20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy and the Environment

Relation And Responsibility: Drawing The Boundaries Of The Ethical Self

Chelsea H. Snelgrove
University of Georgia

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: This paper evaluates some philosophical views regarding the self who is an ethical deliberator and agent-specifically the traditional atomistic individualist self and the expanded biocentric self of deep ecology. The paper then presents an alternative manner of thinking about the ethical self which avoids some of the philosophical difficulties of the foregoing views. This alternative draws on the recent work by Val Plumwood and Donna Haraway. Haraway's cyborg identity is a kind of self-in-relation (Plumwood's term) which allows for ethical deliberations that take relations with others seriously without losing individuality in problematic holism (as deep ecology does). Self-in-relation is defined by the relation of intentional inclusion. This relation is given a functionalist, non-mentalistic interpretation. The notions of ontological foresight and moral foresight are introduced to enable determinations of moral responsibility without falling back into the problematic universalism which otherwise results from the functionalist view of cyborg self-in-relation.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Ethical deliberation does not typically begin with an explicit articulation of the concept of self which underlies such deliberation. But a self is assumed, and usually in Western ethical thought it is an atomistic egocentric individual self. Ethical deliberation, whether deontological, utilitarian, or otherwise, assumed a self/other boundary of some kind, and such an assumption imports bias into our ethical conclusion. Ethical deliberations frequently focus on the interests or rights of individuals, without justifying the assumption of an egocentric individual self.

If the traditionally-assumed egocentric individual self circumscribes ethical deliberation, then might a more inclusive, expanded self be less prone to produce bias in our ethical conclusions? One possible such self conception is the biocentric self of deep ecology. Deep ecologists seek to expand the self not only beyond the atomistic individual human self but also beyond all human selves. As a way to insure an appropriate concern for all life on Earth, deep ecologists urge the adoption of a self which is identified with all earthly beings. This self-identification will result in the promotion of maximum self-realization for all beings. Since I am not a being among others, my status, interests, etc., are not privileged over any others, though they are still taken into account. Since the biocentric self allows all beings to achieve maximum self-realization, conflicts between egocentric individuals are minimized.

Deep ecology seeks to overcome individual/group conflict by expanding the individual self so as to encompass, as self-interest, the interests, rights or claims of other beings which might otherwise be considered alien or hostile. The goal of maximum self-realization is accorded to all beings, since no one being can claim primary importance for its own individual interests, status or rights. The self-interest of the individual is dissolved into the interest of the whole. Since there are no "others" toward whom one might have duties or to whom one might owe responsibilities, there is no need for moral principles or obligations. The pursuit of self-interest, taken in the expanded sense, is all that is necessary.

But though the deep ecology perspective might facilitate ethical thinking about interests shared by a number of beings, this perspective can not accommodate real conflicts between the interests or claims of individuals. Only the perspective of the whole, the overall good of the biosphere, matters. It may be, for instance, that I need all the tomatoes which I have grown in my garden to avoid starvation during the impending winter. I have no other food resources. Perhaps some insects in my garden feed only upon tomatoes and cannot reproduce without this food. Thus, my survival and that of the insects is incompatible--my "self-realization" and theirs cannot both be accommodated. Deep ecology does not allow my interests, status or rights, or the insects', to have priority in principle. We are both part of the biosphere, with which our selves are identified, and cannot be presumed to be unequally valuable as living beings. A choice, nevertheless, must be made. Deep ecology does not provide an adequate self-identity which can serve as the basis for such a choice. The biocentric point of view is a kind of "view from nowhere," and deep ecologists have so far not provided an adequate means for determining reliably how to evaluate partial conflicts from such a holistic point of view. How can I determine whether it is better for me or the tomato-eating insects to survive, from a biocentric point of view? This is not an abstract human vs. non-human choice--the choice is rather between me, a particular individual human being, and this particular group of insects. The boundary of the biocentric self is at such a universal level that a choice between the conflicting interests or values of individuals is unresolvable.

As an alternative to the overpowering holism of the deep ecological self, Val Plumwood proposes a view of self-in-relationship. This view attempts to improve on egoistic individualism by allowing for true commonality of interests without the problematic loss of individuality characteristic of the deep ecology view. Plumwood says:

That people's interests are relational does not imply a holistic view of them--that they are merged or indistinguishable. Although some of the mother's interests entail satisfaction of the child's interests, they are not identical or even necessarily similar. There is overlap, but the relation is one of intentional inclusion (her interest is that the child should thrive, that certain of the child's key interests are satisfied) rather than accidental overlap. (208)

The self-in-relationship model allows for distinct, and possibly conflicting, individual interests, but also allows for interests to be shared in a meaningful, non-arbitrary way.

