Morgan Franklin, @morganmfranklin
January 22, 2013

Week Two: Ethically Speaking

Let’s suppose that you, Professor Harris-Perry, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Olivia Pope as played by Kerry Washington, and your high school P.E. teacher are all enjoying Sunday brunch together. You decide to follow brunch with a card game, with each person wagering their cab fare. Olivia suggests that you create a new game with original rules. The cards are dealt face down. Before you begin, the group must come up with the rules of the game.

Your old P.E. teacher suggests that whoever has the most royal cards wins the game and all the spoils. The Science Guy suggests a tiered plan, where the total point value of each person’s cards are added up, and the money divided proportionally amongst the top three earners.

Though each of these situations could work, you’re suddenly worried. The prospect of winning big is alluring, but you also don’t know what cards you’ve been dealt and could be facing a very long walk home. Attempting to be the voice of reason, you suggest implementing some kind of safety net. What if everyone is guaranteed to come away at least with money for public transportation? Concerned with the possibility of being the game’s ultimate loser, everyone nods in agreement citing that this provision seems “only fair.” The question is, is it actually fair, or is it motivated purely by selfish notions? Perhaps a better question is, if it leads to “just” outcomes, does the motivation behind it matter?

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

This thought experiment is loosely based on John Rawls’s concept in A Theory of Justice which asserts that under a veil of ignorance of personal position, if choosing a preferred social contract, rational actors will recognize that they could be on the short end of the stick and choose to bolster the least of these with a safety net. (Slide 7) Rawls’ theory is a useful starting point for our discussion of ethics in relation to environmental justice. This week Professor Harris-Perry asked us to consider the limitations of our present social contract. To illustrate such limitations she turned our attention to animal rights and the ways in which humans often leave animals out of the justice narrative. But why? What limitations do we put on citizenship and why is it that we draw boundaries in the way that we do?

Are non-human animals part of our social contract?

Our class discussion became heated as we talked about the sentience and brain functioning of animals and our ability (or inability) to extend our sympathy outside of humanity to include non-humans. We then discussed cultural affinity for sportsmanship and the ways in which the exploitation of animals has sustained our way of life. Additionally, some comments alluded to our capacity to control animals and the tradition of valuing the resources they provide.

So, let’s see… in our refrain around this group of beings we doubted their intelligence, otherized them, discussed our heritage and cultural links to their exploitation, identified our ability to control them, and expressed hesitation to release the value of the resources they provide without compensation. Sound familiar? As Professor Harris-Perry noted, many of these arguments were the same as those used by confederate soldiers attempting to validate the peculiar institution of slavery.

What allows us to monopolize the social construct and police how different beings fit into it, if we allow them at all? Sure, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The Arc of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” but that does little for the chicken who is now your sandwich. In relation to the thought experiment provided at the outset of this post, do you believe that animals would have chosen this particular manifestation of their place in the social construct if given a choice? At some point, it becomes necessary to acknowledge the ways in which privilege brings along its brother inequality to infuse itself into our society. In a discussion of the relationship of African American citizens and our relation to animals, it is important to remember the history of oppressed groups and the complicated relations that stem from such subjugation.

Neither of these images by themselves is sufficient to discuss the complicated history between African Americans and animals

As Prof. outlined in this week’s lecture, the three forms of inequality are power, resource distribution and the ability to define norms. The third element, deciding the parameters of what is considered acceptable, is probably the least discussed aspect of inequality but one with pervasive ramifications. Additionally, notice that those three concepts fit together and occur concurrently. Should we allow only those with power and resources to set the narrative about what is acceptable and what is not? No, of course not. And yet, the children that play in parks next to factories aren’t doing so in neighborhoods where the average homeowner is in an upper tier of the socioeconomic strata. More on that point in the coming weeks, but as always, thanks for joining us this week in class.

My favorite reading for the week: “Environmentalism: Spiritual, Ethical, Political” by Michael Smith, in the journal Environmental Values.

We also read:
“Natural Subjects: Nature in Political Community” by Kimberley Smith
“A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption” by Stephen Gardiner
The introduction to Community Earth Ethics by Larry L. Masmussen


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