Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Give and take

A philosopher with a special interest in the American pragmatist movement (a friend of a friend) had some very eye-opening and thoughtful comments regarding my draft letter on pragmatism and conservation biology. After spending some time with his comments, I have tentatively concluded that my initial qualms about the pragmatist movement are mostly unfounded. I am still reading Bryan Norton’s work, “Searching for Sustainability: An Interdisciplinary Philosophy of Conservation Biology”, so I will hold off on a further discussion of environmental pragmatism for now. This post is an attempt to reconcile my own personal beliefs and experiences with something (perhaps?) akin to Rorty’s (neo?)pragmatism.

This philosopher made the claim that “Philosophy cannot vouchsafe the norms inherent in any practice outside of philosophy”, which was startling and somewhat upsetting to me- which makes it a great starting point for a conversation! I will try to lay out my current understanding of this statement, which comes after some email exchanges with another friend (check out her blog!). Conservation biologists do conservation biology, philosophers do philosophy. Not to say that we can only live and behave as part of one group/community- it’s just that our own particular community of inquirers plays its own language-games which define our goals and give meaning/affirmation to our actions. The way in which we perceive ourselves as conscious acting beings in the world- our own ethical or moral truths- are created as some amalgam of our human intelligence, our environment, and our social milieu. In some very real way, our own personal beliefs and convictions are “gifted” to us in large part by our social environment- our parents, colleagues, mentors and friends. Our sense of place and belonging is rooted in our sense of community as well as our perception of the physical world in which we live. In my draft letter on environmental pragmatism, I voiced an idea (which, looking back, I believe I came from my reading of Ayn Rand) that ethical “truth” only exists or has meaning at a personal, individual level. I am forced to concede that this idea may be pretty flimsy, if we recognize that our ideas of meaning and self worth are built through community and socialization. I can hold deep personal convictions and I can be willing to die for a cause, but my life’s work, the goals towards which all of my actions are directed, does not necessarily have meaning outside my environment, my society and my peers- the people who affirm my existence. Without social affirmation of my existence and my convictions, I am an outcast, a lunatic, a sociopath. The idea of complete isolation from human contact- or worse, complete detachment and inability to connect with those in our society – is profoundly distressing to a human being. So, conservation biologists can flourish by doing work that is valued by conservation biologists, by bringing others into the conservation fold, and by having new ideas or theories affirmed and respected by the conservation community. Philosophy cannot tell the conservation biologist how to act specifically, but perhaps can only ground the conservation biologist in some ideas about the larger limitations and possibilities of being human.

Somehow I still have a 20th century mindset, in that my litmus test for every ethic and philosophy is to question whether it may lead logically to fascism. And I feel like every philosophy that does not acknowledge Lockean natural rights can be used to justify fascism at least in some special cases. But perhaps we can affirm our socially-created nature and still affirm the importance of individualism. At least we can (weakly) state that rigid fascism tends to limit the power of the individual to participate in the creation of meaning for ourselves and others, which may represent our only means of flourishing as human beings.  Even as we acknowledge our debt to our parents and forefathers and friends, we should be free to participate and care for our family/community, to participate in creating teleological frameworks. Once we acknowledge that we are not born fully-formed but are pieces of work forged over years by our environmental and social and historical contingencies, we may also affirm that we are an important part of a living, evolving project that is larger than ourselves. We exercise power by acting upon our convictions and influencing the convictions of others. We exercise power by influencing the evolution of social structures, guiding the progress of our children as they become functional adults. I wonder if this is really what Aristotle was talking about in his “Rhetoric”. We will be successful human beings if we can, within our society or group of peers, influence their actions and convictions.  Perhaps flourishing as a human being means exerting our power of creation- of influencing the social structures that in turn create people. Life is a big, grand, give and take.


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  2. Great notes, Kevin. I wonder though, how unfounded your initial concerns really were?

    Last week I met with students enrolled in seminar and we took up this question of whether a pragmatic approach to con bio is risky for the conservation agenda. We were thinking in particular about the issues involved in Adirondack land use and the diversity of perspectives and desires, needs and rights of public versus private interests (recognizing that even within those categories resides a multitude of view-points).

    If, as you pointed out, the resolution is something that emerges in a deliberative setting among a plurality of people who value the world differently, then the author's concern that agreement would be nearly impossible and your initial concern that the broad community may elect a solution that is in conflict with what conservation biologists might have decided on, on their own is still problematic.

    Given that, I'm primarily interested in whether the pragmatic method is in conflict with a scientific project that advances an agenda based on its own established authority. An authority that seems to be relinquished if the resolution to scientific questions, like the ones laid out in the original article, are left to the public to resolve. There was some disagreement among students about how much authority the scientist really has in these situations and some reluctance to affirm the power implicit in the assertion that the science that emerges out of specific institutions does indeed, “underpin the management of the Adirondack Park.” If the statement is true, then it seems clear that the institution responsible for providing that science holds a certain degree of power in negotiations around whether and how land use is designated. Particularly, I’m thinking of when designations are made in the interest of a conservation agenda rather than in the interest of a property rights or individual rights agenda. I don’t necessarily disagree with the prescriptions advised by the scientific community, I do however think that ownership on the part of participants who bring and interpret the science would contribute to a more honest brokerage.

    At the end of the process, does science have the final say? If so, and if a deliberative approach is merely part of the way science influences policy, then there has to be some degree of ownership within the science community that they don't enter into these situations on a level field. That alone throws the pragmatic approach into imbalance. But maybe it doesn't discount its function entirely, if it's clear that when all is said and done, science will determine the course then at least we can inject some honesty into the process. I'm just not convinced that science is an equal player in these negotiations - that it doesn't have ultimate power to move the resolution. If that’s true, I wonder how that impacts whether and how the pragmatic method is integrated into the scientific method.

    And something else continues to come up for me. Is it possible that science already operates according to a pragmatic method? If science is a community (indeed a series of communities) itself, maybe this approach already contributes to which science is brought about to influence policy and how that science is interpreted in the public discourse in order to garner general acceptance.

    I wonder if you could argue that the pragmatic approach might be more usefully applied within those communities of scientists rather than in the larger community that includes people outside the sciences. Of course, we’d have to acknowledge the limited diversity of the community, a reality which would facilitate agreement while at the same time decreasing the likelihood that you’d have the benefit of a real alterity of perspectives. If the pragmatic method is brought about in a community of like-minded people, is it as meaningful as if it were enacted in a pluralistic community?