Malcolm's Reviews > Chaos Ethics

Chaos Ethics by Chris Bateman
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Jul 21, 2017

really liked it
bookshelves: philosophy

I have an awful lot of respect for people who can sustain coherent and consistent book length philosophical arguments (on a good day I can manage an essay of no longer than 10 pages), and several volumes leaves me doffing my cap…. especially, as Bateman does, that author sets out to explore new(ish) areas; in this case, a philosophy of the imagination (note, not of THE imagination, but of imagination). Chaos Ethics is the final book in a trilogy of works ontology ( Imaginary Games ), epistemology ( The Mythology of Evolution ) and ethics, although I have not read them in the ‘right’ order and The Mythology of Evolution is still in the to-read pile. I really liked Imaginary Games, it linked in with a whole bunch of other work I do (and I am, in my middle age, beginning to realise that I do ontology & epistemology better than I do ethics: it’s good to finally find a philosophical patch.

Chaos Ethics, as with Bateman’s other work, packs in some big ideas in an eminently readable and engaging manner, managing to avoid much of the technical language of ethics that often scares readers away and grounding many of points in of-the-moment ethical and political debates and issues. He is also delightfully open about his ecumenical outlook that allows him to draw on a diverse set of influences, and in doing so I found myself drawn into his analysis in a way that closely read and argued ethics seldom does (for me, at least).

As a field, ethics is usually broken down into three major forms – outcome ethics (think, utilitarianism), what Bateman calls ‘duty’ ethics (think, deonotology) and agent-centred ethics (think virtue ethics). While this approach is a meaningful and accurate classification of several thousand years of writing about ethics, for the purposes of this case and for an ethics of imagination (after all, he is building a philosophy of imagination) Bateman proposes a binary distinction – between Law Ethics and Chaos Ethics, which broadly but not fully align with outcome and duty on the one hand and agent-centred on the other.

This lack of ‘full alignment’ is essential to get a hold of the overall project, in that although drawing n and developing a case for Chaos Ethics, Bateman builds much of his analysis on Kantian approaches – widely seen as providing the foundational statement of deontological approaches (although to suggest that there is a single Kantian outlook would induce the wrath of nearly reader of philosophy!). Where he differs from the usual Kantian approach, however, is in his attitude to universalism – which he rejects.

This rejection of one of three of Kant’s basic premises/laws leaves Bateman in a challenging space given the usual tripartite modelling of ethics (above) but in his binary distinction between Law & Chaos (developed, delightfully, from the world-building in Michael Moorcock’s science fiction novels) allows Bateman to reject universalism in favour of a multiverse, the idea of ‘many-in-one’, but unlike Moorcock’s Million Spheres through which his homeless travellers may move, for Bateman the nomads of Chaos Ethics are grounded in one of the spheres, and therefore at home somewhere.

So far, this risks sounding like a case for relativism and liberal notions of ‘tolerance’, but for one profound aspect: Bateman forcefully rejects the intolerance at the heart of tolerance. That is to say, he rejects the notion that relativism/tolerance presupposes that ‘while I may ‘tolerate’ all those other views, I know that they are wrong because to admit the rightness of any view other than mine is to admit the wrongness of my views’. Bateman’s critique of ‘intolerant tolerance’ is compelling, and leads him to a nuanced argument in favour of a balance between Law and Chaos Ethics, a balance that rejects the absolutism of religious faith and scientific fact and the notion that politics is war by another means.

Although I am more comfortable with the ontological work in Imaginary Games the links between the two cases are clear in the notions of dialogue and of balance, in the idea that understanding imagination is essential to making sense of any contemporary approaches to philosophy and in turn making sense of the world within which we struggle to make sense of whatever it is that is happening. In rejecting Kant’s universalism, Bateman keeps hold of his other two principles – treating people as ends, not means, and treating all agents as rational – but modifies the second in the light of his rejection of the distinctiveness of humans as somehow above or beyond ecological systems and as somehow differently ‘rational’. This allows him make a case for an inclusive ethics that locates humans in our environmental and ecological contexts.

There is, therefore, a Law in Bateman’s Chaos, but one that requires continual monitoring and modification in the light of its wider engagements, and one that is agent centred, not determined by duty or outcomes, so one that we continue to manage and modify in the light of the goal of a balance between Law & Chaos. It is a rich and complex (but far from obfuscatory) argument, accessible to those of us whose grounding in ethics is less secure than other modes of philosophical thinking, and written with non-specialists in mind. Bateman’s background in games design serves him well here: he does big concepts well – and while some sections are challenging (I really struggle which cases about rights and wrongs, for instance) the case is clear and lucidly made.
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