Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moral Wrongs, Ecological Evils

As a teacher of ethics for over 20 years now, I’ve always been interested in what sorts of actions students view as morally wrong.  I typically start the semester off with an exercise like the following to get them to think about the scope of ethics and their own moral perspectives:

Which of the following individuals would you describe as behaving in a morally wrong way?  Be prepared to explain what it is about the acts of these individuals that you believe makes them wrong:
I then provide a list of about 20 fairly common activities that most people engage in regularly, beginning with ones that seem obviously wrong to most students:

  • A 17 year old high school junior who frequently gossips and reveals information told to her in confidence.
  • A 21 year old guy who believes that women are simply objects to be used for his pleasure.
  • A 25 year old woman who accidentally gets pregnant after casual sex and opts to have an abortion because she feels that having a baby will prevent her from advancing in her career as a corporate lawyer.
There usually is a great deal of consensus on these kinds of examples.  Most students feel that the individuals in question are wrong because they are causing intentional, direct harm to other human beings.  Occasionally a rare student might argue that the woman in third case is acting morally, because the fetus is not a person and therefore has no moral status.

At this point, some bright student might raise the objection that, even if the fetus can’t be morally harmed, the woman is wrong for the harm that she is causing herself by having casual sex.  This leads to another set of questions like the following:
  • A 27 year old man who has no ambition in life, who still lives in his parents’ house, and who is content to hang out and smoke pot every day rather than trying to be a “productive”  member of the community.
  • A 40 year old man who regularly eats chicken and hamburgers.
As in the case of the woman having casual sex, a student on occasion might argue that these two individuals are wrong if their behavior can be shown to be causing harm to themselves.  The majority of students, however, have argued over the years that the scope of ethics pertains only to harms caused to other human beings, and not to ourselves.   The two men in the above cases therefore, while perhaps imprudent, are not necessarily behaving immorally. 

But in 20 years of teaching ethics, no student has ever stopped to ask if the act of eating chicken and hamburgers in the second case might be wrong, even if the fellow eating them has such an amazing constitution that he can consume all the saturated fat and cholesterol he wants without any adverse impact on his health.  Is there something wrong, in other words with eating animals when other food choices are available?  When raised in class, this question, quite frankly, bewilders almost every student (except the rare vegan or vegetarian who might be in the class).  How can it be wrong to eat animals when animals have no moral status, they wonder?
Just to push the issue, we then go on to the real killers—those cases that usually demonstrate just how little the typical college students thinks about questions of ecological ethics:
  • An affluent 60 year old woman who owns several expensive fur coats and wears them regularly during winter.
  • A teenager who carves the name of his girlfriend in the trunk of a tree so deep in a forest that no one will ever notice it.
What on earth do these sorts of acts have to do with ethics, the students almost always wonder?  Who’s being harmed?  Who’s being wronged?

We know that it is wrong to cause direct intentional harm to other human beings.  If the woman in the first case had stolen her neighbors pet chinchillas to make her coat or the tree in the second case was in a neighbor’s yard, then students would probably argue that these two individuals are wrong because they caused harm to fellow human beings by violating their property rights.  But chinchillas and trees themselves have no rights and have no moral status, so we can do whatever we want with them and it is totally outside the scope of conventional morality.  At least that’s the way that most students look at these kinds of issues.
When I suggest that eating animals or using them for clothing is wrong because animals are sentient beings who have a right not to be subjected to unnecessary cruelty—and what can be more cruel than our American factory and fur farms—the students stare at me as though I were speaking in another language.  It not only confuses them to think that animals might have as much of a moral status as their fellow human beings, but it offends them deeply.  It means that they might be wrong for wearing their favorite leather boots, or going to McDonalds for lunch, or using cosmetics that have been tested on animals.  And that’s simply too much for them. 

And  when we get to the last case of the tree carver,  the bewilderment becomes universal.  Even if one or two students might warm to the idea that inflicting unnecessary pain on an animal is wrong, there is no way in hell that any of them are going to buy the idea that a tree, a mountain, a river, or an estuary has any rights or any moral status.   That is simply too damned extreme. 

And this I believe is the crux of the ecological crisis we are currently facing. 
Americans get the idea that if a company like GE pollutes a river, it should be forced to clean that river up, if it can be demonstrated that the pollution causes harm to human beings.  But climate change, for example, is a much more nebulous position.   The extreme temperatures, droughts, and wildfires that have been experienced all around our country are certainly harmful to human beings, but right-wing pundits have thrown doubt over whether these are indeed the result of climate change.  And, while climate change itself has the potential to cause severe harm to future generations, we don’t know exactly how much harm it will cause or to whom. 

We clear-cut entire forests for timber; we blow off the tops of mountains to get at the coal beneath them; we cram millions of pigs, chickens, and cows into vast factory farms where their waste products pollute rivers and streams, we allow fracking on public lands to extract gas and the chemicals that are used contaminate ground water.  These are ecological evils on a vast scale because they threaten the integrity of entire ecosystems. 

But we need to get to the point where we understand that every time we buy a piece of furniture made of wood that hasn’t been sustainably harvested, every time we cram a piece of chicken into our mouths when other plant-based food sources are available, every time we leave a light on in a room that’s no longer in use, we ourselves are guilty of participating in ecological evils.  Not just wrongful acts that have the potential to cause harm to individuals and groups, mind you, but evils which have the potential to devastate ecosystems, the wildlife that inhabit them, and the quality of life of future generations.

Is this way of thinking about ethics going to make you feel good about yourself?  Probably not.  But unless we start to include animals, trees, rivers, and mountains into our moral discourse we have the extreme likelihood of leaving behind a planet that is ill-suited for reasonable habitation by any species.   And if that’s not an appropriate topic of discussion for any ethics class, I surely don’t know what is.

Popular Posts