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The Moral Imperative of Sustainability
07/01/2003
I have been giving a lot of thought recently to questions relating morality to the problems and issues of today. I feel that moral questioning is frequently overlooked, and yet necessary. As our civilization has developed, we have been able to structure our political/legal system in a way that represents, to some degree, our moral thinking. However, I do not feel that this process is (or ever will be) complete. In other words, while our ordered society reduces the need to make countless day-to-day moral judgments, we continue to face situations where the law is insufficient (or even wrong) and we are required to be "concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action" (as morality is defined by my American Heritage Dictionary). We are continuously faced with new frontiers... new challenges not previously addressed by the human race. Some sophistication of thought is sometimes required in assessing the right course of action. This is true regardless of religious faith or lack thereof. I would posit that those that imagine their system of belief or thought is so complete that it already has clearly-defined answers for all possible situations do not even understand their own system, much less the broader truth. Of the past few years I have wondered about the intersection between moral thought and environmental issues. It has been puzzling for me, but I feel I have made a bit of headway. First, I should point out why I feel this is necessary. Environmental issues require moral consideration because thus far our society has not adequately addressed them within a legal framework or within the markets that our laws make possible. Anyway, over the years I have had mixed feelings about how to relate morality and concerns about the environment. On one hand, I have observed -- with distaste -- continuous choices (by others and by myself) that harm the natural environment and threaten not only our health but also our future well-being. These choices include how to get around, where to live, and what to consume. Certainly, my moral radar has been hit at times, and I have made severe judgments... for example, when I see a Lincoln Navigator driver producing toxic fumes and greenhouse gasses at outrageously offensive rates. On the other hand, being reasonable, I have tried to give these people the benefit of the doubt. After all, when I really think about it in general, these people are you, me, and almost everyone I know. I may not have met that particular Lincoln Navigator driver, but the odds are she's probably not terribly different from most other people. Is the world filled with heartless scumbags? Or is there a better explanation? Looking at three approaches to morality -- religion, philosophy, and mothers -- I found quite a bit of similarity. Many modes of religious thought are so similar in their most basic approach to morality that we can think of a single Golden Rule. The Christian version: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Philosophically, I have found Kant's approach to morality to be somewhat interesting. His categorical imperative was expressed as follows: Act as if the maxim of your action was to become (through your will) a universal law of nature. In other words, one should never act in a way that one could not also wish that this action represent a law for everyone to follow. Of course, moms all over the world say, What if everybody did that? I won't pretend that this has been a universal study of the bases of moral thinking. However, I do find it interesting to note the seeming equivalence of these three diverse approaches. Furthermore, I find that thinking of morality in this way can shed some light on both sides of the dilemma I was considering earlier. When human society consumes or pollutes beyond the carrying capacity of nature, we have reached an unsustainable point. We have reached the level that cannot be accepted by anyone. This is the core of environmental problems. As I interpret the combined wisdom of the moral approaches described above, it would seem clear that one person is in the wrong when he consumes or pollutes more than his personal share of that carrying capacity. If the world is going to be in trouble if we exceed 6 billion units of some pollutant, then I'm doing something wrong if I am producing more than my share: one unit. I'm wrong because my excessive polluting can't be a "universal law", because I would be very upset if "everybody did that", and because I am not "doing unto others as I would have them do unto me." On the other hand, some sympathy for "transgressors" is also in order here. This approach to morality exhibits a strange phenomenon: targets that shift over time. As the population grows, our personal quota shrinks. In fact, it is only within the past generation or two that personal pollution or consumption quotas became tight enough to be relevant. It is hard for many people to think of the environmental impacts of consumption as a moral issue when they never really have been before. Furthermore, in light of this perspective, personal moral judgments become terribly difficult to make. How can I possibly know how much greenhouse gas I can produce before I'm doing something wrong? I don't have the knowledge to make that calculation. Clearly, management of these problems is something that requires sophisticated cooperation between human beings. That's why sustainability ought to be high on the legislative agenda. For the time being, however, it is not. So, I'll try to do my best to make my own good choices. At the same time, I think I'll refrain from throwing stones at the next Navigator I see.
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