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Making Good Choices: Thinking about Ethics Beyond Sustainability (Dr. Alison Staudinger)

September 24, 2020 @ 6:00 pm - 6:55 pm

Part One of our Common CAHSS: Beyond Sustainability Speaker Series

Free Online Streaming Event

I’m sitting at home, trying to figure out what to do. I want to live in the world without causing harm to others, but this simple precept gets muddied in application. What kind of harms count? If I consume something, am I responsible for the harm, to laborers, to the earth, that occurred in its production? What about institutions in which I participate—to what extent am I responsible for the way my country, my university, my history produces and reproduces oppression and violence?  What kind of others count? Humans—which ones? Animals? Other non-humans? These sort of ethical questions are both clarified and occluded by the light of contemporary crises: Covid-19, Racial Violence, and Climate Change. These crises intersect in such complex ways that it seems there is no way to live without causing harm. It’s tempting to give up.

Alexis Shotwell, author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, argues that alongside the temptation to give up on ethics altogether is a desire to remove ourselves utterly from messy, complex systems through completely pure action, like veganism or moving off the grid. She suggests that both approaches are unsustainable, and that instead, “if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid.” Shotwell is speaking to those who might tend towards purity (the vegans, the zero-waste people, the woke)—but I want to take her exploration of an unbearable world and think about those who, like me, might be more tempted by abandoning ethical action altogether. Those of us who are getting low on executive function. What can we do, if the world is already on fire? And why bother?

I want to convince you, to convince myself, that we have to bother because it’s in “staying with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway calls it, that we have a possibility of acting together, of making mistakes together, of realizing the claim that “another world is possible,” even when crises seem overwhelming. This might take changing our approach to ethical decision-making and how we respond to those who make other choices. Drawing on Shotwell, Haraway, and also Simone De Beauvoir’s classic The Ethics of Ambiguity, I’ll offer in this talk some ideas for thinking about the possibilities for ethics, or perhaps justice, beyond sustainability. Maybe together, sitting at home, we can figure out what to do.

Dr. Alison Staudinger
Associate Professor and Chair of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay