Tag Archives: agency

Bacteria and Natural Agency

The latest issue of the Journal of the American Philosophical Association has an article about agency and cognition in bacteria, “Natural Agency: The Case of Bacterial Cognition,” by Fermín C. Fulda. It’s part of a steady stream of research across the humanities and sciences indicating that nonhuman life forms are smarter than most modern philosophers had thought. It’s often billed as a surprise. Even bacteria have cognition! HERE is another piece with an overview of some bacterial cognition research. Fulda’s article is very critical of the looseness with which words like cognition, intelligence, and agency get lumped together, so he adds some philosophical clarity and distinction to those terms, specifically as they apply to research regarding the patterned behavior of bacteria.

Proposing an “ecological conception of agency,” Fulda argues for a move from a Cartesian to neo-Aristotelian perspective. Focusing on different kinds of agency (Aristotle) and not primarily on cognition (Descartes) allows for a broad, fluid boundary between human and nonhuman life instead of the rigid binary of Cartesian mind and matter. Of course, many philosophers make similar arguments for a spectrum of agency. Hans Jonas, Alfred North Whitehead, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are good twentieth-century examples, but those aren’t exactly the thinkers who dominate discussions in the American Philosophical Association. It’s significant that Fulda is making this argument in an APA context. Is mainstream philosophy becoming less anthropocentric? Maybe. Continue reading


APE: Actor-Partnership Ethics

Carolyn Merchant gives a good summary of the problems with anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric ethics in Reinventing Eden: the Fate of Nature in Western Culture (Routledge, 2003).  She proposes a “new ethic of human partnership with nature” in which humanity and nature are “considered as active agents.”

Self-interested, or egocentric ethics (what is good for the individual is good for society); social-interest, or homocentric ethics (the greatest good for the greatest number); and even earth-centered or ecocentric ethics (all living and nonliving things are morally considerable and have rights) all have problematical implications for a sustainable world.  The growth-oriented capitalistic economy from which the egocentric ethic arises and the anthropocentric focus of the utilitarian cost-benefit approach from which the homocentric ethic arises both have negative implications for the environment.  On the other hand, the idea that all nonhuman organisms have moral consideration equal to human beings—the ecocentric approach—undercuts the real struggles of the poor and of disadvantaged minorities for a better life.  What is called for is a new ethic that arises out of both the needs of nature and the needs of humanity.  Both must be considered as active agents.  A new ethic of human partnership with nature—is needed, one in which nature is an active subject, not a passive object. (p. 217)

I like that paragraph a lot, but the idea of human partnership with nature seems a little simplistic.  Treating nature as an active subject sounds good if you think that there’s something out there called nature with which we humans need to partner up.  What if we’ve never been human and nature has never been natural?

I like the idea of an ethics of actors or of active agents, but instead of focusing on a rather anthropocentric sounding partnership between two mega-categories (humans and nature), I would like to see the development of actor-partnership ethics (APE), which would focus on partnerships between any actors (nonhuman, human, and otherwise), so that a tobbaco-flame-pipe-mouth partnership is not occluded by the almighty correlate, human-nature.