An action is right when it respects the integrity
and vital needs and interests of others.
It is wrong when it does not.
Many readers will recognize the above ethical declaration as a paraphrase of Aldo Leopold’s well known “Land Ethic.” I came to know and respect Leopold’s work over thirty years ago but haven’t had occasion to revisit him for quite some time, until recently when I began thinking about writing this essay. He spoke about the land and biotic community, and I realized that it’s only a short step from land and biome to Earthly existence as such, which is why my use of “others” in the declaration intends to be inclusive. I am seeking to frame an ethic that would seem a natural partner to my conviction that existence itself and all of its expressions merit human reverence (see Reverence for Existence: A Way of Knowing)—in fact, that they evoke reverence from those open to it. A way of reverence naturally implies ways of acting consistent with it.
Reverence is a concept I use without its usual religious trappings, which is not easy and is bound to travel somewhat parallel to spiritual views, but I was drawn to the word because of its unique power to express deep respect, even a kind of piety (again, minus religious notions), love, mutuality, loyalty, care, and perhaps more. However unsatisfying conventional religion may be to me, it claims by tradition the strongest language possible for speaking of spirituality and ultimate dimensions. I needed to borrow from that to say what I wanted to say.
A sense of reverence arose out of my experiences in the natural world, places where I often found myself in wordless communion and deeply moved: identified and bound-up with, united, one with…where I was. A spiritual realization of what felt as close as I expected ever to come to awareness and experience of fundamental reality. I’m comfortable thinking of it as mystical but rarely use the word due to the myriad understandings and misunderstandings of what it suggests. Since I have studied Martin Buber’s perspectives about I-Thou relations for several decades, it was natural as well to frame my experience as Thou-relation with Nature. (He also described Thou-relations with humans and forms of the spirit [as expressed through art, poetry, music, and such], but it’s always been clear to me that those are not my preferred métiers.) In finding myself in such relation with natural settings—and eventually generalizing to other settings, other life, existence—it was without conscious aspiration or plan. It just emerged and I took it seriously.
Experience was enough and for me flowed naturally into an ethic, which might be summarized as Do no avoidable harm. And further, with more positive intent, Manifest care for existence—those others that exist—insofar as I practically could. But I needed to move beyond soul, so to speak, and into intellect. What could I learn from ethicists and other philosophers to add shape and rationality to what felt indubitably true but needed words for explication. The literature in animal rights was helpful, as was that of eco-philosophers, deep ecologists, and eco-feminists. There is also a body of work in the area of “moral considerability,” the realm in which philosophers try to delineate and delimit those deserving of our moral reckoning when we act in ways that affect them, as we necessarily and frequently do. Not surprisingly, I never found an exclusionary notion (one that would justify morally disregarding certain others when one acts), whether based on lack of reason, agency, intelligence, or whatever, that didn’t seem arbitrary and coincidentally (?) mostly identified with only one species, the one that promulgated the ideas: Homo sapiens. Eventually I found what is considered a seminal essay from 1978 by Kenneth Goodpaster in The Journal of Philosophy entitled “On being morally considerable.” His conclusion: “Nothing short of the condition of being alive seems to me to be a plausible and nonarbitrary criterion.” (italics in original) I agreed, with the proviso that there remained room for nonliving forms of humanly created beauty along with mountains, rivers, deserts…the land, that also merited consideration.
My purpose here is to sketch out some ethical substance and detail to make meaningful this idea of universal moral considerability and its relation to reverence for existence.
What does it mean to take another into moral account? What is the good that morality aims to promote? How can it be so inclusive as to cover existence? Would we do better to speak less of moral rights and more about vital needs and interests? As indicated above, my responses to these questions began in my experiences of Nature as encounters wherein relations of striking depth emerged, a place where innate value was palpable and indubitable. I was regularly shaken and made joyously tearful. And the more sensitized I was by these experiences the more generalized became the sense that there was no natural boundary to a person’s capacity to relate to anything with the awareness and care that spring from reverential (or Thou) relationship. If we affect something through our actions, we are obliged to consider how we affect it and whether that effect is harmful or disrespectful. This is what it means to take another into moral account. The goods that it wants to promote concern the one who acts, the social context, the values expressed, and the act’s impact on whatever it affects.
