For the week of January 13, 1999   thru January 19, 1999  

Some comments on the ethical landscape


All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for)…The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.

--Aldo Leopold

 

What are ethics? What are one’s own ethics and those of the community, society, civilization and world we live in? Who among us would (or could) survive without ethics?

Who among us would (or could) examine the ethical landscape, from the individual to the world, and rest comfortably with what they find?

And what do ethics have to do with the dirt of the earth?

Ethics are a philosophical concept carrying momentous consequences. In the Western world there are roughly three schools of ethical thought. The first, from Aristotle, "holds that the virtues (such as justice, charity and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit both the person possessing them and that person’s society." The second, from Kant, "makes the concept of duty central to morality: humans are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings." The third, utilitarianism, "asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness or benefit of the greatest number."

Any way one approaches ethics, whether out of virtue, duty, pragmatism or some fusion of the three, ethics arise from the recognition of, for example, John Muir’s observation that everything is connected to everything else and John Donne’s admonition that no man is an island. That a great many people in both high and low places do not recognize the interconnectedness of all things is a human failure of monumental proportion. Some have called it a failure of imagination. Ethics are a human mechanism to bring constraint, respect, control and balance into human affairs. It is not too much to view ethics as a biological force of humanity in its relationships with itself and with the larger world. Imagine that.

The ‘ethics’ of individual members of mankind have always supplied a rich landscape of tragedy and comedy, from the ludicrous slapstick political dog and pony show currently going on in Washington, D.C., to the smoke and mirrors mystery thriller extravaganza of sanctimonious greed and Olympian abuse of power now playing in Salt Lake City, to the more serious and dark absence of ethics in the pathetic person of General Augusto Pinochet waiting in terror on the stage of Shakespeare’s England for the long overdue justice he so richly deserves, and, more, so brutally earned.

The ‘land ethic’ proposed by Aldo Leopold more than 50 years ago is more clear to more people now than ever. Conversely it is also further away from realization than ever. The land ethic of mankind offers as bountiful a landscape of tragedy and comedy as do his personal, professional and corporate ethics.

World deforestation and soil loss are accelerating, not slowing down, largely a result of third world logging and mining where control and restraint are social postures rather than ecological policies, and where the abiding native environment is sacrificed to the nation’s temporary trade deficit. The loss of tropical rain forests are the most critical examples. What are the ethics of a clear cut rain forest that will no longer support life?

Biological diversity is shrinking at an alarming rate. Species are going extinct rapidly and before our eyes. (For those whose imagination needs a bit of priming, losing "a few fish" is not the same thing as causing the extinction of an entire species of fish.) What are the ethics of the extinction of species?

The water and the air and soil of the world are increasingly polluted with toxins and radioactive substances with both actual and potential consequences, not least of which is increased cancer rates. What are the ethics of cancer rates?

The preceding three paragraphs are reason enough (proof enough, if one needs proof) that the world badly needs a land ethic.

In formulating such an ethic, one could do worse than to start with Aldo Leopold, who coined the term ‘land ethic’ and who wrote: "It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense… The ‘key-log’ which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient."

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise."

 

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