As ecological crises arise far away and close at hand, and proposed responses and solutions are put forward, how do we wisely discern good actions from not? And how might “seeking the good” i.e., ethics best help this happen? Perhaps, by beginning with the recognition of our lived context, a society that favours, … no, is addicted to technological ‘solutions’ and technology generally.
Usually, the technologies on offer do not come into our world naked. They come neither innocent nor unaccompanied. They come dressed with words like innovative, faster, cheaper, bigger, easier, more, etc.
They come offering to put ever more at our disposal, even as this makes nature, including us, disposable.
Our ethical discernment is complicated by the fact that ours is essentially a capitalist society. Pervasive is the deference to the supposedly masterful-with-money corporate sector, the sector whose lobbying repeatedly plays out in lucrative technology-centred government-business “partnerships”. (Governments are less inclined to support more community based and small-scale low technology solutions and partnerships.)
This spirit of capitalism, unfortunately, is not only outside us, it is in both our heads and hearts, in-forming a swollen sense of needs and wants and shrinking our sensibilities. It feeds on our fears of insecurity, of never having enough, even as it promises to calm them with a life of ever more and easier.
I argue that to engage ethics in this our world of “self-inflicted” ecological crises, we need a companion porcupine who helps us go forward by going backwards; we need to recall some widely discarded wisdom. To do so may nurture in us wiser ethical imaginations for this our troubled and wondrous world.
Recall Greek philosopher, Uncle Aristotle, for whom ‘ethics’ is inseparable from the ‘ethos’ which includes the ‘polis’. Ethics as a discerning of the “good” is tied to the political and more broadly to our ethos, our dwelling place. Ethics as integrated are the desirable actions negotiated with our habitat. And these in part depend on how widely we perceive our habitation, dwelling place, World. Indeed, seeing here becomes an ethical kind of doing, which helps in-form the good we would seek.
Our watery animally earth both pleads for and demands that we all look with regard, with care and respect. We need to go beyond seeing others as objects or as means to our self-interest, but rather to see them as abundant with value in their own right with their own interests, i.e., what is between them and other beings. This requires a seeing that reflects what arcane words like ‘regard’, ‘attend’, ‘behold’ counsel.
So, advising us to ‘behold’ a forest or our Earth implies more than observing its features. It calls us to hold it with respect, even tenderness in our looking. Furthermore, it calls us to recognize that we are being held by what we see. Evoked is the intimacy of being held by and holding the one(s) we are seeing, and by whom we are being seen. And this should rightly evoke an awareness of the depth of relationship in the process. The related word “beholden” discloses the ethical force here. We are “beholden,” i.e., in debt, for example to the forest to whom our well-being is tied and we are wise to show it regard, care and blessing.
Such a way of seeing and saying and thinking that has a tenderness in what, who it attends to is not universal, nor the sole source of desirable outcomes. Indeed, the very contrary “objective” seeing of the sciences has done much good in its way of looking. But the sciences also have been willing and unwilling partners in making our present ecological crises.
Therefore, an ethical vision of the earth that entails our seeing, feeling, acting as ones who are beholden needs to more widely arise. This vision would not realistically be owned by everyone, but it needs to engage enough so as to dictate lived practices, policy and implementation.
Even without full agreement from our citizens about our dwelling place, it is not unthinkable that we may find places of deep agreement. Across the spectrum of wisdom traditions of the world’s different regions, the idea of a kind of Bond or Treaty between humans and the earth and her creatures can be found. Here, along with the ecological sciences is the stuff crucial to a necessarily dialogical ethics, pursuing areas of connection and of “meeting” rather than total agreement.