Michael S. Hogue

The Tangled Bank: Toward an Ecological Ethics of Responsible Participation

Review by Thurman Todd Willison, 2010

The Tangled Bank: Toward an Ecological Ethics of Responsible Participation. By Michael S. Hogue. Pickwick Publications, 2008. 245 pages. $31.00.

Thanks to the success of Spiderman at the box office several years ago, the slogan “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” has become something of a public catchphrase. In The Tangled Bank, Michael Hogue offers what could be seen as a small but significant addition to this famous one-liner: “With great power comes great responsible participation.” This perhaps sounds less catchy, but as Hogue convincingly argues, an ethic of “responsible participation” packs a lot of punch, since it is able to affirm two important ideas: 1) that humans have a unique and normative responsibility to constrain their interventions into nature and to preserve life, and 2) that “human moral life” participates within a “deeply entangled…interdependent bank of natural and historical processes, and ultimately the world’s divine ordering” (244). As will be shown throughout this review, these two ideas each address in their own way two distinct problems that Hogue draws attention to in his work, the problem of radical human power and the problem of moral uncertainty.

Hogue’s “point of entry” for addressing these two problems is the current environmental crisis, which has “introduced unprecedented moral dilemmas and confusion concerning the human relationship to the natural world” (xvii). According to Hogue, the environmental crisis is of particular importance to ethics today since it places humanity in a moral position that it has never occupied before. “Never before,” writes Hogue, “has the future of human life on the planet” or the “future of the entirety of the biosphere been an object of moral concern” (xxi). But humanity has now crossed a “moral threshold” (xxi) in that the total annihilation of all life has become a conceivable consequence of human action. This is why Hogue calls the environmental crisis a “crisis of and for human power” (225).    

To acknowledge that the environmental crisis is a crisis of human power is simply to recognize, in a descriptive sense, that humans have a unique capacity to radically alter both themselves and the wider natural world through technological interventions that have yet to be properly constrained. To acknowledge that the crisis is a crisis for human power is to introduce a prescriptive element, recognizing that a moral framework must be developed, from both anthropological and non-anthropological resources, which can help to navigate the moral uncertainty that surrounds questions of how power is to be used in a context of immense complexity and interdependence.

Hogue’s strategy for constructing a moral framework that both emphasizes humanity’s unique capacity to responsibly influence nature as well as humanity’s participatory continuity with nature is to offer a comparative critique of two thinkers who respectively and roughly represent these two emphases. Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas represents the first emphasis on human responsibility. Jonas’ work is morally motivated by his revulsion for the atrocities he witnessed during the reign of Nazi Germany, atrocities which included the murder of his own mother. Thus, he has a stake in wanting to hold humans responsible for abuses of power. For Jonas, abuses of power tend to be supported by dualistic philosophical frameworks that assert a fundamental separation between human valuing and the natural order. Such a separation leads to intense moral uncertainty regarding how humans will use their power in the world, since their basis for value is grounded only in subjective self-projection. In light of this fear of moral ambiguity, Jonas staunchly critiques the dualisms that are evident in Gnosticism and in Heidegger’s philosophy, constructing as an alternative a more unified philosophy of nature in which the responsibility to preserve life is literally embedded in the ontology of the natural world.

To this end, Jonas develops a theory of organic purposiveness, revealed through metabolic processes, to show how human responsibility is indeed an objective moral good. Ironically, Jonas compromises a truly holistic philosophy of nature by focusing on organic purposiveness as his primary ontological theme. For in centralizing organic purposiveness, Jonas sets up a narrative in which “the drama of life is played out as a largely” a man-to-man “engagement between the individual organism and its environment” (25). This narrative, to a degree, elevates the purposive organic individual over more relational, multidimensional environmental networks, indicating that it “harbors an individualistic or idiocentric emphasis within it” (25).

