Conversation Topic 1 — What is our obligation to heal the world?
For our first community philosophy forum topic, we took up a question from the Jewish tradition: What is our obligation to heal the world?
This conversation of course contains a couple of assumptions, which we also had to discuss: namely that there is an obligation to heal the world and that some collective “we” has this obligation. Besides discussing these, we also discussed what we mean by “the world.”
A difficulty for a discussion of this topic in a pluralistic society is finding agreement on these assumptions. Many of the participants in our discussion were convinced that humans do have an obligation to heal the world. But it was only after a thorough discussion of the need that humans have to take care of other humans that Xavier, an environmental artist at the talk, broadened the discussion to include the non-human world. Most were convinced that our responsibility is not only for healing the “human world” but that it includes a responsibility for environmental well-being.
Rick provided one argument for our responsibility to the world beyond our immediate narrow interests: We are interconnected and interdependent with the world around us. Given this interdependence, there is a responsibility to broaden our concerns and care for the broader world upon which we rely. This argument is basic to the thought of many in the environmental movement. In some cases it takes the form merely of enlightened self-interest. As the well-known analogy goes: If we are dependent upon the environment but do not care for it, we are similar to individuals sitting on the branch of a tree but sawing off the branch upon which we are sitting. This will not end well for us. But the view of our interdependence goes in different directions within other traditions. In the Buddhist tradition it goes so far as to deny an independent self at all. In line with the view of co-dependent arising, there is no fundamental difference between taking care of what one normally views as oneself and taking care of the world that one normally understands as beyond the self. Both are in fact so interrelated that if we understand things correctly we will not differentiate between them. Or to quote the philosopher Arne Naess, to take up a somewhat related perspective: The boundaries of the skin are not the boundaries of the self. We are always assimilating what is outside of ourselves into ourselves. We are in a symbiotic relationship with the world. So the boundaries between self and world are fluid. We have to take care of the world to take care of ourselves, rightly understood.
Those present noted several difficulties related to the main topic of discussion. Does any individual have a responsibility for any collective action? Isn’t the sphere of an individual control simply that individual’s action? Robin suggested that we should focus on educating individuals to take care of themselves. Most however seemed to think that some collective action was required of human beings and that it extended beyond teaching individuals to care for themselves. Phillip underlined the importance of education to deepen our sense of empathy, perhaps even our spiritual sensibilities.
Upon later reflection, noting that this topic comes from the Jewish tradition, I wondered whether that tradition, or whether religious traditions more generally might accept some special obligations for collective action for the adherents of their particular religions. Those signing on to a religion thus take up special obligations for collective action with other adherents. A working assumption of our discussion seems to have been that — beyond all particular confessional adherence — because collective action is in part responsible for many of the environmental problems that characterize our age, there is a responsibility for collective action to address those problems.
Certainly, individually, working within many of the dominant systems of moral philosophy, we could see that individuals should do something to address the overconsumption of the world’s resources and the unsustainable practices that are normal in the United States. In line with Kant’s categorical imperative, for example, we should only operate on a principle that we could will to be universal law. Yet our present lifestyles in the United States can clearly not be justified if we accepted this principle. As E.O. Wilson and other biologists have pointed out, were everyone in the world to have the ecological footprint of the average U.S. citizen, we would need the resources of five earths — earths we do not have.
The question was also raised about whether we can adequately address the environmental problems within our existing political and economic system. There is a serious problem trying to address issues of the environment within an economic system that tends to reduce goods to their economic value and that focuses on increasing consumption. In our world, habits of overconsumption and non-sustainable technologies are basic to the fabric of everyday life.
One problem pointed out that interferes with the collective action to address our current problems in the United States is that there is not consensus in our own society about some of the needs we have discussed or about the assumptions that many of the discussants at our table shared. Libertarians, for example, often indicate that a person is only responsible for him- or herself. They will often reject an idea of collective responsibility. Further, some libertarians, like the Koch brothers, have invested millions of dollars to counter the idea that the kind of environmental crisis that we focussed on is even real. Their politics have been relatively effective in shaping the views of large segments of the US public. Since the 1970s the Koch brothers have funded think tanks that have tried to convince people that there is only a responsibility for oneself. It might be viewed as part of a war on empathy, to take up Billy Bragg’s talking points on this. They have also funded disinformation on climate change with the result that many Americans, as the youth activist Greta Thunberg highlights, think of climate change as something to “believe in” rather than as a generally established fact accepted by nearly all climate scientists. In fact, as of 2019 only about 57% of American think that climate change is occurring and is due in part to human activity. While most of those sitting around the table seemed to think climate change is real and agreed with Rick’s general view that we have some collective responsibility to address it, large numbers of Americans would disagree. How do we set about healing the world in this context?
This broader political reality in the United States raises serious concerns for the environmental crisis in which we are enmeshed.