“Like it or not, we humans are bound up with our fellows, and with the other plants and animals all over the world. Our lives are intertwined. If we are not graced with an instinctive knowledge of how to make our technological world a safe and balanced ecosystem, we must figure out how to do it.” – Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions.
I have divided cosmic virtue into two main theatres – Nature and Science; and further divided Nature into (1) animal considerations and (2) responsibility to the environment (or Mother Earth). I formulated an ethical approach to animals in earlier blogs1 and now begin a synthesis on the environment by integrating what we discovered in the last five posts on land ethic, Christian creation care, and the wisdom of native peoples.
First an ethical approach must treat Nature in its innate form, that is, as a series of interconnected ecosystems. Virtue then will require a holistic attitude to the Earth, balancing a multitude of consequences of human actions. While there can be no shortcuts here, environmentalists need to recognize there can be no ethical duty when there are insufficient facts to guide action. Thus recycling may not be a categorical imperative when one cannot be sure whether the process itself creates more environmental harm than deposition in a landfill does. Ethical behavior depends on an evidence-based analysis, not personal opinions, for a final verdict.
Second the Christian humanist is correct in pointing out that humans must be treated as ends not means and thus the needs of people (as well as animals) are a significant factor in environmental decisions. The virtuous course may be uncertain or at least debatable. For example forced reductions in human fertility may be evil when used as a means to limit population even if intended for the worthy purpose of allowing animal species diversity.
Third the virtuous individual will learn from Nature by direct observation and through science. Since language is symbolic and human understanding is enriched by myth, it follows that symbols in Nature and the lore of the elders and of the great spiritualist tradition can enlarge our world view.
Fourth, if Nature is the arbiter of rightness, then strong arguments can be made that humans, as creatures of Nature, ought to procure food in as natural a way as possible consistent with other human purposes. Even food animals must be treated ethically and thus factory farming should be minimized. Moreover we should consume natural and ‘organic’ foods rather than chemically or genetically modified products when possible.
Last if ‘the good’ includes what furthers Nature, the Earth, and the Universe, than human alienation from Nature is an evil that must be overcome. Frequent exposure to natural environments are a remedy for the indifference that underlies our degradation of the environment.
Using these basic guidelines, we are ready for our synthesis on environmental virtue which is the subject of the next post.
1See posts this site dated 3/12/21, 3/15/21, 3/17/21, 3/19/21, and 3/22/21.