Green Ethics Part 4

I have used my previous three blogs to work through and outline an approach to green ethics that has been fermenting in my mind for several years. A week last Thursday I had an opportunity to present these ideas to a public audience at a local ‘Green Ethics’ event held as part of Bridport’s ‘Great Big Green Week’ – a series of events aimed at bringing the public’s attention to the up and coming UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The discussion that followed my talk, together with an informal debrief down the pub afterwards, has prompted some further thoughts, a few of which I will sketch out in this blog.

My comments on empathy probably provoked more reaction than anything else I said, including the question of whether it was ‘right’ to empathise with someone who was obviously acting against your own moral code – say someone who prioritised the accumulation of personal wealth above all else, or even (my example) thinks nothing of hurting someone else to satiate their own personal desires. Answering this becomes harder the greater the public distaste for the crime, but, yes, I probably would argue that attempting to empathise with someone who has done something you find abhorrent is a good response. To empathise is not to agree or condone. It is simply an attempt to see and feel the offence from the perspective of the offender. This could have a variety of effects. It could generate a degree of sympathy for the offender because you understand an aspect of their behaviour, some mitigating circumstance, that was otherwise hidden. Conversely it may reveal a darkness that makes you want to punish them even more severely. Either way, on balance, I think the attempt to empathise to be of value, though I do accept that for some offences the darkness revealed may be too much for many of us to deal with.

Some members of the audience expressed a desire for the introduction of clear rules or laws that would limit our behaviour with regards to our carbon emissions, for example: couples being limited to having two children or people being limited to one flight every five years. I am torn about how to respond to this. In many ways I agree. I certainly think that there should be more top-down ‘guidance’ from the government on the lines of the compulsory wearing of seat-belts in cars and the banning of smoking in public spaces. We could all (and I do mean all – every single one of us, no exceptions for power or wealth) be limited to so many flying miles per year, or be subject to some other form of carbon rationing. On the other hand I often think that the imposition of hard rules prevents us developing good judgement, what Aristotle termed phronesis or practical wisdom. As I argued in the first of this series of blogs, there is no definitive reference point that makes something absolutely right or wrong – there are always nuances. The same applies to rules or laws. As a senior officer in the Fire Service once said to me, rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Such practical wisdom requires space to grow.

On the way to the pub after the event, someone asked me whether green ethics requires hope? This threw me at first – but later it got me thinking. There have been times in recent months when I have thought there to be little hope for humans on this planet. As the sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued, we humans will not truly grasp the full implications of our climate and ecological emergency, and what we need to do and change, until the effects are well and truly ‘in our face’, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it. And even when it is ‘in our face’ far too many of us will still hold onto some misguided belief in progress and be waiting for the technological cavalry to come charging round the corner and save us. But perhaps hope is not the same as optimism. The standard philosophical account of ‘hope’ suggests that it is a compound attitude comprising of both a desire for a certain outcome and a belief that that outcome is possible. Note ‘possible’ not ‘likely’. So in terms of the outcomes that could be achieved by the approach to green ethics I have outlined, I certainly have a desire for them and also a belief that their achievement is possible. In this sense I have hope. But perhaps the more important point here is that this hope, this desire for a ‘green’ future and the belief that its achievement is possible, needs to be held by the majority of us. Without this hope we are well and truly on the path to extinction.

One thought on “Green Ethics Part 4

  1. Your discussion of rules is interesting; as is your reluctance to embrace their use, which I definitely share. I wonder if there’s value in considering the differences between guidance, rules and laws? All these terms have been prominent over the last 18 months in our response to Covid. I feel strongly that clear guidance (eg. on wearing masks indoors) could make and enormous difference in keeping Covid sufficiently under control for society to function, leaving us room to exercise our “practical wisdom”; and some laws (eg. responsibilities of employers) are needed to protect the vulnerable or create level playing fields; but I recoil whenever I come across the word “rule” and have no idea what it means if not entered into by agreement or imposed by the stronger party against a person’s will.

    Comparing the status of guidance, rules and laws also raises the question of the role of government (which at the moment seems to be to keep itself in power by transferring blame and suppressing dissent). Modern governments (and voters) seem to be addicted to laws; but both laws and rules have the big weakness that they lack subtlety, flexibility and the ability to take context into account. As far as I can see, Aristotle seems to recognise that the human sphere can’t be rule-driven or rationalised in the same way as the more amenable scientific ones. This strikes me as an important insight in evaluating rule-based ethics and the need for practical wisdom (which raises questions over the ability of AI to make ethical judgements).


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