Toward an Environmental Ethic by Joe Chuman

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?

Ethical Culture is sometimes criticized for being too anthropocentric. Since its founding in 1876 its primary concern has been on making ethical values foremost in human affairs. A respect for human dignity and working for a world in which justice is upheld has inspired Ethical Culture’s activism leading to the creation of progressive institutions that would make any movement proud, especially one of never more than a few thousand members. But Ethical Culture has been no less committed to ethics in the private sphere. Its founder, Felix Adler, declared that the purpose of the Movement is to create “ethical personality,” and thereby inspire men and women to live by the highest moral ideals in mutual support and community with others. In passing decades, Ethical Culture became more closely identified with humanism. It was a term that Adler, the philosophical idealist, did not like, but given the Movement’s almost exclusive commitment to improving the welfare of men and women, it was not an unreasonable turn for Ethical Culture to take.

What is notably missing from Ethical Culture, which cannot be ignored in our times, is a philosophical foundation that addresses the environment and its protection. Global warming, in which the fate of the planet rests, is a problem that arguably subsumes all others. But environmental problems abound, from the pollution of our air and waters, to the destruction of rain forests to the rapid extinction of plant and animal species brought on by the usurpation of natural resources in the service of growing and developing populations.

The question before us: whether it is possible to build an environmental ethic out of humanism. If we fail to do so, our Movement will lack the intellectual integrity to confront among the most pressing issues of our time.

Adler’s philology may be a good place to start if we are willing to take considerable liberties with his idealistic metaphysics and employ speculations and visions metaphorically. There is warrant for placing Adler among latter day Transcendentalists. The antebellum founders of Transcendentalism, such as Emerson, wrote about nature suffused with a Universal Spirit. And some credit his contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, as the father of environmentalism. But Adler, who flourished after the Civil War and felt the full brunt of the Industrial Revolution, took his philosophy in different directions. His formative influences were more apiece with urbanization and the massive influx of immigrants, the slums and poverty which compelled the issues of the day.

Yet like his precursors, Adler elaborated a philosophy that spoke to the “Spiritual Universe,” an idea of the whole in which spirit pervades all things. Persons retain their individual uniqueness but at the same time are connected organically to all other such spiritual selves. In contrast to Emerson and Thoreau, Adler’s outlook did not embrace the natural world, which remained far in the background. Adler clarifies his priorities when he states, “Doubtless stones and trees and animals, and the physical world itself are but the screen behind which lies the infinite universe. But the light of that universe does not break through the screen where it is made up of stones and trees and the lower animals. It breaks through, however faintly, where there is consciousness of relation; and wherever I discover that consciousness, I find my opportunity.” “Fields and tress do not speak to me…but human beings do.” It is reciprocal communication that centers Adler’s philosophy. So throughout its history, Ethical Culture has been confined to the human realm. Yet its commitment to justice and alleviating oppression do not permit us to remain there in the face of dire environmental challenges.

How are we to expand our humanism to embrace concern for the non-human environment? We can sketch two broad directions. The first is utilitarian. The end of Ethical Culture as a humanism aims toward the maximization of human flourishing. Given our dependence on the natural environment, it follows that we need to save that environment in order to save ourselves. We can spin this approach as complexly as we need. We can expand our dependence ecologically to appreciate independence with the natural and non-natural environment and our embeddedness in ecological systems. In this way we can retain the outlines of Adler’s basic organic philosophy, naturalize it, and extend it beyond the human realm.

A second approach, inspired by his transcendental outlook, takes respect for the environment in a more “spiritual” and non-utilitarian direction. This approach asserts that nature, especially organic nature, makes a claim on us that is worthy of our respect, preservation, appreciation, and beyond, reverence. It recognizes that not only is the natural environment our nurturing mother, which has given us life and continues to sustain us, but that we share with living things, especially, attributes that inspire a reverential kinship. We share a common origin, overlapping genetic material, metabolic processes, a yen for survival, adaptation, and cooperation. New research has opened our eyes to the intelligence of animal species we previously thought to be not other than biological automata.

In moments of special insight this appreciation and reverence can engender feelings of grandeur and awe that inspire in us a profound understanding that we are components of an outreaching reality that extends to infinity in space and time. This appreciation of the natural environment is two-fold. In the first instance, it is inspired by the realization of infinite connectedness. Or, we might sense with sublime emotion and devoid of any utilitarian design, the magisterial indifference, especially of non-organic nature, to our petty, contingent, and transient preoccupations.

With regard to the first instantiation of this two-fold reverence, to walk through a forest is to not be among creatures that are sentient, but nevertheless, we encounter living things very responsive to their environments, and in some cases, capable of communication among each other, giving some species of trees a social character. True enough, if Adler vested the worth of others in their capacity for verbal communication, much of nature falls short. But if we redefine communication as responsiveness to an entity’s surroundings which we inhabit, and its ambient stimuli, and communication as a sharing of natural processes, then yes, much of the living world is in communication with us. And as such, non-human nature moves from being an object of dominion to a wider and encompassing reality with which we enter into relations and which makes a claim on us.

Perhaps Martin Buber was making a similar point when he wrote in I and Thou,

    I contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of blue silver ground. I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, thriving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air—and the growing itself in the darkness.

    I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life. I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law—those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces in continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.

    I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it. Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition. But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, then as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.

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