A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez: Twenty-Five Years and No Wiser.

It is the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill, and funnily enough, not many people seem to be wearing black arm bands.  Twenty-five years ago more than 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound, destroying a priceless ecosystem.  Only 13 of the 32 monitored wildlife populations, habitats and resource services that were injured in the spill have been described, even by the government monitors, as having "recovered" or even "very likely recovered", and most of the local environmentalist watchdog groups are even more pessimistic about the regions recovery.  The economically vital pacific herring fisheries are gone forever, along with the fish.  The native orca pod is dying and past any hope of saving - like many of the other natural wonders of the Sound's once pristine waters. Oil is, after all, toxic, something we tend to forget at the gas pump after our purchase has underwritten the risky transport of the stuff half-way around the world through a great many ecologically fragile by-ways.

So have we learned anything?  To all intents and purposes - apparently not.  Not  a damned thing - and I use the word "damned" in accordance with its richest and most complete theological implications.  We are still addicted to the stuff - and we still want more - no matter what the cost, no matter what good and beautiful things get destroyed by our addiction, and no matter whom we have to cheat, bully, steal from, or outright invade, to get our national fix.  We hide our addiction under the banner of progress, but this is little more than to say that we are addicted to technology, to convenience, to things that glitter, whir, beep, buzz, entertain, and amuse us.  We have come to believe that we need, indeed, simply must have (or our lives will be miserable and without meaning), all the gadgets and devices that transport us quickly and individually from place to place, that cook our food in seconds, that clean our homes, our food, and our bodies swiftly and efficiently,  and that make and carry things, including all of our food and all of our many gadgets, as fast as possible - and all of that technology, to one degree or another depends almost entirely on what one of OPEC's founders, the Venezualan Oil Minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, used to describe as as "el excremento del diablo."  He was wrong about the source, of course.  But he was right about a great many of the effects  of the nasty, sticky, poisonous glop.  Mind you, it is a precious energy rich resource.  But cookies are a priceless source of high energy carbohydrates too, and one still shouldn't eat too many of them, as we regularly, and rather hypocritically, tell small children. 

Look, let's admit it.  I'm part of the problem, and you are too - even if you are an environmentalist.  Pretty much all of us dwelling in the industrial and post-industrial world are, to one degree or another.  Might I suggest, though, as a Christian priest to my fellow Christians, that those of us who love God's world, and who publicly claim that this world is His, and not ours - that we are answerable before Him, as stewards, for what we do to the things he has put into our care, might want to try, as hard as possible, to reduce our participation in this problem during the next 25 years.  It is, after all, at least conceivable that some of God's children facing the many ecological problems of the next generation or two might need some of those energy rich resources to fix the messes that we will have left them.  It might be nice to be able to say that we did our part on their behalf.

(Here's an article on the subject, from which I have shamelessly cribbed and quoted at length without providing exacting attribution,  either for those who are young enough to have no idea what I am talking about, and need some more information, or for those who want to check my sources:  http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/23/opinion/holleman-exxon-valdez-anniversary/index.html?hpt=hp_t4

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Eastern Orthodoxy and Technology: A Talk Given at a Colloquium on Religion and Technology at the Bryan Turkish Cultural Center

In considering the question of the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and technology, or more generally, the question of the relationship between Christian spirituality and modern material culture, I have been moved to reflect upon certain similarities between the modern situation of the Christian Church, and the circumstances of Balaam the prophet, as these circumstances are recorded in the book of Deuteronomy. For those who do not know the story well, Balaam is a prophet, a man of great spiritual power who serves the true God. His effectual blessings and curses are sought out by many, and at the opening of the biblical story, Balaam has been invited by the King of Moab to bless his kingdom, and to curse the invading people of Israel who are in the midst of their exodus from Egypt to Canaan. God forbids Balaam to do this, since the blessing and curse requested were not in accordance with God's will. Balaam obeys, but upset at having lost such a lucrative financial opportunity, decides to travel to Moab in any case, more or less in the explicit hope that God will change his mind. God is not pleased, and sends the angel of death to bar Balaam's way.

On the way, Balaam begins to have some trouble with his normally reliable donkey, who first runs off the road and into a field, and then presses herself against a stone wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. In each case, Balaam exercises his mastery over the animal by force, beating the donkey to get her moving again. Finally, when, in a narrow pass, the donkey proceeds to collapse underneath him entirely, Balaam’s anger knows no bounds; he proceeds to beat his donkey savagely with a stick.

At this point, both God and the donkey have had enough, and God in his compassion provides the donkey with the gift of speech, a gift with which she querulously reproves Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam’s response says much about the manner of human existence expressed solely in terms of dominion, and about the pride that so frequently accompanies our hubristic obsession with our own desires: “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you”

Here, bluntly expressed, is one of the deep errors and misjudgments of our technological and industrial culture. The donkey is no longer a fellow creature—however subservient—but has become mere techné, a “being-at-hand” solely instrumental to the fulfilment of Balaam’s narrowly human project. As such, Balaam believes that his donkey no longer has any independent right to its own existence. If it serves, well and good. It is a resource. If it does not, then it may be destroyed as an obstacle to progress. The recalcitrance of natural things, once they are misconceived solely as an affront to our own meaningful existence, is transformed into nothing more than a problem to be overcome, whether by brute force or clever stratagem. This is, I suggest, the essence of the technological, as opposed to a religious, view of the world.

Balaam's outburst is hardly a promising start to an interspecies dialogue, but to her credit, the donkey seeks to reason with Balaam: “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?” The contrast thus highlighted between the beast’s normally helpful, reliable and inarticulate assistance, and the strange and contrary way in which she is currently behaving, finally begins to puncture Balaam’s self-preoccupation, permitting him to at last see what the donkey has seen all along – death, destruction, and the terrible judgement of God standing before him. Restored to his senses, Balaam finds the grace to repent: “I have sinned, for I did not know that Thou didst stand in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in thy sight, I will go back again.”

It is only now that Balaam is able to fulfil his true calling. Freed from the siren song of wealth and acquisition, and freed from the solipsism of believing that his plans are the only plans worthy of consideration, Balaam becomes a participant in the mystery of God and a conduit of grace for others, becoming an instrument of blessing for God’s people.

It seems to me that the Christian Church, like Balaam, believes in and bears witness to mankind’s special calling as a mediator between God and his creation, and this has frequently led to a recognition, even by those who do not fully share in its beliefs, of a kind of vestigial moral and religious authority not unlike that of Balaam’s; a perceived ability to make things stronger and more acceptable by blessing them, and to make things weaker and less acceptable by cursing them. That even this vestigial power is very much attenuated in the modern situation goes without saying, but that it has ceased to exist at all is equally false. The power of the Christian faith to recognize and to motivate human beings in behalf of a cause remains significant even at the present, and during the last twenty centuries this power has, at times, been enormous.

Recognition of this influence this has led others, both inside the Church and out, to try and co-opt Christianity as a hireling, appealing to Christian greed, fear, avarice, and pride, as a lever with which to obtain the Christian Church's support for a motley assortment of factions, practices, or ways of life that are often alien or inimical to the revealed will of God, and contradictory to the deepest instincts of our faith. Any blessing thus obtained is, of course, ontologically worthless, since the blessings of the Church have as their only source the antecedent creative will and power of the Holy Trinity. It is not generally, however, for the salvific or sacramental effects of such blessings that those who try to co-opt the Church have sought them out. On the contrary, the Church’s blessing is generally sought for more practical, political, and economic effects. A false blessing, like a false dogma is, from a theological perspective, a meaningless travesty. Like heresy, however, its parasitic relationship upon the good provides it with a kind of borrowed power that is far from insignificant, in that it can destroy the souls of men and women with a lie.

Christian history is a thrice told tale replete with such mistaken alliances and dubious encouragements. One need but mention the crusades, anti-Semitism, and the persecution of religious minorities, to recognize that Christianity has at times provided fertile soil for projects and attitudes of great evil. More insidious than these blatant evils, and more difficult to assess, is the Christian Church’s historical propensity for snuggling up to political power and wealth, from the time of St. Constantine onward. The blessing that the Orthodox Church bestowed upon Roman, and later upon Russian Imperialism, explicable as it is in human terms, and possibly even in its historical unavoidability, should not, however, blind us to the fact that these alliances did not generally represent a high-water mark for the integrity and faithfulness of the Church to Christ himself, who, after all, solemnly declared that it was the faithful poor who were to be blessed, and that the rich could enter the Kingdom of God only as if “through the eye of the needle.” The beggar Lazarus, rather than the Rich Man, would rest in the bosom of Abraham.

