Relational Ethics

Hello again folks,

Today I want to expand more on many of the points I raised in the first part of this series here. I want to dig deeper into the nature of interpersonal relationships, and the very real and practical applications of how this shapes our lies.

In the first part of this series, I spent a fair amount of time on the idea of the Cosmic Web, and talking about cosmology in a very wide sense. For this piece, I really want to bring this down to a much more personal level.

Animism as I envision it is all about (re)shaping, (re)building, and maintaining relationships, between each other and in the grand Cosmic Web of things. We exist in a deeply interconnected and integrated reality, with filaments of relationships connecting all things and all people together.

Some people might take this to mean that we should take invest our time in creating as many relationships as possible, weaving people together like we collect “friends” on Facebook or like collecting all the Pokemon.

In short, an emphasis of quantity over quality. This is certainly one way to approach relationships, sure, but I would also be inclined to say this is somewhat of a shallow view. In relationships, it is not just about the number, but about the meaning and quality of each relationships as well. Let’s dig a little deeper into that.

Have you every heard of Dunbar’s number? Here is a brief rundown from Wikipedia;

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships. Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar” “

Now, there is a lot of variability within Dunbar’s Number, and generally varies from abut 100 – 250, of which 150 is simply a median value. However, the real point here is that there are very real limits on the number of meaningful quality relationships any one human can make. This is because relationships take investments of both time and energy, and both come in finite amounts.

The real limits of my own life are the amount of time and energy I have to devote to the things that create meaning in my life.

I refer to this as personal bandwidth. Bandwidth defined here simple as the “energy or mental capacity required to deal with a situation.” It has more specific connotations for electronics and computing, but since we are talking about social relationships, a wide definition will suffice.

Allow me to explain in a slightly different way. I tend to imagine relationships as light filaments, little flexible strands that connect one thing to another. The cosmos is full of these webs, but it is to consider that the respective “strength” of each filament can vary a great deal. In essence, the quality of a relationship can vary.

For example, as I have stated before we are literally connected to everything else on this planet. Those filaments go out to ever rock, every tree, and every creature that shares this planet with us. That being said, those filaments vary a great deal. Our connections with most things are not of great strength, and my be visualized as tiny like filaments analogous to something like dental floss. Not a lot of our energy is devoted to these connections, and they can be conceived as automatic and passive. We don’t have to devote much of our personal bandwidth to maintaining these.

For quantity reasons, we can maintain a countless number of these “small” connections, because they don’t really take any of our energy to maintain. But, they lack a lot of substance, depth, and real influence in our lives.

Consider this is contrast to say a lover or life partner. Those filaments are by no measure simple strands of dental floss. The relationship built up between my wife and I is more like a cable, shaped by both of us by layers upon layers of filaments; our memories, our stories, our life together. To maintain such a relationships takes quite a bit of my time and energy. Given my personal bandwidth, I really can only cultivate one such relationship. I also have several close friendships, and while not of the same “strength” as that with my wife, they are still of good quality and require time and bandwidth to maintain.

In short, it is a balancing act. You can have a lot of “weaker” connections, or a small number of “stronger” ones. The exact number and form of each persons networks varies. Speaking widely, introverts (such as myself) may have a tendency to cultivate a lower number (maybe 100) of “strong” relationships, whereas extroverts might cultivate a greater number (maybe 250) of “weaker” connections. Neither of these are superior or inferior to the other, but merely serve to illustrate the variety that can be present in the “web”.

Now, there are a few things I would like you to consider before I move one to the next part of this topic. First, I want you to consider what this looks like when you realize that each of the connections in my network have networks, and that gets intense really really quickly.

In addition, in an animistic worldview, non-human persons are included in this network as well. Ancestors, nature spirits, and even gods too. Personally, I suspect that gods (part of what makes them gods) have a much greater bandwidth than humans, but that may be a topic for another time.

(Image from Here. I am in there somewhere.. Maybe. )

As such, some people may form a really intense relationship with a single god, others may not. Some may form fairly close relationships with several gods, others might not. Some might not create relationships with gods at all, and instead cultivate really deep relationships with their ancestors or with local spirits. In my opinion, none of these are superior to the others, but simply different means of shaping relationships.

Therefore, that leaves us with our first real point of this post; That we are limited in the quality and quantity of relationships we can build. Remember that, as it will be important at the end of this piece.

The next part of the our relationships that we really need to consider is how closely things are integrated and interwoven. Just like thread, our connections can be more or less tightly woven together. You might be wondering why this matters at all?

The reason I think this matters, in addition to the quality of each relationship, is in the ideas of emergence and inter-connectivity. For example, I want you to look at the graphic I just posted above. Look at the edges of the graphic and compare them to the center. The edges are very weakly integrated; as each point has few connections, and there is a greater distance between each connection. The center by comparison is much more tightly integrated. This matters because of the collective potential of the network is vastly different. When the network is more tightly integrated, the collective potential is much higher. To put this another way, a community of humans can do more than any individual human can alone. The community would have greater resources, greater knowledge and collective intelligence, and greater raw labor capacity than any person on their own.

And community is at the real heart of what I am talking about here. The difference between a community and a loosely connected group of people. Community implies commons bonds, shared ideas, or at least a common cause. Even a network of solidarity has more potential than a few isolated individuals.

I learned this lesson through several years, mostly from ants. That’s right, the little colony builders that are always under our feet. Alone, an individual ant can’t do very much. They are isolated, and are easy prey for predators. This changes rapidly as colonies grow. Now the colony has the ability to collective organize food production, as well as defense of the other.

This means that animism as I practice it is a collective philosophy. It asks us to consider not only the quality of our relationships, but our relationships with our communities as well. It asks us to make connections with our neighbors, and with our environments too.

Therefore, the real take away of integration and interconnection is this; In building meaningful relationships, how we connect and network with other people (human and non-human) matters.

When we combine this idea with the one above (the one I asked you to remember), we starts to see some ethical tenets that animism asks of us;

1) That we are limited in the quality and quantity of relationships we can build.

2) In building meaningful relationships, how we connect and network with other people (human and non-human) matters.

What follows from these two ideas is that we need to be both mindful of our limits, as well as how we connect to others. It also implies that we are stronger together than we are alone. As individuals, we can only do so much, but as groups we have much more potential. That is why communities and networks are so important.

I may be limited in the number of connections I can make as an individual, but together we are more. Say I can only maintain 150 people, as Dunbar states above. All alone, that means I can only cultivate so many meaningful relationships. However, I am not an island. Suppose that those 150 people have a 150 relationships of their own.

150 x 150 is 22,500 potential relationships.

Now consider there are some 7.5 billion humans on this planet, and billions of billions of species and ecosystems we are interacting with everyday.

What kind of relationships are we creating?

Thanks for reading!


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