Metaphysical Responsibility

13 April 2010


The scattered objects of OOO each separately command respect for their individual integrity.

Metaphysical Responsibility: An Ethics of Object Oriented Ontology

A couple of days ago in Back to shop class! I wrote about Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, suggesting that, despite Crawford’s eclectic use of contemporary philosophical concepts, and his equally eclectic philosophical targets, there emerges from his exposition an implicit affinity with contemporary Object Oriented Ontology (OOO).

Now that I am going through the book again I am reminded that Crawford introduces the term “metaphysical responsibility,” which he explicitly contrasts to his fiduciary responsibility. The specific context of the exposition of metaphysical responsibility comes in his discussion of motorcycle repair. His metaphysical responsibility is characterized as being to the motorcycle itself, while his fiduciary responsibility is the owner of the motorcycle, who may have a financial interest in not having the motorcycle repaired to perfection if it can be brought to a reasonable state of repair by way of significantly less involved, and therefore less expensive, technical intervention.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, rationalist philosopher, big hair aficionado, and ancestor to OOO by way of his Monadology.

I don’t know if Crawford coined “metaphysical responsibility,” but the term is new to me, and I will assume for the moment that he did coin it. The term reminds me of Leibniz’s tripartite division of evil into metaphysical evil, moral evil, and physical evil. In his Essays on the Justice of God and the Freedom of Man in the Origin of Evil (section 21), Leibniz wrote:

“Evil may be taken metaphysically, physically, and morally. Metaphysical evil consists in mere imperfection, physical evil in suffering, and moral evil in sin. Now although physical evil and moral evil be not necessary, it is enough that by virtue of the eternal verities they be possible.”

In other words, a metaphysical evil is an evil (possibly a finitude, limitation, or imperfection) inherent in the very nature of things. Leibniz implies in the above that it is also necessary. In parallel to this, I assume that metaphysical responsibility is a responsibility we have to the things themselves — to all things, regardless of provenance or destiny, sentient or insentient, conscious or unconscious — that is inherent in these same things themselves, and if it is also necessary, it defines our unavoidable responsibility to all things in the world. Metaphysical responsibility places us in a relationship of obligation to the integrity of things, accepting that all things have a unique kind of integrity and that this integrity is to be respected by us.

'Monads have no windows, through which anything could come in or go out. Accidents cannot separate themselves from substances nor go about outside of them, as the 'sensible species' of the Scholastics used to do. Thus neither substance nor accident can come into a Monad from outside.' Leibniz, Monadology, section 7

It is interesting to invoke Leibniz in this context, as the famous ontology of Leibniz consisting of windowless monads that reflect each other but which have no internal relations to other monads, existing instead in a pre-established harmony with each other, among classical philosophical ontologies resembles more than most the metaphysics of OOO, which has been described as a democracy of objects. If we take Leibniz’s windowless monads without Leibniz’s theology (which was, admittedly, central to Leibniz), depriving it of its pre-established harmony, we have the primitive ancestor to, and perhaps the archaeology of, OOO.

So once again I find myself, in my consideration of Crawford’s argument for the value and dignity of the manual trades, what he sometimes calls manual competence, driven to compare his approach to that of OOO. If OOO has an axiology parallel to and emergent from its ontology, that axiology could be described as metaphysical responsibility as Crawford portrays that virtue.

Moreover, metaphysical responsibility as I have attempted to characterize it above — an obligation to the integrity of things, accepting that all things have a unique kind of integrity and that this integrity is to be respected by us — has obvious affinities with contemporary environmental ethics. Environmentalism addresses itself to the integrity of ecological systems independent of human interest, action, or intervention. If we take this sense of integrity in the abstract, and through generalization extend it to all things, we arrive at an axiology adequate to OOO — that is to say, we arrive at metaphysical responsibility.

Whereas Crawford approaches metaphysical responsibility from the perspective of the built world, the constructed world, the world of implements, artifacts, and constructions, environmentalism approaches metaphysical responsibility from the perspective of the natural world, the non-human world, the world independent of man’s intervention in things. Whether we extend Crawford’s sense to the natural world, or the environmentalist’s sense to the human world, we arrive at much the same thing. Many of Crawford’s discussions of fixing mechanical artifacts, and the peculiar situation of the person who attempts to repair what he has not made, apply, mutatis mutandis, to the restoration of damaged ecosystems and the rescue of endangered species.

Once again, as I pointed out in Back to shop class!, this demonstrates the timeliness of OOO: either it answers to, is a response to, or is involved with, deeply felt features of the world today. Both environmentalism and OOO are expressions of contemporary modes of thought, and may perhaps be authentic forms of thought that emerge from mature industrialized societies. It is an axiology uniquely suited to a society in which hierarchy and privilege are declining, ceding their formerly privileged place to democracy and egalitarianism. This is, in short, Object Oriented Axiology: OOA.

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One Response to “Metaphysical Responsibility”

  1. […] 14, 2010 GRAND STRATEGY takes a first stab at it, in a manner reminiscent of Lingis’s The […]

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