If we accept that no unnecessary harm and beneficence when possible are reasonable moral injunctions toward those one considers morally considerable and, as I advocate, you accept universal considerability, the injunctions become universally applicable. They function as an attitude, a way of being-in-the-world. These will be uninteresting to anyone who does not already experience nonegoistic concerns for others and a desire to do a little good or at least not do avoidable harm. Moving beyond ego is, I believe, the crucial step toward taking seriously both ethics and spirituality. Excess of self portends and promotes deficiency of others in one’s consciousness. Respectful relations depend upon a degree of self-forgetting and focus upon the good of the relation and the good of the other. It assumes that there is no intrinsic contradiction between the moral good of self and other, that in caring for the world I care as well for myself as citizen of the world and its relevant local communities.
I asked above about how we take another into moral account, but another consideration springs to mind as I think about that: Whenever anyone speaks about practical ethics it usually follows that they hope to be sufficiently persuasive to alter the behavior of those who are not distinctly ethical in their approach to things, or for those who are to expand or refine their way of considering moral matters. I accept that we want to speak good sense and in a persuasive manner but am not terribly optimistic that anyone not disposed to serious thinking about ethical matters is likely to be moved. We go to the trouble of thinking, talking, and writing about these things because it pleases us to do so, and it seems to add value to the world in the form of careful thinking about serious matters, and in time it might even filter into educational and parental settings and have good effects on learners. Human moral progress is fitful to say the least, even over long periods. We may, for example, reject slavery but centuries later are still prone to racism and prejudice, oppression and exploitation. Improvement, certainly, but still with a long way to go morally. I would even say that that change was less motivated by morality than sociopolitical factors, and in the American instance by war. So I believe it important to clarify our thinking about these things—after all, what is more important than ethics?—but am sobered by what I know about human openness to moral change. Such change might be called whole-of-person change in that it entails new thinking, feeling, and behavior, and may cost the one who changes friends and other relationships.
Returning to the question, taking others into moral account (relating to them as morally considerable) is little helped by first considering what sort of other they are and with what characteristics. Even for those most like humans in one way or another or having evident intelligence, sensitivity, family feeling, etc., zoos, slaughterhouses, hunters, factory farms, and more are standing evidence that society is little moved when habit, preference, and convenience are at stake. Taking another into moral account won’t begin in the intellect alone for intellect typically aims more toward self-gratification than truth. We will only take the other into moral account when we are moved to do so (partially because intellect and ego have stepped aside or were caught napping): when an inner signal composed of fellow-feeling, ethics, empathy, and care for the moral texture of existence speak to one who is willing to hear and to act accordingly. The person might be said to feel an obligation or duty to act this way but prior to that, prior even to thinking much about a present situation, they are moved almost automatically to offer what the other needs (though they may avoid or suppress it). At a minimum, they will not add to or support the other’s harm. This can arise from a sort of existential piety, a reverence for existence, a recognition that actions matter and the life one has in the place it happens are wonders, mysteries, blessings, and that to walk softly guided by care for what one has been given is the appropriate thing to do. So giving moral account, being morally accountable, originates in character and soul and receptive awareness; words and philosophies follow.
If everything is worthy of ethical attention does this ask too much of people? Even if true, does it need paring down a bit in recognition of our finitude and flaws? Should we focus only on “the really big things” and leave the rest to good will and happenstance? I don’t think it asks too much or that, as with a rheostat, one can adjust for convenience. Character doesn’t work that way nor do we act with these cautions in mind about other of our prevailing convictions: patriotism, say, or religious belief, a philosophy of life, and so on. Well-founded ways of being that reflect an accurate account of reality become second nature, part of our self-definition and the central orientation that guides our unconscious direction-setting (which composes the majority of human existence) and, when needed and called upon, our more conscious grasp of the rudder. Reverence, care for being, is not an add-on; it is a Way just as its opposite is a way, but one that depletes and damages existence.
