Friday, March 5, 2010

Ethics and Environmentalism

I have been reading Beyond Growth by Herman Daly, and in the introduction, he talks about motivations for environmentalism. He points out that it is ironic and not very honest when scientists and environmentalists, who are often atheist, try to motivate people to be environmentalists by appealing to religion. Scientists and atheists do not believe that there is a higher purpose for life or reasons why things are the way they are. The explanation for life is based in physics and the ability of beings to procreate. Thus, on the one hand, it is odd that scientists do not have a good moral motive for protecting the environment. They feel this way, too, and that is why they try to use religion to provide a motive for environmental protection. Religion implies that there are absolute morals rather than morals being a social construct. Thus, it does seem like religious people should be more active in the environmental movement, and some certainly are. Daly talks about how religion and philosophy is needed to motivate environmentalism and concern for future generations.

I thought it was an interesting discussion. On the other hand, there are many scientists and atheists who do feel that there is no particular motivation for environmentalism or preserving the human race. These people are thus consistent in their views, and I certainly share that view to a certain extent. I don't think it's really a tragedy if humans really go extinct, and I'm not really sorry for all the species that have gone extinct already. However, I do have my own view of ethics and justifications for life. I think there are good evolutionary as well as immediate benefits to being ethical, and thus, I don't think you need to believe in a God to develop ethics. I feel motivated to work on environmental sustainability because I generally like when things are done efficiently and when things are being improved. I also like systems that correct for themselves and can last for a long time. I think this drive is based on how I feel emotionally, not necessarily whether it makes logical sense. I don't feel motivated to construct a logical reason for why the idea of sustainable resource use makes me feel better. In that sense, it is like a religious belief. I feel conflicted about bringing up the discussion of religion and philosophy of environmentalism. It's kind of interesting, but at the same time, I don't like to focus on it because I think people should find their own reasons. However, maybe it's necessary and really needs to be a foundation for the environmental movement.

The main alternative to scientific materialism, one that still takes science seriously, is the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. This view is radically empirical. What we know most concretely and directly, unmediated by the senses or by abstract concepts, is our inner experience of purpose. That should be the starting point, the most well known thing, in terms of which we try to explain less well known things.

1 comment:

I, Lynnbot said...

Often scientists can be overly rational. They don't consider inner purpose, like your last paragraph mentioned. I agree ethics are a social construct. Society itself is really a social construct. If we really listen to our inner selves, we as biological beings have desires and experience emotions. We have a desire to live happy lives surrounded by good people and things that indulge our senses. At least, that is how I feel and I am pretty sure it is what most people want (even if they don't know it or are really screwed up).

The motivation for preserving the human race is personal. There is no rational explanation for it. Do we want to live in an explicitly rational world? We are capable of making our surroundings fit our personal desires. I want to live in a peaceful and happy world, and I think most people share that desire. I should look into Whitehead...

But yes, religious groups are a good source of power. Pushing a movement forward is all about building coalitions between unlikely groups. Scientists and religious people? Sure why not, in the name of environmentalism. I wouldn't go reach out to them, but other people can.