Matthias Fritsch: Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice

Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice Book Cover Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice
Matthias Fritsch
Stanford University Press
2018
Paperback $27.95
280

Reviewed by: Christopher Black (Texas A&M University)

Introduction

Taking Turns With the Earth offers to the reader a rich and incisive analysis of intergenerational justice, especially as it relates to issues pertaining to the environment.  With intergenerational ethics being relevant to so many issues that we face today, this book offers a timely theoretical analysis of the nature of our obligations to non-contemporary others.

This book makes clear that the theoretical nature of obligations to future generations is fraught and contested terrain, and Fritsch spends a sizable amount of time early in the text outlining the major ontological problems and methods in intergenerational justice (IGJ), of which there are multitudes. At times, especially in the early expository sections, so much theoretical matter is covered in such close succession that it becomes theoretically dense.  The multifarious forms of epistemic problems, interaction problems, world-constitution issues, and nonexistence challenges, and the various responses to each problem almost blur together into one mass.  But if taken slowly and deliberately, this expository portion is tremendously helpful towards understanding the state of the IGJ literature.  Within this section, too, certain portions – such as the discussion of the nonidentity problem (34) and the challenges it raises to common moral concepts such as autonomy and personhood – raise especially powerful challenges to IGJ in general, but also ones that Fritsch ably responds to.  Only after this expository portion do we get to Fritsch’s original contributions to the topic, which include his major claim and two models of intergenerational justice that follow from it.

He responds to the epistemic and ontological problems associated with intergenerational justice by promoting a social ontology that is attuned to what he calls the “ineluctability” of normativity, and which deals directly with “the relations among subjectivity, time, and generations.” Fritsch identifies a basis of normativity which he thinks need be recognized for an ontological account of IGJ to be adequately normatively sensitive. Specifically, he claims that both natality and mortality, or the fact that we are always already living in the time of birth and death, should be considered constitutive of moral subjectivity.  Moral subjectivity is a term which he thinks contains both moral status (being a legitimate object of moral concern) and moral agency (the capacity to freely choose a course of action). This moral subjectivity-constituting view of birth and death – which he expands upon further in chapter two – foregrounds the two models of IGJ which he introduces in chapters three and four, respectively. The first model of IGJ that Fritsch proposes is indirect reciprocity, which he elaborates further into his idea of asymmetrical reciprocity.  This model is meant to capture the role that indebtedness to previous others plays in giving to future others. The model is exemplified as follows: “A gives to B who ‘returns’ the gift to C (so for example, from past to future via the present.” (11) The second model of IGJ – which is outlined in chapter 4 – is the idea of “taking turns.” Fritsch argues this model is more appropriate for holistic or quasi-holistic objects (such as the earth or nature) because such holistic objects cannot be divided up and distributed like a cake. Whereas reciprocity depends upon substitutability, taking turns does not depends upon this principle.  Thus, the latter model is better equipped to deal with holistic, intergenerational, indivisible “objects” in a way that the former is not.

Summary

Now that I have quickly outlined the general structure of book I will undertake a more detailed summary, with an eye towards identifying the way of thinking about IGJ (i.e. the presentist view) that Taking Turns With the Earth resists, and then I will summarize the alternatives models to the presentist view that Fritsch offers in this book. Following that I will offer a few comments about the strengths and weakness of this book.

 The book starts out quickly with a series of salvos directed towards a certain set of people whom Fritsch refers to as “presentists.”  Presentists are those who exist as if they gave “birth to themselves.” Such people believe themselves to be self-standing individuals that are ontologically unrelated to past or future generations. Consequently, and critically, Fritsch (with continual reference to Stephen Gardiner) claims that because of this ontological short-sightedness presentists are subject to a form of “moral corruption.” Such corruption, it seems, is derived from a lack of social-ontological self-awareness, and results in a lack of care or adequate moral concern for noncontempories (both past and future, but especially future). Presentists’ lack of moral concern for noncontempories reveals itself most clearly on issues relating to the climate and non-renewable energy use. It is certainly true that conversations about these topics often reveal that there are many people who simply do not care about the welfare of individuals who will live, say, three or more generations down the line.  (This is the concept of “non-overlapping future people” illustrated on page 21.) The general nature of Fritsch’s indictment of presentism is compelling, and his concerns about intergeneration ethics are well warranted, but I think that it would be helpful if his idea of moral corruption (3) were given more explication, especially as many who participate in “presentist” practices (heavy dependence on fossil fuels by driving daily, for example) probably do so unreflectively or out of sense of perceived necessity.  Fritsch’ concept of moral corruption seems to imply a moral quality more active and malicious than this, though.  Instead, however, the indictment of moral corruption is given as just so.

