Shane Epting on the Philosophy of Cities
20 minutes read - 4083 words
Shane Epting is an assistant professor of philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. His research focuses on sustainability, transportation, environmental justice and urban futures. In this interview, we discuss the philosophy and future of cities, and why ecocentric ethics are fundamentally flawed.
Dr. Shane Epting, welcome to Daily Philosophy and thank you for agreeing to this interview! I am very happy and honoured to have you here. It seems that you are the rare case of a philosopher who has written nothing but fascinating papers and books. As opposed to much of present-day analytic philosophy, your topics are always eminently practical and of immediate relevance to life. What are your views on this? Is academic philosophy missing out a bit on opportunities to engage more with the pressing problems of society today?
I love philosophy, all kinds. When I think about some of the “great works” in the discipline, they remain accessible. I do my best to embrace this quality. I think I get it right sometimes while failing in other instances. Progress, not perfection, as my friends say.
I love philosophy, all kinds. When I think about some of the “great works” in the discipline, they remain accessible.
Getting more to your point, I don’t want to tell anyone else how to do philosophy or think. I have a penchant for works that cut from the abstract to the concrete. I recently argued that the academy needs a new kind of philosophy that participates in interdisciplinary conversations. Several contemporary philosophers' works are inherently philosophical while remaining connected to the academy. Grant Silva’s article “Racism as Self-love” is an excellent example. Such papers offer insights into real-world situations, revealing the extraordinary in the ordinary. One way to usher in an age of new philosophy is to encourage people to be their own philosophers. I’m not saying to ignore the canon or relevant works. Dare to use your understanding of philosophy to reflect your personality and genuine interests.
For instance, when working on my Ph.D., my vehicle went kaput. I walked over a mile and rode two buses and a train to get to my university. During my first academic job, I waited in the blistering Mojave Desert sun to catch a bus enough times to burn the experience into my memory for life. These lessons guide my research. While I cannot (and do not) speak for others with harsher conditions compounded by racism, classism, sexism, and ableism, I’ve positioned my work to speak against the conditions that perpetuate such harm in general (among other kinds). These points are evident in my first book, The Morality of Urban Mobility: Technology and Philosophy of the City.
Let’s now talk about how that book that summarises much of your recent research: The Morality of Urban Mobility. I see a number of interesting discussion points in this book. The main idea seems to be that city and transportation planning should be guided by a kind of “moral ordering” of interests, where all interests are taken into account: those of the regular citizens, those of particular disadvantaged groups, and also those of non-human entities and nature. When we talk about moral ordering, the first question that comes to mind is, who is going to do the ordering? According to what criteria shall we order the importance of these different, and often conflicting interest groups?
There are several ways to think about moral ordering. One way is to see it as an extension of moral extensionism in environmental ethics. For example, environmental ethics addresses issues between humans and nonhumans. When dealing with cities, there are multiple stakeholders (or groups that hold the place as stakeholders, which requires much more fleshing out than I can do in an interview). They include marginalized people, vulnerable populations, the public (including the former groups!), the nonhuman world, (our idea of) possible future generations, and urban artifacts. For some situations in urban environments, a sophisticated issue could require prioritizing which groups receive initial actions and to what degree, is itself a moral issue — the issue of moral prioritization.
Moral ordering is to be done with stakeholders through a process called co-planning. It has the gist of participatory planning but is less hierarchical. The term “participatory” bears a slight negative connotation. It holds that people are allowed to participate. Urban planners give it. But it is not theirs to give. We must plan in concert to have a city. Otherwise, it is a drab urban center that speaks to our lower instincts. Planners, engineers, public health workers, and architects can keep us safe from flooding, fires, and disease, but only the insights of urban dwellers can testify to the outcomes they create. It is disrespectful to plan or maintain a city without including those stakeholders meaningfully.
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Some planners think people like me are wasting paper by writing on topics within their domain. The brilliant author Jessie Singer reminds us that there are no accidents in built environments. I can point to pedestrian and bicyclist deaths or any issues wherein people are harmed. Are they willing to take full responsibility? I have also met incredible planners and engineers who understand the severity of urban technologies’ impacts on humankind. They recognize their power to improve urban life, working tirelessly to fight the good fight. From my limited experience, they are willing to listen and engage.
For example, I created a course called Transportation Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I invited the Regional Planning Manager of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Southern Nevada to present future planning measures to the class. Some students challenged the ideas, using the course material to illustrate shortcomings. Rather than act defensively or dismissively, they engaged with the students respectfully and appreciatively.
You mention specifically (p.81) that we want to avoid what you call “environmental discrimination.” We don’t want to be saying “that green lives matter more than black, brown, disabled or senior lives.” You call this position “weak anthropocentrism.” Could you briefly explain why you think that a weak anthropocentrism is a more suitable ethical approach to city planning than, say, an ecocentric approach?