To its credit, the Church has never lacked lives lived and voices raised in opposition to this all too comfortable alliance. And while St. John Chrysostom’s oft quoted judgement that “a man with two cloaks is a thief” has seldom been very liberally or too personally applied, its fundamental truth has never, in the Eastern Christian tradition, been subjected to any serious rebuttal on theological grounds. Neither has the Orthodox Church ever affirmed, as have some Protestant sects, that holiness and wealth are positively related. A life of asceticism, fasting, privation, and self-denial has always been regarded as the material corollary of Orthodox sanctity, and the vital and central role of monasticism in Eastern Orthodoxy has generally served to cement this idea in the popular imagination of the faithful. If it has often been a conclusion of Orthodox Christian prudence that it was better for the Church if the rich, the powerful, and the violent were well disposed towards Christianity than otherwise, it has nevertheless also been the Orthodox Church’s solemn judgement that wealth, power, and violence are in no way conducive to human salvation. It is better for a Russian gangster turned oligarch to restore Churches or support orphanages with his ill-gotten gains than for him to build brothels and casinos—and it is certainly it is better for the rest of us—but salvation, as Jesus once told a rich young ruler with considerably better credentials, comes at a far higher price.

Nor, historically speaking, have the Orthodox Church and the cultures for which it has played a formative role been all that assiduous in modifying and remaking the world by technological and industrial means for the fulfilment of purely temporal, hedonistic, and material goals. The highest type of activity in the medieval Christian world (both East and West) was contemplative, and had nothing to do with what is practical, productive, or efficient as we understand these terms today. The scientific practices and technological methods of the Christian world were deliberately never developed in such a way that they would impede the realization of more basic and primary religious and social values. As a consequence, any practices or methods that upset the more basic social dedication to harmony, beauty, and balance remained dormant and undeveloped.

This apparent lack of technical genius in Christian Europe was, as the Orthodox writer Philip Sherrard has commented, “emphasized, not counteracted, by the spirit of Christianity” - and I quote:
The period from the second century A.D. to the fifth century A.D. which saw the rise of Christianity, and which in Buddhist India was marked by astonishing developments in many fields, was marked in the West by a technical decline so great that the Emperor Julian the Apostate could fairly accuse the Christians of ruining the Empire’s industry. One of the architects of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople was quite capable of making a steam-engine (some 1200 years before James Watt ‘invented’ it), but he used his skill only to make the house he was living in shake as though there was an earthquake in order to get rid of an unpleasant neighbour living on the top floor. Except indeed for architecture – and nearly all large-scale architecture had a religious motive – Christian nations in the medieval Christian period demonstrated a singular lack of technical will or mentality.
Industrialism and technology in the West, then, have developed in a direct relationship to the decline in Christian consciousness, and this for the simple reason that the secularization of the natural world that permitted men to treat it as mere object devoid of intrinsic value and exploit it accordingly is in flat contradiction to the sacramental spirit of historical Christianity. It is a simple statement of historical fact that the industrial revolution was not an indigenous product of any Orthodox or Roman Catholic nation, and this is not, as certain colonial English writers were wont to believe, because the inhabitants of Southern and Eastern Europe were lazy and undisciplined. It was rather because these societies preserved a sacramental understanding of nature that was rooted in the unitary cosmological consciousness of ancient Christianity. It was not until the wholesale abandonment of this underlying sacramentalism during the Protestant Reformation that the widespread manipulation and exploitation of nature for more than limited human needs was generally regarded as morally acceptable.

In spite of all of this, it must be admitted that in recent times (the last 100 years or so), the Orthodox, particularly those of us dwelling in the Western industrialized nations, appear to have had precious little difficulty in adjusting to a society and to an economy in which greed and ambition function less as sins than as regulative principles and economic virtues. In spite of the raised voices of such figures as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Philip Sherrard, Patriarch Bartholomew, the Elders of Mount Athos, and virtually every spiritual father and mother of any significance in the monastic tonsure, we have often become uncomplaining participants, and have thereby given our blessing, to a system of excessive production and consumption whose rationale has become ever less apparent even as its ecological consequences have become disastrously evident. The productive activity of human beings, so readily justifiable in terms of human need during the long ages of humanity’s precarious survival upon the Earth, has long since lost its ethical mooring. Indeed, largely ignoring the human need of those who live beyond the pale of our consumer societies, the purpose of our civilization’s hyper-productivity and ingenuity is no longer that of genuine human need at all, but mere affluence; and affluence, as I have already suggested, is very difficult to justify in the Christian theological tradition. It can only be justified by an appeal to some higher good, whether it be the good of charitably caring for others, caring for the natural world, or creating higher values of an enduring and sustainable culture. Indeed, it is only culture, in its highest, widest, and most religiously significant sense as cultus that can begin to rationally justify surplus consumption and production.

In our own nation, however, culture itself has largely been debased. It is no longer a vehicle of the ideals and beliefs that we acknowledge and honour, but simply another component of a vast surplus of consumer products designed to satisfy our passions. Indeed, any attempt to justify the surplus of American production and consumption on the basis of the quality and significance of what is traditionally thought of as “high” culture—in the opera, ballet, painting, drama, and poetry of our nation—would simply inspire derision. And I trust that one does not need to be a snob to recognize that the inclusion of low culture, the popular music, movies, computer games, television sitcoms, reality shows, and professional sporting events of our society, does little to alter the fundamental absurdity of such an appeal. But what else can justify the surplus production and consumption of our civilization, and the ecological destruction that it engenders? Not religion, as we have seen, since in terms of Orthodox Christianity at least, wealth and religious sincerity are virtually incompatible. Nor can it be justified more generally in terms of the diverse and heterodox religious beliefs and aspirations of our technological civilization taken as a whole. After all, ours is not a significantly religious culture in the first place, and equally obviously, little if any of the surplus product of our civilization is being directed to religiously significant or religiously meaningful projects. Nor can it in any sense be justified by need—what conceivable need could we have for annually redesigned cellphones, electric towel warmers, ever more complicated remote control devices, an infinitely expanding redesign of computer shooting galleries, and the almost daily re-engineering of athletic shoes?

Justified or not, however, individually and collectively we sacrifice precious time, life, and natural resources producing and paying for just such stuff, and we are constantly assured by intellectual pundits, economists, and government officials that we must continue doing so, either in order (vacuously) to keep up with the Jones’s, or (circularly) to stimulate the economy and stave off destruction. More and more absurdly, increased production itself has become the sole justification for the consumption that feeds it, and this, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out to her contemporaries almost sixty years ago, is unacceptable: “A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand."

So it is, but it is precisely this sort of “house built on sand” in which a great many of my co-religionists and I live, and our society has scarcely heard a peep out of us on the subject. Encouraged by our contemporaries to bless an insane economic system and lifestyle that cannot be blessed, and to curse and despise a simpler, gentler, and more sustainable manner of living (with such epithets as “primitive”, “counter-cultural”, “romantic”, and “naïve”), countless Christians have either quietly acquiesced in this market driven reassignment of values, or made pro forma protests while generally behaving very little differently from those around us. In return for this “going along and waiting to see what we shall see,” we have been offered heretical myths of progress, specious promises of ever brighter tomorrows, and the present assurance of lives of ease, sophistication, and constant sensual gratification, replete with ready made entertainments that cater to our every vice and permeate our every waking moment. Living in this way, however, saps our moral energy and scatters our consciousness. We are, for all of what we have been promised, mostly bored, exhausted, depressed, indebted and lonely.

Religiously speaking, of course, this is predictable. Most of these unexpected consequences are a result of our growing estrangement from nature, and from nature’s God. For while it may still be true, as the psalmist insists, that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” it is also true that we are in a poor position to notice this proclamation. Our estrangement from nature, the green and lovely environment into which we were created and from which we have evolved, has become nearly total. Surrounding ourselves with the surplus products of our technological society, we live out our lives in climate controlled boxes filled with plastic junk that we do not need, cannot love, and for which we lack even the most basic understanding of how to care for, repair, or alter to fit. We purchase electronic gadgets that jabber to us inanely like demons, inciting our passions and alienating us from our friends, families and neighbours even as they smother us with mountains of data to which we cannot hope to respond intelligently, reducing our intellectual powers to little more than the behavioral stimulus and response of “like” buttons and “smiley-faces.” In our isolation we travel from place to place in gas guzzling automobiles and SUVs on proscribed pathways covered with impermeable asphalt through neighbourhoods in which nature has been abolished as all but a window dressing of lawns and pocket parks. Our nights are filled with garish lights, our days are filled with frenetic activity, and the brief space between the two is filled with canned entertainment and pre-packaged meals. In such a manner we are increasingly distracted from the still small voice that says that we have, like Esau of old, sold our birthright as God's children for a mess of pottage.

It may be, however, that nature, prefigured in our biblical story as Balaam’s Ass, will come to our rescue yet, by violently startling us out of our moral complacency and reminding us of our responsibilities. She is, after all, starting to behave erratically, and is becoming ever more belligerent in her wordless protests. Our arable land, artificially saturated with petrochemical fertilizers, and cultivated unwisely for short-term profits, is losing its fertility at a terrifying rate. Our remaining forests, weakened by clear cutting and rendered unproductive, are left to fallow undergrowth and are burning down around us. The air of our cities, saturated with the wastes generated by our automobiles, industry, chemical ingenuity, and by the ever growing numbers of generator plants taxed with meeting our outrageous demands for more electrical power, grows more and more poisoned, and smog alerts regularly greet us on the morning news programs. Our fresh water supplies grow ever more dubious in quality and uncertain in quantity, and the toxins with which our industry, mining, agriculture, and pharmacology permeate the water table enter into our bodies, taking their vengeance in the form of cancer and a host of other allergies and environmental syndromes. The once vast oceans have been over-exploited, and fisheries are collapsing worldwide, while the effluvia of our civilization that runs off into the rivers and oceans results in the contamination of the very food we eat.