Discussions about how to conceive or apply ethics almost always raise both the issue of what makes another worthy and which ones possess the magic quality and have a right to be considered worthy. What I describe here, which is the experience of reverence for existence and care as the active ethical response, is not concerned with either of these markers of worthiness in routine living. Everything is worthy and rather than rights I prefer to speak of vital needs and interests. Whereas rights are too often considered contingent, it seems to me that the needs or interests of another are innate and usually clear, and as a foundational consideration about existence it seems uncontroversial that vital needs have a strong claim to respect. (This speaks of living others; nonliving but ethically valuable others will come up shortly.) Vital needs do not refer simply to the basics of food, shelter, and security. The need to flourish, to have opportunity to realize one’s inherent capacities, is also vital for a well-lived life.
In situations requiring choices that will infringe others’ needs, triage or defining acceptable nutritional sources, for example, characteristics of the other become relevant even if often difficult to assess. Both plants and animals are living beings with needs and preferred ways to persist, but since eating animals who ate plants is doubly destructive of life and since plants appear more limited in consciousness and sentience than animals, vegan or vegetarian choices are less hurtful overall. (Even if it were possible to subtract the factory farming methods of causing animal suffering as the prelude to animal slaughter, the calculus remains cogent. On the other hand, subsistence ways of life, barely existent anymore, or hunting/fishing that are ecologically based and balanced are another story but in the big picture not relevant.) All choices, however, according to the ways advocated here, are approached with seriousness and gratitude. Eating anything always involves the direct and indirect death of other creatures and efforts should be made to mitigate harms. What’s left then is gratitude for Earth’s beneficence and remembrance of what’s been taken.
Another way of approaching the ethic I want to describe is through analogy with artistic creation. The process that runs from inception of artistic envisioning through execution cannot be depicted adequately in step-by-step fashion but sometime near its beginning artistic receptivity is approached by forms, ideas, visions, images…out of which artists fashion something sensorial that expresses their response to what was spoken to them. Mind and spirit shape the inchoate into material or energetic form, an outcome of the meeting between person and vision. What I am speaking of ethically is a similar outcome of a meeting between person and an aspect of reality that their action (or inaction) will affect. I sometimes use the terminology of Buber in I and Thou: They are addressed by a person, situation, aspect of Nature, a thing, and they respond with affirmation, sometimes love. They do not grant value to the other but recognize and respond to value that is already present. Most often this dynamic involves our encounter with something living, a person, animal, forest, but we also encounter beauty in myriad forms from human creations to natural expressions, and experience confirms that beauty itself is sufficient to evoke moral respect. Anything that adds to or expresses the goodness of being, any action that morally elevates the actor—these are primary goods that morality aims to enhance while serving in its quotidian way as the attitude and theme for a human’s role in existence, which is to protect and augment what’s good through stepping into the mutuality of engagement with what’s present.
I don’t consider this an ethic that requires us to live the life of an anchorite or ascetic. But it does imply renunciation of the license to do anything humans want whenever and wherever they want. It generally seems that under the present societal regime we are permitted anything monetarily profitable or beneficial to humans even as astounding, although largely disregarded, costs to land/air/water, biodiversity, and climate stability mount up. Earth keeps its accounts even if humans do not. I recently read an article that illustrates the difficulty faced when the present human-centered regime is challenged. (“The Elephant in the Courtroom,” Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, 7 March ’22) The issue discussed was whether an elephant could be granted rights, i.e., be treated as a “person” in the eyes of the law, so that legal claims could be made that solitary zoo captivity was harmful and she should be moved to a large elephant sanctuary. She lost; the judge sympathized but didn’t consider that the law permitted it. The outcome saddened but did not surprise me. What was astonishing was Wright’s account of the pre-judgment assertions of those who opposed claims made on the elephant’s behalf and who submitted amicus briefs or otherwise stated their position. This is a selection from his citations.
