Notes on Animist Ethics: Respecting Other (human) People

'Towards a Liberatory Technology', The Cover of Anarch 78 (vol7, No8) August 1967.

Towards a Liberatory Technology’, The Cover of Anarchy 78 (vol7, No8) August 1967.

“We are buds on a single tree”.  Frederick Nietzsche.

Human reality is messy and ambiguous – and so moral decisions, unlike abstract principles, are ambivalent.  It is in this sort of world that we must live.”  Zygmunt Bauman.

Much as postmodern spirituality emphasises experience, rather than abstract codes of belief handed down from above, postmodern ethics is situated, embodied, and worked out in the context of particular places, histories, communities, and relationships.  Democratising morality doesn’t guarantee a successful outcome of course.  Indeed it may make negotiation more difficult, render any agreement temporary, and deprive it of universal assent.

Zygmunt Bauman famously argued that the ethical self confidence and self-righteousness of the West had been undermined by the suspicion that Auschwitz and the Gulag were products of, rather than aberrations from, ‘the typically modernist practice of ‘ordering by decree’ ‘.  An end to the ‘era of ethics’ might actually usher in an ‘era of morality’, in which moral issues could be faced ‘point blank … in the life experiences of men and women, as they confront their moral selves in all their irreparable and irredeemable ambivalence’.  He felt that ethical codes shifted responsibility (for self-scrutiny) away from the moral subject, and that we needed to give up ‘the grand narrative idea of a single ethical code’ devised by moral experts.

As feminists have long insisted, however, the personal is political.  Nelson Mandela’s ethical sensibility was informed by careful political judgement as well as his widely celebrated generosity of spirit.

We may have difficulty reading the ‘natural world’, but we already have some useful ethical guidelines towards living sustainably.  Aldo Leopold’s land ethic urges us to ‘think like a mountain’ because the work done by the wolf (or any other top predator) is essential for the health of the entire biotic community. Val Plumwood challenges moral dualism based upon a Cartesian ‘hyper-separation’ from the rest of Nature, and proposes an interspecies ethic.  Deborah Bird-Rose writes eloquently about an Aboriginal Australian system of responsibilities that humans hold towards non-humans.  Those of us who have experienced close connections with other-than-human animals will recognise the potential value of codifying the debts and obligations of kinship.

Carolyn Merchant calls for a partnership ethic that emphasises the need to treat humans as equals in personal, household, and political relations, as well as equal partners with non-human nature.

Sadly, of course, a great many humans seem to have difficulty treating other human persons with respect.  I’ve been wondering, therefore, whether extending the notion of personhood into other-than-human worlds, risks undermining an already devalued currency?  What it means to be a human person is already a complex issue -we now increasingly acknowledge the fluid plurality of selves, voices, and identity, and long ago Nietzsche coined the term ‘dividuals’ to describe the multiplicity of our bodies and minds.  He described the ‘imaginary’ individual as a bud on the great tree of nature.

My hope, of course, is that calls to extend respect, compassion, and rights, to non-human others might clarify and strengthen demands for human rights.  The ethical principle of respectful relationship, that Graham Harvey finds in the lifeways of contemporary indigenous animists, expresses such a hope, and opens a multitude of questions.  What do we mean by respect?  In human language, meaning is neither fixed nor universal.  Under hierarchical conditions, ‘respect’ often means deference, or proud defiance.

Ethical statements typically have an aspirational quality that needs to be tested against the tough complexities of lived reality.  Is it possible, for instance, to respect and affirm a lost and damaged core of ‘humanity’,’spirit’, or ‘Self’ -all such terms seem to have problematic connotations(!?)- within, say a child abuser, or rapist, without in any way condoning their beliefs and/or actions?  I hope it is.  Harvey points out that animist respect may be worked out in the taking of life (using animal or plant bodies as a source of food).  What, then, I began to wonder, are the implications of animist respect under conditions of conflict, enmity, and/or war?

Because the political establishment in the U.K. is gearing up to exploit commemoration of the start of the First World War in July 1914, and because the events of that era cast such a long and toxic shadow, I’ve been reflecting on the messiness of human reality, and ethics, in relation to war (here).

This post is part of the February 2014 Animist Blog Carnival on the theme of Animist Ethics.


Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics, Blackwell, 1993 and Life in Fragments, Essays in Postmodern Morality, Blackwell, 1995.

Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country, ethics for decolonisation, University of South Wales Press, 2004.

Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005.

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949.

Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture, the Ecological Crisis of Reason, Routledge, 2002.

Carolyn Merchant, Earthcare, Women and the Environment, Routledge, 1995.

Graham Parkes, ed. Nietzsche and Asian Thought, University of Chicago Press, 1991.


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