Over all this loom the continuing dangers of ozone depletion, the now certain specter of declining oil production, the climatological disaster of global warming, the cascading consequences of our genetic tampering with foodstuffs, the residual and unresolved dangers of nuclear waste and the toxic environmental effects of modern military warfare. In the road ahead lies a disaster, genuinely apocalyptic in both its spiritual and material implications for mankind. Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, when our land, our water, and our air have been sufficiently despoiled, and our climate becomes sufficiently irregular, it will not be only polar bears and spotted owls that will suffer. Modern civilization and the global economy are no less fundamentally dependent upon the land-base than were the most primitive of ancient subsistence civilizations. Indeed, to the extent that our civilization is now genuinely global, it is far more so, since we can no longer evade or defer the consequences of our environmental degradations by means of migration. At this point in our history, any widespread collapse of our ecosystem tolls the death of untold millions; for all of our technological sophistication and economic power, we cannot eat, drink, or breathe GNP. If we do not find a more responsible, grateful, and sustainable way in which to live, our civilization will, sooner rather than later, collapse into anarchy, war, and penury, and those who survive such times will look back upon our civilization with horror and loathing.

In the face of all this – what resources does the Orthodox Christian tradition offer us as a community of resistance? I would argue that the Orthodox Church, in its emphasis upon transcendence, corporate responsibility, repentance, and its insistence upon the necessity of personal asceticism for achieving salvation and theosis, has much to offer to the world in the ecological struggle that is to come. At our best, for instance, we Orthodox have always known that all efforts to establish heaven on earth are doomed. This recognition has, from the first, unmasked the theological parody that has underlain our industrial and technological society since its inception, in both its capitalist and communist guises.

Furthermore, the Orthodox know that we are saved corporately, as a Church, or not at all, and that we thus have a shared responsibility for the actions of others, both the living, the dead, and the yet to be born, a conviction that, if consistently acted upon, would save us from the rampant individualism that so afflicts our current civilization and that has so materially contributed to the ecological ravages of our time. The Orthodox also know, in our bones, as it were, that we are sinners, so much so that the most basic and fundamental prayer of the Orthodox throughout the ages is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As a consequence, the idea that we might be called upon to repent for our misdeeds and make amends to others certainly should not come as a surprise to any of my co-religionists. After all, our entire religious life is built upon the principle of continuous and unremitting repentance before God. It is our very raison d’etre.

Related to this recognition of human sinfulness and need for repentance, the Orthodox have also always stressed that the way of the cross is not easy; that grace, while free, is never cheap; and that the transformative power of God demands our cooperation in a difficult but richly rewarding life of asceticism, in which our bodies, no less an intrinsic part of our psychosomatic personhood than our minds and spirits, must be transformed by struggle into fit receptacles for God’s deifying grace. This path of divinization is hard work, and holiness is a result of freely cooperating with a deifying grace that departs from those who are not willing to live in accordance with God’s holy demands. Thus the demand to live simply, as free from material encumbrances as we can, while sharing such resources as we have with those who have none is, for us, as old and as basic a feature of Christianity as Christ’s observation that it is as hard “for a rich man to enter the kingdom as it is for a camel to enter the eye of a needle.”

In short, as Orthodox Christians, we have the motive to change, and we have the resources to do so as a religious community. All that is lacking is an act of will. Religiously speaking, this is not an unfamiliar situation. At a similar fateful turning point in the wanderings of the Israelites, the Scriptures tell us that the prophet Moses set forth the situation that faced God’s people starkly, and his words apply to our own situation with equivalent force. “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Eco-Justice and the Virtues: The Role of Prudence in the Ecological Struggle

The first of the four great cardinal virtues (from the Latin “cardo” - hinge) is the virtue of prudence (phronēsis in Greek, prudentia in Latin). My experience as a high school teacher of Latin and philosophy has taught me that the significance that the ancients accorded this virtue often seems counterintuitive to those who share the contemporary association of prudence with mere risk-avoidance - as the merely sensible avoidance of danger and hardship. What, my students often wondered, is so virtuous about that? This ambivalence about prudence is reflected in current popular usage as well, in which the word prudence, (like the word pious), is just as likely to be used derogatorily as appreciatively. For while it is generally acknowledged to be a good thing to be regarded as faithful, just, compassionate, generous, or gentle - even by those who lack such virtues - to be characterized as prudent is almost insulting. The word conjures up a ghostly images of calculating but timid businessmen or overly scrupulous spinster aunts, and these images, in their turn, suggest a combination of cowardice and self-interest.

The ancient writers, though, whether pagan or Christian, had a much broader and more inclusive understanding of prudence. It was, for them, primarily an intellectual virtue, a disposition directed principally towards truth, knowledge, and reason. For Aristotle, and for those who followed his lead, whether Stoic or Christian, prudence was the Ur-spring of morality itself, a virtuous disposition that made it possible to deliberate rightly regarding that which was good or bad for men, not abstractly, but concretely, in specific situations in the world as it is actually is; and by means of such deliberation, to act rightly. Prudence, then, is a kind of good sense. It good sense directed toward the service of all that is rightly apprehended by human beings to be worthy of aspiration. Properly speaking, it may even be described as the intelligence of a human being who seeks to be good. Without it, we cannot know what use to make of the other virtues in our efforts to be moral.

Thomas Aquinas, expanding on Aristotle, makes it clear that prudence, of all the cardinal virtues, is the one that must govern the rest. Without prudence, he argued, temperance, courage and justice could tell us neither what should be done, nor how to do it. These other virtues, as Aquinas saw it, would, without the organizing intelligence of prudence as practical reasoning, be either blind or indeterminate. The just person, though he might love justice, would not know how to factually go about achieving it, and the courageous person would have no idea how to apply courage, nor under what circumstances it would be beneficial.

Aquinas was equally clear, however, in his recognition that prudence alone is not goodness. Without the support of the other virtues, prudence quickly devolves into mere shrewdness, or to an empty form of rationality deprived of any goal. It is, in a very real sense, a purely instrumental virtue, enlisted to serve the ends that are not its own, concerned, for its own part, principally with the choice of means. This, however, is precisely what makes it essential to virtue, since no virtue, in any given concrete situation, can do without it.(1) By itself, prudence is nothing, but without it neither the other virtues not the goods to which they are dispositions engender morality. A little reflection serves to make this obvious. Simply loving justice does not make one factually just, as generations of decent and well-meaning but incompetent rulers have shown. Loving the truth does not make one factually learned, as is manifest in the sloppy ramblings of every autodidact that has ever lived. Nor does loving peace make us genuinely peaceable. The road to hell, as has been frequently observed, is paved with good intentions. It is in order to avoid such disastrous outcomes that prudence is necessary, since prudence is the governing foil to all of the anarchic tendencies in us that frustrate the fruition of all that to which we love and aspire. It is an intelligence that governs the other virtues without in any sense supplanting them.

Less abstractly, though, how is one to characterize prudence? To begin with, as Aristotle insisted, prudence is not a science but an art, dealing principally with contingencies. It is the nuanced examination, in a concrete situation, of what might be possible, and by what means, and this is not a matter about which, generally speaking, genuine certainty exists. Prudence is, after all, is a kind of deliberation between alternative courses of action, and one does not need to deliberate unless there is a choice to be made. If one is an engineer who has been engaged to rebuild an essential bridge that has been washed away, and one does not know how great the span is between the riverbanks, it is prudence that drives one, by whatever methods are available, to measure the span. On the other hand, once the span is known, then this ceases to be a matter for deliberation. Prudence then passes on to the questions of which types of building materials are suitable and which are available, and to the question of how many laborers will be needed, and how one might go about training and paying these laborers. In other words, it is precisely the uncertainty of the concrete situation that calls out for prudential reasoning. Genuine prudence, then, is what a wise individual does in a situation in which one is deliberating, not about what is good, per se, but about how the good is to be achieved when there is some uncertainty about whether and by what means this good can be achieved.

