Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Lecture Notes: Warwick Fox’s Responsive Cohesion

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Last week, Warwick Fox gave a lecture at the RCC entitled “General Ethics and the Theory of Responsive Cohesion”. Below is a (subjective and unofficial) summary.

Why is Warwick Fox proposing a General Theory of Ethics (with capital letters)? Because, in his view, previous theories have had too narrow a focus.

Environmental ethicists extended ethical considerations from the human world to the non-human, biophysical realm. Peter Singer, among others, developed the notion that humans had ethical responsibilities not just to each other but to animals as well. Subsequently, plants and other biophysical entities were included in this discussion. The notion emerged of a duty towards ecosystems.

Yet this, for Fox, does not go far enough. Why is the human-constructed world, the built word, not part of our ethical framework? We have all seen buildings that “stick out like a sore thumb.” We find them objectionable: “There should be a law against that kind of thing.” But can we say that they are just plain wrong? Is there an ethical theory that justifies such a statement?

Fox’s General Theory of Ethics is designed to encompass the human realm, the non-human realm, and the human-constructed realm. The most distinctive characteristic of his theory is that it is built on the notion of structure as a fundamental ethical principle. Why should structure be fundamental? Because, Fox argues, we value structure, and a certain type of structure in particular.

Systems are either structured or unstructured. Unstructured systems Fox calls discohesive. Structured systems can be divided into two types: fixedly cohesive and responsively cohesive.

What do these intimidating terms mean? Well, something quite simple, actually. Take the example of a desk space. I can throw my papers all over it. They are then discohesive – a mess. Suppose, then, that our boss sends out an RCC-wide email ordering all papers to be sorted in rows in alphabetical order by the first word of the document. They now have a structure – they are fixedly cohesive. (Those close to Christof Mauch have reassured me that this scenario is unlikely in the extreme.)

Neither of these arrangements is very useful. In the first, we can’t find anything. In the second, an order has been imposed without taking the nature of the documents into account; it’s still hard for us to find anything. The best way for us to tidy our desks, then, is to make them responsively cohesive, grouping the documents by, say, urgency or type. The characteristics of the document speak to each other in the structure.

Another example of such structures is conversation. If we are discohesive, we talk over each other, ignoring what the other person says. If the conversation has fixed cohesion, we know exactly how it will go: The structure is imposed on us, as it may be in small talk, for instance. If the conversation has responsive cohesion, on the other hand, then it has some order but remains unpredictable; we listen and respond to each other.

In all areas of our existence, from desk-tidying to politics, we prefer structures that display responsive cohesion, Fox argues. And if that’s the case, is it not our foundational value? Shouldn’t the basic principle of our ethics be: act in such a way as to maximise responsive cohesion?

In order to do this, we need to fit into our contexts. It’s no good being responsively cohesive internally, as a system, if our system makes its context discohesive. For example, if we find the most fantastic table, with an outstanding degree of responsive cohesion, only to discover that it doesn’t fit into our kitchen, we don’t throw out our cooker, fridge, and cabinets, and knock through the wall into the living room. That would destroy the responsive cohesion of the larger structure – the kitchen (and the house).

Similarly, humans exist inside the context of the biophysical realm. They have to fit in, maximising the responsive cohesion of the larger structure. We are the table.

Fox concludes that to live ethical lives, we should attempt to maximise responsive cohesion without damaging contextual cohesion or harming other beings.

At Fox’s lecture last week, a number of people raised questions about Fox’s argument. Notable concerns were: Can responsive cohesion be objectively defined and measured? Is renewable energy responsively cohesive? And are there constraints on what we can do to achieve responsive cohesion?

We might also ask how responsive cohesion becomes our foundational value. Yes, we may prefer it to other systems, but does that entail that achieving the best system should be the goal of our ethics?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments…

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