ON-LINE DEBATE

26 September 1998

Mark Stevenson


The debate is a moral debate. It may employ scientific evidence to support its case (on either side) but the correctness or otherwise of our behaviour regarding the environment is not a scientific issue. The scientific question lies in discerning what effects we are producing as a result of our present forms of interaction with the environment and in presenting other options together with an analysis of their potential effects. When we judge these effects to be good or ill we are making a moral judgement. We may act in ways that threaten the ecosystem of the planet, the planet will change.

Perhaps all biological is lost; perhaps there are many mutations; perhaps a form of life with greater power and intelligence than ours could evolve: but if there are any scientists still around they would be able to carry on studying the changed world in much the way they study our world now. Only moral beings could pronounce on whether we were right or wrong to have acted in such a way as to bring about such changes.

We can of course make non-moral judgements concerning whether human beings are more or less well able to flourish as a consequence of such change; but such judgements become moral as soon as we decide whether this is a good result or not, as soon as we start apportioning praise, blame or exoneration. Even if one were to take a reductionist view of moral language and relate it to the evolutionary success of our species, it remains true that it is the appropriate language for this debate.

The debate is not therefore about whether or not there is global warming, nor about what its consequences might be except in so far as such facts and analysis provide the means of making an informed moral decision.

As moral beings interacting with our environment we are able to adopt a responsible attitude to our environment. The first question is : should we? If we take up this opportunity, we are enriching our possibilities vis a vis the environment, we are adding another dimension to our interaction with the environment. We accord it a value. I would argue that so enriching our relationship with the environment is enriching both for us and for the environment. If we reject the opportunity to bring a moral dimension to our relationship with the environment then we are rejecting a source of enrichment. In science the richer of two competing theories is to be preferred in the absence of any determining evidence.

So, we adopt a responsible attitude to our environment. What does this entail? For a utilitarian who equates increasing wealth with the good of humanity (such as Professor B (Beckerman) appears to in the debate) then whatever leads to the greatest wealth for the greatest number is the right course of action. But a utilitarian view of this sort is sadly lacking in richness! It allows for far less a range of possibility than a morality that is based on concepts such as respect and integrity. Which is the richer relationship: regarding the apple tree in my garden only as a source of inexpensive apples, or also investing it with the significance of being the first tree that I planted and of tending it for that reason as well as for encouraging its productivity?

There tends to be a notion that simply 'caring for the environment' is a wooly, sentimental luxury. It is not, it is a source of enrichment. Any utilitarian theory of well-being that ignores such enrichment is not worth the brainspace it takes up. It must be taken into account because it affects our sense of well-being profoundly. For those of us who find that it is our relationship with the environment that is most significant with regard to our sense of well-being vis a vis the environment then there is no question but that we care for it.

E-Mail Address: mark_stevenson@classic.msn.com

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