The fact that prudence is an art rather than a science is, perhaps, easier to recognize in a specific case. Take, for instance, prudential parenting – every parent must, to some extent, make it up as he or she goes along, since every child is unique, and since the social, historical and economic circumstances in which one raises each child are also unique. This does not, however, mean that any old method of parenting will do, just as long as one is more or less well-intentioned. Far from it. Parents must use every bit of reason, discretion, knowledge and foresight that they have to successfully raise virtuous, healthy and happy children - and even then, all that they have to bring to the task may not, in the end, be sufficient. In any case, it is simply not enough to love one's children and wish them well while doing whatever one likes without serious reflection. A great many parents have done precisely that and failed miserably at parenting their resultingly damaged off-spring. That some such parents have succeeded in spite of their lack of prudence does not make them virtuous, but lucky, and luck is no virtue. Similarly, ecological virtue entails more than simply loving a particular natural environment. Insufficient knowledge and inadequate skill and foresight have doomed more than a few well-intentioned ecological initiatives, and persons with all the good will in the world have often done immense damage to eco-systems. Whether we like it or not, love and good intentions cannot take the place of practical intelligence. To participate fully in any good requires a certain degree of knowledge, skill, and commitment. The governing art of prudence is always necessary.

That prudence is an art does not mean that one cannot study it in order to try and improve one's own skill at practical moral reasoning. To be virtuous is to do as the virtuous man does. The frustrating apparent circularity of this Aristotelian insight belies its intrinsic brilliance. To know what prudence is is to know how good persons deliberate, and the quest for such knowledge is not nearly as arcane as some might imagine it to be, since we can, in a pinch, ask those who are virtuous how they do it. People have been doing exactly that for centuries, and the knowledge of the art thus accumulated is what we call ethics. Remarkably, for all of the arguments and differences of opinion regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of morality and the proper application of moral codes and laws to difficult situations, there is an extraordinary degree of genuine agreement regarding the apparent underlying methodological principles that sound moral decision making intuitively reflects. One cannot be prudent by proxy, of course – the the study of morality is no replacement for moral action. One must still apply what one has learned from others to the particular circumstance of one's own life, and the outcome of such application is everywhere uncertain. Nevertheless, one can learn the art of prudence in much the same way that one can learn the arts of painting, dancing, writing, parenting and governing. One can sit at the feet of the masters of the art and learn the basic methodological skills, and then begin to exercise what one has learned, either under their direct tutelage, or by attempting to apply their best advice.

In the case of prudence, what we learn under this tutelage, and from the philosophical reflection that has stemmed from it, are certain requirements of method in practical reasoning. To paint like an old master is an art, but learning certain brush-strokes and an understanding of color theory is essential if one is going to ever do better than daub paint on canvas; dancing too, is an art, but there are things a body must be taught to do in time with music if one is ever to be, however modestly, a good dancer. Failure to achieve these degrees of modest methodological competency is fatal to these arts, and prudence is no different. What then, are these methodological competencies for the art of prudence?

The first, and most widely recognized of these practical competencies is that one must, consciously or unconsciously - and preferably consciously - embrace a coherent plan of life. A moral life is only possible to persons who think about their opportunities, and who intelligently direct, focus, and control their urges, inclinations and impulses. One must have what the modern ethicist, John Rawls, refers to as a rational plan of life. Failure to do so leaves one drifting from moment to moment with no overarching sense of who one wants to be, or what one wants to achieve in life – and one cannot succeed at a goodness to which one never aspires. There are many forms of human flourishing, many greater goods in life that one can choose to participate in, but only if one makes a commitment to do so; and every such commitments involve the sacrifice of lesser desires and whimsies to one's greater goals and aspirations. No one has the time or resources to participate fully in every form of the good, so one must make a reasonable preferential selection between them, based on one's own inclinations, talents, and resources.

Balancing this is another widely recognized practical competency, which is that of acknowledging the plurality of goods which present themselves, and refusing to act against these goods, refusing to diminish them while pursuing one's own chosen goals, even if these goods have not been significantly adopted as part of one's own rational plan of life. A monk may forgo the joys of a happy marriage, sex, and children, and be a better person for it. On the other hand, a monk who denigrates these goods, casting aspersions on them, or seeking to inhibit others from adopting them as part of their own rational plan of life is a puritanical prude, or an ascetic snob. The intellectual who finds sports uncongenial and advocates the elimination of team play is similarly imprudent. As a parent, one may focus on a particular excellence in raising one's child, encouraging a quasi-ascetic focus on a particular activity for the sake of acquiring excellence (as in the parent who raises a violin prodigy) or one may opt for a broad and diverse sort of educational regimen which provides greater scope and balance but little depth of participation in any one good. Either method may represent a prudent, moral approach to childrearing. But a parent who sneers at the mediocrity of the well-rounded children of other parents, or who regards the passionate intensity of the child prodigy as a kind of mutilation, are each guilty of a failure to recognize the diversity of goods and the legitimacy of the many forms of participation in it.

Another methodological principle reflects the factual interdependence of human beings and the individual's need for the cooperation of a greater community in order to successfully attain his or her goals. Solitude has its place, and in the context of a particular plan of life, even isolation may be valued – to say that humans are socially interdependent is not to say that anchoritism is inhuman – but even the most solitary and isolated of human lives depends extensively on other human beings for its well-being. Even monks had mothers, as the aphorism has it, and for most of us, this fundamental dependence upon the community at large is considerably more extensive. On the basis of self-interest alone, we have an incentive to act in such a way as to foster the common good of our own community. This does not entail slavish conformity to one's community - one may, after all, seek not only to perpetuate but also to enhance or improve one's community, and one may even choose to seek another community more amenable to one's goals and abilities - but it does condemn activities and life commitments which result in the diminution or unraveling of human society. We need others, and they need us. Our moral deliberation must reflect this interdependency if it is to be prudent.

A fourth, and familiar, methodological requirement is that prudential reasoning makes no arbitrary preference between persons. This universalizing principal was most famously advocated by Immanuel Kant, who sought to ground an entire ethic in this principal alone. As a comprehensive ethic, Kantian deontology is utterly unworkable but, in the context of a fuller and richer virtue ethics of the sort historically adopted by most Christians prior to the Reformation - as a methodological principle of prudential reasoning - it remains essential. One's own well-being, and that of one's family and friends, with whom one's own well-being is intimately linked, may reasonably be one's primary concern, and the subject of one's principal efforts. But this is surely not simply because it, and they, are one's own. Objectively speaking, we are driven by reason to affirm that our own well-being and that of one's family and friends, however precious, are no more so than any one else's. The only rational ground for self-preferentiality is that it is only through one's own free and rational participation in the goods that one is capable of doing what is virtuous and reasonable in the first place. Christ said to love others as oneself, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. His clear implication is that it is natural and right to love ourselves from the outset. We are, after all, in the optimal position to fulfill that which is good for ourselves and for those with whom we are bound by ties of love, affection, and duty; but to violate this methodological principle by limiting ourselves to this alone, or by placing ourselves at a higher value than others, is to violate rationality itself, and deprive ourselves of the natural human flourishing rationality represents. It is, as the Church Fathers frequently opined, to become “as a beast.”

This methodological requirement of practical reasoning, that one shows no preference between persons, represents, as the legal scholar John Finnis puts it, “a pungent critique of selfishness, special pleading, double standards, hypocrisy, indifference to the goods of others that one could easily help ('passing by on the other side') and all the other manifold forms of egotistic and group bias.”(2) Moral deliberation which fails to universalize its judgments in this way, is imprudent, because it fails to participate in the good of rationality itself. It fails to make use of one of the principle resources for deliberative reasoning.

A fifth methodological principle is that one should always bring about or achieve the good, whether for ourselves or for others, with a reasonable degree of efficiency. Life is short, and time, energy, and resources are limited. One should not waste one's opportunities by using inefficient or wasteful means, and when one is deliberating about what one should or should not do, one should judge one's options according to their effectiveness, fitness for achieving one's purpose, by their utility, and by their likely consequences, both positive and negative.

This methodological principal is not, however, a justification for a utilitarian, or any other form of consequentialist ethics. Utilitarianism is doomed by its failure to recognize that the “good” to which humans aspire is fundamentally pluriform. The “good” cannot be reduced to a single category such as pleasure or happiness which can be weighed and measured for comparative evaluation. Is knowledge better than friendship? Is political order better than political freedom? The utilitarian seeks to answer this question by inquiring as to which causes the most pleasure or happiness (or, similarly, by what minimizes pain and suffering). But to what or to whom is this question addressed? It is not a question that one can put to knowledge or friendship, or to any other apprehended good itself, but only to the prudential deliberation of a moral agent. The person deciding must decide this for him or herself, and there is no answer to the question but that which is assigned to it by the one deliberating. James may prefer knowledge, and Mary, friendship, and though they are both right to value the good they prefer, neither is wrong in their assignation of relative value, since this entirely depends on the rational life plan of the person who makes the decision. To acknowledge that “x” and “y” are both good, while giving greater weight to “x” than “y” in one's own rational plan of life, does not entail, as the utilitarian imagines it it does, a truth claim that “x” is proportionally “better” than “y” according to any single scale of value. There are many goods, and they are fundamentally incommensurable.(3)

Even if this were not the case, though, and the “goodness” of of every apprehended good could somehow be univocally measured and compared, the utilitarian demand that one “maximize good” cannot result in any kind of determinate result, and so provides no actual guidance to the deliberating will. To do so, the principle would also have to delineate whether the good to be “maximized” is to be maximized with or without reference to its distribution. Is it solely the good which is to be maximized, regardless of how few acquire it? Or is that the good is to be maximized in a way consistent with an overall average of good for all? Or is it perhaps that the good to be maximized in such a way that the maximal increase of good for some must also result in at least a minimal increase of good for all? Or is it even that the good should be maximized only in such a way that all get an equivalent amount? Some such specification is essential if the principle of maximizing good is to have any meaning whatsoever. Otherwise, the utilitarian principle is as meaningless as the rules for a hot dog eating contest in which it is specified that the person who eats the most hot dog wins, but which fails to specify a time limit for the contest. Who wins? The contestant who eats 10 in a minute? The contestant who eats 500 in a week? Or the contestant who eats 100,000 over a lifetime? The rules don't provide the participants with an answer. Similarly, no utilitarian principle can offer any suggestion as to which state of affairs constitutes the most maximal “maximization” of the good. Utilitarianism is useless as guide to moral decision making, because it is vacuous.

