Green ethics – part 3

In my previous two blogs I have argued that, in terms of ethics, the way forward for humanity is through the development of certain character traits or good habits – habits that will support our flourishing as members of a global land community, character traits that will support the story of this same flourishing. But how do we develop these character traits? And, perhaps more importantly, what are they? I have been thinking this through now for about ten years, and have made several lists of suitable candidates, but here I’m just going to outline what I consider to be the three most important. But first a few words about their general development.

Aristotle termed the character traits he discussed ‘virtues’, and argued that we develop them through constant practice, through constant repetition, through establishing good habits. He never prescribed exactly what each virtue meant for each individual in a given situation, other than it was the avoidance of both excess and deficit, what he termed the golden mean. He recognised that “conduct has to do with individual cases, and that our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases”, and that “a master of any art avoids excess and deficit, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this – the intermediate not in the object but relative to us”.

Let me illustrate what Aristotle means here with the first of my suggested character traits – empathy. By empathy I don’t simply mean feeling what another person feels, I mean a considered response to those feelings that lies between the two extremes of selflessness and selfishness, a mean point that we need to determine for ourselves relative to each social situation. Why? Because it involves a conscious attempt to put ourselves in the position of the other and to assess the situation from their perspective and, perhaps, to ask ‘what does the other person expect of me?’ For each social act it is impossible to describe that act as either right or wrong, but the habit of practicing empathy contributes to human flourishing because it makes vivid the expectations of the other through thought and feeling. Expectations, in both the senses of the word (what ‘should’ happen, what ‘will’ happen), are the relations that form human society and culture, they are the forces that cause it to change and grow, they are the forces that glue it together.

If empathy is the social glue that holds communities together, that brings out our interdependence on others, my suggested second character trait does something very similar with regards our relationship with other animals and our natural environment. Let me term this new habit ‘Ecopathy’. This is the developing trait of both feeling and understanding ourselves as ‘plain members of the land community’, as Aldo Leopold phrased it, of deeply appreciating our interdependence with all life. If we want to get scientific, it means developing an understanding of the dynamic complexity of life on this planet, and allowing this understanding to influence how we act in the daily dramas of our lives. In terms of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’, perhaps it lies between the two extremes of our selfish exploitation of the planet, our thinking that we have dominion over other life forms, and the brutal fact that as a member of the land community we do need to eat, we will produce waste, and some of our actions will harm other members of the land community.

I have recently come to the realization that the outlook for humanity is bleak, very bleak, unless we start learning how to think. Yes, I know we all think we can think, we do it all the time, but I mean really think – not just have opinions. We need to develop the habit of thinking critically, of asking questions about what we hear and read, of looking for and evaluating the evidence that supports our opinions and beliefs, and (most importantly) being prepared to have other people challenge our opinions and not responding with a tirade of insults. For want of a better phrase, I am going to term this third character trait ‘good sense’. I use this phrase to purposely contrast it with the term ‘common sense’ which I equate to a herd mentality, the habit of simply following popular opinion. Perhaps the golden mean here is somewhere between a herd mentality and the arrogance of believing that any thought we have must be correct.

The three character traits that I’ve outlined above are by no means exhaustive, they are simply my top three. It is important to realise that there cannot be a definitive list of character traits, just as is it impossible to say, definitively, what the right or proper action is in any situation. It is impossible to say, therefore, what character traits we should be developing. In the same way as all the characters in good novel have different traits, we will all need to develop our own characters in our own way in response to our own unique circumstances, but we need to do so forever mindful of the story we are trying act out, and our dynamic interdependence on all other natural systems.

Green ethics – part 2

In last week’s post I very briefly outlined what I consider to be the problem with both the traditional approach to ethics (basing our ethical decisions on some non-existent definitive reference point) and the relatively recent consequentialist approach (making an impossible calculation as to the consequences of any action). Instead I suggested that an approach based on the methodology of Aristotle (one that focuses on the development of good habits and character traits in order to flourish as a citizen within a community) may well provide the route to the development of an effective Green Ethics. A different way to think through the importance of habits and character traits is through an appreciation of the importance of narrative or story telling in human life, and especially its role in supplying meaning and purpose to our lives.

One of the paradoxes of human life is both our need for meaning and purpose, and, in any definitive sense, its complete absence. Through both experience and shared knowledge humans are able to make good rough and ready predictions as to what to expect during their day to day activities, an evolved ability that gives them a good evolutionary advantage over animals of much greater strength and speed. However, not everything we expect to happen (in both ‘will’ and ‘should’ senses of ‘expect’) is supported by evidence based knowledge. We fill in the gaps, join the dots, by creating stories. Doing so makes it much easier for our ‘knowledge’ to be passed on to future generations – for the simple reason that it makes sense of what otherwise could be a disparate collection of expectations. Whilst this general process applies to all aspects of human life, it applies particularly so to ethics where, as discussed last week, objective reference points just do not exist.

Take the example of truth telling. Experience over the span of human evolution has shown that in practical terms, within particular communities, human society functions better if individual members can trust each other, and that this trust is dependent on members telling the truth. It’s not necessary for this truth telling to be 100%, in fact there may well be occasions when ‘the greater good’ is best served by the full truth being withheld. But how can this experience be passed on the young members of the community other than through them being told they need to tell the truth? And the easiest way to respond to the inevitable ‘why?’ is to feed this imperative into a story that, as well as explaining how they should behave, explains where they have come from and what their purpose is. Enter the role of religion. Religious myths have, over the course of human history, served the purpose of supplying the ‘grand narrative’ to human existence. But, whereas science, and particularly evolutionary science, now provides an evidence based explanation to our existence, religion still has a grip on the ethical explanation. This needs to change.

Religion myths, then, were arguably the first stories – certainly the first ‘grand narratives’. But the fundamental use of story exists at the personal level as well. We each have a ‘self narrative’, a story that we tell ourselves and others that links our various experiences together into a coherent whole and provides a personal meaning and purpose to our life. As Will Storr points out in his book Selfie, “To make a successful story, a self needs a mission. It needs a plot”. And, as our personal experience of stories will testify, successful stories need a variety of characters – they need good guys, heroes; they need bad guys, the villains; and they need victims. These various characters will also have their associated character traits, those aspects of their usual behaviour that identifies them, that we use when describing them to others. Our grand narratives, those that make sense of our tribe, community, or nation, also make use of characters and character traits, but in a much more abstract way.

The story we need to start telling is the story of human survival. This is the story of stories, the grandest of narratives. It is the story of how humans, though ignorance of their origins, created many false myths, especially the myth that they were special and separate from the rest of nature – that other animals and the land itself (what Aldo Leopold terms ‘the land community’) were there for human exploitation. It is the story of how, as a chapter in this story, humans found a use for the fossilised remains of forests that existed before the emergence of human life, and that in burning this fuel to power their economy they nearly released so much stored carbon back into the atmosphere that human life became untenable. It is the story of how, at the last minute, humans realised that they were plain members of the land community and started to behave accordingly. It is the story of how humans changed their character traits – but in what way? What traits of character, what habits of behaviour will facilitate our survival?