Thoughts on Self-Interest Ecology

This week I have been reading a not-so well-known book of philosophy by the British philosopher Derek Parfit called Reasons and Persons. Parfit is flagged up in Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects, in which Morton comments on Parfit’s challenging of ‘long-held prejudices about utility and ethics from within utilitarianism itself.’ that, ‘Parfit showed that no self-interest ethical theory, no matter how modified, can succeed against such dilemmas.’ (Hyperobjects, p. 122) What Parfit illustrates is that Self-Interest theories actually reveal that what we should be self-interested in is the future, because this breeds a healthy anticipation of ourselves as a continuing presence. Parfit explains:

Unless we, or some global disaster, destroy the human race, there will be people living later who do not now exist. These are future people. Science has given to our generation great ability both to affect these people, and to predict these effects…Two kinds of effect raise puzzling questions. We can affect the identities of future people, or who the people are who will later live. And we can affect the number of future people. These effects give us different kinds of choice. (Parfitt, Reasons & Persons, p. 355)

Why Morton picks out Parfit for interrogation, is that Parfit is thinking in terms of hyperobjects (a term Parfit would not have known). The things dogging us are so massive in spatiotemporal scale that we are unprepared for the repercussions these massive objects will trigger. The hyperobject is an assemblage of events & things. We may parse Parfit’s own list of ‘pollution, congestion, depletion, inflation, unemployment, a recession, over-fishing, over-farming, soil-erosion, famine, and overpopulation’ for hyperobjects. In fact it would be time better spent to say that this list could come under a single heading of ecological.

I would say that a large part of our energies should be toward thinking ecologically so as to become what Morton calls ‘ecological-being.’ Expanding on the consideration of ‘future people’ Parfit explains:

In some cases we can predict that some act either may or will be against the interests of future people. This can be true when we are making a Same People Choice. In such a case, whatever we choose, all and only the same people will ever live. Some of these people will be future people. Since these people will exist whatever we choose, we can either harm or benefit these people in a quite straightforward way…Suppose that I leave some broken glass in the undergrowth of a wood. A hundred years later this glass wounds a child. My act harms this child. If I had safely buried the glass, this child would have walked through the wood unharmed. Does it make a moral difference that the child whom I harm does not now exist?’  (Parfitt, Reasons & Persons, p. 356-357)

We can determine that if we are to think ecologically, we have to cross the threshold of our own existence & encroach on the existence of a future person. This requires the difficult application of impartiality. Something we prove again & again, we are not all that deft at. Our actions should not be liable to such affective potentials, but impartiality is difficult when confronted with a non-identity, an identity that will exist in a radically different contexture to that of our current consumerist culture. We can, as Mark Fisher has explained, imagine the end of the world in a more rendered fashion than the end of capitalism.

Parfit’s insight aligns & informs with ecological thinking. We could alter the example to that of what we do whenever we produce a destructive material. Parfitt’s insight here provides a reasoning for thinking ecologically, instantiating the repercussions of one generation’s affectivity over another. What it simultaneously explains is why we do behave in a manner that affects future peoples: we know we can never be directly blamed when the actions of now manifest into problems later. This is the crux of the problem.

The Non-Identity Problem posited by Parfitt indicates that considering the rights & best scenario for future generations is problematic precisely because those future people have no identity. We can only conceive of them as being formed out of the fundamental differences we effect now. This is a consequence of trying to establish better choices now so as to effectively alter predicted trajectories that will become a future ‘worth living’. Despite the speculation we can make predictions to avert a future in which these future people least benefit from the re-percussive effects of our speculations. The problem cannot be directly seen, the nature of the future forbids this. However, out of predictive thinking (ecologically) we can be convinced to make decisions that will make the future better. We cannot begin to do this unless we can convince ourselves that spatiotemporal scales are integral to being able to make convincing predictions to benefit the future. The benefits must be toward a better world, which will therefore benefit the generation living in that world.

Self-Interest must be oriented to persuasive predictions of how a future might look. We currently, largely exist in the spatiotemporal scale of our biological clock. As a largely Humanist culture, we do this because it is ideally aligned with our societies habit of planned obsolescence. We don’t have that long here, so buy buy buy to experience as many products as possible. This is choking us. A good Self-Interest theory would not think like this, because the Self-Interest would be toward the preservation of a standard of existence worth living in the future; this of course makes sense if you want to reproduce & the nurturing of a child is futile if their is already no prospective future to live into. There is no good reason to assume that getting what we want is a rational mode of being. If we can sacrifice land to this purpose (landfills, factories, the decimation of wildlife & forest) then surely we can sacrifice our right to objects with a transient value.