Indeed, not just utilitarianism, but every consequentialist ethic that says that the goodness of an act is solely a function of its results must inevitably enjoin one to make decisions about what one does on the basis of what would produce the best state of affairs. Unfortunately, the options available to us, as well as the preferential ordering of the incommensurable goods to which one can aspire, are simply innumerable. Any truly consequentialist assessment of these presented possibilities could never end, just as it could never determine where to start. Once one grasps this, one begins to realize that what actually generates the conclusions of any apparent consequentialist calculus is not the calculus itself, but always some other unstated principle; an overwhelming desire perhaps, or a predetermined objective, or the traditions and biases of a given group or ideology, or (ideally and preferably) precisely the sort of methodological requirements of prudential reasoning that we have been seeking to enumerate. In any case, prudential reasoning cannot rely upon principles that provide no factual guidance.

This is not at all to suggest that one can ignore or disregard the foreseeable consequences of one's actions and take refuge solely in one's “good intentions.” The end intended, and reasonably expected to directly result from one's course of action, is, of necessity, one of the essential elements of the discursive moral reasoning that we call prudence. Nevertheless, it is only in this narrower and more limited sense, however, that the “end justifies the means.” If the means one uses violates one or more of the other methodological principles of prudential reasoning, then it stands condemned, regardless of the final state of affairs to which it aspires. Failure to grasp this one of the great moral failures of our modern civilization.

Such considerations bring us to a fifth, and closely related methodological principle that has been identified during the centuries of moral reflection upon the dictates of prudential reasoning – which is that respect for the good must be intrinsic to every moral act. No action which, of itself, does nothing but damage or impede a realization or participation in a basic good (such as life, friendship, justice, play, knowledge, faithfulness and so forth) can be good. This methodological principle is often relegated to the discussion of hard cases as a function of the “law of double effect”, but this is to conceive of the principle too narrowly. What is essential here is the rational observation that if one is doing something intrinsically harmful, something that is in violation of some fundamental good, the action itself is bad, regardless of whether further consequences may ultimately result from the act. To threaten to kill hostages in order to encourage one's enemy to capitulate (4) is wrong because, as an act, the killing of hostages is simply one of taking life. Similarly, to abort a fetus, even to bring about the consequences of an improved lifestyle or emotional state on the part of the mother (or society at large), or to torture a prisoner to achieve the goal of acquiring vital military information, are both intrinsically wrong. Any argument to the contrary depends upon a kind of consequentialist reasoning which is, as we have already seen, literally senseless, arbitrary, and therefore utterly impossible to rationally implement. The extended consequences of an act may seem likely to be very good (the enemy may be likely to surrender to avoid further killing of hostages and the war be ended, the young woman may be freed of the serious social and economic consequences of a minor and understandable lapse of judgment for which she may not have even been principally responsible, and the prisoner may divulge information which will save the lives of both soldiers and civilians), and it is easy to let oneself be swayed by such extrinsic consideration to do that which is wrong without careful prudential deliberation. Unfortunately, these acts themselves (killing hostages, aborting the fetus, torturing the prisoner) achieved none of these objectives. However likely or foreseeable the goods intended may appear, each is an effect or consequence of another free act by another person. All that has been achieved directly is the death and/or suffering of a those who are neither directly responsible for the evil that one is seeking to avert, nor for the decision to actually do so. The civilian hostages, the fetus, and the military prisoner, have each been treated as a means to an end. Their rights have been violated for the possible benefit of others. Unsurprisingly, it is on this methodological principle of prudential reasoning that the whole edifice of human rights has been erected. We violate it at the cost of our souls.

There are cases, however, in which the positive effects intended are actually part of the act itself, and so, in a very real sense, actually form part of the description of the act itself, such that we cannot characterize it as just damaging to a basic good. Instances of this would be the removal of the fallopian tube (in which the fetus has fatally lodged) in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, or the killing of an enemy soldier who is strafing an orphanage with machine gun fire. These acts, though they intend the killing of the fetus and the soldier, also directly result in the good desired, the saving of the mother's life, and the protection of the orphans. In some (but not all) such cases, such acts may be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory, but this depends almost entirely on whether or not the other methodological principles of practical reasoning are met. The universalizing principle mentioned earlier, in particular, provides a useful test in such cases. Would the person considering the act have thought that the action was reasonable if he himself were to be the person harmed? If so, it may be that the act can be justified. It is only means of such careful casuistry that many of these difficult cases can be evaluated. The complexity of the prudential deliberations involved in such cases are, I hope, obvious.

One final methodological principle that I wish to discuss (and I am far from sure that this is an exhaustive list of such principles – there may be, and probably are, many more and possibly even some that we have not yet discovered) is that of following one's conscience. This methodological principle affirms that after one has deliberated as carefully as the situation and the limitations of circumstance allow, one should, indeed, one must, follow one's own best moral judgment about what one should do. This is so, even though one's judgment may be flawed. Indeed, it may even be tragically wrong, but at the moment of decision, one has the obligation to do what believes it is over-all best to do, and to refuse to do that which one believes it is over-all best not to do.

This sovereign dignity of the conscience flows from the fact that prudential reasoning is never merely a mechanism for making good moral decisions, but like every other virtue, always a mode of participating in the good itself. Even in error, if our error is honest, the virtue of prudence has a kind of integrity that is worthy of respect, both by ourselves and others. This explains why justice is always rationally tempered by mercy, in that we judge others not only on the basis of what they do, but also on the basis of what appears to have been their intent. The religious person trusts that God, in his mercy, will do the same when the time comes for us to be judged in all our flawed ignorance, for what we have done and left undone. Although the gravity of moral decision making demands that we seek to inform our conscience as well as we may, in the moment of decision, our best judgment is all that we have to rely upon – and so we must.

It is important to recognize that each of these methodological principles, however much they may have been enshrined in moral rules and laws, are themselves principles of reasoning and justifiable on rational grounds alone. As rules, these methodological principles may inform our consciences and put us on guard against sloppy thinking, but they are not that which make the decisions based upon them good. They are good because they are demanded by rationality itself, and rationality is itself recognized as a basic value, is a good.

To sum up, then, prudence is the intelligence of virtue. It is, as Augustine so aptly put it, “love that chooses with sagacity.”(5) It is the deliberative stance of an intellectual will that, while oriented to the good, takes into account the actual circumstances of the world. It evaluates the resources of its present circumstances for the potential to preserve, extend, or establish that which is good in the future, and considers the legitimacy of the many projects available to it to bring about such a future - knowing that any future that results directly from the acts which it approves and initiates is one for which it will be held responsible as an agent. Prudence is the virtue of one who seeks to do good, rather than ill, knowing that one has a limited and finite amount of time, energy, knowledge, and skill with which to achieve whatever good goals one seeks to achieve, whether for oneself or for others. Without it the virtues would be blind, heedless, uninformed and—at best—fitfully and inefficiently applied. For this reason prudence is a cardinal or a hinge virtue, a virtue without which most of what is morally good could not be achieved by beings such as ourselves. Animals do not need it, since they need not decide what is right to do. This is mostly decided for them by naturally ingrained patterns of behavior. Nor does God need prudence, since God has perfect knowledge of every particular and already knows how and by what means the good is to be fulfilled. But for us, a moment of prudential deliberation is essential if we are to be good.

In the wake of the recent oil spill in the Gulf, the near destruction of the ozone layer, the growing concerns about global warming, and the ever increasing number of studies that make blindingly obvious the degree to which we are poisoning ourselves while destroying the natural food chain on land and sea, it is perhaps not very difficult to grasp the important role that prudential reasoning must play in any struggle for ecological sanity. If we recognize our own survival as a good, and if we have the good grace to recognize that our survival as a species is dependent upon a great deal of that which is not human in nature, then we must acknowledge our great duty to engage in thoughtful and prudential deliberation about the resources available to us to achieve this goal, and the moral legitimacy or illegitimacy of the many putative ecological projects that are available to us for achieving this good. Some, like forced sterilization, the use of vital human foodstuffs for fuel, or our Western civilization's gerrymandering of natural resources for our own benefit, are clearly immoral in their violation of one or more of the methodological principles enumerated above. Others, like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and many other eco-technological and planetary engineering proposals must be, given our limited knowledge and these projects' great potential for unintended disaster, evaluated with great caution to ensure that we do not end up doing more harm than good or transforming ourselves into something less than human in the process. The degree of prudential insight necessary to decide these matters is formidable, and our civilization is gravely acculturated to look for short cuts, and to use a machine when a little sweat equity would serve as well. As a consequence, we should be on our guard and demand caution, careful study, and thorough and independent ecological assessments for all such projects, rigorously sifting them for unexamined assumptions and hidden dangers. The willingness to “try anything” in the face of disaster is a heedless invitation to imprudence that we must resist, and this willingness represents one of the principle dangers of our civilization's longstanding lack of ecological foresight. It is precisely to avoid such risks that we must begin to take action now. In the face of our folly, we do not dare to rely solely on technological quick-fixes. Nor can we afford to do nothing.

Fortunately, these options are not exhaustive. There are, ready to hand, many other projects whose prudential character is already obvious. Less extravagant, more comprehensible, and more modest in scope, these projects already commend themselves to us as sensible and prudent steps toward the establishment of a saner, more just, and sustainable way of living. The widespread lack of acceptance of these projects principally results from the fact that they are difficult, obliging us to significantly change the way we live. Surely, though, the fact that morality requires effort should come as no surprise to anyone. Morality always entails hard choices and the suppression and sublimation of our baser desires on behalf of a fuller and richer participation in the good. The idea that ecological virtue must be easy and involve only the most minimal of alteration in one's own manner of living is childish. Anyone who tells us that we can achieve ecological sanity without a struggle has petrochemical products to sell us on the side. In this, as in all moral struggles, the narrow road of virtue must partially be its own reward.

The circumstances are these: As a civilization, we are, and have been for quite some time, using too many non-renewable energy sources, too much fresh water, too much otherwise arable land, too much metal, too many trees, too many dangerous chemicals, and so forth, all to support unexamined and unsustainable lifestyles of hyper-mobility and hyper-consumption. In contrast to this, prudential wisdom suggests to our consciences that which we have chosen to hide from ourselves: that it is possible, if not easy, to be happy, joyful, and fulfilled, and to genuinely flourish as human beings while using significantly fewer of these precious non-renewable resources and poisons. Indeed, for those of us who are Christians, the joyful example of the poverty of the saints renders the truth of this affirmation unavoidable.

This recognition makes it clear that it is possible to organize our patterns of life in such a way as to limit our own participation in the on-going destruction of our eco-system by living more simply. We can do this both by consuming a great deal fewer resources, and by disengaging, to a greater and greater degree, from making use of a high technology that is absurdly energy intensive and resource destructive.
We can do this. We can also employ whatever political power and clout that we have to oppose further unconstrained use of non-renewable resources. We can vote against politicians who borrow against the natural resources and future labor of our children to pay for programs and perks that, regardless of their abstract desirability, we cannot currently afford. We can demand that the many harmful substances currently being used in manufacturing and agriculture be restricted, and refuse to use them ourselves. We can oppose further road-building, reservoir construction, and the many other forms of endless building projects that damage our few remaining functioning natural ecosystems. We can oppose zoning and redistricting efforts which presuppose and perpetuate the necessity of automobiles, and we can do so while driving less or eliminating our automobiles altogether in favor of more efficient forms of transportation. We can fund, found, or choose to live in eco-villages, slow cities, or other forms of environmentally friendly communities. Those of us with land can grow food, and those of us without it can buy our food locally and support healthy agricultural techniques and sane and ethical animal husbandry. We can demand fair trade practices for foreign imports, and only purchase products from those companies whose business practices are such that we would be willing to accept moral responsibility for both their means of production and the treatment of employees. We can allow our moral principles to sway our investment strategies, and accept a lower rate of return as the price of honesty and sustainability. We can commit to reusing, repairing, and recycling as a way of life, thereby reducing the insidious and relentless demand-side pressure for hyper-production on the marketplace. We can bear the short-term economic consequences that such changes will entail with equanimity, supporting one another and financially assisting those in our communities who are most in need, waiting it out as the market readjusts to a new economic reality in which bad ecological behavior is no longer subsidized, and where the excluded ecological costs of our civilization's production is once again rationalized and reintegrated into the economic life our our nation and our world. We can teach our children to do these things as well, and experience a renewed hope that our own financial well-being, diminished though it may be, will no longer result in their own penury.

These projects, and countless others like them, we already have the resources to engage in if we were only willing to do so. Since the dangers of failing to take action are already apparent and incalculably great, simple prudence demands that we act – that we follow our consciences and start to live in an ecologically sane way, whether or not those around us are prepared to understand or willing to cooperate.

Prudence, as we have seen, is the intelligence of virtue. Ecological prudence demands that we bring to bear all of the intelligence, knowledge, sagacity and discipline of which we are capable to the overarching problem of restoring ecological sanity and sustainability to the circumstances of our own lives, and through us, to our civilization as a whole. Once we see, in all good conscience, that this is true, we must obey our conscience and act accordingly. No one else will do it for us.
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(1) Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia-Iae, quest. 57, art. 5, and quest. 61, art. 2. The section above represents my own summary of these passages. See also Iia-IIae, quests. 47-56.

(2) John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Clarendon Law Series, OUP, Oxford, 1980, p. 107.

(3) Interestingly, Palamite Orthodox theology provides this essential insight of Aristotelian and Thomistic virtue ethics with a theological support that Thomism itself lacks, by rejecting the Augustinian and Thomistic impulse to affirm that the goods which are the attributes of God (such as “love”, “life”, “truth” and “wisdom”) are somehow “identical” in the existential being of God. Palamism insists, on the contrary, that while these “Divine Energies” of God have their source in the utterly unknowable transcendental unity of God's essence, it is solely this which provides for their “unity”, as they remain factually “distinct” and irreducible to one another. Distinction is preserved even in unity.

(4) Rather close to home, America actually did this at the close of World War II, first by threatening to use, and then horrifically, by actually unleashing atomic weapons on Japanese citizens in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The morally erroneous principle that citizens could be legitimately targeted militarily had already been well established in the European theater of war during the air raids by both the Axis and the Allied military command.

(5) St. Augustine, De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, sec.15: “Prudentia, amor ea quibus adjuvatur ab eis quius impeditur, sagacitur seligens.” (“Prudence is a love that chooses with sagacity between that which hinders and that which helps it").

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ecology and the Virtues: The Role of Fidelity in the Struggle for Ecological Sanity

It has often occurred to me, when reading various works on ecology, and ecological matters in general, how seldom the virtues are mentioned. This seems to me to be a significant oversight. After all, the struggle against the ecological hubris of our civilization is, or at least ought to be, an ethical struggle if nothing else; a struggle to undo or at least ameliorate the damage that we have done to ourselves and to the natural world that sustains us. It is, to speak bluntly, a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, and it is by means of the moral virtues that we gird ourselves for all such struggles. With such considerations in mind, I'm taking a break from Balaam's Ass to write a few short articles on the essential significance of certain virtues in sustaining our struggle to achieve ecological sanity. While this exercise is primarily for my own benefit, seeking to clarify the relationship between virtue and eco-justice clearer for myself, in the hope that I won't ultimately end up falling prey to a defect in my own writing that I find in so many otherwise excellent works on ecology and eco-justice, I will post them anyway, in the hope that someone else may find them helpful.


Rather than beginning with the traditionally enumerated cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice, I have chosen to start with a rather simpler, and less demanding subject: the virtue of fidelity, or faithfulness. This choice is partly a matter of procrastination on my part (putting off the harder and more difficult to analyze virtues for a later date), but it is also motivated by certain autobiographical reflections of my own. Over the last several months it has finally started to dawn on me that my own late-awakening obsession with matters ecological was not unrelated to a parallel reawakening of interest and reflection upon my own childhood in Africa, a reawakening that was sparked, in part, by reading several very good childhood autobiographies, Mukiwa, by Peter Godwin, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, each of whom had somewhat similar childhoods to my own, growing up white in South-East Africa. Reading these works filled me with a desire to dust off and examine that childhood, and to keep faith with the child that I was then, and inspiring me with a resolve to reincorporate those experiences more fully into who I had become in the present.


An important part of that childhood, though, was its domination by a natural landscape of relatively unspoiled natural beauty that few Americans now have an opportunity to experience. Unfortunately, though, that pristine natural world, so vivid in memory, had come to seem so distant from my current realm of experience, that it was almost as if I had become an exile from my own existence. Where had that child gone? And what had happened to the world – to the open land, the animals, the plants, and the wide embracing sky – in which I had the good fortune to ramble endlessly and happily as a child?


