Thursday, August 19, 2010

My Daughter Needs Sensitivity Training

A few weeks ago, we discovered a mushroom growing in the backyard, and went for a mushroom hunt around the house to see what else we could find. A colony of fungi were thriving around a drain pipe in our flower bed. When we discovered these mushrooms, my daughter expressed her intention to smush them. I said, "Why would you want to do that? Just let them be. How would you like to be smushed?"

Then yesterday we saw a remarkable butterfly, and she ordered me to "kill it." What the heck? We've got some work to do.

I've been thinking a lot about animals and the environment and the scope of respect. (I've also been on vacation and preparing for class; hence the slowdown here.) I'm attracted to the view that there is no outward limit on the extension of respect, in one form or another. Like Holmes Rolston III, I think we can, basically, get all the way to something like respecting dirt. Obviously, this will have a different (you might say) grammar than respect for persons, but the basic point would be: don't destroy things (where "destroy" means something like removing something of value without replacing it with something of equal or greater value). Respect--and similarly, love--are relevant here insofar as we come to see the point of such a principle when it is seen through the eyes of respect (and love): we don't destroy the things we love.


  1. I suppose kids learn by example ("we don't do that") and by, well, learning. The more you know about butterflies or whatever, the less you might be inclined to want to just smush them. I'm sure your daughter gets good examples, but it's not as if sensitivity is innate. I always like Schopenhauer on dirt, and then there's Edward Thomas's saying that he was fighting "Literally, for this" (while grabbing some English soil), which is an expression of love, if only for some dirt and not all. Some of Thomas's ideas about England described here ( remind me of Coetzee's claim that there is never any "mere" landscape. So, yes, I think you can respect dirt (although maybe not as dirt).

  2. Where does Schopenhauer write about dirt?

    "maybe not as dirt": I think I know what you mean here. I think the incoherence of trying to respect dirt as dirt would have something to do with "individuality" not being an applicable concept here. But the point would not thereby be that we can only value dirt (in a sense often used in value theory) only instrumentally. (This is a place where I don't find the intrinsic value/instrumental value distinction to be particularly helpful...)

  3. The Schopenhauer quote I had in mind is where he talks about the dust that the human body becomes after death. This one: "This matter, now lying there as dust and ashes, will soon form into crystals when dissolved in water. It will shine as metal; it will then emit electric sparks… It will, indeed, of its own accord, form itself into plant and animal; and from its mysterious womb it will develop that life, about the loss of which you in your narrowness of mind are so nervous and anxious." It is dirt, roughly speaking, that develops life from its mysterious womb.

    And on dirt as dirt, I was thinking of "dirt" as a pejorative term (like "noise"), in contrast with more neutral (to my ears) words like "soil" or "earth." But I take your point about instrumentalism, etc.

  4. Thanks. I see now what you mean about dirt. Right.

    It's true that this all puts a different spin--or reveals a different aspect--on the observation that we're all basically dirt. (Ashes to ashes, etc.) While on the one hand, that should breed a little humility, it should also direct our attention (as Rolston puts it so eloquently) that this dirt is pretty amazing stuff.

  5. Yes. On the one hand, we're dirt. On the other hand, since dirt is what people are made of, it's pretty cool stuff. But others have put that more eloquently than I have.

  6. What are your concerns involving the egg recall? Today on the news I seen that the Feds are investigating a farm in Iowa. The farm has the hens placed in cages and some are sharing cages with dead hens who are well into the decomposing process. Also early reports indicate a signification mice problem, which reportedly leads to many issues. Given your environmental concerns, what is your take on EGG farms?