“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what is right” – Isaac Asimov
Rachael Carlson’s Silent Spring drew attention to a sense of an environmental crisis in the 1960s. During the same decade, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning the world about population growth and its potential threats to planetary life. With the rising need for a basic change of values, a new field emerged as we can see in John Muir’s advocacy for “all things natural, wild and free”. Furthermore, Aldo Leopold advocated for a much needed land ethics in his Sandy County Almanac. However, Leopold himself could not provide a systematic ethical theory or framework in support of his ethical concerns and ideas, but nonetheless he created an opportunistic challenge for moral theorists.
Many environmental scientists and philosophers debate the need for a revolutionary environmental ethics to regulate the business of humankind with and within nature. Conservation, sustainable development, deep ecology, social ecology, feminism, bioregionalism are all examples of fields where ethics is, to various degrees, a concerning component and a goal. However, thinking about ethics and morality drives all dimensions of the human enterprise, not only what is concerned with environmental issues, and they do not fall short of the old relativism, which in a way gives room to prospectively built moral discourses.
The three major schools of thought on morality are, in a way, examples of such relativism: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. The later is fundamentally different from the first two in the sense that it is not worried about asking the question of “what is the right thing to do?” either because of the rules created (deontology) or because of perceived consequences (consequentialism); instead, it is concerned with the question of “how are we to live our lives?” At the end though, to think ethically is to think about what we do and why we do it, which has been fueled through many years of philosophical thoughts on morality and human nature. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci put it quite precisely that, ultimately, it is still up to us to decide what to make of it all.
A few blogs ago it was brought up that if we really are to promote change, the business of informal education should no longer avoid issues such as religion and spirituality, issues that address the whole person within learners. Here too it is imperative to look at the philosophical thoughts on morality while making moral decisions or weaving a morality system of our own. A wholesome environmental or land ethics has not yet solidified because society has yet to find the congruent points into moral theories in the face of practicalities and effective ways to foster an environmental ethics based on these congruent points. But finding those points and building dialogues among them is one of the only ways to avoid the relativist fallacy that seems to create a continuous meaningless relationship between human and non-human nature.
Just as Lisa Roberts in her book From Knowledge to Narrative challenged museums to think of themselves less as stewards of culture and knowledge and more as forums for dialogues among multiple, sometimes competing narratives about events, objects, identities and ideas, it is interesting to think of environmental education in informal contexts as potential forums for moral dialogues about the relationships among human and non-human nature. This, of course, also requires some paradigm shift in informal education from fear to engage moral and ethical questions to finding ways to put them front and center.