Like Dante, I came to myself - not so much in a “dark wood” - but in a gleaming, glittering, hard, and utterly disenchanted world of widgets, plastic bags, automobiles, concrete, and intellectual abstractions that seemed more and more artificial, meaningless and ugly every day. I discovered, belatedly, that I wanted to be faithful to the inchoate compassion and justice of the child I was then; the child who cried for hours on his first reading of The Lorax, that lovely little ecological parable by Dr. Seuss; who was alternately enraged and horrified by the poverty of his African playmates. I also wanted to be faithful to that glorious natural world that everywhere surrounded me in my youth, not only in Africa, but also, to a lesser extent, here in my family's furlough visits to an America that was considerably less urban and overdeveloped then than it is now. I wanted to be faithful to the beauty, rich fecundity, and natural rhythms of the rivers I had once fished that had since been dammed into ugly reservoirs surrounded by expensive houses in which, to the undiscerning eye, only automobiles seemed to live. I wanted to be faithful to the lakes and ocean shores on which I once played, where no tar washed up on the beach; where fishermen went out and returned with their nets full of fish. I wanted to be faithful to the fields and meadows and forests I once knew, many of which have since been paved over or ravaged by deforestation; and to the wonderful fruits and vegetables that came out of our family garden, enjoyed in their season, and remembered longingly during the long seasons in which they did not grow. I wanted to be faithful to the child in me who once knew that animals were beings in their own right, almost persons, with claims of their own upon the world, and a source of endless delight and joy.


Mind you, as a child I was neither naïve or sentimental about animals. I knew that many of them, like the village chickens and goats and cows that wandered about on the commons eating and drinking and cavorting and crowing in accordance with their own reasons and purposes, might, as a matter of need, end up being killed to satisfy my own and others' need for food. But I also knew something rather important then that I had somehow managed to forget on my adult excursions to the local supermarket to purchase battery-raised chicken and feed-lot fattened beef: No one but a complete jerk (like the sadistic teen aged ex-patriot brat who lived down the street from my family) would willingly injure or torture an animal for any reason; and not even he would do it for something as vague and inconsequential as utility or efficiency.


In short, my desire to keep in touch with who I was as a child started to get morally complicated. Not only did I find that I didn't much want to be complicit in cruelty of modern animal “husbandry”, but I also found myself wanting to be faithful to the wider and more ecumenical sympathies of the child I once was. I wanted to be faithful to the snakes and snails and chameleons and hedgehogs and hyenas and mongooses and sables and dik-diks and fish eagles and all the other creatures whose sudden appearance on a lonely ramble with my dog through the African veldt of my childhood and adolescence brought me up short in fear, curiosity, and awe; creatures whose existence in no way directly served my own, but which had, for all of that, an intrinsic beauty, and rightness of their own; animal existences at home in a territory that was theirs, not mine; a territory in which I was, and knew myself to be, the interloper. In short, in the process of rediscovering my childhood, I also uncovered within myself a desire to be faithful to all the good things of the natural world that I knew and experienced as a child – to the beauty of a world that had since been manipulated, misused, and misappropriated nearly into non-existence, and to whose damage and destruction I had become increasingly blinded and jaded.


In pursuing these autobiographical reflections, I have turned, again and again, to the traditional language of virtue, speaking of “faithfulness”, and “fidelity.” But what is this “faithfulness” - this fidelity - of which I speak? Is it genuinely a virtue, or, as one more unsympathetic might be inclined to suggest, little more than romantic nostalgia? Is there a difference? And if there is, if fidelity is a virtue, then how is it different from mere nostalgia, and how can the cultivation of this virtue assist us in our own struggle to achieve a more ecologically just and sane way of living?


To begin with, taking a wide view, fidelity, or faithfulness, is first and foremost a human characteristic, strongly related to our species' remarkably sophisticated capacity to recall and revisit the past in memory. That to which we are faithful must be capable of representation in our mind, and the contents of our minds are, inevitably, mostly the products of our past experiences. In emphasizing the human dimensions of this characteristic, I am not suggesting that animals have no memory. All such broadly anthropomorphic denials seem uncharitable on the face of it, as well as being absurdly hard to reconcile with the facts of experience. Certainly my dogs seem to remember me from day to day, and almost nothing in the animal kingdom seems to forget the instrument by which, or the circumstances in which they have been done harm. Nor do animals seem to find it difficult to “remember” where food is to be found or where their youngsters have been left. Not only do animals seem to remember, but they even seem to possess, in some manner of their own, the particular combination of commitment and memory that characterizes fidelity itself. The fact that the phrase “as faithful as a dog” is a cultural maxim is certainly suggestive, and the vigilant and courageous care that many animals have for their young seems to indicate their possession of at least something analogous to fidelity. In any case, all such denials are intellectually pointless, since we have so little insight into how the consciousness of animals is internally expressed and exercised. A certain degree of agnosticism on the subject seems warranted. Nevertheless, it remains the case that our apparently unique capacity to wield linguistic universals - our ability to talk to others (and ourselves) about our experiences – does seem to have altered the mnemonic capacity in humans in some truly fundamental ways, making of it a genuinely peculiar human experience that is in some ways unique to our species. Animals we are, of course, but something more than that as well.


Indeed, this introspected duality between that which is more purely animal and that which is uniquely species specific to ourselves is so self-evident that it has inevitably given rise to a wide variety philosophical dualisms, dualisms that seem at least as hard to reject out of hand as they are to accept uncritically. Our body is as it were, the present of the present; while our mind, as St. Augustine boldly proclaimed, is the present of the past. It contains that which the past bequeaths to us and all that remains of it within us, as memory. Indeed, it is arguable, that it was with memory - perhaps along with its more dubious imaginary analogue, concern or anticipation (of an always unknown and largely imaginary future) - that the mind itself began. Many have thus speculated, and if, indeed, memory and concern do represent the root sources of human mentality, then of these two it is memory that is by far the more useful and content laden of the two. How seldom we are misled or made fools by acting on the basis of our memory! How often by our fearful imaginings and hopeful anticipations!


I began by speaking of fidelity, and I appear to have been sidetracked into discussing memory instead. Unfortunately, getting a grip on memory seems essential for understanding fidelity as well. After all, fidelity is dependent upon memory. It is, as it were, a special kind of exercise of memory, an affirmed connection between our present selves and something presented to ourselves in thought. As such, fidelity is well grounded in the nature of what we are as humans beings, in our mode of existence as a unique type of animal who can call to mind, remember, and consciously reflect upon past experiences. And let there be no mistaking it; this human memory is a good thing. It helps us avoid errors, keeps us humble with the memory of our faults and failures, encourages us with the memory of our successes, and enables us to actively reconnect with our past experiences and accumulated knowledge to seek information as our need and circumstances demand.


Indeed, for all that forgetfulness may appear a benison at times, it is almost always so only as the salve of failure, a momentary reversion of animal need over the distress and complexity of fully human consciousness. A person suffering at the ragged end of Alzheimer's is recognized as human only by bodily form and charity, not by any evidence of the fact in his actual behavior - which is why the disease is such an agonizing tragedy for those who once loved the victim, who go on desperately trying to love him still, even as all that is recognizably human in him drifts away. In the light of such examples, one cannot help but think that those who celebrate forgetfulness and nescience have something to hide. And though the life of animals, almost wholly grounded in the present, does not seem bereft of joy, nevertheless, it is not a human joy. Nietzsche who once opined that “it is possible to live almost without memory, indeed, to live happily, as the animals show us, but without forgetting it is utterly impossible to live at all.”1 He was as wrong about this as he was about so much else. We are what we are, beings suspended upon a bridge of time, coexisting luminously in the past and present. To be less than this is diminution.


How is it, though, that we can co-exist in this way? Memory itself, as centuries of philosophical reflection in the empiricist tradition has taught us, is no guarantor of trans-temporal unity. To know something from the past, through memory, is not yet to know that we are the same being as the person who had those experiences. This is affirmed in experience not by memory alone, but by an act of will, by fidelity, by the deliberate acknowledgment of unity of our present existence and the experiences of the past. There have been those, like Montaigne, who have made an even stronger claim, that “the foundation of my being and identity is purely moral; it consists in the fidelity to the faith I swore to myself. I am not really the same as yesterday; I am the same only because I admit to being the same, because I take the responsibility of a certain past as my own and because I intend to recognize my present commitment as still my own in the future.”2 There is something to Montaigne's observation, but the claim seems too bold; the mystery of personal identity is not so easily dissolved. I am inclined, like Bishop Butler in his famous critique of John Locke, to believe that, in the ontological realm, identity proceeds both memory and will. It seems far more reasonable to suppose that the fact that we, for instance, do not experience the memory of others, but only our own, has a strong metaphysical basis in a factual personal identity across time that is simply occult and unexaminable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that any such purely essential metaphysical unity can have no bearing on the moral realm save by an act of will. Unless one, by an act of fidelity, affirms the unity of one's own being across time, one cannot engage in ethical action at all. Fidelity, then, is a sine qua non of the moral struggle.


