An Ethical Universe

Bruno Latour articulates a wonderful idea in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, where he argues that morality is in the world, not just in humans.  For anything to exist it must persist in its being: everything emits “must,” like a musty smell.  To be is to emit value, to evaluate.  It is value all the way down.  Here’s what Latour has to say:

We have to go down long lines of Bifurcators before reaching Kant, who expects humans deprived of world to “add” values to beings “deprived of ought-to-be.”  Before him, and in the rest of the world, there hadn’t been a single existent that had failed to exclaim: “It must,” “It mustn’t,” measuring the difference between being and nonbeing by this hesitation.  Everything in the world evaluates, from von Uexküll’s tick to Pope Benedict XVI—and even Magritte’s pipe.  Instead of opposing “is” to “ought to be,” count instead how many beings an existent needs to pass through and how many alterations it must learn to adapt to in order to continue to exist.  On this point Nietzsche is right, the word “value” has no antonym—and especially not the word “fact.”
[…]
Just as a geologist can hear the clicks of radioactivity, but only if he is equipped with a Geiger counter, we can register the presence of morality in the world provided that we concentrate on that particular emission.  And just as no one, once the instrument has been calibrated, would think of asking the geologist if radioactivity is “all in his head,” “in his heart,” or “in the rocks,” no one will doubt any longer that the world emits morality toward anyone who possesses an instrument sensitive enough to register it. (pp. 453, 456)

This means that the task of ethics is aesthetic—becoming sensitive to the ethical emissions of things, cultivating something like Humean sympathies for the values of different modes of existence.  However, Latour expands on Hume by making ethics cosmological in scope.  Everything has value, everything matters.  This is similar to something Karen Barad says in Meeting the Universe Halfway.  “A delicate tissue of ethicality runs through the marrow of being.  There is no getting away from ethics—mattering is an integral part of the ontology of the world in its dynamic presencing.  Not even a moment exists on its own. […]  We need to meet the universe halfway, to take responsibility for the role that we play in the world’s differential becoming” (p. 396).

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2 responses to “An Ethical Universe

  • Kiri

    Your words remind me lines from the Mary Oliver poem Wild Geese “You do not have to be good, you do not have to walk on your knees through the desert for a hundred miles, repenting. You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

    • sam

      Wonderful! Thanks for sharing the lines from Mary Oliver. It reminds me of another great line of hers (from Spring). “There is only one question: how to love this world.”

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