If we begin to see more potently the spatiotemporal scales of these objects we claim a right to, we begin to recognize that it is precisely their histories & futures, which are proving deleterious to a standard of living in a murky future. A plastic object has travelled out of deep time, some 40 million years to form into oil. The speck of time this is useful to us pales in comparison. So too its future: one that will greet generations for thousands of years to come. Would you even recognize a person in a thousand years?

These thoughts are all culminating as I write my dissertation on the poet John Wedgewood Clarke. His book of poems Landfill for me instantiates the hyperobject. I am writing a chapter on spatiotemporal scales necessary to thinking ecologically so as to be ecological beings. It is interesting & challenging, if only because I am torn from the safe distances my biological clock establishes. However, I believe that it is this improvidence hacked into our thinking through our diurnal conditioning, which is a hurdle to us reckoning with now to affect much-much-later.

In the comments it would be interesting to know if people think ecologically? Do you think current protests & the Covid-19 pandemic are ecological problems? I look forward to your insights.

16 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to perceive it as a preservation-of-future requires a necessary belief of perduration, I suppose. I’ve been educated clearly and stringently to recycle, avoid plastics, always choose reusable even in face of inconvenience, be as environmentally conscious as one ought to be, although my parents never gave me any sort of clarity as to why I should do said things; they became interwoven into the satin of my being, and now, I automatically exist in an ecological way. It’s somatic, almost, to hold onto a piece of rubbish until I find a bin, or, as I once smoked, I would rush to finish my cigarette in a smoking circle just so I would be the one to scour for a tray, and others would be inspired by already knowing of its location. Otherwise, more often than not, they would toss it out.
    I went and still go through a series of depersonalising manias and depressions, and I’ve been so stricken by thought miasmas that I my consciousness, in the middle of setting the table, fully recoil and I’d stare at my hands, as if in a virtual reality game, and be entirely unable to perceive them as part of me. Rare were the days in which I thought of myself as an existing object, as an interactable, operable part of all of this, let alone did I perceive of a future self that could do the same (although those two are not concomitant). My ecological thoughts and actions never escaped me, though. Even void of myself, I preserved my outer experience, and the same could be said of relationships and occupations.

    I don’t know if this was quite what you asked, but I thought I should share. Thank you for the marvelous books and authors you’ve just introduced me to.

    1. I am so sorry for the delayed reply, for some reason I am not getting updates to my phone, which is odd.
      Sounds to me like you are very much on the right track to being-ecological, to thinking in an ecological way. In fact, I am sure if we weren’t hindered by a broken system, we could be truly ecological. Unfortunately, as the name eco-logy (house study) suggests, this is about the relationships in a shared space, so no matter how ecologically minded we are, if everyone else fails to do so, as we are witnessing, very little is done to secure futures that are worth living in.
      That doesn’t mean we stop, O no. We need to plow on, to educate & inform in as clear & as understanding a way as possible, else we just risk alienating people. I am glad to have someone like yourself on the side of being-ecological. I am more than happy to send you a long list of very informative books on ecology & ecological philosophy, but for now, please start with Timothy Morton’s ‘Hyperobjects’. Morton is a brilliant thinker.
      Thanks for your comment & I promise to be more vigilant next time, & not to trust my phone app.

      1. I have been interested in Timothy Morton ever since your “NIGHTMARE IN A HYPEROBJECT”, published on High Window; I’m a bit daft, however, and I tend to be locked away from contemporary philosophy in order to preserve the sensation of still knowing anything at all, which is such an atramentous habit.
        I shall read him with celerity, though, and start with Hyperobjects. Thank you, Daniel!, and there’s never any rush whatsoever.

      2. It is wonderful that you remember things I wrote, I am quite taken aback, thank you. Even I forget what I have published & posted, I am not precious about my writing, it happens, I enjoy it happening then I tend to forget about it, sort of, as I feel I am always in the process of improving. Contemporary philosophy is a rich plateau, deserving of our attention. What is wonderful about it, is that it doesn’t seek to discount away the body of philosophy leading to now, but only to expand the ideas there. Harman is a brilliant example, his book ‘Tool Being’ explores the expansion of Heidegger’s ideas, & in doing so gave us object oriented ontology, which I think, in co-operation with speculative realism, is a very important field of study. So you will find Kant, Heidegger, Hume, & more in the work of Morton, Harman, Bennett, Garcia, Deleuze, Bryant & DeLanda. They don’t have that ego of shunning their precursors, but only examining & expanding to benefit the current contexture of our WORLD.