Eugene Hargrove eviscerates ecocentrism in his 1992 paper, “Weak Anthropocentric Intrinsic Value,” published in The Monist. Proponents of “ecocentrism” never could respond. Still, they kept publishing as if their entire approach had not just been destroyed. All subsequent papers that appeal to “ecocentrism” rest on unsound foundations. I refer to this condition as “The Hargrovian Sleeper.” This notion entails that all views employing the term suffer from a smuggled-in defect. Weak anthropocentrism can repair the foundations to get the job done. I advise anyone interested in “ecocentrism” to read this paper.
Eugene Hargrove eviscerates ecocentrism in his 1992 paper, “Weak Anthropocentric Intrinsic Value.”
Weak anthropocentrism is the best device of the mind to accomplish this task because it inherently establishes a fluid hierarchy: humans and nonhumans. Within the “human” grouping, you can make a further distinction for groups requiring it. For moral ordering, groups having “buy-in” (such as suffering from pre-existing unethical conditions) come first.
Could we not argue that seeing humans’ and nature’s interests as opposed to each other and fighting for prioritisation is problematic? Considering the severe ecological challenges ahead, do we not need to recognise that human interests cannot be separated from the interests of nature? For what is the point of prioritising, say, social justice in a Pacific island over ecological concerns, if the whole place is going underwater due to rising sea levels?
We cannot avoid seeing the nonhuman world anthropocentrically. Accepting this reality means we would save an island because it is in our interests, even though it involves the nonhuman world. Once people see this view correctly, the issue goes away.
One could also argue that the quote above misconstrues what an ecocentric ethics is about. An ecological collapse, or even widespread damage to ecosystems, pollution and extinction of species will not only affect “green lives,” but also “black, brown, disabled and senior lives,” in short: all of society. While I was reading your book, it seemed to me that you tried to avoid taking a stance in that conflict between social justice and ecological interests. You try to steer a middle way that accepts and honours all these claims. But I was thinking that perhaps this will not be possible to sustain in the future. Will not the ecological collapse force us to make hard decisions between social justice and saving nature? Will we not have to actually prioritise the one over the other in a way that causes substantial harm to one of the two sides?
Again, ecocentrism does not exist. Still, it is worth mentioning that moral ordering is a fluid framework. This point suggests that urgent or substantially pressing matters mean that you can move a stakeholder group up the hierarchy when necessary. But, yes, your question exposes a harsh reality. It shows why we cannot always achieve a “universal design.” Understanding the inescapability of anthropocentrism means that we cannot avoid acting for humankind’s interests, no matter how green we think our thinking is. People, including me, love the nonhuman world. My philosophy is one of love, but it is also the quest for attaining an accurate state of affairs. An environmental philosophy aiming to de-center humankind appeals to many. Yet, it is only as sound as it can be epistemologically grounded. For ecocentrism, this ground does not exist.
My philosophy is one of love, but it is also the quest for attaining an accurate state of affairs.
In your book, you talk about environmental justice when planning transportation infrastructure, so that we can make sure that particular population segments are not marginalised. This is clearly important, but is it not important to also talk about city planning that makes a complex transportation infrastructure necessary in the first place? If we limited ourselves, for example, to smaller towns and did not pursue the building of megacities, wouldn’t some of these problems disappear? Do we have to take the existence of megacities for granted, or can we not also, as part of an ethics of city planning, conclude that smaller might indeed be more beautiful and just, and that downsizing might avoid creating some of the problems you diagnose?
It is impossible to uproot billions of people to create smaller cities. We must deal with situations that exist. This reason is why moral ordering is a fluid framework. It must be adaptable. Moral ordering provides a way to say that planning cities for cars instead of people is wrong in ways that go beyond emotivism. It shows the multilayered wrongs entailed in such decisions. Rather than merely complaining about things or endlessly working to identify or interpret the problem or the world, it shows us how to change it. Isn’t this last point the neglected enterprise from philosophers?
What do you think is the role of the Internet and online work in decentralisation? It seems that migration to cities is often motivated by the need to find work or to be close to infrastructure, to centres of commercial activity and so on. As we increasingly become a Zoom society, we see that remote working, nomad working, the online gig economy, and perhaps a future, universal basic income are beginning to replace traditional office work. Will this promote a population move out of the cities, solving some of the problems you diagnose, or will it just encourage city sprawl and the further growth of urban centres?
I’m not a psychic. I hear people say ridiculous things all the time about what is going to happen and why. I ask for evidence. I’m sure some remote work will stay because it benefits the bottom line, not people. On the one hand, I wonder why it is such a strange concept that people should want to be around each other. Working with a good crew is irreplaceable. Students were incredibly excited to return to classrooms. Perhaps the water cooler is not lonely anymore, either.
