Ethical Culture can be readily critiqued as being humano-centric. However our relationship to the natural environment has become urgent in our times in a way in which it was not when our Movement was founded. In short, Ethical Culture needs to expand its philosophical foundation to include an environmental ethic. How can we construct a philosophy to encompass an appreciation for, and protection of, the natural world?
Slowly through the decades, environmentalism has become a central issue in the list of concerns of not only progressives, but of most “right-thinking” persons. Ethical Humanists have certainly been part of that growing consensus but does that awareness have an intellectual foundation within Ethical Humanism? While Ethical Humanists are emotionally attached to concern for animals and the natural world (it feels right), humanism and humanist have been identified as human-focused and inattentive to the larger natural world.
Although some humanist groups seemingly do stress human concern to the neglect of the environment, I suspect part of the problem is perception—the word human is in the title of Humanism and some commentators purposely travel no further than the word. That said, humanism in general and Ethical Humanism in particular can use environmental concern as a stimulating push toward clarification of Ethical Humanism’s intellectual foundations. How far does intrinsic worth go? That core belief of Ethical Humanism is the essence of Ethical Humanism’s approach to living—treating each individual as a center of purpose and meaning, in and for themselves—and questioning the extent of inclusion within the circle of intrinsic worth can clarify Ethical Humanism’s intellectual foundation and make us better at our job. Does a tree have intrinsic worth? And what does the answer to that question say about Environmental Ethical Culture?
I start by inquiring into the intellectual explanations that have been offered for intrinsic worth in general through the years. In the past, the belief in intrinsic worth was articulated as a product of human beings’ ability to make moral decisions, extending to humankind the hint of a connection to the transcendent, and from that perspective human brings as moral agents are supposedly special, superior, and therefore worthy of respect. That understanding of the idea of the worth of persons has come to be seen as inadequate and with a more naturalistic and pragmatic understanding of human experience, our commitment to the worth of persons has evolved.
Before moving on beyond that idea, let me say, actually there is some truth to that understanding—after all we are conscious creatures on the crest of the evolutionary wave, and our most intimate relationships are with our fellow human beings with whom we feel empathy. Add to all of that, the fact that part of being conscious beings on the crest of the evolutionary wave is being cursed with a sense of morality. We humans must struggle through an accumulation of needs to decide what is good. We are always trying to make life work for us and consider that the good, but good for who or what? Doesn’t attempting to make tomorrow better mean going beyond self-interest or self-awareness? That capacity to struggle with the meaning of better does make us special but does that mean we can disregard the specialness of the other parts of the natural experience? Do human empathy and a sense of right and wrong mean human beings are the only ones worthy of respect? Assuming there is no universal, categorical law of the universe that declares human beings special (and I would say yes to that assumption), I’m left with two clarifying ideas included in Felix Adler’s understanding of Intrinsic Worth.
First, Ethical Culture has since Adler declared intrinsic worth as an attribution—we can’t prove it scientifically but we make intrinsic worth an act of faith, and try to live it. But, since even with all the wonders human beings are capable of, we humans can also preform unspeakable evil. So, why attribute worth only to human persons?
Since I don’t believe our moral sense offers us special status—nature and our relational experience have created our moral sense, we only get to build on it and use it—then why would we humans have the right to control and treat with disrespect the environment? In the Bible, humans get to name the animals and use them but I’m not sure where the bible-writers got the authority to hand on that privilege to us humans. We did not create the animals or the rest of nature (nor has anyone else as far as I can tell).
The second Adlerian idea behind the attributed principle of Intrinsic Worth is an explanatory phrase—treat others as end in themselves and not only as means to our ends. That phrase explains how to attribute intrinsic worth. We should treat others as ends in themselves and not only as means to our ends. There is no way of not using other forms of life (from store clerks to poets, from food to ideas—living means using), but it can be done while respecting others as having there own ends in themselves. For me the key word in the phrase, “treat others as ends…and not only as means” becomes “only.” That offers an escape clause—“…. not only as means to our ends.” Since we are going to use persons and other things, when does proper respect start? Our culture is already pretty good at treating other humans only as means to our personal needs, what hope does the rest of nature have?
So, my criterion for what deserves respect is simple existence. What “is” is deserving of respect by its very presence. That may sound a bit crazy but stub your toe on a rock and you have met something with its own physical properties and distinct character of being. We may call for protecting the remaining wild spaces for future human generations but we should be treating those spaces as entities with their own voice, as presences that lay demands upon us. We cannot treat those sites as only means to our own ends whether our need be a material resource or an experience of beauty. Everything in this world belongs to itself; we may use it but should never forget it has its own unique existence. From animals to trees and beyond simple existing means “it” deserves respect in and for itself.
All that cerebral speculating above was easy. The hard part is deciding what it all means as we relate to all the different aspects of the natural world. How do you treat the varied, individual aspects of life as ends in themselves? Obviously differences in self-awareness, mobility, reproduction, attractiveness, and a million other characteristics determine the level and form of respect required by the diverse parts of our natural reality. Some issues are relatively easy—I’m sure if animals had speech they would instinctually tell us they want to live and graze in green fields or in clean water, a tree would like to spread its seeds and feel the wind through its leaves. Vegetarians and vegans have drawn their line of respect for life but how do we build an approach to living that draws an inclusive circle of respect as a mind-set that becomes a way of living for all of us. Such a mind-set would be very different from our cultural attitude that a want is a need and little should stand in the way of our wants. It would also have to be an overarching principle that was essentially open to diverse interpretations. Since we humans have the power to dominate almost everything in our experience, disrespect seems almost “natural” but we should not forget that human nature is not set in stone, each of us can write the definition of the evolving human nature.
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