The Harbinger Home Page
Noted Articles
Sustainable Development
May 28, 1996


Questions of a Sleepless Ethicist

by Rober Gottlieb

[Editor's note: Dr. Roger Gottlieb is the Paris Fletcher Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is a keynote speaker in The Harbinger symposium on Sustainable Development on June 22, which is made possible by funding support from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Mobile Bay Sierra Club.]

To paraphrase one of my teachers: how easy it often is to speak of our love for, and obligations to, the earth. Yet if there is one among us who listens deeply to the claims of the suffering earth, and also feels the call of an ethic in which human beings and non-human nature are both objects of concern, that person might well wake in the pre-dawn light and face, with fear and trembling, some troubling questions.

What might some of the questions be that this sleepless ethicist would consider?

Question 1: The Demands of Humility and the Imperatives of Judgment

He begins by reflecting that for most people, most of the time, there is an impulse towards morality. This acknowledgement does not deny the wars, murders, rapes, child molestations, thefts and casual oppression that permeate history. Rather, these dismal occurrences merely show that there are, too often, countervailing pressures that are stronger than the impulse to goodness; or that socially constructed viewpoints sometimes make moral truth inaccessible. Further, he knows that in all culture of which we have knowledge, there has been a call to morality. From the Biblical prophets to the ethics of the Buddha, from bourgeois to socialist revolutions, from Protestant preachers who spoke against slavery to the freedom fighters of South Africa, the history of humanity redounds with reminders to heed the outcry of the oppressed and to remember or discover our better selves.

Our ethicist also knows that this outcry changes over time. Criticisms of patriarchy, for instance, constitute comparatively recent moral demands.

And it is not hard to trace the shifting historical conditions that make such criticisms possible. Related developments in economic structures and political ideology (the evolution of monopoly capitalism and cold war ideologies of democracy) create the historical possibilities of a women's liberation movement. These demands, in turn, make men's moral lives more complicated and difficult.

Yet while the recently emerged demands of feminism may be rigorous, men can, our ethicist believes, respond to them without contradiction. A well- intentioned, good-hearted man can surrender male privilege in his personal relationships -- say, by making himself emotionally vulnerable, taking responsibility for his own actions, and doing his share of the dishes. He can refuse to bond with other men on the basis of sexism, publicly support political equality and personal safety for women, and challenge male biased cultural values. Having done so, he will have left his position of male privilege, and can then speak with a kind of justified moral authority to other men about the evils of sexism.

Now, perhaps the principle reason our troubled ethicist is awake at this ungodly hour is that he senses how different are the demands of the environmental crisis from those of, say, feminism. The combined historical development of industrial capitalism, imperialism, third world militarism, patriarchy and consumerism have assaulted all of nature (including people) -- and imposed moral demands that seem impossible to fulfill.

What will happen, our ethicist wonders, to an essential presupposition of personal and collective moral life: that we are able to teach morality to our children? We claim to be bearers of moral values that we hope to impart to them. We claim, directly or tacitly, that we are worthy moral models. We expect children, in turn, to believe that we know what we are talking about. Family life, schools, religions and even political parties depend on this presupposition.

For our ethicist, this presupposition is rendered deeply suspect by the shadows of the toxic waste dumps, elimination of other species and cavalier nuclear testing. The ethicist wonders how he can teach morality to his children, or pretend to ethical competence, when breakfast cereal boxes list endangered and extinguished species, and kids can ask, as did his seven-year old daughter: "Daddy, can a time come when there are no more trees?"

What people have done and continue to do threatens his sense of being able to serve as an exemplar for the next generation. To engage in moral teaching people seem to have to turn a blind eye to reality and engage in a kind of denial -- one that may be transparent to those we wish to teach.

Our ethicist cogitates: "Don't our children sense what is absent in our moral talk; and doesn't that further lessen their already limited respect for our integrity and efficacy?" And he asks himself: How can we profess love for our children and simultaneously destroy the ozone layer that protects them from cancer-causing sunlight? How can we teach them to love their neighbors when energy use in the first world may cause a global warming that will raise the sea level and virtually wipe out island nations? Further, since so many people practice or desire environmentally damaging mass consumption, whole populations are now implicated in their own destruction. What then happens to confidence in the rational progress of humanity -- or to our very right to further develop technological civilization?

It is not only the cultural and institutional imperatives of our dominant social structures that are causing the environmental crisis. As individuals, our daily lives make us accomplices to the catastrophe. For people above the poverty line in the first world, and for many in the other worlds as well, our everyday routines involve participation in a form of life that is bankrupting the future.