On the other hand, some people have long commutes, dependents, and unique situations that make working in a specific location troublesome. I’ve had some bosses and coworkers that were a pain to be around (in polite terms). Remote work could alleviate some of these kinds of issues. Plus, working on one’s own schedule is a huge plus.
In your book, you make use of many theoretical approaches to technology ethics, from Heidegger to Verbeek and Bruno Latour. But you particularly mention Hans Jonas (1903-1993) and his principle of responsibility. You propose that Jonas’ ethics is more suitable to judge the effects of technologies than, say, utilitarian approaches. Why is this?
Jonas’ critique shows that the entire canon of Western ethics is ill-equipped to deal with modern technology’s challenges. It failed to account for the nonhuman world, the conditions required for future people, accumulating effects, and the global impacts of technology (among others). Philosophers who have quickly addressed related matters without reading his work miss the essential wisdom that can guide us to ecological and social salvation. He puts it best: “We need wisdom most when we believe in it the least.” I have no problem employing utilitarianism to help gain insight into an issue, but I do not hold it dearly as some philosophers do.
Jonas’ critique shows that the entire canon of Western ethics is ill-equipped to deal with modern technology’s challenges.
But can Jonas’ philosophy really inform concrete action? As I understand it, Jonas advocates that we should prioritise the livability of future life. But does he also specify what exactly is to be considered a liveable or fully-valuable future life? Would creating a world like in Blade Runner be permissible? Or an even worse one? When does human life cease to be genuinely “human” life? Do we not need something like Sen’s and Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach” to put some content into this abstract idea of enabling future life and to distinguish desirable from deficient future human lives?
I argue that Jonas was talking about “genuine” human life in the classical sense. I do criticize him. While I enjoy his insights, I argue that his imperative for technology is too vague to be applicable in many instances. Moral ordering is a way to employ his wisdom.
As for the future, the idea that we are constantly dealing with the present is reality. The propensity to escape having to address current problems is more troubling than neglecting distant ones. Many contemporary authors writing on “the future” fail to do their due diligence. They ignore Jonas' “pre-evisceration” of the idea that we have debts to possible future people. Some analytic philosophers frame it as a version of the non-identity problem. Emilé Torres does a lot of work on these matters.
Focusing exclusively on the future is troubling. Talking about existing problems makes you vulnerable. You could be wrong. This reason is why I have never made any claims about what a group needs unless I belong to that group. Still, I have no issue saying that harm shouldn’t continue or gesturing toward possible avenues for relief.
When dealing with direct action aimed at “the future,” you cannot be wrong. There is always the possibility that you could be correct.
When dealing with direct action aimed at “the future,” you cannot be wrong. There is always the possibility that you could be correct. It is no wonder that many philosophers talk about future technologies instead of existing ones. Think about the allure, making arguments where you can’t be wrong entirely.
I don’t think the capability approach would be helpful here for more reasons than I care to explain.
At the end of your book (p.151), you say that we should prioritise the solution of present problems over the anticipation of future problems. But isn’t this arguably what creates the big problems in the long run? Private cars originally solved many problems of horse-use in cities; but in the end, the problems they created could be argued to have been bigger than the problems they solved. Going back further, the deforestation caused by the growth and shipbuilding of ancient Athens has harmed much of Greece until today. Nuclear power, looking like a miracle solution of energy problems in the 1950s, has led to Chernobyl and Fukushima, not to mention the largely ignored issues of long-term nuclear waste storage. Should we not try to anticipate and take properly into account the long-term consequences of our actions, rather than prioritising the present?
You say: “At the end of your book (p.151), you say that we should prioritise the solution of present problems over the anticipation of future problems. But isn’t this arguably what creates the big problems in the long run?”
The quick response is this: why not clean up your mess before making another?
The less-quick-but-still-quick response is this: It ignores the human suffering that exists. Even though we can ease your burdens—from the harms that, in many ways, municipalities caused—we’ll focus on issues lacking urgency in many cases. We cannot predict the future, but we can address current problems. I could not look in the mirror if I were to take that position.
You say, “should we not try to anticipate and take properly into account the long-term consequences of our actions, rather than prioritising the present?”
Strictly adhering to a framework when it fails sounds like belonging to a cult.
This question assumes a false dichotomy. It fails to acknowledge that we can look back while looking forward when delivering solutions. Still, harmed and vulnerable groups already have “buy-in,” showing why we must address such issues before moving forward. However, urgent matters can shift prioritization when required. This reason underscores why we must employ a fluid framework. Moral ordering works for us instead of us working for it. Strictly adhering to a framework when it fails sounds like belonging to a cult. I say this as a “recovering deontologist.”