Fritsch then argues that recently certain issues that are intergenerationally relevant, such as climate change, have come nearer to the center of public consciousness, and in doing so have made the topic of intergenerational justice more approachable. Notwithstanding these shifts in public approachability, he argues that there is still a prevailing – or at least a significant –  mythology of the temporally and historically isolated individual alive today, and he sets it as his task to debunk the myth of this kind of individualism in this book. In the introductory section he seems to come very close to claiming that those who hold to ideals such as individuality or autonomy, or perhaps even those who even believe that individuals exist at all, do not have the capacity to have care-filled relationship with contemporary or noncontemporary others. Surely it is the case that our identities are significantly extended through past and future, but it also seems that individuals are the kinds of being – and perhaps the only kinds of beings – that are capable of the capacity to care, be they a dog, a frog, or a friend. Crowds can’t care, only the individuals in them, at least if we are talking about the kind of care that can turn into moral corruption, not the kind of synergetic “care” that a superorganism (i.e. an ant colony or a coral reef) might be said to have for itself. But, to be clear, it seems that the idea of individuality that he is resisting is an idea of something like the liberal or the neo-liberal self, not an idea of selfhood like Heidegger’s authentic Dasein or Levinas’ other-constituted moral subject, and in the overarching scheme of this book this interpretation seems more sensible.  Indeed, later in the book Fritsch uses Heidegger’s “being-towards-death” as a stepping-stone (45/46) to get towards Levinas’ modified, intergenerationalized interpretation of self: being-for-beyond-my death (l’être-pour-au-delà-da-ma-mort). (67)  Upholding an intergenerational idea of self is critical to moving beyond a presentistic idea of self and, if Fritsch is right about presentism leading to moral corruption, then eschewing a presentistic idea of selfhood should lead us towards a better ontological alternative.  As the title of Chapter 1.4 states: “Ontological Problems Call for Ontological Approaches.”

To make the ontological adjustments that Fritsch argues that we need, the argument of the book turns towards an engagement with Levinas.  Fritsch specifically engages with the intersections of time, normativity, and sociality that can be found in Levinas’ thought.  Levinas offers a way of thinking about death, temporality, sociality, and normativity in a way that is helpful to Fritsch’ project of re-orienting IGJ. Fritsch seems to rely most heavily on Levinas’ thinking about temporality, and for good reason, because – as will soon be shown – this section adds strength to this book’s argument. Fritsch demonstrates that for Levinas death is not an isolating, individualizing event – as the existentialist pathos of Heidegger would have us believe – but that it is instead an inherently interpersonal, historical event.  Levinas agrees with Heidegger that meaning and agency depend of death, but contra Heidegger Levinas maintains that one’s own death is always inaccessible, and that it is only known in and through the experience of others.  For Levinas death is ever futural and never calculable; because of this, it is possible to psychically murder someone, but it is impossible to morally annihilate someone. (76)  Moral traces, vestiges, and memories of the moral other remain in a meaningful order beyond their physical death – even if the body is dead, there is no total annihilation of the other.

Levinas’ argument that a meaningful order exists beyond one’s death and his claim that death is a fundamentally interpersonal event, paired with Levinas’ assessment that our being is always already existing between the “immemorial past” and the infinite future, leads Fritsch towards his development of a model of ethical responsibility based upon Levinas’ idea of fecundity (fecondité).  Taking adequate precautions (86-91), Fritsch uses fecundity to argue that fecundity makes manifest the claim that relations with future people are not an afterthought but, instead, should be thought of as the exemplification of ethics in general. (88) It is the natal-mortal exposure to one’s child that both opens one up to a meaningful sense of time beyond one’s own life-span, but which also simultaneously hearkens back to the past, to previous generations – to those that gave birth to the parents, and the parents’ parents, and so on. At this nexus – in the fecund sense of time between birth and death – moral subjectivity emerges.  This fecund nexus demonstrates to us phenomenologically the kind of temporal being that we are, and also simultaneously infuses both the past and the future with ineluctable moral significance.

