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Most of Western Philosophy has struggled – rather gratuitously, I might add – with the idea of relations. With very few exceptions, conceptsii of the relational have been largely dismissed as a merely parasitic short hand way of talking about collections of substantive “things.” The results of these struggles have generally been unsatisfying, to say the least. When they have come to the forefront of the great minds of the west, however, the developments often owe their ingeniousness to ways in which real relations are smuggled in without being named as such. (An example that always stands out in my mind is Leibniz’s definition of substance as “active force.” It is impossible to understand how “force” acts on anything unless one treats its relational connections to other parts of the world as precisely that which makes it real.)

Whitehead never used the phrase “relational realism,” but he clearly treated relations such as possibility and potentiality as real, even as they never concretized themselves as actual, per se. Certainly such relations fundamentally inform the concretion of such actualities. So, what does it mean to talk about ethics as being relational, particularly in a Whiteheadian context? Whitehead himself offered us preciously few clues on the subject, at least in his published materials. (Significant numbers of lecture notes and personal papers have been discovered in recent years. Scholars have only begun working through those lecture notes, and the personal papers were not even believed to exist in any form until their discovery just a year or so ago.)

So, to speak of “relational ethics” is not to dismiss or deny actualities in ethics, only to insist on a form of relational realism that is specifically oriented toward the ontology of “good and bad,” “right and wrong”, “must and must not,” etc. Nor, indeed, does it in anyway prioritize the potential (much less the merely possible) over the actual, even as it does prioritize the need for a just, democratic society to open the door for persons to actualize their potentials as best they may.iii But, contra the contrived pleadings of some anti-choice advocates, this doesn’t mean that potentialities (such as a blob of protoplasm that we’re supposed to embrace as a “potential human being”) trumps the rights and priorities of an actual human being. By the same token, we do not praise a Hitler or an Eichmann for their “potential” to be a saint, we damn them for the actual fact of their monstrousness.

As an example of relational ethics, we might do well to recall here the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”iv On the other hand, the metaphysically “atomic” (as in the original Greek sense of “uncut” or indivisible) absolute individual – so adored by libertarians, and largely fabricated out of whole cloth by classical liberal thinkers – is an absolute fairy tale. It is not just that such a fantasy is like a unicorn, a thing that does not exist. It is more akin to a round-square, a thing that cannot possibly exist, that isn’t even genuinely conceivable (regardless of our capacity to assemble words in an otherwise grammatically correct fashion.)

The relational approach to “person” or “personhood” – where variants of “person” are understood to mean “moral agency” and not merely “human being”v – obliges us to take a relational approach to ethics generally. Thus, it seems not just unlikely but impossible – arguably even logically impossible, if one’s logic takes relationality seriously – to produce a list of things that are “good” simpliciter, “in and of themselves” as it were. By the same token, a rigid list of rules will never suffice, and will likely as not end up proving to be a burden, and even a positive obstruction, to genuine ethical thinking. Consider, as an example, the Bible’s indefensible condemnation of homosexuality but sanguine acceptance, even advocacy, of slavery.

What we require for genuine ethical thinking are not rules, but heuristics. An heuristicvi is a guideline to inquiry, an open-ended collection of prompts that help suggest the sorts of questions we might consider asking, and the sorts of contextual features we ought be on the lookout for. But even here, the habit of a too-narrow, too-rigid approach to things can be lurking in the background. A fortuitous publication from Aeon discusses one form that this can manifest itself: the egregiously contrived “thought experiments” that many academic philosophers find so entertaining. This is sometimes called “the trolley-problem problem.”

The traditional trolley-problem poses a puzzle where there is a runaway trolley car, and you are at a switch on the tracks. You can direct the trolley to one or another side of the track, but something horrible will happen on either side. The puzzle is to choose one horrible thing over another, and then justify that choice. The problem with this “problem” – and arguably, most other such “thought experiments” – is that it is lacking in information and context such as would make an answer meaningful, never mind possible. I have long suspected that vapid “thought experiments” were an obstacle to teaching philosophy to undergraduates – it certainly proved so for me. (What proved my salvation was discovering Ernst Cassirer, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead.) Thus, rather than teasing out essential relations as they are meant to, such “thought experiments” generally apply a machete to the full relational tangle so as to manufacture a more conveniently “tractable” puzzle, disregarding how this has mutilated the actual problem. Persons without an extensive background in philosophy may not be able to say that this is the problem, but they often sense it, and say as much in their complaints about the artificiality of the problem so manufactured.

If we mean to think philosophically and realistically, this will mean thinking relationally and with meticulous respect for, and attention to, ALL of the details, not merely those that compress easily into a readily manageable model. Aristotle warned us in the Nicomachean Ethics against a false sense of precision where no such precision is possible. (Only one of the many reasons why he remains worthy of study.) Perhaps it would be well, then, to end on an apposite Whitehead quote:

We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, Seek simplicity and distrust it.

The Concept of Nature, pg. 163.

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i For reasons I never came to understand, many students insist on calling him “Mills”. Not as in the possessive, “Mill’s ethical theory,” but as though his name was “Mills” rather than “Mill.” As you can probably tell from the fact that I’m making a note about it, this has always chapped my butt.

ii Worth mentioning again: as I am using the terms “concept” is to “idea,” as “species” is to “genera.”

iii On this latter, see John Dewey, Democracy and Education, and Human Nature and Conduct.

iv From the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

v Thus, I do not cut off considerations of animals as “persons” in this moral sense, and leave open the door to arguments for ethical vegetarianism of many varieties.

vi An anachronistic use of “an” here, but I refuse to write or say “a heuristic,” regardless of what my word processor’s grammar checker claims is right or proper.