      3. Of course; I’m not all that interactive on WordPress (or life), and the lithe number I follow, I do so with the commitment I’d give to any author of my liking. I sought your publications as I sought all of Sebald’s oeuvre, and for similar reasons, though I’m more fortunate in this instance, since I’m able to interact with you.
        I also recognise the “dilettante” nature of your productions, although I feel that in no manner does it detract from the quality of what is produced. I’m veritably happy that you find yourself making whatever it is you make, which I suppose to be the essence of admiration.
        I’ve read only Harman and DeLanda(his first book); since my field is Journalism, I barely find the time to read much philosophical work. I won’t take more of your time, Daniel. I’m very appreciative of your kindness towards my impish interventions. Makes me feel less silly, so, thank-you.

      4. It is important that we take each other seriously if we have opted to use our spare time to thinking out loud what it is that doggedly pursues us.
        When I am reading less for my studies, I would like to return to being more present on WordPress, but social life, reading, writing, thinking & an MA, as well as designs for a PhD just don’t leave me much time.

      5. Then, I’m indebted for all which you have spared. I’m a student and a worker concurrently, since Portugal’s economical conjecture threw much of my generation into a precarious situation (I’m twenty-four). The pandemic allowed me, finally, some breathing, which is entirely ironic. Also, if you don’t mind, as I did wonder this when I first read this particular post: will your dissertation on Wedgwood be publicly available?, it would be such a rich read.

      6. I think we are in a similar boat, but I am ten years older than you.
        I am hoping (as with another essay I wrote this year) that the mark I receive will merit me finding a publisher for it. But, if you are interested, I will happily send it to you once it is done. Have you read Clarke’s ‘Landfill’? He’s a wonderful, fiercely intelligent poet & person. I have interviewed him (by email) & the interview will be annexed to the dissertation. What do you study?

      7. I’m familiar with Dr. John Wedgwood Clarke by medium of some literary magazines in which he participated, but I haven’t had the bliss of owning of his books, though I would certainly start by buying Landfill, had I funds to buy as many books as I wanted. From what I’ve read of his, I’m certain he is fiercely intelligent; he reminds me much of our Luís Quintais; though, sadly, Professor Quintais has no translations of his work, despite being himself a translator of English Modernist poetry into Portuguese.
        I’m formed in Law, which I started at seventeen, and after finishing said course, I’m now taking Journalism, at the University of Lisbon. In both instances, I attempted to ingress in Literature & Language courses, with a English and Italian inclinations, and in both instances I was forbidden by my family, which isn’t too fond of my creative endeavours (insofar as I had to learn the English language largely on my own during my teenage years). Since I don’t abound in talent, I decided to take Journalism and then, hopefully, a masters degree in Literary Criticism; it seems to be as close as I may get without being entirely alone.
        And I’d be happy to purchase the dissertation, that is, when it is published.

      8. Maybe you could be the person to translate Quintais, your English is exceptional. I’d be happy to help, I know no Portuguese, but I could help with the rendering of the English. Although I think you may be perfectly capable of that by yourself.
        I think Lit Crit, or Critical Theory is something worthy of praise & encouragement, it is no walk in the park & good exercise for the mind.
        You don’t have to purchase the dissertation, I’d be happy to send it to you, any reader of a high caliber is welcome to read it. Give me a few months to write it haha.

      9. Oh, thank you, but I dread even the sliver of a prospect of translating a living author, let alone one as revered as Prof. Quintais. It seems overly ambitious, especially without formal training in translation. I am, however, very appreciative of your compliments are offer to assist.
        I’d be jubilant with the possibility of reading your dissertation, and I’ll surely be around by the time you finish it. I’m unsure of the caliber of my reading, but my eagerness is certainly above the acceptable threshold, haha.

  2. Yes, they are ecological problems. They are difficult to see as such because one is almost anchored in (human) history (the history of colonisation and slavery) and in our being begged to see that history, the other in the maintenance of (human) power (how can the structure survive the pandemic?). But in fact both are present problems with future consequences. They force us to consider not how to manage the past and/or the present, but how to ensure the future. This future is not and cannot be boiled down to the survival of humankind, but it can include the survival of humankind.

    I recently monitored a pass of the International Space Station, during which they held a conversation with school students in Spain and answered their questions. One of the astronauts says “Looking down at our planet from here you can see the swirling colours of blues and browns and white clouds, all mixed together to form out planet. And off on the horizon you see the [unintelligible] atmosphere that is keeping us all alive. It makes you realise that Earth is a spaceship for seven billion astronauts, and you [students] are several of them. So it gives me the perspective that we must take care of Earth like it’s our spaceship, just like we are taking care of this station right now.” The concept of “Spaceship Earth” is not a new one, and it is true enough that in order for the crew to survive, the integrity of all the micro-systems that make up the ISS must function to maintain its integrity. But humanity is not simply the crew of Spaceship Earth. Earth is not our vehicle of survival; it has an integrity of its own, of which we are merely part.