At this point, after having argued that we are the kinds of beings that exist as being-for-beyond-my-death and also always in relation to the past, Fritsch begins to turn the argument towards his reciprocity based model of IGJ, which is the first of the two models he proposes in this book.  Section 2.5 (“Intergenerational Reciprocities,” 91) introduces the language of reciprocity by stating: “If subjectivity can give birth to a fecund future only by owing to previous others, then its moral-ontological historicity can be captured by a Janus-faced form of reciprocity that refers both backward and forward.” Despite the wordiness of this passage – a regular trait in this book – the introduction of this concept is well-timed, and through its phenomenological descriptions this section does well to set up the normative argument for indirect reciprocity that Fritsch will soon move to.  But before doing this, and immediately after introducing the idea of reciprocity, Fritsch invokes Butler’s theory of cohabitation –  a theory which argues that Levinas’ distinction between my life and the lives of others is too strong – to gain support in order to help him begin his theory of indirect (or asymmetrical) reciprocity.  This interpretive reworking and clarification is needed because Levinas himself held a strongly negative view of the concept of reciprocity (92), and this caveat does well to demonstrate that Fritsch is well aware of the limitations of using Levinas to support his model  of reciprocity.

After introducing the basic idea of reciprocity in view of the ontological-normative claim that we exist fundamentally as past and future oriented (and constituted) beings, Fritsch expands the concept of reciprocity beyond its traditional mutualistic usage and argues that a tripartite understanding of reciprocity would better serve our ethical purposes.  That is, if we are to understand ourselves, ethically speaking, in terms of the concept of fecundity.  This tripartite usage of the concept of reciprocity a distinguishing factor that makes Fritsch’s model of indirect (asymmetrical) reciprocity distinctive. Indirect reciprocity is called “indirect” because the person that what I may owe is not limited exclusively to the person from whom I initially received something, but also to others. Traditional mutualistic ideas of reciprocity depend on the assumption that morally relevant parties will exist in a shared space of time and that the perspectives of morally relevant parties can be simply reversed.  They also depend upon the idea that the person who deserves reciprocity is the same person as the one who gave the first gift of exchange in the first place. However, Levinasian temporality and fecundity reveals this basic notion of reciprocity to be incomprehensive. Indirect reciprocity is a sense of reciprocity that cannot be distilled into a traditional form of simple, direct, presentist exchange, but instead extends beyond it. (94) This model of reciprocity calls for “giving back” to the future what is received from the past, even though the recipients of the gift are not the same as those who gave the gift in the first place.

Soon after these clarifications – and roughly halfway through the book – Fritsch introduces two major figures in the book: Derrida and Marcel Mauss.  Fritsch uses this middle portion to expound further on the idea of indirect reciprocity. He makes the case that because we are indebted to others from the past this should play a role in our giving to others in the future, even if the “gift” we give to future others is dramatically asymmetrical or altruistic.  Because of this second part, Fritsch argues that the notion of indirect reciprocity should be expanded into what he calls asymmetrical reciprocity. (107) Derrida’s critique of Levinas and The Gift by French sociologist Marcel Mauss figure heavily into this portion.

There are two critical elements to asymmetrical reciprocity that make it asymmetrical, and they form the bedrock of this distinctive way of thinking about IGJ. The traditional formulation of indirect reciprocity states that “(past) A gives to (present) B who ‘returns’ the gift to (future) C.” (108) Fritsch argues that this should be traditional formulation should be elaborated into asymmetrical reciprocity first because “if A’s gift is co-constitutive of B (i.e., is part of what allows B to be B), then B cannot ever fully repay the debt; full appropriation would amount to full self-annulment.  Thus, the gift remains inappropriable, excessive, and asymmetrical for B, who therefore must free herself from the debt in some way.” (108)  According to this argument one cannot fully repay a debt to the original donor without in some way substantially undermining or annulling their identity; the gift, and by extension the repayment, are inextricable from both the donor and the recipient. (Shades of the nonidentity problem appear here.)  The debt can only be repaid – in some way, shape, or form – to future others; other others than those who first gave the gift. The second element of asymmetrical reciprocity takes into consideration the excessive, overflowing characterr of this sort of debt.  Since this form of debt can never be fully returned to the original donor, this form of debt is always outstanding.  Thus, those in the present are always in the process of “giving back” to the future.  Thus, in this idea of continual future-oriented obligations constituting our normative being, we can see how this theory of asymmetrical reciprocity links up with Levinas’ of being as being-for-beyond-my-death.

