Subir Trivedi, a University of Chicago graduate student and member of the Religion and the Environment Initiative, submitted this reflection on potential philosophical roots with which to think about global warming:
Much of the time our ethical obligation to curtail environmentally-damaging behaviors is framed either in terms of pragmatic considerations (e.g. “we will only harm ourselves in the end if we don’t change,” “utilizing new technologies will stimulate economic development,” etc.) or in terms of our obligations to others (to future generations, to creatures “lower” than ourselves, etc.). These arguments are typically countered on similar grounds (e.g. “environmental action will damage our economic well-being,” “our obligation to provide for the less fortunate in the here-and-now requires us to use natural resources to lift them out of poverty,” etc.). The philosophical roots of these arguments can, arguably, be located in modern utilitarian and deontological ethical traditions. However, ancient traditions of virtue ethics centered around the concept of arete and modern Romantic/chivalric traditions may provide us with alternative groundings for the man-nature relationship.
“Arete” shares a root with “aristos”, which was used to indicate nobility. Chivalric tradition likewise places great emphasis on nobility as the criterion of moral excellence. In both cases this excellence is displayed through the accomplishment of great tasks (e.g. Hercules, Galahad, etc.). The noble individual distinguishes himself as an individual and as good, through the display of his individual ability, of his self-reliance and independence. This independence implies also a certain degree of solitude: the noble individual stands on his own, accomplishes things on his own, raises himself above the common, indistinct, undifferentiated mass. Nature has always been critical to the very possibility of this because of its separate status from “civilization”, from communal, co-dependent living in cities, and towns. The “technological” stance toward nature, while obviously fundamental to and necessary for human beings, cannot offer us such possibilities in great measure. Technological progress is ever-increasingly a group endeavor, demanding extensive cooperation, reliance on the expertise of others, integration into a community of specialists, and so on. But within the chivalric tradition and the concept arete, the possibilities of self-reliance and self-cultivation that nature offers are prominent parts of moral experience; consider, for instance, the standard conception of the knightly quest/foray into the wild in pursuit of some beast. The aesthetic and even athletic possibilities of self-formation that nature makes available to us are at least the equal of those offered by the arts and are, in some sense, their close kin. An end of this relationship to nature means a loss of endless possibilities for originality, creativity, and spiritual excellence. In other words, it is an end to the most important things in human life and with them a realization of the ultimate state of moral turpitude: the state of vulgarity.
The reasons to take action on Global Warming are therefore not just political, economic, pragmatic, or social, but moral and spiritual as well. This issue pertains not merely to the obligations we owe to others, but to the creative possibilities that we preserve for ourselves.
We’re looking for reflections like this one – from any tradition – to post here on the blog. If you would like to share such a reflection, please email us at email@example.com.