Plumwood takes into account the context in which an individual self is located. Plumwood notes, "On this relational account, respect for the other . . is an expression of self in relationship, not egoistic self as merged with the other but self as embedded in a network of essential relationships with distinct others" (208). Even if we reject egocentrism as a standard of value, a "value-neutral" individualism still does not account for shared interests, as in Plumwood's mother and child example. it does not take relations between individual seriously enough.

A better view would be one which expands individuals so as to take relations seriously, without entirely dissolving the individual into a whole, as deep ecology does. For example, I might consider that I am related to the insects in my garden by virtue of the fact that we inhabit a common ecosystem. I cannot simply assume that they are worthless insect pests because they are non-human and inconvenient. Our relationship makes them worthy of some degree of consideration. If, however, my need for all of my tomatoes is urgent, and if the particular insects in my garden are not irreplaceable in the ecosystem which we inhabit, I might nevertheless be justified in using such methods against them as do not interfere with other beings in the vicinity with whom I am also related and to whom I might owe some consideration.

So, the view of self-in-relationship includes relationships between people and may include relations between human and non-human beings. If, however, this self is defined by relationship, particularly by the relationship of "intentional inclusion," then might not such a self include more than humans and other living beings? Specifically, might this self not include machines or other manufactures artefacts? We frequently formulate intentions of an ethical character which involve machines. I might affirm the importance of my relationship with a friend who lives far away by e-mailing her a birthday greeting, to which she kindly and promptly responds. Our computers have certainly played a part in our realizing our intentions toward each other.

Because our contemporary situation is filled with such situations in which our machines play an every more important and irreplaceable role, Donna Haraway believes that we should describe ourselves as cyborgs. Cyborgs are hybrid beings who consciously blur in their own identities the distinctions between human, animal and machine. Cyborgs are a kind of self-in-relation. They seek out connections; their identities are based on affinity, not nature. Cyborgs are in fact unnatural affinities and can shift as circumstances require. They are partial selves in that they reject both the totalizing holism of deep ecology's expanded self and the atomism of the individual ego.

Haraway says:

By the late twentieth century, . . . we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology . . . . (150)

This identity marks out a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity . . . . (156)

The machine is not an it to be animated, worshiped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they. (180)

Haraway is not so much advocating that we think of ourselves as cyborgs as she is asserting that we already are cyborgs. She thinks we will recognize ourselves in her cyborg myth.

We are responsible for the boundaries of our cyborg selves. We cannot assume that our selves were give to us entirely by god or nature. We can consciously choose the boundaries between our selves and others, and we are responsible for the effects of our choice. There is no nature, no necessity, to which we can appeal for final justification. But we can consciously choose among cyborg identities, and hence exercise some moral and political responsibility for they being, rather than appeal to naturalistic or religious conceptions of self which take our selves to be fundamentally given.

But how are we to recognize our cyborg selves? Does Haraway's proposal amount to a recommendation that we should start calling ourselves cyborgs and carry on as usual? If we are to be responsible for the effects of drawing the boundaries of our selves, we should be able to recognize how and where those boundaries operate. Haraway tells us that those boundaries cannot be assumed to be confined to the realm of the human or even of organic nature.

A cyborg self is a partial, mutual identity which is defined by intentional inclusion, taken in a functionalist sense. It is not necessary that a cyborg self be in an inner mental state which can be identified as its intention with regard to a certain action; the boundary of the intentional inclusion of a cyborg act can be identified by its effects--by the entities actually involved in performing the action. The cyborg self who initiates a particular process is responsible for the functional effects which subsequently occur; it is responsible for the consequences of its intentional and its chosen self-boundary. A self is defined by a group of (causally and/or otherwise) related actions and entities.

If our cyborg selves are a kind of self-in-relation, we can recognize ourselves by our intentional inclusion. This is a kind of functionalist definition of the self. Any entity, whether organic or not, which is involved in carrying out our intentions is a part of our self, and we are responsible for its functioning. Our automobiles, for instance, are not simply used by us; they also are us (though they are rather more peripheral than, say, a cardiac pacemaker or a telephone). When such machines function so as to carry out our intentions, they are part of our selves, and we are responsible for the effects of their functioning.

Taking intentional inclusion out of the realm of the mental, however, produces problems. A functional notion of intentional inclusion allows us to avoid mentalistic talk--intentional inclusion can be identified by observable effects. This notion runs the risk, however, or merging the self back into an indistinguishable whole, as deep ecology does. If a self is defined by observable functional effects, then were does that chain of effects terminate? Every event might be ultimately related to every other, if only we were diligent enough to draw out all of the connections.

