Hyper-Instrumentalism

A first set of cognitions, practices, and social systems that express anthropocentrism is “strong instrumentalism.” Before describing that particular experience, we must first define the root phenomenon: “instrumentalism.” As the word suggests, instrumentalism refers to those acts where an entity (e.g., a creature, object, environment) is used by another entity (human or otherwise - I return to this point shortly) as an instrument or means to achieve an end. We humans use various entities in order to realize our needs and wants. For instance, fruit is instrumentalized as food; oil is employed to fuel cars and other machinery; beaches are utilized for sun-tanning; and so on. It should also be noted that instrumentalism is not a strictly human experience: other creatures also instrumentalize various objects. For instance, capuchin monkeys use stones to crack open nuts in order to eat the contents (Ottoni and Izar 2008): the monkeys utilize the stones as shell-breaking tools so that they can access the food inside the nuts. Hence, instrumentalism is a normal aspect of existence: entities are required to instrumentalize other things in order to survive and thrive. There’s therefore nothing abnormal about the practice of instrumentalizing as such (Leopold 1989: viii; Worster 1980: 46; McLaughlin 1993: 97; Manolopoulos 2009: 170-171).

However, as the prefix “hyper-” makes clear, hyper-instrumentalism refers to the set of phenomena where there is excessive instrumentalization (Worster 1980: 46). This occurs when objects are constantly, exclusively and/or overwhelmingly used as mere means for our ends. Entities are strictly or fundamentally reduced to their instrumental dimension. Things are construed as instruments - and nothing/not much else. Hyper-instrumentalism is either ignorant or intentionally dismissive of their being ends-in-themselves; it completely/fundamentally disregards the noninstrumental dimensions of entities (the question of the ways in which entities may be construed beyond their instrumentality is broached in the next chapter). What results is an intensive, unrestricted, eco-destructive instrumentalism, i.e., hyper-instrumentalism.

As part of our investigation into this attitude-practice, we draw on Plumwood’s pioneering work in this regard, given that it’s an abiding concern for her (e.g., 1991, 1993, 2002). First of all, we note how Plumwood rightly insists on the distinction between moderate instrumentalism and what she calls “intensified” or “strong instrumentalism” (which are synonymous with “hyper-instrumentalism”) (1993: 141, 142): “We must distinguish instrumentalism in this strong sense from the sort of use of the other which does not reduce that other to an instrument for use” (1993: 142). We note how Plumwood could be more nuanced here by inserting a qualifying term like “totally” or “completely” after the ‘not’ as confirmation that some use is completely acceptable.

Furthermore, while Plumwood distinguishes between stronger and weaker forms of instrumentalism, she doesn’t consistently stick to the distinction (at least not explicitly): whenever she refers to “instrumentalism,” it almost always refers to the totalizing variety. In the present work, I constantly signify the distinction. In order to avoid excessive repetition, I use the terms “hyper-instrumentalism” and “strong instrumentalism,” and I also occasionally employ the well-known analogue “objectification,” which is also employed as a synonym by several authors (e.g., Plumwood 1993: 53; Nhanenge 2011: 113; Soppelsa 2011: 45). Accordingly, when citing Plumwood’s work, I insert the prefix “hyper-” whenever she refers to instrumentalism in the strong sense, in order to clarify that the term is being used in this sense.

How, then, do we treat the non-human hyper-instrumentally? Let’s consider the way we tend to treat “inanimate” manufactured objects like utensils for eating: in our everydayness, we typically reduce forks and knives as mere utensils and use them in this capacity. Our strong instrumentalism disallows us from considering them in any other way; we rarely (if ever) consider their noninstrumental dimensions (this point is elaborated in the next chapter). And this thoroughgoing or complete reduction of a thing to its instrumental dimension is correlated with our anthropocentrism: when we consider ourselves different, separate, and superior to the non-human other, the “inferior” object is denied any noninstrumental aspects; it is objectified, a mere object of use, and thus often misused and abused. One could respond that it’s very difficult to consider kitchen utensils as anything other than cutlery, as mere instruments to be used as means to human ends (eating) - but this difficulty arises precisely because our human-centered hyper-instrumentalism thoroughly/completely reduces these things to the status of utensils; there is little/no remainder.

Of course, our hyper-instrumentalism is not only merely reserved for “inanimate” everyday artifacts but also applies to other creatures. (Humans also strongly instrumentalize other humans - the extreme case is slavery - but our focus here is on the totalizing objectification of the non-human other.) Once again, we draw an example associated with eating: note how we typically tend to construe non-human animals when it comes to sustenance. In strongly anthropocentric societies, certain animals we consume are thoroughly/completely instrumentalized as food. Cows, chicken, fish, etc., are often basically reduced to the status of the edible. We pay little attention to the fact that these beings are not strictly food-for-humans but are also - and first of all - things-in-themselves. Their reduction to the level of the edible authorizes all kinds of animal abuse, from factory farming (Harrison 1964; Johnson 1991) to cruel live export practices (Coghlan 2014).

The following remark by Plumwood also reminds us that we do not just hyper-instrumentalize individual objects but also groups of entities, including whole environments and indeed the Earth itself: “The natural world and the biosphere have been treated as a dump, as forming the unconsidered, [hyper-Jinstrumentalised and unimportant background to ‘civilised’ human life” (1993: 69). Elsewhere, Plumwood observes how nature is “a mere thing for human use” (1993: 110). Our hyper-instrumental attunement to the natural world testifies to our collective status as “master”: “The treatment of nature as no more than a resource for human ends . . . presents the class of humans as master” (1993: 147). Plumwood also cites the words of feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye in this regard, whereby we survey “everything that is as a resource for man’s exploitation. With this world-view, men see with arrogant eyes which organise everything seen with reference to themselves and their own interests” (Frye 1983: 67 cited in Plumwood 1993: 145; one could rightly note here that Frye uses gender-exclusive language - referring only to males -though one would also need to take into account the degree to which males have misled the Earth). Plumwood’s conclusion is hyperbolic but basically true: “the world is not only conceived instrumentally, but completely [or almost completely] instrumentalised” (1993: 193).

Furthermore, Plumwood draws our attention to the fact that hyperinstrumentalism is not just practiced by human individuals and groups but also by our systems of organization and power. Plumwood notes how capitalism was to “turn nature into a market commodity and resource without significant moral or social constraint” (1993: 111). While we would obviously qualify this statement by noting that capitalism neither created hyper-instrumentalism nor solely facilitates it, we confirm with the likes of White and Plumwood that key social structures or “mega-situations” like our dominant economic and political systems foster and intensify the hyper-instrumentalization of the non-human other (a point further articulated as we proceed). The fact that objectification occurs at personal and communal levels is unsurprising: where human chauvinism reigns, it pervades the individual, the collective, and the social.

 
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