All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948
Human dignity is inviolable.
Article 1 (1), Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany
In the second part of this post, I speculated about the need to search for a new ethics of balance, an ethics where we are not anymore the one and only ends of ethical concern.
If we then approach this strange and exotic world created by an ethics of balance, what has changed? One thing that hasn’t changed is the “human condition”. None of us has been asked before we were born. As Sartre formulated, we are all “thrown into existence”. At the same time, we all have been programmed by evolution with a hunger for survival – and an even deeper and mysterious yearning for meaning.
These basic parameters of the human experience are the foundations for the assumption of dignity, that is worthiness in its own right, regarding all human existence. This dignity is both tragic (because we are exposed to our biological existence without reprieve) and hopeful (because we can transcend our existence through wisdom, love and beauty). But most of all, we are all in the same boat.
What now, if under an ethics of balance, we assume that the boat is much bigger than we thought and we’re in it together with all living things (or like Naess would say just about everything else)? What if animals and plants, who share the same tragic of existence also would have dignity? Do they also in some way share the yearning for meaning? We don’t know – but we do know, that many of our long hold assumptions about other living things weren’t quite right. Who’d have thought that rats can be compassionate and refuse acts that would harm other rats? What I am trying to say is that our still persisting ignorance regarding many aspects of non-human existence should not lead us to arrogance in assuming only we have value and dignity.
In 2008, the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) produced a most remarkable document titled “The dignity of living beings with regard to plants”, which I warmly recommend for reading as it addresses quite a few of the topics I mentioned here. There are many astonishing findings there, like the one that we aren’t quite sure anymore that plants aren’t sentient. It also concludes, among other things, that arbitrary harm to plants is unethical. In its foreword, the paper mentions an objection to the effort of the committee based on that “human life would become morally too demanding and too complicated if this area of human action had also to be justified”.
But hasn’t that always been the case in ethics? For sure, assuming dignity in slaves, people of colour, women, the poor, those with disabilities and those with differing sexual orientation has been “a moral complication” for those in majority and power. Ethics are often a damn nuisance for those in charge. This is a reason why we still struggle with the concept of universal protection of human dignity to this day. But this is also why I call ethics as a tool to position oneself. Who do we want to be? Do we only accept the tragic part of our existence or do we also embrace the hopefulness of our potential? And there comes a, I feel much neglected, point that we can’t become better humans if we not also consider the non-human sphere, if we don’t become better citizens of the earth. When, however, we do assume dignity in all living or even non-living things, do we have to stop eating, wearing clothes, building houses and tools, or even fight against diseases? I don’t think so. I don’t think a lion is “wrong” in hunting prey – and we are predators likewise and haven’t chosen to be so. What we would need, though, is a whole new level of consideration and justification for what, why and how we do things. We would have to balance our needs with those of all other living things, like we have to balance in ethics and law our own rights against those of other human beings.
Let me take up then a last point on this: Dignity as presented here is an individual concept, it applies to individual entities. But there is the aspect to reality that all is connected and interchanging. The water in our drinking glass might once reappear in a cloud. We not only “burn” food but use it also to build the very cells of our body. And when we die, our body not only nourishes other things but also our thoughts and interactions continue to live on in those we interacted with. We are at the same time distinguishable waves and still part of the ocean. And as A.N. Whitehead once wrote, even mountains are just waves in the right time perspective. This means we are not only, as I wrote above, in the same boat with everything else but everything is just a single ocean. There have been many names for this insight during the centuries of human thought. For myself I prefer to call it the unity of reality because unity is also a concept in aesthetic theory and thus helps me to think of it in terms of visual concepts. And there is the first hint then to why I write about this in a photography blog.
There is no picture without a point of view. And that is not necessarily a physical point but one that is rooted in an aesthetic framework, the ethical position and an ontological assumption (that is an assumption about the nature of reality) of the artist.
Let me give an example: photojournalists are often driven by concerns regarding human dignity and by showing “what really is happening” (vs official propaganda) for example in reporting about war zones. How they depict this is always dependent on the aesthetic framework they have chosen, like Henri Cartier-Bresson did with strong geometry.
So what I am trying to do here in this series is to explain where I come from, not what you should do. This is a manifesto, not a teaching. Art is also always a hunt rather than a statement. The war photographer not only postulates human dignity she also searches for it in the circles of hell.
Before I end this part of the series, I have to address, however, one last related point (oh yes, I know this is already far too long…). A friend recently asked me regarding the “abstractions” I mention in my last book and whether I think they are real or just a construct of the human mind. This is a very good (and old) question. Are we making abstractions like dignity, beauty, ethics or unity just up, are they language artefacts or artefacts of our way to think? We can’t really tell, says Kant, they are at least realities of our mind. Others say that everything is anyhow just a huge illusion. Some things, quantum mechanics says, happen only when we observe. How can we decide, which is right? We have no tool to observe anything from outside our mind (which was precisely Kant’s point). The laws of physics, for example, are abstractions. They assume a ball rolling down a hill always behaves in a calculable way not only in the concrete instance we observe. Are then the laws of physics “real”, that means attributes of reality, or just superpositions on reality by our mind. No one can say with absolute certainty. We are just sufficiently convinced they are real because of a shared experience based on the ability to make predictions. We thus reduce the possibility of delusion without being able to completely eliminate it.
There remains an element of conviction and belief no matter how rationally we proceed. This even applies to other abstractions in science. Astrophysics currently struggles mightily with this topic with regard to theories (like the multiverse) that can neither be proven nor disproven by experiment and prediction. We just have to be infinitely more careful in postulating shared experiences or abstractions without predictability because there is always the possibility of a shared delusion.
During the years I have been photographing and observing, I have developed a growing suspicion, maybe even conviction, that the concept of beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, an evolutionary artefact or simply wishful thinking. I meanwhile think it is a true attribute or aspect of reality itself. There is no method to prove this. What art, however, can do is to create shared experiences (where possibly a viewer comes to similar conclusions as the artist) – and then see whether these experiences stand the test of time. Only so can art validate itself and its underlying assumptions. Which now, finally, makes a nice bridge to the last part of this series. Stay tuned for part IV…