Most ethical theory in the modern world is based on abstraction. Our ethical theories often come out of a prior decision on the nature of the right. Deontological (Kantian) ethics assumes that we will work out our ethical theory in the abstract first, determining what duty is, and then apply it to the world. Consequentialism also assumes that we can abstractly pursue utility or some other outcome. That outcome may seem to be related to actual circumstances (utility is determined empirically, by what actually maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for the greatest number), but in fact the abstract determination of the nature of the right has already been made. The calculus comes first, even if it incorporates observations.
What if ethics took our embodied place in the world seriously as a starting point? Would we end up with relativism, egoism, or naturalized (descriptive) ethics? I believe we would not. In fact, we would find ourselves with an ethics that
The most prominent model of such ethics currently is "care ethics", prominent in feminism. However, I think that this ethical concern could also address some problems within environmental ethics. Traditionally, we have begun with the assumption that rights and duties apply to humans, and we have extended those rights and duties in some cases to non-humans. But this simply assumes that non-humans are human analogues, and we end up having to "speak for" those who cannot speak for themselves. In other words, most ethics that addresses the non-human requires an imaginative leap.
This is especially a problem for the idea of place. Can there be an ethics of place? Do we have ethical obligations to place(s)? Do we, for instance, have the obligation to not destroy places? Do we have the obligation to maintain them, to allow them to thrive? For most people, this would make no sense. We usually imagine places as objective locations, and their significance lies only in whether they are the site for human activity. Even most environmental or ecological ethics deals with place only as a site for ethical action, not as the basis for ethical theory.
If, as has been argued to this point, our bodies know, we might suggest that there could be an ethical theory that takes that into account. Of course, part of our bodies knowing is that they know without conscious decisions. Am I saying that we should be held morally responsible for things that are done without our conscious assent? That is not the point here. The issue is not about which actions are moral and which are not, but whether morality is limited to conscious human action or not, and whether it is based in abstract decisions.
The issue in part goes back to an old distinction in ethics, between the right and the good. Most modern theories deal with the right, that is, the question of how we define the right action (this is so despite the fact that Kant thinks that the right action comes from the good will). Aristotle's virtue ethics, on the other hand, deal with the good, that is, the nature of the good life and the good character.
We might begin by making the following distinctions:
|Based on knowledge, defined as "true justified belief."||Based on understanding, defined in terms of explicating shared meaning.|
|Knowledge metaphor: vision.||Knowledge metaphor: hearing|
|Two modalities: either objective and public, or internal and private.||Intersubjective and shared.|
|Abstract, in the sense that ethical life is assumed to be governed by general principles outside of the control of any particular person.||Embodied, in the sense that the ethical life is based on principles derived from a world of shared meaning, which everyone has a stake in.|
|More interested in avoiding the bad than in promoting the good.||More interested in promoting the good.|
|Major public ethical decisions can be regularized through bureaucracy, and negotiated as the outcome of various self-interests.||Major public ethical decisions can be regularized through public debate, but is not simply the negotiation of self-interest.|
|Top-down, in the sense that rules are formulated outside of concrete instances, and the concrete does not affect the abstract.||Two-way, in the sense that rules and concrete instances are seen to be in relation to each other.|
|Based on distributive justice (each person gets what he or she deserves)||Based on an ethic of care (each person gets what is needed to make them whole)|
|Basically individualistic – decisions are those of the person, who may choose to cooperate with others if it enables the good to be reached more efficiently.||Both individualist and communal – individuals recognize that decisions come from both individual need and communal sense of meaning. Individual decisions are always made in the context of a range of social choices, while the social world is not simply a force in its own right, coercing individual decision. Neither can exist without the other.|
|Goal: the smooth functioning of the public realm.||Goal: the smooth functioning of everything.|
This list could likely be extended. The point is that we can imagine a form of ethics that takes into account our location in a human world, and does not begin with individualistic decisions that are externalized. If that is the case, we might be able to imagine an ethics that takes not only the human into account, but also animals and nature. Or, places, if places are not really just external things, but rather the site between (or prior to) the objective and the subjective.