“Ethics in the Anthropocene: A research agenda”

Jeremy J. Schmidt, Peter G. Brown and Christopher J. Orr. 2016. The Anthropocene Review, Vol. 3(3) pp. 188–200.
The quantitative evidence of human impacts on the Earth System has produced new calls for planetary stewardship. At the same time, numerous scholars reject modern social sciences by claiming that the Anthropocene fundamentally changes the human condition. However, we cannot simply dismiss all previous forms of cultural learning or transmission. Instead, this paper examines ethics in the Anthropocene, and specifically what it implies for: (1) reassessing our normative systems in view of human impacts on the Earth System; (2) identifying novel ethical problems in the Anthropocene; and (3) repositioning traditional issues concerning fairness and environmental ethics. It concludes by situating ethics within the challenge of connecting multiple social worlds to a shared view of human and Earth histories and calls for renewed engagement with ethics.

Does the Anthropocene represent a radical discontinuity with the past, only comprehensible through newly invented modes of thinking? Or is it in fundamental ways continuous with the past, thus something we can approach with categories we have inherited? This paper by Schmidt et al. shows how the answer to both questions is yes—hence that formulating a moral response to the Anthropocene requires a nuanced use of moral tradition along with a readiness to acknowledge ways that traditional approaches fall short and must be supplemented or replaced.

The view of the Anthropocene as a rupture is famously championed by Clive Hamilton; along with François Gemenne and Christophe Bonneuil, he has recently argued that the shift in Earth System conditions identified by the term implies that nothing human beings have developed over their Holocene-bound history is capable of offering them guidance in a world of quite literally unprecedented challenges. “There has been no biological adaptation and no cultural learning or transmission to prepare us for the kind of environmental/geological changes that loom;” all our most basic understandings “ask to be rethought.” Among our now obsolete conceptual equipment are our received ethical traditions, which Hamilton et al. seem to take to be incapable of even appropriately characterizing our situation, hence to be of no use whatsoever in framing justifiable responses to it.

Schmidt et al. reject the view that the challenges associated with the Anthropocene, their extent and novelty notwithstanding, render existing ethical traditions utterly useless. “The fact that the Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” they declare, “should not be conflated with the rejection of all previous modes of cultural learning” (p. 190). They note that that rejection would sacrifice, for example, “critical engagement with how conventional ethics already motivate calls for planetary stewardship,” and ignore obligations of justice identified in conventional terms (p. 189). And they imply that it would forestall the exploration of a promising area within conventional ethics, which addresses the ethical challenge of the Anthropocene by identifying appropriate virtues (p. 196)—a point to which I will return in a moment.

Nonetheless Schmidt et al. do spend much of their article setting forth a full catalogue of ways conventional ethical thinking must adapt to the novel circumstances of the Anthropocene. They argue, for example, that the spatial and temporal scale of its impacts mean that “ethics in the Anthropocene must acknowledge and grapple with how individuals and organizations conceive of and take action in relation to, long-term environmental challenges” (p. 191). They note that this conceptual task has been undertaken by a variety of cultures, in ways not tied to the Western scientific worldview allied with Western traditions of ethical theorizing. Thus, they suggest, Western ethical thinking must outgrow the myopia which limits its moral horizon, and other traditions might serve as models of robust ethical engagement with the future. (Posts on this blog by Asa Randall and Noah Theriault are relevant to this point.)

Schmidt et al. indicate many other ways as well that ethics can be adapted to the challenge of the Anthropocene. Perhaps their position is not, after all, so entirely distinct from Hamilton et al.’s. “It is increasingly evident,” they say, that ideas from ethics (among other disciplines) not just ask to be but “must be rethought” (p. 196, my emphasis). The two groups of authors thus seem to agree that a rethinking of what might otherwise be merely reflexive ethical reactions to the Anthropocene is a good thing. The difference seems to be that Schmidt et al. see greater value in what the past has handed down—across cultures—so that for them that global cultural endowment might provide intellectual resources useful to the task of tuning ethical responses to the realities of our actual circumstances.

In this context let me return to Schmidt et al.’s reference to virtue theory, with which they conclude their paper (p. 196). Why appeal to this tradition in ethics, which frames the task of morality as not solely determining whether actions or policies are right or wrong, but as including the identification, and cultivation, of traits of character that contribute to the best kind of human life? Schmidt et al. suggest that the uncertainties and complexities accompanying the Anthropocene mean that it is simply impossible for individuals to predict whether a given action they might take will have good or bad consequences. It follows that the conventional utilitarian rule—do actions (or enact policies) that have good consequences, don’t do actions (or enact policies) that have bad consequences—can now only provide limited moral guidance: we just don’t know what will happen over the spatial and temporal scales we have come to learn are morally relevant. But this does not mean that moral guidance is no longer available. What it does mean is that we must seek it not from inherently uncertain predictions, but from a sense of what it means to be a good person. Thus, alluding to Byron Williston, Schmidt et al. refer to “dispositions of character, such as justice, truthfulness, and hope” (p. 196) as guides to appropriate moral responses to the Anthropocene: not things to do, but ways to be.

Now I find it hard to imagine a more vivid rejection of the idea that the Anthropocene, rupture that it may be, demands a wholesale reconstruction of the Western ethical tradition than a call to join in the revival of the most ancient element of that tradition, one that dates back to Plato and Aristotle (who remains its paradigmatic figure). Schmidt et al. note that the Anthropocene can be seen as a collective action problem, like the famous “tragedy of the commons:” individuals think that the substantial benefits they receive from their private consumption massively outweigh the tiny quantum of harm they themselves thereby cause—resulting in massive harm when everyone thinks that way and acts accordingly. Plato identified something close to that dynamic in the Republic: he was deeply concerned by the prospect that people might think that if bad actions yield clear benefits—but only a remote chance of harm—to themselves, they are better off acting badly (that is the moral of the story of the “ring of Gyges“). His solution: make people believe that they will have a better life if they become the kind of people who just don’t think that way, but rather have the character traits that dispose them to act well, in particular to control their appetites.

Of course, in looking back to the ancients I do not mean to skirt past the specific details of contemporary arguments about a suite of environmental virtues. My point simply is to endorse Schmidt et al.’s position that past normative thinking has not left us wholly unprepared to think now that we have to think about the Anthropocene. I’ll go a step further. In my view consideration of the Anthropocene can sensitize us to currents in our traditions of ethical (and political) theorizing that may have gone under appreciated (if not substantially unnoticed), but which do indeed speak to the environmental circumstances we now face. In past posts on this blog and elsewhere I have tried to make the case that historical figures (including Locke, Rousseau, and Smith) in fact do speak to our environmental situation—even offering intimations of the Anthropocene idea itself.

There is a risk, when looking at figures from the past, that we turn them into mirrors, casting back at us the preoccupations we bring to them—perhaps the source of my optimism that the authors I mentioned still address us. But it is also possible that our sense that voices from our tradition convey ideas that are too limited to be of use itself stems from expectations that blind us to elements in their thought we are not prepared to see. Thus by expecting Hobbes to be the theorist of rational egoism we can easily miss his appeal to a virtue-based solution to the problem of political cooperation. It may be that our tradition contains works that are richer, more productive for our present needs than prior readings allowed us to see—or maybe it doesn’t. For me that is a reason to revisit it, rather than to leave it behind on the assumption that, because our situation is so novel, it no longer applies. But the proof, of course, is in the reading.