Animistic Relativism

Blog ยป Animistic Relativism

Historically, there's been a lot of ink shed and electrons organized on the topic of ethics, what's good, what's bad, and how to know the difference. Animism, as a generality, implies that all of that ink-shedding and electron-organizing has mostly been very anthropocentric and pointless.

"Why? How?" you ask. Look at it this way:

In a world full of People, Human People and Other-than-human People, there are any number of points of view from which to examine any given act. Looking at eating a carrot, for example, from the point of the vegetarian it's a responsible, ethical act, that respects the World. From the point of view of the carrot, it's carnage and death. From the point of view of the carnivore, it's irrelevant. That one act is good, bad, and neither, depending on whose point of view you take - this is similar to the whole "good for the cheetah, bad for the gazelle" description of relativism, and there's a reason for that - Animism is relativist, since it recognizes the inherent personhood of all beings, incarnate, discarnate, and immaterial.

Since every Person is worthy of respect, what becomes a central issue for any Animism is reconciling the things needed for life (i.e. the death of other People) with the need to respect this People who are sacrificed. The carrot probably doesn't like being eaten, no more than you'd like being eaten, but it's necessary in order for us to keep living, to respect our own lives. What is "good" is relative to each being's viewpoint, which means that no act can be called good or evil, because these terms don't take into account the views of all the other People involved.

Many Animisms handle this relativism by focusing on the human community - fair enough, since, well, we are human, and that is the most important point of view for most of us. But that doesn't mean that acts we take upon Other People are necessarily treated differently than those same acts taken against Human People. Killing a carrot doesn't necessarily have the human-society consequences, because relative to a human's survival, they're less important. Conversely, to a carrot, human survival is less important than a carrot's survival. It's relative.

That's on a purely social level, though. Once that social circle expands to include Other People, the consequences do become significant. Among some totemistic people, the difference between a human and, say, a tapir, is negligible, and killing a tapir has similar consequences and obligations as killing a human. In some cultures, the non-human is valued over the human, and human lives are forfeit in reparation for the death of the non-human. It really depends on the culture, and how they look at the relationship between Humans and Other-than-humans.

In the Way of Spirits, we try to take the Human and the Other-than-human as on the same level. Whether killing a carrot, a human, a viral infection, a cow, or an idea, there are similar levels of respect required. Respect doesn't necessarily mean not killing - it means killing with a recognition of the consequences of the death, and with acceptance of responsibility for those consequences.

This is why one of the most important things in To'An is Gratitude. Rather than worrying about good or evil/bad, because there are both in every act, depending on who you ask, we worry about respect and gratitude, which is how respect is shown. It is important to be thankful for the sacrifices made so that you might continue to live, and to understand that eventually you will be sacrificed as well (you will die, and your death will feed other beings in one way or another).

The circle comes round, always, and in the meantime, good and bad depend on where on the circle you're looking from. Since the circle is a moving whole, there really is no point in worrying about position.

Posted on 15 Jan 2012 20:47

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