Green ethics – part 1

This will be the first of a three part blog that sketches out a green approach to ethics. I have been working on the various ideas that I hope will come together by doing this off-and-on for some time, but a conversation I had last week has not only promoted these ideas to the top of my thinking, it has also brought various different ideas together. The three most significant questions / areas of thinking that I’m trying to pull together in my mind are: Could the methodology used by Aristotle in his ‘virtue ethics’ help us respond to our climate and ecological emergency? How would an understanding of our use of narrative help in our response to the need for political, economic and social reforms? To what extent are poor thinking skills, particularly the ability to think critically, contributing factors in the problems we face? I will sketch out the first of these in this blog, with the other two following in successive weeks. Hopefully the vague idea I have on how these strands fit together will crystalise in the process.

The central question for any approach to ethics is, given a particular situation, how should we act? The dominant answer in the West for most of the last two and a half thousand years has been “in accordance with a definitive notion of ‘the Good’”. According to this traditional approach ‘the Good’ transcends human experience but exists for our guidance. For Plato ‘the Good’ existed as an ideal Form and was absolute, timeless and unchangeable. Whilst any good that humans did on Earth was but a shadow the Good, Plato argued that we could get closer and closer to the Good through philosophical practice. This approach was adopted by western religion where the Good became the word of God. God’s commands on how to act in any situation were either presented by divine revelation (the Sermon on the Mount) or through an intermediary who, through an inner voice, directly heard his voice.

In later philosophy, Immanuel Kant in effect took the same position by arguing that we should only ever act according to those maxims we would wish to become universal laws – laws that are absolute, timeless and unchangeable. There are two main problems with these approaches to ethics: these absolute and universal maxims and commandments fail to appreciate the complexity of actual life (no act can be categorically right or wrong, good or bad); their transcendent reference points, be they an ideal Form or the voice of God, simply do not exist.

During the nineteenth century an alternative approach to ethics emerged – a consequentialist one. This started with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham who basically argued that we should determine the goodness of an act by the amount of happiness produced; that the act which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the right one to take. Later proponents modified this by differentiating rule utilitarianism from a focus on individual actions, an approach that argued that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good. Consequentialism more generally argues that the rightness or goodness of an act is determined by the consequences that result from it. Once again there are two main problems with this approach: the impossibility of determining the consequences of an act, let alone the amount of happiness produced (again, it fails to appreciate the complexity of life); and the later discovery by neuroscience that in actual fact the brain ‘decides’ what to do in any situation a fraction of a second before we consciously contemplate the act. This last point is potentially a lethal blow for ethics, with John Gray arguing that our attempts to be moral animals are futile.

There is, however, a way to rescue ethics, and that is through the conscious development of good habits. If we get into the habit of behaving in a certain way in a certain situation we tend to do so without thinking about it at the time. Most craft and sports skills are developed this way. The problem of determining which habits to develop however, which are good and desirable, which are bad and to be avoided, remains. This, I want to suggest, can be resolved by returning to the methodology of the philosopher who first focused on the importance of developing good habits – Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that whenever we act we do so in order to achieve what we take to be some good, and that that particular good is sought in order to achieve some further good. He went on to argue that we can follow this line of reasoning until we reach the end of the line where we find the greatest good. Aristotle termed this greatest good eudaimonia, a term that is often translated as ‘happiness’, but which can also be translated as ‘flourishing’.
For Aristotle this flourishing was always of an individual actor within society. Good habits, or good character traits were those that made you a good citizen, that allowed you to flourish within your community. I suggest that the some method can be extended to apply to humans as part of the land community, as Aldo Leopold called it. Good habits or good character traits are those that not only make an actor a good citizen within their community, but allows that community to flourish as part of a world community, that world community to flourish as part of a global land community, and that global land community to flourish as part of a global eco-sphere.

Is the alarm loud enough to wake us up?

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published on Monday. According to the head of the United Nations, this devastating report is a ‘code red’ warning for humanity. And Alok Sharma, the UK minister who will preside over the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November, said “If ever there was going to be a wake-up call to the world when it comes to climate change, this report is it”. But will it be? What are the chances we just press the snooze button? What if the comfort of the bed we are currently lying in is just too familiar to get out of? The duvet too comfortable? The thought of all we have to do when we get up just too over-whelming?

The report, the sixth from the IPCC since 1988 and eight years in the making, found that human activity was “unequivocally” the cause of rapid changes to the Earth’s climate. These changes include the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, the resultant rise in sea levels, and the increased frequency of extreme heatwaves, floods and droughts. The upshot of all this is that only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decade can prevent climate breakdown – a breakdown that will render large parts of the Earth uninhabitable through either floods or extreme heat. The result of this will mean a major reduction in land available and capable of growing food, and a massive number of people fleeing their current homelands in order to find a place of relative safety. Ultimately, if nothing is done at all, the Earth will become uninhabitable to humans.

So, can we pull back from the brink? Probably the most pessimistic answer to this question is supplied by John Gray. In Straw Dogs he says that “the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd.” His criticism is aimed the “doctrine of salvation” he terms humanism: “the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny”; “the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free”. This pessimism is a critique of what he sees as the unfettered optimism associated with the humanist idea of “progress and enlightenment”. He admits that there has been progress in knowledge, that we know and understand more about the world we live in, but argues that there has been no progress in ethics. Science, he argues, “enables humans to satisfy their needs”, but it “does nothing to change them.” Bottom line here is that humans are just too needy; that our needs, particularly our material needs, could well be our Achilles Heel.

For Gray, humanism’s cardinal error, adopted from Christianity, is “the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals”, guided by our ability to use reason. On this point he sides with David Hume in arguing that reason is, and can only be, the hard pressed servant of the will – a will driven by our emotions, by our needs. Our intellects are not, as most of us believe, “impartial observers of the world but active participants in it”. In pressing this point Gray is only restating the point made by Aldo Leopold, one of the founding thinkers of the environmental movement. In his essay ‘The Land Ethic’ he argues that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

The way to avoid the bleak future predicted by the IPCC report, therefore, may be through ethics rather than science, technology or reason. Perhaps we need to not only understand our being part of a land-community, a community of all living entities sharing a single environment, but start to feel this connection, and start to feed this connection into our ethical behaviour. We need to start understanding and appreciating the effect of our needs upon other members of the land-community. We need to understand, truly understand, that believing humanity to be something separate from the other life forms sharing this planet is an error; that all life is intrinsically linked and interdependent; and that believing these other life forms and the planet itself are there as a resource to satisfy our insatiable needs will lead to our extinction. But most of all we need to allow this new understanding to feed into our ethics. If we do this perhaps we can steer a path between the pessimism of Gray and the optimism of humanism and survive as a species a little while longer. But if we do, we will need to seriously curtail our consumerism and freely abandon many of those luxuries we associate with modern life.