Saturday, February 15, 2014

Good Or Bad? (Or A Little Story About Environmental Ethics)

Lets start with some definitions:

  • Ethics is the philosophy of morality.
  • Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and languages.
  • Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are "good" (or right) and those that are "bad" (or wrong).

For me there are three fundamental problems with ethics:

  • In a non-scientific or casual context "philosophy" means "the most basic beliefs, concepts and attitudes of an individual or group" and not a rational study of problems. This means that in casual use ethics is no longer a study but the most basic beliefs, concepts and attitudes of an individual or group regarding good or bad.
  • "Good" (or right) and "bad" (or wrong) have no absolute definition but depend heavily on cultural norms.
  • The most basic beliefs, concepts and attitudes of an individual or small group are more generally referred to as principals. While ethics have a more general and altogether wider connotation. This means that ethics are commonly perceived to be the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes regarding good or bad within a society without, of course, taking into account the non-absoluteness of good and bad in a global or universal perspective.

I do not know about you but that kind of sounds to me like ethics are in fact commonly understood to be the contemporary code of conduct within a culture. This is of course no news. Ethics vary between cultures and in time and are often the reason for strife and even war between cultures.

What went wrong with the word "ethics"? It lost its scientific meaning. We now speak about "ethics and morality" while in actual fact ethics is the study of morality. Business hijacked the word to emphasize that against all odds their practices are now ethical. In politics the word is used in countless contexts and meanings.

There is one very interesting question in ethics (even scientifically) and that is: What is the domain for which morality is defined? What I mean is how come a concentration camp is obviously bad but an industrial chicken farm not? Clearly there seems to be a domain for application of morals that does not include chickens because if they were included, industrial chicken farms would be even more appalling than concentration camps. To confuse these matters even further we seem to have a double standard regarding animals. We do have some form of laws and sense of good and bad in food production but if a normal dog owner would apply those laws on his dogs he would be arrested for extreme mistreatment of animals.

The fact that our ethics falter when animals come into the picture is actually not that surprising because the domain I mentioned earlier is very exclusive indeed: In our culture it only contains human animals. We struggle to resolve all kinds of conflicts of interest when we need to apply morals on human and other animals at the same time. If we consider all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects or phenomena we seem to just not care at all.

There is a field of philosophy called environmental philosophy that studies this problem. In this field there is a concept called environmental ethics which describes the relationship between human beings and the environment in which they live. Before even looking at some of these ethics approaches, I personally think the problem is already contained within the description of what environmental ethics is. There seems to be a persistent urge to separate humans and the environment. The reason for this is that it is a single culture that has written everything scientific and this globally dominating culture does not recognize humans to be an intrinsic part of the environment. Ironically that is exactly one of the things that distinguishes the various environmental ethics approaches: "The possibility that reality may not be human centered" (sarcasm intended but some scientists actually write crap like that)

I have throughout this article made clear that all of our "ethics" are cultural and also that in particular one single dominant culture seems to be based in the worldview that humans are the center of reality. There is of course another type of culture although now quite endangered. This is the culture of aboriginal peoples, the hunter-gatherers. They have never seen themselves as anything else than part of the Earth and recognized moral worth in all beings and all things.

A modern term for that in the context of environmental ethics is Deep Ecology or The Libertarian Extension: Human-rights are extended to non-human animals and possibly even the a-biotic and inanimate. Deep Ecology argues for the intrinsic value and inherent worth of the environment and that humanity has no right to compromise the environment except to "satisfy vital needs" (see my article called The Answer). Ecological Humanism (Eco-humanism) also falls under the Libertarian Extension. This is the argument that all ontological beings have ethical worth on the basis that they exist.

In contrast, another approach to environmental ethics is Shallow Ecology or Conservation Ethics: The only value that non-human animals and plants have is extrinsic, instrumental to the benefit of humankind. They are a means to an end – conservation is important for the welfare of current and future generations. Interesting to know is that Conservation Ethics formed the underlying arguments by Governments at Kyoto in 1997 and the agreements reached in Rio in 1992.

Obviously aboriginal cultures do not analyze these concepts. Mainly because to them the interdependence of mankind and the environment is blindingly obvious. To them humanity is an integral part of the environment. They embed their environmental ethics at the foundation of their culture and spirituality. Theirs is a spiritual version of Deep Ecology that we today call Animism. I call this philosophy Tracker Philosophy.

With all this in mind, are we good or bad? Is that what you reason or feel? Maybe we should change our culture to make it truly right ...

Peter Friebel