Fittingness, affordances, providence

Abstract accepted for the ETF conference Towards an Environmental Ethic of ‘Fittingness’   (2-3 October, online)

This paper starts from a metaphysical approach to a possible ethics of fittingness, inspired by Desmond’s claim that our ethical thinking needs to rethink “the relation between being and being good” (Desmond 2001, 1). An environmental ethics would then call for the being good of the being of our environment that precedes anthropocentric projects and concerns. At the same time, this should not lead to a static or monolithic understanding of a pre-given metaphysical and hence ethical order to which human conformity is demanded, neglecting the dynamic and interactive nature of the relationship between man and his environment. We need to capture the fittingness of human actions relative to their environment and its inherent or pre-existing value.

We therefore turn towards a concept borrowed from ecological psychology, namely affordances (Gibson 1986). Affordances are real opportunities for action between an actor and its environment. A specific object or environmental niche can afford something (nutrition, shelter, …) to a specific actor. It is neither an ‘objective’ property of the environment because it is always relative to an actor, nor a ‘subjective’ one that is only ‘in the eye of the beholder’, because an affordance depends on the objective properties of both. Affordances describe the complementarity and between an actor and its environment, and hence a specific kind of fittingness of that action possibility. 

Affordances can be understood in more general metaphysical terms as a mutual manifestation of reciprocal disposition partners. Recent work on the connection between such a metaphysics of dispositions and ethics has described value as such a mutual manifestation (Anjum, Anders Noer Lie, and Mumford 2013). In the same way that dispositions precede their manifestation, affordances qua value-dispositions precede their manifestation or being-acted-upon. In the case of the specific position of pan dispositionalism, this opens up an avenue to think about an ultimate or original value.

All of this can now be tentatively connect with the theological concept of providence. As noted by Gibson, the concept of affordances implies that there is no dualist distinction between a natural environment on the one hand, and an artificial or cultural environment on the other hand. All man does is change what the environment affords him, which is merely a manifestation of hitherto unmanifested dispositions. But in combination with the ultimate or original value arrived at previously, this allows one to see a landscape of pre-existing affordances spanning many time and places, as well as a whole range of metaphysical values. This can include specifically theological ones like grace, which in turn can afford salvation. This can allow us to see our environment and what it affords us beyond mere action possibilities. Certain actions, thoughts, prayers could afford us grace, as eternally pre-existing affordances fitting within God’s providential plan for our own as well as humanity’s salvation. 


Anjum, Rani Lill, Svein Anders Noer Lie, and Stephen Mumford. 2013. “Dispositions and Ethics.” In Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, edited by Ruth Groff and John Greco, 231–47. New York: Routledge.

Desmond, William. 2001. Ethics and the Between. Albany: SUNY Press.

Gibson, James J. 1986. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Psychology Press.


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