    The point is to realise that we are not an essential part. If we died out tomorrow, the Earth would go on in some form or other without us. Things would come and go, environments would flourish and fail, and the flourishing or failure would be instantaneous or eons-long. If we are to survive we have to be careless of OUR survival, but a different carelessness than the couldn’t-care-less of our immediate survival. Our selfishness is a feature of our evolution, it has ensured our survival so far; but it has carried us way past our carrying capacity as a species. I am tempted to look back at the admonishment of Kropotkin and his determination that mutual aid was how we survived as a species and is how we will survive as a species or we shall perish, or to the eco-anarchism of Murray Bookchin. But what is needed is a total paradigm shift to a mutual-aid-of-everything, and for our intellect to be harnessed to the survival not of Earth-in-aspic, but Earth as a dynamic, changing system. We need a humbling dose of the self-sacrificial, but not the sort of hair-shirt philosophy that sees humankind as a plague (we are, but we are not nothing-but-a-plague); rather we need to see ourselves as both essential and non-essential, as both joyously independent and interdependent. “Symbiosis” doesn’t cut it for me, it is too much like mutual parasitism, it is not dynamic enough.

    I’ll stop this ramble here.

    1. I think OOO & Bryant’s onticology are efforts to show that the scenario of the earth going on without us is in some sense going on even while we are here & the challenge to Humanism & anthropocentric thinking (especially correlationism which both Bryant & Morton challenge at length) is done by instantiating the objects & object-processes that can & do happen regardless. This is of course the problem of getting people to think ecologically. Ecological philosophy using OOO needs it seems, to show people that objects don’t need us, if only to perhaps make people realize that what is in fact destroying us, are the concealed agendas of objects. This is why I am writing about the landfill. The landfill is a zone we use to send unwonted things. In doing so we prove that objects are not exhausted by our usage of them. Quite the contrary, they react to each other, forming leachate, making dangerous gases. Of course, we know this, or rather people who deal with this know it, but we don’t visit these places ourselves. Generally, people are content to exist without the slightest recognition of these sacrificial zone geophysically sculpted with our debris of life & mind. Are you familiar with Morton’s ‘symbiotic real’, which is his term for nature? This is used following Lynn Margulis’ ideas of symbiogenesis.

      1. I like your “unwonted” there – I know you mean “unwanted” but that was a brilliantly apposite typo. I had heard Morton’s “symbiotic real” before. My objection to the word “symbiosis” remains, though I guess it might be a semantic quibble.

  3. Hello Daniel, it’s good to read your piece after a while. I must admit being at home with the whole family, I feel even more trapped by the world where a trip to a shop entails more plastic than actual food. It tires me out to see the rubbish mounting amidst all the other fears that keep raging around us. I suppose, if it wasn’t at home, we would just create this rubbish at outlets, cafes, take-aways…etc – away from our own eyes. I am probably too much in the survival mode to take any action and that in itself is a problem – survival for myself, my immediate generation? or for the people that now yet do not exist. Having real empathy for those we do not see and aren’t tangible to us – that’s actually quite hard…needs training our consciousness

    1. SO sorry for the late reply.
      Yes, to think a future even a few generations ahead is difficult. We can look at our children, imagine their children, but what of their children’s children, or children’s children’s children? That’s maybe 80-150 years after we are gone. Now we start to have to abstract, to piece together something from the family familiar to us: will they have my hair, my daughters eyes, what will the male/female partner of my great great great grandchild even look like? What will their ethics be & what will the world be like? Despite the difficulty, not thinking this way is unhealthy. Our actions are already affecting that future & even deeper futures than our great great great grandchildren’s generation.
      So I agree, this needs to be part of our education in order for it to become part of the zeitgeist of a whole generation who will carry that as embedded knowledge which can be better acted up systemically: radical infrastructural changes in economics, industry, consumerism, agriculture, wilding/conservationism, energy. These are difficult to change because people are entangle in them at nearly every scale of their existence & we have little infrastructure to step into so as to exit these massive, all-consuming, detrimental systems that currently regulate our society. We have a long way to go & very little time to do it. So we begin with getting people to think more about the timeline of their individual impact: if you throw that plastic into a river, ocean or earth that could potential remain their for thousands of years. Whats more as it breaks down it releases endocrine disruptors, which behave like hormones disturbing the bodies of living creatures, influencing damaging effects. Couple this with the essential need of biodiversity, it simply makes sense to not throw the plastic into an organic environment & in fact, try to curb its use. If you’d like to read more, this is a pretty interesting essay: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8ed9/b89cdb42e304150905ca7e2076cc182cdde9.pdf?_ga=2.244288965.1764303459.1594898859-1258058210.1594898859

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