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?