and which now looms before us. An ethical framework that can tell us whether it is wrong to overstate our travel expenses cannot tell us whether it is wrong to change the Earth’s geological history.

The feebleness of ethics may be conceded in the case of consequentialist and duty ethics, but what about virtue ethics? Are we not in this predicament because hubris has defeated humility, because self-interest has trumped concern for others? Perhaps, but the virtues that guide us in daily life tell us nothing about the place of humans on the planet, and that is now what is at stake.

The attempt to frame a transformed climate by mere ethics risks normalising an event without parallel, of rendering prosaic a transition that is in fact Earth-shattering. If the imprint of humans on the functioning of the Earth system has become so large that we have initiated a new geological epoch, the recourse to law and ethics leaps over a more foundational question: What is man? What kind of being made these laws and ethical codes, and what kind of being changed the course of Earth history?

Philosophy since Descartes had answered the former question definitively, and since then it has exercised only a few in the shadows. But unless we open it up again we will flounder around attempting to understand the dilemmas of an ontologically new epoch with the categories of the old one. It is an approach as anachronistic as an animal trial would be today. When human history and natural history become entangled it is no longer credible to argue that the future of the Earth depends only on the moral struggle of modern men and women.

The Earth scientists tell us that the giant beneath our feet is stirring. No longer do we face the sullen resistance of nature to our demands, resistance that in the past has been progressively overcome with more powerful technologies. Now we see a force awakening to its own power.

Against the foundation of modern law and ethics in the moral autonomy of the subject we find ourselves in an increasingly heteronomous world. We no longer have a monopoly on agency. We have assumed that the only kind of willing in the world lies in the consciousness of human beings; yet in the Anthropocene we must confront the possibility of a “will” beyond our own, that which we can only gesture at with metaphors like “the awakened beast”.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Let me reinforce the argument with a reinterpretation of a classic fable. Before we became intoxicated by the hubris of techno-industrialism, respect for forces beyond the human was embedded both in folk wisdom and intellectual life. In 1797 Goethe composed a short poem drawing on an ancient story, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Most people today are familiar with it through the Disney version in the 1940 film Fantasia, which stays close to Goethe’s plot.

After the Sorcerer leaves for the day the Apprentice believes he can activate the master’s magical powers, so he commands the broom to fetch water. All goes well until the Apprentice waves the sorcerer’s wand to stop the broom. It refuses. He chops it in half but the two halves rise and continue to fetch water. He chops again and again to no effect until the house is being inundated. The Apprentice cannot control the powers he has unleashed and calamity threatens. But the Sorcerer returns just in time and commands the broom to stop.

Can the The Sorcerer’s Apprentice properly be described as a morality tale? Would we describe the actions of the Apprentice as ‘unethical’? Foolish, risky and hubristic, yes, but not immoral. The fable’s message is pre-ethical, from a world in which the Apprentice is not a moral agent but the kind of being who aspires to go beyond all moral laws. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a story about what happens when we aim to rise above the proper bounds of human agency, when magic confers so much agency that we are above ethical injunctions.

I am suggesting that in the last two to three centuries humans came to believe techno-industrial power had elevated us from Apprentice to Sorcerer. Yet in truth we were never more than Apprentices with iPhones, or more accurately, with coal-fired power plants. Hegel seemed to know this: “Man uses nature for his own ends; but where nature is too powerful, it does not allow itself to be used as means.”

And so we Apprentices misappropriated nature’s powers by setting ourselves up to rival the laws of nature. We have made ourselves into beings that aspire to the role of the gods, playing with forces we should leave alone, the great forces that govern the evolution of the planet. Impatient with this kind of warning, some ultra-moderns are even now planning to impose their will on those forces by means of geoengineering schemes aimed at regulating the amount of solar energy reaching the planet.

So what is man? The Apprentice. Yet unlike the pleasing ending to Goethe’s story, with the Sorcerer returning at the last moment to set things right, in the last century or so humans have usurped the role of Sorcerer and changed the world irrevocably.

What is the essential flaw in this being, the being that can spread across the entire surface of the Earth and create fantastically elaborate social structures, including systems of ethico-legal principles to govern its behaviour, and yet send the planet careening off onto a new and dangerous trajectory that jeopardizes all forms of life? Modernity’s greatest philosophical invention, the autonomous subject, now stands on shaky ground, the trembling of “the giant beneath our feet”.

Adapted from a speech to the GLOBALE Festival, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, 20 June 2015.