The Ethics and Critical Thinking course that Valencia College provides me each semester is a real joy to teach. It truly is doing ethics at the United Nations. The varied cultural backgrounds of the students makes the discussions of ethical theory and the deliberations over ethical dilemmas vibrant and energized. These are for the most part thoughtful people, most of whom come to me at the end of long work days and remain present and engaged for three hours. I admire them and I consider this class a major gift in my life for which I am thankful, indeed.
The curriculum for the course begins with the various ethical theories starting with egoism and ending with feminist ethical theory. The second half of the course examines ethical applications from economic considerations to questions of why and how we punish people. The final application each semester is on the environment. The chapter raises questions of climate change, despoliation of nature and examines them through the narrow lens of anthropocentrism versus the broader lens of biocentrism.
The New Battle of Midway
I begin this unit each semester with a trailer from a film released last year called Midway. It is set at the atoll midway across the Pacific from the Americas to Asia famed for its ferocious fighting during World War II. But Midway is the front for a new war being waged these days and the outcome of that war is much more precarious and ultimately much greater in its impact than the pitched battles of the Allies and Axis forces in the mid-20th CE.
Midway is the home for many oceanic birds and is located in some of the richer marine life preserves on the planet. The filmmakers begin with a look at the beauty of those animals and the seemingly unlimited supply of the same. But all is not well in Eden. Many of the birds are sick and dying. Their stomachs prove to be full of plastic, Styrofoam and other human generated flotsam which has made its way over 2000 nautical miles from the closest points of human settlement to this island.
The scenes of dead and dying birds serves as the springboard for our discussions. Midway is in the middle of the ocean. What other animals have encountered this flow of human refuse along the way? With what results? What implications for human behavior does this raise? What are the ethical and critical thinking issues raised?
The trailer provides a very fertile ground for discussion of anthropocentrism v. biocentrism. But what always strikes me when I show this excerpt of film is the response my students inevitably have. They fall silent. Dead silent. And the discussion of the film that follows inevitably evidences no small amount of anguish.
Do We Have the Courage?
At the end of the excerpt, the narrator reads a question posed to the viewer in the film:
“Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”
It is a powerful question posed at the end of a disturbing video with a lot of implications for a generation poised on the edge of inheriting the world. And so when one of the students asked whether they had to answer that question, I decided to see what this rising cohort of heirs to a world in crisis might have to say.
The results were disturbing. Of the 20 students responding, only three of them offered even a remotely affirmative answer to the question.
One couched a response in theoretical terms: “Ideally, if we would all unite and be consistent and do the same thing we would resolve some major life-threatening issues - to conserve nature, our environment, our world. But for all to find the courage is a challenge in itself.”
Another drew a distinction between the few and the many: “I believe many people are able to do so but most people don’t. We are quick to point the finger at the next man or woman and blame them but we don’t take a look at ourselves and what we are doing. A few people may be proactive on these situations but there is not enough of them to really bring change when the many are still repeating their negative ways.”
A third student offered a sanguine view of human history in making changes when needed saying, “I think we do have the courage because so many positive changes have been made throughout the years. So we can make a better change for our future.”
Bear in mind these are the more optimistic voices. Of the remaining 17 students, their responses fell into several perhaps predictable categories.
Not surprisingly, many recognized the enormous scope of the problems of climate change and wondered what they alone could do about it:
- I can’t speak for everyone in the room but me, personally, I can‘t. I feel that with everything that is wrong in our time, I don’t have enough heart or courage to face it. I care enough to do something about it but not all.
- We are quick to point the finger at the next man or woman and blame them but we don’t take a look at ourselves and what we are doing. A few people may be proactive on these situations but there are not enough of them to really bring change when the many are still repeating their negative ways.
Several students noted that courage to change is rarely summoned until people begin to feel the effects of a crisis themselves. To wit:
- I do not think people may look at something as a major problem until it actually hits home. Some people are not willing enough to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and their future. It may be too much of a distraction for them. For instance, the seagulls. People may think, “Why are they necessary? What will be the difference without them?”
- [We will care] only when that reality begins to affect our very being. When the Industrial Revolution began, few cared about where the mass of pollution went. In the case of caring for the poor, unless you are actually poor, you turn a blind eye and ignore the problem even though it is right there.
- I feel as though a lot of us don’t have that courage simply because there hasn’t been a significant enough change for us to point to that courage. Now we definitely should strive for that courage because it’s worth it.