The ethicist, who has some standing as an environmental thinker, wonders at his own situation. He knows, better than most, the horrible effects of what he is doing. But it always seems that there is comparatively little he can do on a personal level to withdraw, unless he so dramatically changes his life that he virtually leaves society. He tries to use his bike when he can, to recycle, and to eat organic vegetarian style. But his energy sources, food sources, medical sources, tax payments, clothes, travel, housing and work will continue to involve him in the very form of life he criticizes. Thus, it is not just the abstraction "society" or our dominant institutions whose moral status is threatened, but that of self-conscious individuals as well.

Even more painfully, the moral demands of family, work, social responsibility and care for the earth often pull our ethicist in conflicting directions. The sheer effort to fulfill any other moral obligation seems to leave him helpless before his concern with the environment. Despite these dilemmas, our sleepless ethicist does not wish to stop talking about our moral obligations to other people, life forms or generations. At the very least, our response to the violence and dominance embodied in ecocide, while passionate, had better be free of any taint of self-righteousness. If we are not to appear obvious hypocrites, our moral instruction to our children should be couched in terms that include direct admissions of our own failings.

Our ethicist continues, feeling that this story is far from over. He asks himself: "How can I balance this necessary humility with the equally necessary political critique?" Now turned social theorist, our ethicist believes this latter necessity stems from the fact that while "humanity" as a whole is the agent of environmental destruction, humanity itself is divided by systematic inequalities of political and economic power. We are not evenly agents or victims of environmental aggression.

Thus the humility compelled by our collective participation in the violence of ecological destruction must coexist with a critical awareness of the politically and economically sanctioned structures of inequality and domination that contribute to the environmental crisis and its savage effects on human beings. Not all of us have equal power to decide to continue manufacturing CFC's, or to gut public transportation, or to export banned chemicals to third world countries. Economic, political and military elites, usually unconstrained by the rest of the population, shape the world's social life. Ecocide, our ethicist senses, is their stock in trade.

Our ethicist turned political theorist therefore wonders how violence against the earth and human beings alike can be reduced if social relations do not become more just. The outcome of many different conservation programs has taught him, for instance, that if we are to save the wildlife in Africa, we need to care as much for the people as we do for the wildlife. Similarly, environmental degradation in countries such as the Philippines reveals that concerns about the condition of the environment are simultaneously concerns over truly democratic access to natural resources and over decisions concerning the path of economic development. There is no population problem, or consumption problem, per se. Rather, there are problems with the unequal distribution of wealth, power, privilege and control -- control over natural resources, reproductive capacities, the development of technology and the implementation of social policy. How many children people have, and how and how much they consume, are consequences of more fundamental social structures. The peasant family's economic needs for more children, the oppressed woman's lack of access to birth control and education, the psychic desperation which drives first world consumption -- these causes of overpopulation and overconsumption are themselves the effects of inequality, injustice and domination. And thus alongside his moral humility, our ethicist must hold a clear and radical call to social change. He searches within himself for the courage to speak that truth to power and to call for solidarity in resistance.

Question 2. Who Am I?

Looking deeply into the abyss of the consequences of the way he has lived, our pre-dawn ethicist suspects that the only way out of the dilemmas of ethical powerlessness is acceptance of the fact that certain kinds of moral demands cannot be fulfilled by individuals. Only fundamental shifts in collective social practices will allow a truly moral relation to other people and the environment. He begins to see morality as social not only in the familiar sense of having to do with the benefits to the group but in the sense that the subject or agent of morality is the collectivity self-organizing itself. In his own case, looking at the demands of the environmental crisis, the ethicist sees a vast cultural system of anthropocentric biases -- in which human beings claim themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of nature. This hierarchical and arrogant model has deep historical origins and also permeates the individualism of modernity. But this anthropocentrism has also, our ethicist senses, been challenged by the environmental crisis itself.

Ethical life is shifting, he believes, because global ecological interdependence now implies both personal and collective moral interdependence. The most mundane activities of our daily lives can affect the well-being of people throughout the world. This moral truth reawakens our awareness of the spiritual interconnections taught by great religious prophets. We might have laughed up our sleeve when Jesus told us to love our neighbors, when Isaiah clamored for justice, or when the Bodhisattvas called for universal compassion. Yet when our neighbors' smokestacks kill our forests, or our use of gasoline threatens someone else's agriculture, the smiles get wiped off our faces.

