by Maurice Hamel
Perspective on what is important
There is much being said today about the need to change our behavior in order to prevent the deterioration of our environment. We are being told that certain actions being taken businesses or governments are unethical. These ethical standards relate to the potential for causing the extinction of species through the harvesting of lumber in certain areas. It also relates to the theory that the use of fossil fuels may be causing changes to our climate, "global warming." If we are to accept the idea that there is such a thing as "right" and "wrong", ethical and unethical behavior, then it is the time to consider what environmental ethics should be based on. What is the environment that we are trying to protect and what is our responsibility to it?
Even among those acting responsibly, there are many conflicting perspectives concerning what our relationship is with nature and what we should be doing to sustain its health. Should our focus be on protecting the people that are potentially being exposed to hazardous chemicals or should the health of the whole planet be our primary concern? How much can incremental changes in environmental regulations impact our short-term economic stability before the social displacement causes an even greater environmental degradation? Some will focus on the necessity to preserve a diverse ecology to pass down to the next generation, while others point to the need to maintain property rights, or the need for economic growth.
Can we say there are right and wrong choices in our stewardship of the environment? Certainly, we can all think of examples of things that we know are wrong. We all understand that there is more to morality than just whether we are breaking the law. The focus of our environmental laws changes according to the perspective of each new administration. Legislators proposing, debating and passing laws are not creating ethical principles or scientific laws, they are merely struggling to apply them.
Legislated laws are fickle and changeable. We are forbidden from doing something only until someone changes the law and makes it legal. Until that occurs, we measure the consequences and benefits as we decide whether to ignore or obey a law. We question the authority of others to impose regulations such as permits for minor home improvements, the speed limit and reporting requirements for minuscule amounts of supplemental income.
Are right and wrong just relative ... ?
In contrast, ethics are not just a choice made using our own ability to reason. It is a standard that our actions and decisions will be compared to. There is a basic sense of right and wrong that we all recognize exists, even if we cannot all agree on exactly where to draw the line between right and wrong. The difference between environmental law and environmental ethics is determining the difference between what is legal and what is ethical.
Choosing what we would want to be true
We all understand that nature is not a democracy. You would think it absurd to believe that a flock of penguins could be living in the rangelands of Texas or that a wild deer could freely roam the paved neighborhoods of New York City. We understand the concept of habitats. Certain creatures need certain conditions to live in. No change in public opinion will make the penguin or deer thrive where it physically cannot. If this is so, why is it so hard to believe that we cannot arbitrarily choose what is right and what is wrong? You can believe that the ice on a pond is thick enough to skate on, but if it has been a warm winter what you believe will be irrelevant once you get out on the ice.
So then how do we discern right from wrong? Was the world designed with underlying standards, or are right and wrong just relative to each situation? How are we to deal with the idea that what is considered moral in one culture can be considered immoral in another? If it is wrong to beat your wife in America, does it become less wrong if you do it when you move to a country that does not respect the rights of women? In the same way, neither does a person's opinion of whether something is right make it right.
How are we to know what these ethical rules are ... ?
If nature is not a democracy, why should ethics be any different? Otherwise, who are we to tell someone else what is right and what is wrong. We would have to be satisfied with the relative value judgments of each individual concerning what is acceptable. To one person a whale is like a brother, to another it is livestock to be harvested. To some people the cost of changing over to double-hulled super tankers is worthwhile to protect the oceans, to others the low probability of a spill is not enough to merit the expense. If we are to consider any of these perspectives as wrong, then we are saying there is a right and a wrong.
Ethical laws are outside the realm of science
There are rules we recognize. If you walk across a highway, you may get run over. If you smoke, you might get cancer. These are the consequences we must face for ignoring the physical laws of the universe. It is simply the law of cause and effect at work. Even with the somewhat arbitrary way we make and then change our civil laws, we can still depend on the fact that those who break them must face certain consequences. Similarly, when we ignore the foundational principles designed into the universe, (call them ethical laws), sooner or later we can expect to deal with the consequences.
So how are we to determine what the rules of right and wrong are for this world? Ethics are outside the realm of science. We can't send it to the lab to be tested, then look up the results on a chart to see if the behavior is outside of acceptable standards. We are operating under more than merely the laws of physics. That concept makes scientists uncomfortable, because it suggests that there are parts of reality that they cannot measure. But just because it cannot be measured does not negate that aspect of the creation.
What we need for environmental ethics is accountability for our actions. Essentially, that requires having a set of standards, which apply to and are respected by all. But if they are outside the realm of science, how are we to know what these ethical rules are that have been designed into the creation? Ultimately, ethical standards are inseparable from religion. Historically in our culture, these ethical laws have been taught as God's commandments, for which there can be environmental impacts of biblical proportions as a consequence of them being ignored.
© Maurice Hamel
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