Something like the problem of proximate causation in tort law emerges here. For example, if I am driving, and because I am late for an appointment, I knowingly run through a stop sign, which leads to my crashing into your car, it is clear that I am responsible for the damage to your car and your body. If, however, in seeking to avoid such a crash, you were to swerve into oncoming traffic, whereupon a gasoline transport truck runs off the highway to avoid your car, tumbles down an embankment, explodes and leaks burning gasoline into a creek where the flaming liquid kills the last four remaining members of the crimson-speckled trout species who happened to live in that part of the creek, then it is not clear that I am as responsible for all of that damage as I am for the damage to your body and your car in the first example. Yet all of the damage in the second example is the observable effect of my intentional action, even if I could not reasonably be expected to have foreseen all of those precise consequences.

To say that intentional inclusion is defined by observable effects is not sufficient. The self who undertakes an action cannot be identified simply in an ex post facto manner by grouping together all of the entities which are affected in the course of the action. Foresight is crucial. The self who acts might rather include all of the entities which could reasonably have been identified prior to an action as having a function in bringing the action to completion. the completion of the action is the end which could be identified in foresight. The notion of foresight reintroduces an element of mentalistic talk into a functionalist definition, but this is necessary to avoid a self which is problematically universal.

But perhaps foresight can be conceived so that it is not primarily a private mental state. Foresight can be (even if it in fact is not) expressed as the reasonably anticipated effects of an action, and the acting self can then be identified as the collection of entities which are anticipated to produce the foreseen effects. The expression of such reasonably anticipated effects, which is what we mean by foresight, can be produced after the actual effects have occurred. It is the reasonably anticipated functioning of the self's components, and the possible expression thereof, which is fundamental to foresight, not the agent's being in any particular mental state of "having" foresight.

Such a strategy allows us to distinguish the boundaries of the self from the "boundaries of responsibility," so to speak. We engage in what might be described as "ontological foresight" when we constitute a self which is to undertake a certain action with anticipated consequences. On the other hand, when we consider the proximate cause problem, we are considering a kind of "moral foresight"--that is, we are judging whether or not someone should be held morally or legally responsible for consequences of their action which may not, but should have been, anticipated. This view cannot account for the responsibility of selves which completely lack foresight, but it is doubtful that a being who lacked foresight could constitute a separate self at all.

In the car crash examples above, my body and my car might constitute a self which has the intention of running the stop sign. A crash is an ontologically unforeseen effect of this intention. Therefore, the other entities involved when the crash occurs are outside the boundary of my self, which was foreseen as including only my body and my car. Such ontological foresight does not, however, resolve the question of my responsibility for effects of my action which are ontologically unforeseen. Even if every effect of a particular action does not automatically make the affected entities part of the self which undertook the action, neither does the "other" status of the affected entities prevent them from being owed a duty by the acting self. Depending on which moral theory is invoked, I might be culpable for your car damage and personal injuries, the gasoline explosion, the extinction of the fish species, etc., but the question of my moral responsibility can be asked separately from the question of the boundary of my self.

The distinction between ontological and moral foresight prevents the drawing of boundaries of the self from being completely conflated with the tracing of causal or other relations, and thus also prevents the self from being ultimately merged into a universal identity. Causal effects may be useful for establishing moral responsibility, but they can not alone be determinative for constituting the boundary of a self, even one defined by functional intentional inclusion.

So, who defines a moral self? Since the boundaries of my cyborg self are not pre-established by nature or tradition, then am I free to define my self as may be expedient in any given situation? If I can avoid undesirable consequences by defining myself one way in one situation and another way in a second situation, then why should I not do so? Even if ontological foresight provides some constraint on the establishment of boundaries of my self, might I not express ex post facto just the amount of ontological foresight which in each situation is likely to afford me the least culpability for my actions?

Considering the predilection of cyborg selves for connection, the definition of a self is a political matter. Since my body, the technological artefacts which I use, and the people, animals and plants with whom I live are all connected to each other in innumerable ways, I cannot arbitrarily define my self as I might find convenient. The other selves with whom I live and interact will constrain and react to the boundaries of the self which I draw, because these other selves are related to me in important ways. Other selves who use the same technological artefacts that I do, or who have the same bodily and mental potentialities, will not allow me to disavow ontological or moral foresight at my sole convenience. The similarity of my situation to that of others can serve as a basis for judgment about whether my expressions of foresight are acceptable.

Haraway's and Plumwood's work provide a framework for thinking about the self which avoids the difficulties which result from the universalization of the deep ecology modes as well as those which result from individual egocentrism. Cyborg selves are neither isolated egos nor world-souls which merge individuals. Cyborg selves are contingent, multiple, adaptive, connected. The mutable character of cyborg selves points out the necessity for acknowledging, rather than assuming, the boundaries of the self as a part of ethical deliberation.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Plumwood, Val. 1995. "Nature, Self and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism." in People, Penguins, and Plastic Trees: Basic Issues in Environmental Ethics, 2d ed., eds. Christine Pierce and Donald VanDeVeer. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

bluered.gif (1041


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage