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Moving beyond the human: multispecies justice and philosophy

5 July 2019
Taking justice beyond the human
In an age where logging is bringing about the potential extinction of orangutans – with whom we share 97% of our DNA – and the Murray Darling fish kills have farmers talking about the ethics of water, two philosophers are rethinking ideas of justice.

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences launched Futurefix earlier this year, a program aimed at bring together talented researchers from diverse disciplines to address complex issues that affect our everyday lives – not only in Australia, but across the world. Two of the Department of Philosophy’s academics, Anik Waldow and Dalia Nassar, are contributors to the FutureFix Multispecies Justice research theme, led two of the University’s most respected academics, Danielle Celermajer, David Schlosberg.

Anik and Dalia recently brought their philosophical expertise to bear on the moral, legal, and political status of humans, animals and the environment at the Global Multispecies Justice Symposium, hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute.

Signs in the ecosystem

Anik’s work focuses on the philosophy of mind, and in particular idea of philosophical problem of other minds. This problem stems from the idea that we can’t ‘know’ the mind of others – we can only observe the behaviour of others and make judgments based on our observations.  This ‘problem’ is exacerbated when we look to other species, and to other types of being – to an octopus, or a monkey, for example.

But Anik Waldow is looking at the problem of minds from a different perspective. If we consider the whole of nature as constituting one system, then it’s not us humans observing the rest of the world: rather world (or nature) is system containing a vast network of signs whose significance is not the exclusive provenance of humans, because we’re not the only ones who interpret signs. ‘The palm cashing down stands for something to the monkey’, she points out, quoting Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think.

Contemplating trees

Dalia Nassar is examining what might be seen as a more abstract notion of non-human justice, working with plant physiologist Margaret Barbour.  Like Anik, Dalia is keen to move beyond the idea of human agency, and with Barbour is conceptualising ways of defining justice in relation to trees.

Dalia points to world renowned moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum as a departure point for her ideas. Nussbaum, she says, identifies a rights-bearing subject as one who expresses freedom of motion: ‘being able to move freely, from place to place [and] have bodily boundaries treated as sovereign’.

It’s necessary to move beyond such a definition of rights and justice to explore how trees might be considered to have a form of agency, and to do so, Dalia and Margaret look to the ‘embodied history’ of trees. ‘Trees literally embody their history… their past and their physical environment is inscribed on their very materiality’. 

Trees, are, after all, the longest living life form we know – ‘Methuselah’, a bristlecone pine in eastern California, is 4,851 years old, and each one of those years is inscribed in its trunk and branches.  Not only is the age of a tree marked by its annual rings as it grows: the chemical compounds in those rings can tell us, for example, when the industrial revolution began, and the story of our current dependency on fossil fuels.

But trees also act within an environment – ‘they must deal with, adopt, accommodate themselves to, the limited resources of their environments. They are, one can say, particularly vulnerable to their environments’ says Dalia. In this sense, trees, like other plants, are open to engage with the environment, and to transform their environment in ways that other forms of life do not.  In fact, trees are capable of creating an environment – for bees, birds, and other forms of life –and respond to the environment in which they live.

Both Anik and Dalia are engaged in conceptualisiing a systems-based approach to ecology.  What is required, as Anik says, is that we move beyond the focus on an inner – hidden – dimension of thought, and instead begin to examine the signs of animate and inanimate nature, and the web of relations in which we exist.

Headshot of Dalia Nassar