There has been some discussion recently about the concept of Free Private Cities, which is now fashionable in libertarian circles. Former World Bank chief economist Paul Romer has argued in favour of “Charter Cities”. One Titus Gebel has recently written a book about Free Private Cities and how they will restore true democracy to the world. Honduras and Brazil are planning special economic and residential zones for the wealthy, supported, ideologically and financially, by libertarian movements in the US and Europe. How do you view these developments? Is the concept of a private city something we should be looking forward to or something to fight against? Do private cities, in your opinion, have the potential to be morally superior to state-run cities, or will they endanger social justice?
I have no knowledge of such things.
In connection with the previous point, on a smaller scale we already experience the privatisation of public space in cities. In some places we see that public space is increasingly replaced by private shopping malls; park benches by coffee shops; city squares by private parks within gated communities; and public space around houses by shared, common areas inside big housing developments. Do you see problems with democratic control and with the very notion of citizenship when we lose that public space? Or is it a development that we should welcome?
I don’t deal with space. I prefer to discuss land, streets, boulevards, parks, and concrete. One of my goals is to decrease obscurity, especially considering that philosophy is inherently abstract. Your question is better suited for philosophers such as Paula Cristina Pereira at the University of Porto. She specializes in this topic and prefers to call it “common space.”
Most of your work deals with cities. What fascinates you about them?
Cities are where theory meets practice. In one of the first books to philosophically deal with cities in contemporary times, The Philosophy of Urban Existence (1974) by Arthur K. Biermann, he has a great line in the preface: “Lately, I have been anxious to move philosophy out of the academy and into the world, closer to the chaos.”
Philosophy is everywhere in the world. Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz quipped that Aristotle would have learned more if he had spent more time in the kitchen. For our concerns, the city is a philosophical laboratory, and it has much to teach us, from the armchair to the street. For the former, pondering the question, “What is a city?” is an endless enterprise. There are so many answers! People usually start by comparing it to other things.
They end up saying things like, “a city is a …” They fill the blank with words like ecosystem, living organism, work of art, technology, mega-machine, cyborg, process, etc. Most of them are helpful or at least entertaining.
Philosophy of the city needs more researchers to deal with these subjects.
The concept of “urban technology” is fascinating. I consider zoning, building codes, and urban growth boundaries as technologies. The same goes for job titles: mayor, city council member, and dispatch operator. These are technologies of thought we use to get the job done. Participatory Budgeting in New York City is a specific urban technology, a democratic technology. It helps urban dwellers determine which projects to fund to enhance life.
For the streets, there is the distribution of land, resources, and services. Ensuring that they are ethically sustainable is a sophisticated affair. Moral ordering makes such matters manageable. In addition to this business, countless urban issues would benefit from philosophical examination. From political recognition of who gets to participate in such affairs to the design of bus stops and bicycle lanes, topics are not in short supply for investigation. Philosophy of the city needs more researchers to deal with these subjects.
Universities and philosophy departments would be well-served by hiring in this area. Philosophers are incredibly helpful in making sense of complicated projects, especially regarding ethical matters and broader social impacts. Recently, computer scientists and engineers recruited me to work on two grant projects that intersect with my research on cities.
What else have you been working on? What is next for your research?
I’ve written three other books since this one. The second, Saving Cities: A Taxonomy of Urban Technologies, is a prequel. It shows how we can extend Heidegger’s thinking on kinds of technologies to account for ones associated with wicked problems such as climate change. I call them “wicked technologies.” Cities, as technologies, are wicked to the extreme. I then explore the mitigatory thought technologies necessary to save us from an anthropogenic demise. I call them “saving technologies.” The third book, Ethics in Agribusiness: Justice and Global Food in Focus, examines the food supply chains that include micro, macro, and meta-level harm. I show that while food logistics could have intrinsic value, we cannot make that claim due to the social and ecological disadvantages of the food trade. If agribusiness is going to reform itself to remedy such effects, we’ll need an enforceable policy backed by a sustainable food label. The fourth is Urban Enlightenment: Multistakeholder Engagement and the City (Routledge, release date: March 10) examines numerous elements of moral ordering and urban enlightenment. It puts forth new requirements on what it means for a city and its citizens to exist. I’ll be on tour promoting the ideas this Spring. My website and social media accounts will have the places and dates.
If our readers would like to find out more about your work, could you tell us where they can find your publications and your book?
Dr Epting, thank you so much for this interview!
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Shane Epting is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology and a co-founder of the Philosophy of the City Research Group. His research addresses philosophical issues in transportation, infrastructure, food systems, and cities. He has published three books, 25 journal articles, and several chapters. He lectures worldwide and appears on nationally syndicated radio. In 2023, he will be on tour, supporting his latest manuscript, Urban Enlightenment: Multistakeholder Engagement and the City (Routledge). Visit www.shaneepting for locations and dates, or find him on Twitter and Instagram.