“I Like When They Stay Standing Up”: Embodied Ethics, Part 1

 by Donovan Schaefer

Embodied ethics is a heading to explore case studies in which the traditional liberal view of ethics as a set of choices made by rational, autonomous agents seems to be blurred or disrupted.  Furthermore, embodied ethics may propose that approaches that view individual ethical decisions entirely in terms of politicized discursive regimes also miss the intransigent ingredients of embodied ethical life.  In short, embodied ethics as an archive of ethical practices allows us to begin to think through primatologist Frans de Waal’s assertion, in Good Natured (1996), that

Conscience is not some disembodied concept that can be understood only on the basis of culture and religion.  Morality is as firmly grounded in reality as anything else we do or are. (217)

Although “reality” is not the right word, what de Waal points to is a way of understanding ethics as prior to human culture, as etched–however fungibly, incompletely, or illegibly–in bodies even prior to language.  Embodied ethics considers the resilience and the complexity of these pre-linguistic ethical shapes.

A recently posted YouTube clip (initially posted in Portuguese in mid-May, now widely available with English subtitles) shows a Brazilian toddler, Luiz, having a discussion with his mother about the ethics of eating octopus and other animals.  The boy seems to be about 2, and sometimes struggles to articulate an ethical stance using the strange tools of language.  In spite of this, he nonetheless offers an eloquent and–more importantly–compelling case for refraining from meat-eating.  The specific content of his ethical practice aside, three moments from this short interview strike me as valuable for thinking embodied ethics.

1) Luiz states his ethical preference in terms of an affect, a felt sense of a relationship between bodies: “I like when they stay standing up.” This aestheticization of an affective relationship is underscored towards the end of the clip, when Luiz asks his mother “Did I do something beautiful?”  Rather than an orientation to ethical decision-making as a rational or bloodless calculation of right and wrong, Luiz anchors his ethical position in an affective orientation: this is what feels right.  Luiz’s verbal explanation of his ethical stance, then, seems to be post facto: he is talking about something he felt before he had occasion to render it in language.

2) Luiz lives in a household and a culture where it is expected that he will eat meat (including seafood).  The discursive coordinates of his world do not even permit the possibility of a choice between eating or not-eating meat: it is both stated and presumed that consuming meat is expected of him, as shown in his mother’s gentle prodding of him to finish his octopus dish.  Where, then, does his moment of ethical resistance (however short-lived it may be–perhaps he was back on octopus the next day) come from?  Approaches to ethics that understand it entirely in terms of discursive formations overlook the materiality of the body, the body’s own incipient understandings of relationships between itself and other bodies.  This is why de Waal writes in The Age of Empathy (2009) that “[o]ur bodies and minds are made for social life.” (de Waal: 2009, 10)

3) The most striking feature of the clip is the moment where Luiz’s mother starts to cry, first heard in her snuffles on the soundtrack, then pointed to by Luiz himself.  I don’t have an explanation for why this happens, but my guess is that it has something to do with the reverberation of affect between the two bodies sitting at the table.  His body and the affective circuit he produces by articulating a new ethical relationship–a new practice of compassion–transmits other affects to his mother and to viewers, causing his mother to cry and the video to go viral on global media networks.  Luiz tentatively asks if he has “done something beautiful.”  What would it mean for thinking embodied ethics to agree that he has?

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2 Responses to “I Like When They Stay Standing Up”: Embodied Ethics, Part 1

  1. Craig Prentiss says:

    This is an interesting line of study, and I’m glad “Religion Bulletin” posted it. But I would use caution with one of the assertions made here: “The discursive coordinates of his [the boy's] world do not even permit the possibility of a choice between eating or not-eating meat: it is both stated and presumed that consuming meat is expected of him, as shown in his mother’s gentle prodding of him to finish his octopus dish. ”

    This statement suggests that vegetarianism or veganism is foreign to Brazilian culture. It is not. It also suggests that while his mother assumes meat as an option, the child could not have been exposed to others who assert their choice to not eat meat publicly. While not as prevalent as in the United States, vegetarian restaurants that advertise themselves as such exist in most major Brazilian cities, and there is an active and vocal vegetarian community in Brazil. The possibility that this child was exposed to the option of not eating meat by a cousin, the family of a playmate, or even on television cannot be discounted. The involvement of Brazilians in the ecological movement is quite prominent, as their territory has become ground zero for many environmental debates. Moreover, at one point the child seems to break into song as he lists “os animais,” and incorporates cows, chickens, and other animals into the lyrics. Such a song might be sung at a daycare or taught by a nanny. It’s not possible to know based on the video alone.

    I don’t want to suggest that such spontaneous “embodied ethics” is an impossibility. I’m not an ethicist nor am I familiar enough with the field to make any intelligent claims about it. I merely want to suggest that the author’s claim that the “discursive coordinates of his world do not even permit the possibility” of taking such an ethical stance is an assumption based upon limited knowledge of the child’s “world,” and may reflect a lack of knowledge about Brazilian culture.

    • Donovan Schaefer says:

      Craig, thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify. I didn’t mean to make a blanket statement about veg*an movements in Brazil, only to say that from what the video shows us, Luiz is being raised in a meat-eating household in a predominantly meat-eating culture. You are absolutely correct that he may have been exposed to other ideas elsewhere. That possibility raises the equally interesting question of how “hegemonic” discourses are resisted by children’s bodies who may come to prefer marginalized discourses.

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