Marcel Mauss is invoked in order to give a concrete sociocultural example of this sort of asymmetrical reciprocity standing at the center of a community’s ethos. Also Mauss is presumably used to suggest that since this sort of gift-receiving-and-giving can be witnessed in certain archaic cultures, then perhaps it can be used as a model of intergenerational relations for our modern world. In the cultures that Mauss studied the donor is not separable from the thing given, but also at the same time the donor is not taken to be the sole owner of the gift.  Instead the gift is understood to come from the clan, tribe, traditions, and ancestors. The recipient receives some of the donor’s spirit (in Maori hau or mana), and this spirit co-constitutes both donor and recipient. The obligation to reciprocate originates in the fact that in accepting the gift the recipient assimilates into themselves something that is fundamentally inassimilable (the mysterious elemental spirit of the gift), and thus it necessarily overflows them.  Because it overflows, it cannot but be passed on to future others, and in being passed on to the future it is in a sense returning to its own past.  This idea, as we can see, in many ways parallels the Levinasian structure of fecundity.  An ontological claim (that the gift itself is unassimilable) leads to a moral claim (that one should not try to make it theirs alone, but ought to pass it on.)  An example of this kind of gift would be food, for the food in one’s mouth – at least the kind of food that the cultures Mauss studies would eat – bespeaks the presence of ancestors; it would not come about without the gift inheritance of food-related gifts like tilled land, knowledge about farming, hunting, fishing, and so forth. (112) To account for the “return obligation,” that is, the obligation to pass the gift on, the gift is said to be imbued with an active spirit that wishes to return to its origin – to its clan, tribe, tradition, or ancestors. This model of socio-economy stands in marked contrast to the utility-maximizing agency that comprised the bedrock of Hobbes’ society, and indeed “the gift” offers an alternative model for the basis of the social contract.  For Mauss the foundation of society (at least in the one’s he reports on) is the gift that comes from the past and demands to be “returned” to future others.

Derrida is brought in to serve as a check on Mauss.  Derrida warns against Mauss’ “Rousseauist schema” which attempts to find an absolute bedrock of normativity in some far-off archaic origin.  Both Derrida and Mauss agree that there is an element of the “unpossessable” in the gift, but Derrida rejects Mauss’ foundationalism, and resists the idea that a singular normative origin can be found. Fritsch agrees that there is an issue with this sort of Rousseauism in Mauss – and that there is an issue in trying to identify a point of origin in normative life – but does not think it is sufficiently troublesome to motivate us to overlook the role that gifts play in intergenerational relations.  They allow us an opportunity to see a normativity that binds past generations to future generations, and thus are relevant to helping understand the nature of intergeneration normativity. Fritsch spends the rest of this chapter outlining more of Derrida’s thoughts about reciprocity and the gift, and defends his view against a variety of potential critiques.  He responds to the claim that asymmetrical reciprocity blurs the boundary between gift and exchange, and between private life and the world commerce, by suggesting (via Given Time) that this challenge – and challenges like this – presume the existence of utility-maximizing agents on the one hand, and the family one the other, whereas such a substantial distinction cannot be made.  (152).

The nuanced section on asymmetrical reciprocity nicely leads into the introduction of the second and final model of IGJ that Fritsch introduces: Turn-Taking.  While asymmetrical reciprocity is meant to show how the indebtedness to previous generations plays a role in our obligation to give to (and to care about the welfare of) future people, even if the gift is asymmetrical or altruistic, taking turns is meant to provide a model for intergenerational sharing of things that cannot be returned partially or incompletely.  That is, taking turns is concerned with holistic or quasi-holistic “objects” of sharing, such as the earth or nature.  Fritsch argues that there are three merits to the turn-taking model of IGJ. First, turn-taking demonstrates that there are ways other than the reciprocity of the gift that, normatively speaking, take into account the ontological presence of the dead and the unborn in our lives.  Secondly, turn-taking is better with respect to quasi-holistic and holistic object in a way that reciprocity is not, because reciprocity implies owing to the future an “equivalent among substitutables” and needs a “common metric to calculate such equivalents.” (155) Reciprocity is inadequate when discussing holistic objects such as the natural environment, the earth, or nature, because substitutability is not a principle that can easily applied to such totalizing entities. However, turn-taking can account for how to treat such holistic objects. Finally, taking turns better treats questions of intergenerational justice as inherently political questions. By citing Aristotle’s Politics Fritsch argues that this is so because a fundamental model of justice relies on the sharing of nonsubstitutable political offices. Turn-taking, Fritsch argues, is the model that free equals ought to take when attempting to share an object that is not divisible like a cake. (155) Fritsch notes this this basic idea of taking turns has received hardly any attention in the IGJ literature, and – in a very general way – this is surprising since this idea can be applied to a wide range of things, from political offices to the earth itself.  It is a model that provides a helpful way of thinking about IGJ in the context of holistic, indivisible, intergenerational objects, and for this reason it is a needed (and a very helpful) contribution to this book.

