Key philosophical concepts

Sustainability from Two Sides

The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them. This episode explores various philosophical ideas and their implications for how we think about and practice sustainability.

We often think of things in terms of a binary or a dichotomy: black and white, right and wrong, left and right. Binary thinking often puts two ideas in opposition or competition with one another. In a situation where one idea’s success comes at the other, we often call it a zero-sum game. Two ideas that are argued to be incompatible (such as it being either daytime or night-time) are mutually exclusive.

These ways of thinking are often at odds with the kind of broader approach we’re taking in this project, as we try to incorporate multiple perspectives at once. The discipline of informal logic, a field within philosophy, has developed a list of what it calls logical fallacies – common argumentative mistakes that people make. One of them, relevant to these ideas, is that of the false dichotomy, which argues that some things should not be compared in a binary way. For example, comparing only two options out of ten and pretending they are the only two? That is an example of a false dichotomy. Once you become aware of this type of thinking, you begin to see it everywhere.

Illustrating this are a few examples of common and relevant binaries within sustainability practice, and theory, some of which often spawn false dichotomies in the way we talk and think.

Objectivity vs. Subjectivity

Like the difference between rationality and empiricism, the difference between objectivity and subjectivity relates to knowledge; specifically, to our levels of certainty. Subjective experience refers to our personal perspectives, lived experiences, emotions, opinions, biases, and internal thought processes. By contrast, objective experience (especially in the sciences) aims to eliminate that “human” element of observation, and through that, arrive at “hard facts”.

As an example, consider the relatively straightforward task of measuring a tree’s height. Using scientific instruments, we can obtain what we could consider the objectively-knowable height of the tree. Contrast this with asking someone how happy they are. That is a far more subjective question, more difficult to know with the same level of certainty as the height of a tree.

When it comes to sustainability, we typically prioritize objective knowledge: the information science and other experts give us, over subjective knowledge: the stories, feelings, and emotions of individuals and groups. This bias can lead to negative outcomes because a great deal of valuable knowledge is subjective. Indigenous stories and culture are intrinsically related to lived, deeply personal experiences. The fears and anxieties of a society, even though they can be represented by proxy statistics like a Consumer Confidence Index and reflected in our cultures, still don’t fully capture the totality of subjective knowledge.

In our studies here at university, we are pushed towards the scientific and academic model of knowledge; the peer-review and journal publication process, held aloft as a paragon of objectivity. What is telling is that in this increasing age of neoliberal, corporatized universities, we are seeing the truth motive of academic publishing replaced by the profit motive[1]. Objectivity and the relative value of academic knowledge is being eroded here as it is elsewhere (the “post-truth era” being a good example).

The implication is that objectivity is an idea that can be called into question: to what extent is academic knowledge worthy of the attention and support it receives? How do other factors such as the profit motive and commoditization of academic knowledge affect its value?

Even empirical observation can be “tainted” by subjectivity. To return to the example of the tree height measurement, we face the issue of measurement error, a human-induced (subjective) influence on what was supposedly definitive (objective) observation. In science, reducing measurement error often means doing as much as possible to eliminate human mistakes and biases.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Dovetailing from the concept of objective and subjective, are the ideas of qualitative and quantitative knowledge.

Quantitative information is something we can put a number (a quantity) to. The height of a tree is quantitative data. How that tree makes me feel when I look at it, that is qualitative. Measuring the two requires different approaches.

These concepts match with ideas of subjectivity and objectivity. Quantitative data is typically objective, and empirical. Qualitative data is typically subjective and rational (or emotional). This binary between what we feel and what we see again drives much of our thought about sustainability. Just as we bias objective knowledge, we often bias the quantitative – numbers, statistics, and “what we can all see”.

The potential implications here for sustainability are considerable: how much important knowledge is de-prioritized because it is qualitative?

Arts vs. STEM

The war between Arts and Humanities, and their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) counterparts exemplifies the culmination of these previously mentioned ideas. STEM is the domain of objective and quantitative knowledge, whereas Arts and Humanities embody the subjective and qualitative. Separating the two like this, however, is an example of what I consider a dangerously stupid false dichotomy:

When it comes to sustainability, it becomes hard to disentangle the cultural from the ecological, or as the Ancient Greeks framed it, the scientific from the artistic. They really are two sides of the same coin. When looking at future challenges and opportunities for our species, potentially any discipline is relevant. One key challenge therefore lies in finding as many ideas as possible, and then prioritising them. Under this kind of approach, you become far more hesitant to disregard contributions, regardless of the discipline they originate from.[2]

[1] Gill, R. (2009). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In R. Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.

[2] Blood, N. (2018, August 8). Art vs science: A facile and dangerous debate. Et Cetera.