Essay 3 — Ethical Foundations in the Ecological Cataclysm
In part 3, "Foundations," of Blackburn's Very Short Introduction, he shows the way in which philosophers generally believe it is proper to discuss ethics. Philosophers strive to find reasons in favor of one ethical approach over another. And philosophers think of reasons as logically forceful. The best kind of reason is one that is so forceful that it cannot be resisted — at least by someone who is logical. (Notice how this fits with the emphasis placed on cogency in the rubrics for our essays.) Such reasons are thought of as "foundations" for any edifice of ethical analysis. Strong foundations imply a strong analysis.
Blackburn emphasizes three schools of foundational ethical thinking — Aristotelean virtue ethics (section 17, "Being Good and Living Well"), Kantian deontological ethics (section 18, "The Categorical Imperative"), and the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas and others (section 19, "Contracts and Discourse"). Each of these philosophies struggles with the often conflicting forces of consequentialist and deontological thinking.
Aristotle provides a very traditional approach. He conceives of the proper ethical life as one that strikes a fitting balance between on the one hand the demands of duty to family, clan and nation; and on the other hand the pragmatic consequentialist demands of political economic standing. His ethics is for power elites that hope to be well respected and politically successful within the Greco-Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great. In many ways, Aristotle is promoting an ethics that promotes the interests of a particular manifestation of western civilization. It is the philosophical embodiment of a historical precursor of the false consciousness criticized by Gandhi in chapters 1 through 12 of Indian Home Rule, and by McBay, Keith and Jensen in chapter 2 of Deep Green Resistance.
Kant resists conventional ethics like that advocated by Aristotle, and goes for a much more extreme analysis. He argues that to be ethical one must not only adhere to rules of conduct unwaveringly, but must also legislate those rules for oneself in a strictly rational manner. He believes that he has discovered the criterion for rule formation in the "categorical imperative." Kant argues that once a rule of conduct has been founded in the categorical imperative a person must follow that rule regardless of the consequences. Kant entirely rejects consequentialist thinking.
Habermas explicitly states that he is working in the tradition of Kantian deontological ethics — but, as Blackburn points out (page 108), Habermas presents a set of rules that seem to have the intention of providing the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people — a profoundly consequentialist notion, the very formula of utilitarianism as discussed in section 12. Habermas' approach is "discourse" ethics. "Discourse" here means "dialogue." Habermas argues that the essence of ethics is the engagement in rational discourse among representatives of class interests in society. The rules that Habermas lays down are intended to ensure respect for each participant in the dialogue and lead to consensus on the directions that a multifaceted society should take. These rules are justified by research findings of cognitive psychology, and in fact owe much to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, the source of some of our ethical dilemmas from early in the course.
For this essay, you should also treat the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill as a foundational approach to ethics. The formula, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, is the foundational justification for the ethical analyses provided by utilitarianism.
In this section of the course we will consider our authors' proposals for ethical action in the face of civilizational collapse. Scheidler and Gandhi engage this at the grand level of civilization in general — while Hallam; and McBay, Keith and Jensen are specifically engaged with collapse in the form of the ecological cataclysm. Pay attention to the ways in which all of these authors provide foundational concepts for their analyses, and draw connections to the four foundational perspectives described above.
Philosophy of Liberation
Please notice that all of the above authors can be criticized as being Eurocentric, and as shaping the whole philosophical discourse around ethics and the ecological cataclysm in ways that exclude and ignore perspectives from broad swaths of the global population. The standard curriculum for this course, and the state of philosophy in Anglo-American education institutions encourages this Eurocentric, perspective.
I do think that there is a great deal of value for students just being introduced to philosophy to enter into the discussion in this naïve way. A critical deconstruction of the false consciousness of the subject matter usually leverages the traditional presentation. And to go into this criticism at this point in our course would be total information overload. The criticisms of western civilization found in Scheidler, Gandhi; and McBay, Keith and Jensen are sufficient at this point.
However, I do have a course on the "philosophy of liberation" (at Cerritos College it is PHIL 104: Philosophy of Cultural Diversity — Challenge and Change). This course is specifically devoted to a thoroughgoing critique of Euro-American philosophy. I focus on Enrique Dussel's "philosophy of liberation," especially as it is articulated in Anti-Cartesian Mediations and Transmodernity: From the Perspectives of Philosophy of Liberation. Dussel makes an attempt to connect his thinking with our climate crisis, and I draw much inspiration from his work when thinking about that crisis. In the course, I sketch an introduction to what I call "political ecology" — which is my own particular response to the ecological cataclysm, and which is significantly different from the perspectives of Hallam; and McBay, Keith and Jensen. If any of this is of interest to you, read Dussel or take the course.
Which argument is more cogent — Hallam's argument in Common Sense, or McBay, Keith and Jensen's argument in Deep Green Resistance?
To what degree do Hallam; and McBay, Keith and Jensen provide ethical foundations for their plans of action, and how are the the proposals related to the traditional foundational ethical philosophies that we have studied? Hopefully you have noticed that Gandhi's argument is foundational in the way that Blackburn describes, and that Hallam draws heavily upon Gandhi. So, that is one aspect that you may want to explore. But beyond that, think of the ways that the proposals for climate crisis response connect with Aristotle, Kant, Habermas and Mill. Do these traditional philosophers provide rational grounding for the strategic proposals? Do these traditional philosophies rationally undermine the proposals? Are there other perspectives that should come into the discussion? Ultimately, I want you to decide which is more cogent. Is Hallam's argument in Common Sense more cogent, or is McBay, Keith and Jensen's argument in Deep Green Resistance more cogent? Analyze both arguments.