A couple of students noted that most human beings operate out of the anthropocentric presumption that we are the center of the universe. They said:
· Some do not want to face the reality because it is not the norm; it requires a lot of energy and work to give to an inferior species.
· As humans we tend to not care what we do to others and let alone the earth.
Resistance to Change
A related response was the recognition that human beings often tend to be resistant to change:
· As a society I don’t think we are capable of letting ourselves feel deeply enough that it transforms us. Change scares us, which is why I don’t think we are all capable of facing the realities of our time.
· It’s not until things get worse that we try to change these realities for the better and not just worse but significantly worse. Otherwise people just think that the problems don’t exist or will just get better on their own.
And The Winners Are….
Two themes marked the most frequently cited reasons that this class believed we humans will not find the courage to face the pending realities of climate change. The first is the admission that whatever else we residents of the post-modern era might be, we are, in fact, well trained consumers. The second is the recognition that the primary force preventing any attempt to face the realities of our time is denial that they exist.
Consumers Uber Alles
The consummate consumerist values of convenience, comfort and the fetishized understandings of choice are evident in these comments:
- Most of us choose comfort and convenience over the difficult tasks of changing and facing what we do to take responsibility for our actions.
- It takes not only courage but a willingness to change. Most people will not go out of their way unless they will see a benefit from their actions now. They live in the now and for today, not for the future. In order to do this people would have to leave their comfort zone and it would be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
- As a people we do not have the courage because we choose personal profit and gain over what could benefit our future generations.
- A lot of people don’t want change. Less time in the shower, always recycling, carpooling or other conservationist methods require change. For a lot of people these things could be uncomfortable and hard, two things they don’t want.
- People are lazy and do not want to use critical thinking skills. People want to do what is fast and easy
Denial Is Not a River in Egypt
The first step in solving any problem is admitting it exists. In a culture where ideology is readily substituted for fact and confirmation bias can be readily achieved through selective infotainment, it is not surprising that American denial of the impending climate remains the primary obstacle in tackling this problem. Several responses reflected this:
- The mass public does not want to face reality. They would rather watch the cute polar bears play in the snow rather than face the truth. We know it goes on yet we don’t face it because it shows the monstrous side of the human race.
- As humans we hide from the truth. We truly can never accept our realities. If someone tries to tell us we tend to make excuses or attempt to not listen to them. At the end we are all scared to face our realities. No one really has the courage to face realities and to allow ourselves to feel deeply enough.
- I feel many people live with the “out of sight out of mind” mentality. If it doesn’t affect their life on a personal level people tend to choose ignorance. I know personally just to live a happy life I worry about my stresses and don’t look into the problems surrounding me. Probably because I think it has nothing to do with me and I’ll die someday anyway.
- I do not think that we have the courage to face the realities of our time and change our ways because in light of all the harm humans are doing to the environment and our resources we continue down our destructive path because it is easy. A scary thing is that even though something may shock us or be wrong to us eventually we overlook it or ignore and go back to live our normal lives.
- Many of us do not have the courage because we are scared of what it will do to us. It might make us go through a lot of negative things before it gets better. This is why many of us try to ignore reality and avoid facing it.
Ignoring the Prophets
In my recent blog entries I have observed the frightening prospects of the perfect storm of urgent crises facing an American people who have just this month responded by electing governments guaranteed to refuse to deal with those crises. Some of you have described those views as pessimistic. If so, I am clearly not alone in my pessimism. And bear in mind, this is the generation that will be faced with addressing these crises.
The students lay it out well here. Perhaps it is because we feel personally overwhelmed by the challenges we face, preferring to escape into the shallow, immediate but temporary pleasures of consumerism. Perhaps it is because we recognize the implications of these challenges and the reality that most of them are the result of our voracious self-indulgence and the resulting destructive behaviors. It’s hardly surprising we don’t like the picture that paints of us. Perhaps it is because we relinquish the belief we are the center of the universe reluctantly even as we recognize the deleterious effects of this egocentric belief on all that we touch. Or perhaps it is because our myopic desire for immediate gratification leaves us willing to leverage our future by denying the challenges we already know exist but are unwilling to confront.
The narrator of Midway has his finger on the pulse of our culture: “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?” Like my students, I fear the answer is probably not. And like my students, I believe this probably assures that whatever changes do occur will be the result of the coming of crises we can no longer delay or deny.
But this is not the voice of a pessimist. It is the response of a watchful observer of culture who still dares to be hopeful even as that hope grows ever fainter.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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