That this is so requires but a moment of reflection. What would become of moral effort if it were not sustained through time? What would justice be, if the just were not also faithful? Who could be said to love that was not faithful to his love; or be a friend, who had no commitment to pursue a friendship in the present to those to whom he was a friend in the past? What would a promise mean to one who did not affirm his identity with the one who once made the promise? Who could be honest who had none but passing fidelity to the truth? The truth, no doubt, would continue to be the true, but it would have no practical influence on human behavior; it could not give rise to virtue. If, as Nietzsche suggests, sanity may, on occasion, be preserved by forgetfulness, it remains equally true that without fidelity, there could be nothing of the many virtues that give human life its purpose and dignity. “Fidelity is”, as Andre Compte-Sponville so rightly observes, “the virtue of memory; it is memory itself as a virtue.”3


Aristotle claimed, and rightly, that most virtues represent a mean between extremes, and this is as true of fidelity as it is of most virtues (with the possible exception of love). That which is less than faithfulness is fickleness; that which is more than faithfulness is pig-headed obstinacy (or its religious equivalent, fanatical fundamentalism). This is not to suggest, of course, that one can be “too faithful”, but rather, is simply to recognize fidelity for the kind of virtue that it is. By definition, fidelity is neither fickle nor obstinate, but rather, an expression of just the right degree of commitment. This “right degree of commitment” is determined by its object of the fidelity. To be faithful until death to the spouse one loves is rightly admirable. To be faithful unto death to one's soccer team, or to one's ill-informed and second-hand political nostrums is not; it is fanaticism. Fidelity is the virtue of willed commitment to that which is good, precisely to the extent, and precisely to the degree to which, that to which one is faithful has actually experienced as being good. Fanaticism is commitment beyond what something is worth. Stubbornness is commitment to that which was once thought to be good, but now can be seen (or for which one has the evidence to see, if one would but examine it) to not be so. Fickleness is the failure to commit oneself to what one knows to be good whenever this becomes painful, involves too much effort, or contravenes one's own personal and irrational passions. By definition, then, fidelity is one's on-going commitment on behalf of those persons, ideas, things, or projects – anything that can be said to exist – to whatever degree that one has reasons to believe, because of past or present experience, that those persons, ideas, things, and projects are truly good and worthy of one's commitment.


With this definition in hand, one can now readily grasp the difference between fidelity and mere nostalgia. Fidelity is faithfulness to the past, or to one's previously accepted commitments, beliefs or projects, not because they are past, per se, nor because they were mine, nor even because one would find them comfortable or comforting if they could be made present, but rather because they are perceived in one's memory, even through the veil of time, to have been good, true, beautiful, worthwhile and so forth. Another way of putting this is that a man moved by nostalgia alone is moved by his passions rather than by reasons. He longs for the things and activities of the past simply because he misses what he has been deprived of by time, rather than necessarily because these were intrinsically good, worthwhile or worthy of emulation. This is not to say that nostalgia is necessarily bad, any more than any other simple desire or its fulfillment is intrinsically immoral. Nor can it be denied that nostalgia and fidelity may quite often have the same objects. It is, however, to insist upon the morally essential distinction between “what I want” and “what is good” in this particular case. Nostalgia alone is simply desire separated from its current fulfillment by the passage of time, with no more moral significance than an itch in the absence of a free hand with which to scratch it. Fidelity, on the contrary, is a virtue, and like all virtues, is oriented toward the good.


The relevance of this virtue to the struggle on behalf of eco-justice and the environment should now, I hope, begin to be evident. The natural world is full of things that we have reasons to believe are good, beautiful, true, and worthy of respect. For those of us who are Christians, these reasons include, not insignificantly, God's own revealed affirmation that everything that He has made (and He made everything) is good, and worthy of His own loving commitment, much greater than our own. Unfortunately, a great many of these good things, human beings included, are now threatened by the wrongful behavior, avaricious lifestyles, false ideologies, technological hubris, indolence, stupidity and neglect of human beings.


To speak in religious terms, this is, to be sure, a situation of on-going fallenness into which we were born, and a product of centuries of mismanagement, rationalization, selfishness and greed, for which none of us currently are entirely responsible. Furthermore, it can be hard for us to extricate ourselves from the fact that it is precisely this antecedently existing set of circumstance that has largely shaped our own ideas, expectations, and desires, whether for good or ill. If some fortunates, like myself, were blessed in having a childhood immersed in and illuminated by the experience of a more or less natural world, many more were not. Indeed, for many modern American children, nature is simply experienced as a shadowy outside presence whose impact is experienced principally in negative terms, in the experience of unregulated temperature, insect bites, power outages, extreme weather, and boring mandatory camping trips in which they are unable to play video games or watch television. Each of us has been marked, for good or ill, by the situation into which we have been born and to which we have become acclimatized.


This sense of alienation from nature, however, and our culture's hubristic and patently false sense of technological transcendence over the natural world, is, for all of its apparent persuasiveness, manifestly a kind of forgetfulness. It forgets where food comes from, where fresh water comes from, and what kind of climatological conditions must exist for us to survive. It also forgets that our actions have consequences, whether intended or not. Our civilization's failure to acknowledge these fundamental dependencies, along with the necessary obligations that such dependencies entail, are the result of a complex political, economic, and ideological history, the effects of which have been perpetuated into and even aggravated in the present. In the present, however, the dangerous consequences of our improvident behavior, which were partially (though never entirely) hidden from us in the past by the vast surplus fecundity of the land and sea, and by our extensive use of non-renewable resources such as petroleum, coal, and so forth, can no longer be denied. Awareness of these consequences can, should, and have led many of us to critically reexamine much of the dubious cultural baggage masquerading under the banner of progress in the light of all the currently available evidence. The experience is bracing, and disturbing, since doing so reveals the degree to which virtually all of us are, in one way or another, are participants in this ecological tragedy as it continues to unfold.


In this light, ecological awareness is nothing more nor less than each individual's own personal recognition of this on-going destruction of the good things of nature for what it is, vicious. The struggle for eco-justice, on the part of those of us who have become aware of this viciousness in ourselves and in our own civilization, is simply a way of being faithful to all that which is experienced as good and vulnerable in the world – everything that makes a legitimate moral claim on our attention. It is a methodical commitment, first, to extract oneself, as far as one able, from a wrongful culture of waste and damage for which, even if it is not wholly of one's own making, one has chosen to take responsibility. It is allowing oneself to be moved by one's fidelity to the goodness of the natural world and to the humans which utterly depend upon it (whether they acknowledge the fact or not) to eschew participation in way of life that is fundamentally unsustainable, that will result in a greater and greater destruction of the natural world in each generation, and that will, if unchecked, terminate in a temporally uncertain but factually predictable collapse of the increasingly fragile eco-systems upon which human life depends. It is being moved by one's fidelity to the natural world, to one's self, to others, and to the factual truths about the world as one has, by education, study, prayer and conviction, come to understand them, to change the way one lives, to develop and support projects to ameliorate the damage humans have done to the natural order, to educate others of the damage that continues to be done and of the beauty that is being lost, and, finally, to resist those who perpetuate and defend the ongoing desecration of nature in the name of profit, lifestyle, ideology, or habit.


This is our task. Out of a sense of fidelity to all that is good, beautiful, lovely and true, to ourselves as moral beings, and to the God and Father of all things (who has instructed us in Scripture to “be not weary of well-doing!”) we must continue to advocate, defend, and commit ourselves to the goal of a just, harmonious, prudent, and sustainable relationship between genuine human need and the natural order. We should not be fickle in our efforts, nor should we be intransigently stubborn in our methods, but we must, for all of that, be utterly faithful in our resolve, a resolve that need not even be subject to our chances of success (although, to be sure, the chance of success of anything is always rendered more probable by its attempt). Indeed, in this sense, faithfulness is the moral spine of virtue, since as a virtue, faithfulness does not require one to consider whether or not one shall succeed, but only, and finally: “Where should my commitment lie?” And this is as it should be. A man's faithful devotion to his wife or dedicated service to his country is made meaningless by neither the death of his wife, nor the destruction of his country, whatever his detractors may suggest.


So, let us be faithful to the natural world. Perhaps, in the process, some of us may recover a little of the wonder and joy we once experienced in it, along with some of the gratitude that we once bore in our heart for the Maker of it all - renewing in ourselves a sense of faithfulness to the persons that we were before the sordid business of life tarnished the wonder of of our existence. It may even be – who knows? - that others, less fortunate in their own experiences, and moved to join us solely by the light of reason and our own example, may yet come to experience the beneficent goodness of creation for themselves. One can always hope...and that's a virtue too.


May it be so. Amen, amen, amen.



1 Friedrich Nietzsche, “History in the Service and Disservice of Life,” trans. Gary Brown, in Unmodern Observations, ed. William Arrowsmith, Yale University Press, 1990, p. 90.

2 Michel de Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond, in The Essays of Montaigne, trans. George B. Ives, Harvard University Press, 1925, vol. 2, book 2, ch. 12, pp. 401-02.

3 Andre Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, trans. Catherine Temerson, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2001, p. 19.