• …granting personhood to one elephant would flood the courts with similar appeals for other animals and for broader rights. “The question is ‘How far do we go?”’
• “What about the slippery slope?…we’re going to erode our enthusiasm for the healthy degree of rights that we afford people who have severe cognitive impairments,” he said.
• If the elephant were granted rights “…farms, zoos, and aquaria would be at risk to a plethora of similar lawsuits…[The Plaintiff] seeks nothing less than to uproot and overturn the social order.”
• “Should the Pandora’s Box of habeas corpus be opened on behalf of animals, New York’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry would be at risk.”
• “This Court cannot magically convert legally-defined property like [the elephant] into non-property.”
• “…if an elephant can be deemed a person, ‘why not a pig, a cow, or a chicken?’”
• Extending habeas rights to animals would “impede important medical breakthroughs…”
• “Without the use of animals…the world might have been deprived of a discovery that promises to save innumerable lives.”
• Granting the elephant rights would “completely redefine the human-animal legal relationship” by undermining the status of ownership.
• Another person who didn’t weigh in on the case specifically still was “wary of blurring the line between humanity and other animals.”
This is a lengthy list and I wouldn’t have given it so much space except, as I said, I was astonished by it and had several strong reactions to what is said. (Having spent time writing about animal rights and working in animal protection I wasn’t surprised by what I read but found its agglomeration in a single article and the almost ingenuous frankness of the sources startling.) They didn’t address the situation as a moral question or with apparent awareness of the elephant’s (or other animals’) vital needs; their concerns were utilitarian and indicated how much a great many people depend on animal exploitation for their living. Anthropocentrism is not always so bold in confessing its aims. And second, there was an obvious panic reaction going on. Having been closely involved with the question of companion animals being killed in animal shelters, erroneously labelled “euthanasia,” I surmise one aspect of the panic—to acknowledge animals’ rights would mean people, the ones spoken for, had violated those rights and caused unjustifiable harms in doing so, and that’s a heavy burden to bear. (It’s impossible not to hear echoes in this of men being challenged by women over the gendered caste hierarchy, or of Whites and Blacks, or colonists and the indigenous colonized. Power differentials never give way easily, and who knows how much a part guilty conscience plays?) Also, the boundary between human and nonhuman animals has been an issue for a great number of people for a very long time. Some are apparently jealous to maintain, and insecure about, human preeminence (self-asserted) in the hierarchy. To this day, scientists, philosophers, and many others continue laboring over just what makes humans special compared to other animals. It’s an absurd quest, in my view, that serves no positive purpose yet it won’t go away. Germane to the present essay, the panicky reaction is indicative of how high a mountain one would have to climb to discover a socially accepted ethic of care for all beings. No matter how unjust a situation may seem, those who benefit from it will have a hard time seeing its injustice.
In finishing I think about the continuity of these ideas with the notion of the sacred. I speak of ours as a sacred Earth (within a sacred Universe) and as with other such terms I abjure religious overtones and intend here to denote what is deeply venerable and worthy of a corresponding regard. Affirmation and mutuality in the Earth-relation reveal mystery along with other components. Mystery linked to goodness within the deeply distinctive forms of Earth-awareness feel to me signs of the sacred, meaning: Earth as extraordinarily special and spiritually expressive. At the same time, I don’t mean to imply that a more vigorous and inclusive ethic is only available to the spiritually minded. It is altogether possible to recognize humans’ reduced but more fitting place in the Earth community, with an attendant acknowledgement of the need for (or the right of) beauty and flourishing lives to persist in self-fulfillment, and a commitment to support and protect that without reference to spirituality or sacrality. To stop there; life receives its due.