This inherent individualism within Jonas’ thought is not necessarily a bad thing according to Hogue. Rather, it is simply incomplete. In Hogue’s view, it is not enough to merely account for what human responsibility is in terms of its grounding in organic purposiveness. One must also account for how responsible moral choices are to be made in light of the limitations of knowledge and power that the natural order imposes on all purposive agents. This second question requires deep recognition of and appreciation for the grand interdependence and entanglement of all natural and historical processes. To discern how to act responsibly in nature, one must see oneself not merely as a purposive agent working to influence nature, but also as an integrated participant within the divine order of things.

With regard to this issue of participation, Hogue turns to Christian theologian James M. Gustafson to both complement and critique Jonas’ philosophy. Gustafson, in contrast to Jonas, is not concerned with grounding the objective goodness of human responsibility out of fear for “the horrible potential of human power’s ambiguity” (57). Rather, Gustafson shifts his focus away from the problem of human power, looking instead to “the powers of nature and history, ultimately divinely governed” (57). This “divinely governed” ordering of the world, for Gustafson, takes “moral priority over any individual, community, or species good” (220). This is why Gustafson’s moral anthropology stresses humanity’s continuity with nature as a participant in divine order as opposed to its discontinuity as a purposive agent. This continuity is understood by Gustafson as an “experiential inclusion within and dependence upon a matrix of natural, historical, cultural, and social patterns and processes,” all “supported by a theological vision of the power ultimately bearing down upon and sustaining life” (127).

Gustafson’s abeyance before this “tangled bank” of complex natural processes has a tone of pious and mystic humility that one finds easy to admire and respect. And yet, one cannot help but ask, along with Hogue (220), “can humanity or the biosphere afford the leisure of participating appropriately within the divine order of things when the very real threat of extinction is imminently upon us?” If the annihilation of all organic life is now a concrete possibility that human power has occasioned, then it is not enough to take a participatory stance toward nature without sufficient regard for making radical purposive choices. This is why neither Jonas’ nor Gustafson’s approach to ecological ethics can stand entirely on their own. Both need to be held together in dynamic tension with one another. Purposive human responsibility must be intimately tied to an appreciation for participatory continuity if a moral framework is to emerge that is truly adequate to solve the problems of current environmental/technological crises. To sacrifice purposive responsibility in this account is to succumb to a dangerous passivity with respect to serious environmental threats that are unprecedented in the history of the world. To sacrifice participatory continuity is to charge brazenly ahead into blind environmental activism without sufficient recognition of all the diverse factors in play.

In conclusion, Hogue does a beautiful and remarkably competent job of drawing out his two main themes of responsibility and participation from his careful and detailed comparative analysis of Jonas and Gustafson. Hogue’s plea to hold together responsibility and participation in cautious balance with one another when tackling the pressing concerns of ecological ethics is, for the most part, compelling and convincing. I would only venture to provide one important critique of his presentation. I do not think he adequately accounts for how the rubric of “responsible participation” could conceivably fail to apply to human beings who suffer from extreme forms of social oppression. Might one conceive of an actual rift in humanity, where the power to responsibly participate has been so significantly denied portions of the human population, that it seems unjust to allow the term “responsible participation” to apply as a broad anthropological term. If we apply the concept of “responsible participation” as an all-encompassing ethical category for humanity, could we in fact undermine the ability of oppressed segments of humanity to decry their very inability to wield power and to “responsibly participate” in society in an appropriately meaningful and dignified manner? If we are willing to say that all humans responsibly participate at some level of society, without sufficiently critiquing the meaning of this category, could we be robbing liberationist movements of their sting? Could we be normalizing what is in fact a grand injustice (the inability of many humans to responsibly participate in society).

Despite my desire to press Hogue to be more explicit on this point, I am confident that his philosophical analysis is flexible enough to accommodate my critique. Worked into Hogue’s understanding of responsible participation is a pragmatic leaning toward constant critical reflection and reform. I have no doubt that Hogue’s notion of “responsible participation” could be reinterpreted and re-envisioned through such critical reflection to address more effectively the issue of how humanity is to involve itself collectively in environmental efforts. It is not acceptable to make ecological ethics a concern that only the privileged can meaningfully engage. Thus, until ecological ethics includes an ethic of social liberation that frees all humans to responsibly participate in the protection of their environment, I believe that Hogue’s work will remain incomplete.