In a method not unlike that one found in the portion on asymmetrical reciprocity, which relied on the temporality of the “time of life and death” to reconceive of past-present-future obligations, in this chapter on turn-taking Fritsch invokes Derrida to deconstruct (“depresentify”) presentism, and to reconceptualize life as a matter of “lifedeath,” or even as “lifedeathbirth.” (161) This is meant to aid in understanding the ontologically connected, co-constitutive nature of the relation between living and nonliving generations.

After a few more forays through Derrida and Aristotle, Fritsch turns towards clarifying precisely what he means by turn-taking by laying out his model of “double turn-taking.” It has two components in its most general formulation: T1 and T2.  T1 is the turning of the self back towards itself over time.  “Given the noncoincidence of time, no identity is simply given.  Any self must, from the beginning, seek to return to itself, promising itself to its future self.” The second part of the turn is T2, which takes into account the differential contexts that the self passes through, but which are always constitutive of the self in the first place.  This is the turn toward the other: “To affirm oneself as oneself is to affirm the context without which one could not be what one is, and that means to welcome unconditionally the future to-come as an alterity within itself.” (167)  This two-step model of turn-taking can be applied specifically to intergenerational relations, but also to environment issues.  For the former, intergenerational relations, the attempted self-return would take place in and through birth from previous generations, and the turn towards the other takes place insofar as we turn towards the next generation.  For the latter, the environment, the attempted self-return takes place by the consumption of biospherical resources, and the turn towards the other is the turn towards the earth upon death and also through life’s continuous exchange with nature. (173)

In summary of this discussion of double turn-taking Fritsch says “saying yes to turn-taking means accepting that I receive power from previous others and will leave it to others.” (173)  In general the idea of turn-taking being an appropriate model for intergenerational sharing of holistic objects seems good and well-justified, however the level of theoretical detail and distinction-adding in this chapter seems unnecessary, and at times it seems to obfuscate the main point of turn-taking rather than clarifying it.

Final Comments

This general critique mentioned in the previous paragraph applies throughout this book.  In this book, as hopefully I have able to show in this review, there are many excellent, lucid, and compelling sections.  The early section on ontological problems in IGJ, the middle section on Levinas and fecundity, and the following section on Mauss and asymmetrical reciprocity were each particularly clear, well-argued, and engaging.  However, these rich and rewarding veins of thought are often buried beneath mounds of distinctions, caveats, and repetitions. Sometimes it gets hard to dig through, because the essential matter of the main argument is not always separated from additional theoretical matter. Moreover, the book tends to go on a bit longer than needed and to lose steam at the end. Chapter four – the section which introduces turn-taking as a model of IGJ – gives way to a chapter five.  This final chapter, while fascinating if standing on its own, seems primarily to turn around and rehash ideas previously covered in a way that is not terribly helpful to the overall experience of the book. This chapter concerns itself with life as lifedeath and the terrestrial claim over the corpse, both ideas which were previously covered. At this point I only have a few tiny, almost trifling critiques. First, there is a slight tendency to introduce very complex issues and then to simply say “I will not be able to discuss these interpretations here.” (115, for example) This leads to bit of expectation disappointment. Secondly, there is also a slight tendency to compile lists of “ists” and isms,” sometimes almost seemingly for its own sake. (212, for example.) This is certainly not a big deal, but just worth noting.

If the preponderance of critique that I offer about this book is in the form of writing critique, and anodyne critique at that, then that speaks to the strength of this book as a strong work philosophical scholarship.  Philosophically, I only suggested a concern about Fritsch’s use of “moral corruption” (which I mentioned in my 4th paragraph), and a concern about the idea of “self” that Fritsch is employing (which I mentioned in my 5th paragraph). This book is tremendously well-researched and takes pains to be sure that no theoretical stone goes unturned.  Appropriate sources are consulted at appropriate times, and the limitations of claims are clearly articulated.  More importantly, this book addresses a pressing ethical issue in our world today. What do we owe to future others, especially in view of our growing knowledge about climate issues?  If Fritsch is right, then we owe a lot, and certainly much more than many people take the time to consider that we do.  And we owe this to the future because of who, how, and, perhaps most importantly shown by this book, where we are.  Taking Turns With the Earth offers a vast reservoir of theoretical material to help us re-conceptualize the nature of our ontological and normative relation to both past and future noncontempories, and it demands that we pay attention to our status as interpersonal beings always living in the time of life and death. In doing so it calls for us to develop our ethical self-understanding, and this call is not just thrown out haphazardly.  Instead, this call is motivated and supported by astute philosophical argumentation.