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.