A student in rural Iceland, of sheep-farming stock, had her guard down, or didn't yet have a guard. She didn't know how to talk to foreigners, or perhaps felt there was something she had to get across to foreigners, or to this foreigner, who showed an interest in her country. She said, in the hope of conveying to me the whole ethical-spiritual outlook of her country in a single concrete example: In Iceland we are taught not to smash rocks.
In recent years something called 'environmental ethics' is moving into the mainstream, finding space alongside the Kantian, the utilitarian, and so on, which for their part suppose that an ethical relation can only be had toward an ethical subject, and that such subjects are found only among human or at most animal beings. Even environmental ethics tends to imagine the environment with a thick arboreal canopy, with lush grass, and lillypads covering seething green ponds. But in the Arctic and sub-Arctic the 'environment' is mostly a geological rather than a biological phenomenon, and it is not altogether surprising that in such a setting rocks come forward as phenomenally salient, as creatures, as others, more readily than in the Amazon. And still less do the rocks come forward as our petrous co-beings in the big cities of the world, where they only appear ground down and formed into angular artifacts of human ingenuity, which in turn you are not supposed to smash, since in the process of their transformation they have become 'property'.
I was conveyed back from rural Iceland to Keflavik and was flown from there to JFK, AirTrain to the subway to Manhattan, where the next day I gave a talk for a crowd of people who, I sensed, did not grow up on sheep farms. After the formal talk, the informal talk drifted to the matter of moral status, or, more precisely, of what species of animal we may appropriately eat. There was broad interest in episodic memory as marking a cut-off point on the scale of being: animals that have a conception of self, and of having a past that is their own, are not to be eaten, whereas the others may be eaten. A cow is not really an individual cow with a memory of its own cow youth (let alone an idea of its own impending cow doom), but rather is only a series of succinct time intervals of cowhood. Thus to kill it is not to deprive some particular integral cow of its life, but only to terminate one series of five-minute-long-or-so cow intervals. Or so goes the prevailing theory, the theory that is most in keeping with what we know about nervous systems.
Should I bring up the Icelandic student with the rocks?, I wondered. Jesus I move through worlds too quickly. I paused, stuttered. Yes, I said, nervous systems and episodic memories, fine. But don't we also see, in the world, evidence for something that our predecessors might have called 'conatus'? The tendency of all things to hold together? Is it really such a stretch to suppose that this tendency reveals to us a sort of integrity in things that need not be justified in terms of neurophysiological structure or of the conscious states that are thought to be uniquely grounded in this structure? And isn't it a transgression to violate this integrity?
Or maybe I didn't get that far. Maybe I held back. I know the usual replies too well. But that would mean we'd have to stop eating plants too. We'd all die. That's extreme. That sounds like Buddhism. It also sounds like 12th-century compassion theology, and, I suspect, like what pretty much everyone understood about the world for the vastly greater part of human life on earth, but 'Buddhism' is invoked here as a rhetorical strategy to cause one's deepest truest commitments to come out smelling like a mere dusting of Oriental spice.
Somewhere Liz Harman gives an argument about abortion in which early-stage fetuses are shown to be no more morally relevant than are plants. But that hardly settles the matter, if you are not starting out from the premise that moral relevance flows from what is going on 'in there', let alone that what is going on in there can be simply and uncontroversially read off of physical structure. Plants are morally relevant, and to deprive them of their integrity and their thriving is not a morally insignificant matter. What gets eaten, what gets aborted, what gets smashed, will never be decisively resolved by an inspection of internal structures and capacities of a given candidate for destruction. Even smashing a mere chunk of solidified lava --evidently purely passive, and homoeomerous from one end to the other-- can be experienced as a transgression by the person who is properly sensitized, for whom the chunk shows up as salient within her ethically charged environment. Are fetuses morally relevant? Yes, they are. So are chunks of lava. Does that mean you mustn't destroy them? Not necessarily, but you shouldn't suppose that the way to gain license to destroy them, whether this license is conceived cosmically, socially, or individually, is to produce arguments that cut them off from the sphere of moral relevance.
The prevailing ethical theories suppose that there must be an ethical subject in some bit of matter in order for ethical commitments toward that bit to properly obtain. Parallel to the partial rise of environmental ethics, there is a metaphysical view that is perhaps slowly recrudescing, pananimism, which holds that all of nature is imbued with mind or mind-like powers. There are variations on this; Galen Strawson for example argues that some form of panpsychism is entailed by any realistic physicalism, and in this he is restyling an old argument of the 18th-century materialists, such as Diderot, to the effect that even marble can think-- it simply has to be ground up and sprinkled on grass that is eaten by a cow that is in turn eaten by a thinking human. Many philosophers have understood that to attribute mind-like powers to all of nature logically compels one to adopt the view that every bit of nature harbors an actual subject-- thus we find Ralph Cudworth arguing in 1678 that hylozoism (the view that all matter is alive) entails the 'clubbing together' of infinite minds everywhere (Cudworth saw this as a reductio ad absurdum of hylozoism, just as more recently John Searle has argued against pananimism on the grounds that there must be an individual mental subject wherever there is mental activity). A few years after Cudworth, we find G. W. Leibniz working out the elements of his own theory of monads, which holds precisely that the world is entirely constituted from the activity of infinitely many nodes of perception.
Such theories strike us as outlandish, and indeed as outliers in the modern conceptual landscape. But one thing of which I am growing increasingly convinced as I attempt to broaden my reading from philosophy to anthropology, Religionswissenschaft, and related fields, is that from the perspective of the longue durée something like what the theory of monads articulates has been the default human understanding of nature all along. It is what Heraclitus has in mind when he says that gods dwell in his stove; it is what preoccupies the Inuit when they suppose that in eating walrus meat they are eating the souls of ancestors; and it is the way of thinking that informs Virgil's poetic account of the Zephyr's power to impregnate mares. There are souls, gods, ancestors (whatever!) all around us; they are in evidence in the structure and cohesion of nature; and it is a transgression against them to needlessly violate this structure and cohesion.
This is the sort of thinking in which ethics originates. The ontology of philosophers has changed, and sent us scrambling for a new ethics, on which some things make the cut as relevant targets of ethical concern and others don't. But the old folk-ontology is not entirely extinct, and I suspect that there is much in folk-ethics, in the actual ways people form their ethical commitments (to icons, rocks, fetuses, etc.), that will escape the comprehension of philosophers so long as we continue to dismiss as backward or primitive or unscientific the idea that gods, or something like them, dwell here, for any here, too.