Merleau-Ponty, Ontology, and Ethics

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Ralph Perry offered an important and influential answer to the question "what is the source of ethical value?" He argued that it cannot be physical nature alone, since physical nature, by itself, is impassive, and that value must subsequently have its original source in life, in living things that have interests and seek to maintain themselves over time. Yet even though life is the source of ethical value, he continues, "the moral drama opens only when interest meets interest.... Every interest is compelled to recognize other interests, on the one hand as parts of its environment, and on the other as partners in the general enterprise of life."1 This is a good starting point. Value begins with life and the interest that life entails, since it is difficult to see how we could attach value predicates to an impassive, unfeeling, non-sentient, non-living nature in itself, and it is easier to see how interest arises as living things seek to maintain themselves over time, how, subsequently, value becomes associated with life. In addition, Perry seems to be right to argue that morality must begin with the recognition of the value of others, since morality, properly speaking, involves behavioral relationships between human beings and a genuine recognition of the value of each by all the others. Yet, especially if we begin to think about an environmental ethics, we should perhaps qualify Perry's first point with the claim that we must recognize that certain natural, physical conditions support life while others do not, thus at least indirectly attaching value predicates to nature in itself. Moreover, if we wish to establish a morality with regard to nature and other living things, as well as a human morality, we must establish how the recognition of the value of others (nature, plants, and animals, as well as human others) is possible, i.e., how it is possible ontologically. The works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, especially his ontological studies, are uniquely suited to help us with this task. It is thus to his work that this essay will turn.

Before we turn to his works a few additional comments should be offered. David Hume reminds us that traditionally there have been two primary sources of value: reason and pleasure, and he proceeds to add a third, the association of approval or disapproval, which is based on sympathy for the other, with certain observed behaviors toward the other.2 More recently, we find many postmodernists arguing that human moral values are "rooted" only in the more or less arbitrary agreements among interlocutors.3 Yet, regardless of position, all seem to agree that ethics requires the genuine recognition of the other as other. We should add here, though, since there is less agreement regarding this point, that the ethical recognition of the other requires the recognition of the other as both the same (similar not identical) and as different.4 We must recognize the other as the same, so that the other's life has intrinsic value, like the intrinsic value of one's own life, and we must recognize the other as different, so that the other's life is not just an extension of one's own - that it has value in its own right, that it has its own intrinsic value. Now, the recognition of the value of the other (as the same and as different) usually focuses on other human beings, rather than animals or the environment, and it is perhaps easier to establish with regard to humans, yet the recognition of the value of the other has recently been extended to both animals and the environment, and we should thus consider how the recognition of the other is possible in each of these cases as well.

Merleau-Ponty makes use of all of the points in the above paragraph and even integrates them in what we might call his ethics (or, more properly speaking, his political theory).5 He makes use of self-feeling or sentience, sympathy for and recognition of others, and dialog and reasoning with others. At least implied in his tiieory, then, is the belief that value begins with life and sentience, with the capacity to feel pleasure and pain, and with the interest to survive, while morality begins with the capacity to sympathize and empathize with other humans (and even other non-human species), and with the abiUty to dialogue with other human beings in order to estabUsh what is fair for all. …