Monday, March 12, 2007


Thrutch links to an editorial in the New York Times that integrates environmentalism and morality. The editorial says,

Whether or not you agree with them about, say, homosexuality and abortion — and we emphatically do not — it is antiquated to limit the definition of morality to the way humans behave among humans.

Those days have been over ever since it became apparent that humans — busy thinking only about their own lives — had the power to destroy huge numbers of species, whole landscapes of habitat and, in fact, the balance of life on earth. The greatest moral issue of our time is our responsibility to the planet and to all its inhabitants.
The Times knows what it is doing when it makes environmentalism a moral issue. Conservatives can argue the facts of science, and I believe the facts are not on environmentalism’s side. However, conservatives cannot argue against altruism, because they accept the fundamental premise that a man has no right to live for himself. They might argue that man must serve God, whereas the left might argue that man must serve the collective or the planet and all its inhabitants. They’re just arguing over who gets the benefit of sacrifice, and surely they can hammer out some compromise that will satisfy both the left and the right.

Altruism puts the focus of morality in the other; before environmentalism this meant other people. This Times editorial extends the other to mean everything on Earth. The moral person can live for rocks, chimpanzees, the ozone layer -- anything but himself.

Morality is not primarily about an individual’s relationship with others, whether they are humans or spotted owls, but about what an individual chooses to do with his own life. If an individual were on a desert island, then his survival would depend on his morality. Does he believe in rationality or acting on whim? Does he believe he should think for himself or pray to a supernatural being? Does he believe he has a right to change the desert island for his own happiness or that nature has an intrinsic value apart from what he wants? Does he want to live or die? Does he believe he should focus his mind or evade reality? What should he do? What should his cardinal values be? What is virtuous action to attain those values?

Morality is about what man should do in order to live. What he should do in relation to other people or in relation to “the environment,” whatever that is, is not the essence of morality, but a secondary issue. Altruism evades the heirarchy of ideas that support a rational morality to begin its argument on a subsequent issue because the fundamental questions of morality are about what a person should do to live his own life.

The greatest moral issue of our time is not “our responsibility to the planet and all of its inhabitants.” It is the question of whether man has a right to live for his own sake without sacrificing to any other, be it God, the collective or the percentage of oxygen molecules in the atmosphere.

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