Further, as writers in the deep ecology tradition have stressed, the sorrow over the devastation of the natural world reveals the ways in which our sense of personal identity does not stop at our individual or social boundaries, but includes our natural surroundings. The non-human world, subject to so much abuse by our civilization, is thus revealed as a part of our own selves. For these reasons an ethic of ecological equity is perhaps not best expressed in terms of "rights" of nature, but in reference to the emotional and spiritual intuition that the burning of the rainforest, the pollution of a river or the elimination of a species is a hurt not to an Other, but to Our Very Selves. The ethicist did not need rights theory to motivate love of his daughter or his mother, his friends or his golden retriever.

Similarly, his love of, and loneliness for, non-human nature flourishes through the directness of the connection rather than the abstraction of principles. The environmental crisis, as painful as it is, is thus also an incredible opportunity to realize a vision of spiritual connection.

The ethicist senses that a generalized acceptance of a less anthropocentric ethic, a sense of our deep ecological connections to other species and entire ecosystems, does not erase the fact that in the ordinary course of our existence,. human beings necessarily use and displace other life forms. Just like every other animal, we need to consume and alter our environment. We must eat, live, warm ourselves, and utilize resources to create social forms and cultural institutions. Thus, the adoption of a deep ecological perspective will not eliminate the hard choices we face -- choices about how much to take for ourselves and how much to leave for others; how much to exercise the control we increase day by day, and how much to surrender.

When he thinks about population, consumption and the environment, our ethicist realizes that increased human population, even in its most benign form, will necessarily limit space and resources for other species. In their most sustainable form, human societies necessarily humanize wilderness -- through encroachment, interaction, eliminate alternation or noise pollution. Similarly, the goals of a higher standard of living inevitably entail levels of consumption with comparable effects. In particular settings, the absence of any overall sustainable national and global policies means that concrete choices often have to be made between this bit of wetland and a mall that might lower the local unemployment rate; or between increased food and the last remaining habitat for a local species.

Yet our ethicist wonders if through an awareness of the ecocidal violence caused by our personal desires, cultural values and social institutions, we may indeed develop a more modest and circumspect attitude towards our enterprise of dominating the earth. If the realization of our interdependence with our environment strikes home, we could be more unassuming both in our self- assessment as a species and our desires for a better life. We may -- possibly -- learn that a higher standard of living must be measured as much by the realization of ideals of justice, equality, and non-violence as by levels of consumption; and that these ideals cannot be achieved until we curtail our current environmental aggression. It is only by dwelling repeatedly on this last slim hope that the ethicist manages to get a few moment of sleep before his over-filled day begins.

The Next Stage?

Ethical humility, political critique, the overcoming of anthropocentrism, and the constaints of personal and social limitations -- all these run through the brain of our troubled ethicist. Is he condemned forever to moral insomnia? To paraphrase the same teacher: Perhaps he -- perhaps we all -- should be awake in the middle of the night, should be self-consciously self-conscious when we try to be moral teachers, to be direct and passionate in our condemnation of injustice against people and nature, and to wonder, over and over again, when people come before the rest of creation.

Yet our ethicist could also choose another possibility, one in which our self-consciousness, passion, humility and doubt coexist with a deepened sense of participation in the mystery of creation. Encircling rather than erasing the legitimate strenuousness and angst of the modern moral subject -- whose trademark isolated ego literally feels the weight of the world on its shoulders -- is a more encompassing and calming vision. As our love for other people and nature animates our passion and humility, it can also at times soothe our troubled and anxious ethical selves -- if, that is, we recognize such selfhood as not bounded by our own troubled ego, but in dancing partnership with other people, with maple trees and rivers, stars and moons. The ethicist might see that he can only do his bit and then, like an autumn leaf, drift down to the forest floor to prepare the way for other growing things. Just as the sun itself, all any of us can do is shine until the light that god or goddess gave us is darkened by the soft embrace of time, an embrace which, in the end, will claim all beings. The ethicist need not suppress his fears for tomorrow, or his guilts and regrets for yesterday. But he may also welcome the peace that comes from his own at once joyous, sorrowful, and exuberant participation in eternity.

-- May 28, 1996

The Harbinger is a biweekly newspaper published through the effort of The Harbinger, which consists of area faculty, staff and students, and members of the Mobile community. The Harbinger is a non-profit education foundation. The views expressed here are the responsibility of The Harbinger. Contributions to The Harbinger are tax exempt to the full extent of the law and create no liability for the contributor.