Throughout this semester, with every article I read and every blog post I wrote, I not only learned a great deal about the environmental ethic of various influential thinkers, policy makers, and philosophers, but also was able to explore my own ethical position. As an environmental stakeholder, I am a college student, a daughter and sister, and a Catholic. My childhood and experiences have shaped the way I see the world, though my perspective has also been influenced by my education and by dialoguing with peers and professors. As such, my worldview is weak stewardship coupled with earth wisdom and the belief that humans must not consider themselves separate from nature. I value community, interpersonal relationships, and a deep connection with the natural world over the materialism, individualism, and consumerism that characterize our society. Stewardship is typically characterized as anthropocentric, yet I find it to be an exhortation to use resources responsibly and not exploit our unique position in creation. As the only species capable of causing huge damage to the biosphere, stewardship recognizes that we have a special responsibility to care for the planet.
I found that the environmental ethics that tapped into the deeper questions relating to human nature, our relationship with the natural world, and our ultimate goals were stronger than those that focused on shallower topics or advocated change on a surface level. Scientific data and statistics, like the UN report on climate change, provide important reasons to implement changes in our lifestyles, yet I found myself drawn to the ethics that recognized and respected the spiritual and aesthetic value of the natural world. In particular, I was inspired by the ethic of figures such as Thomas Berry, St. Francis of Assisi, and Aldo Leopold who established a connection with the natural world that recognized the intrinsic value of every aspect of the biosphere. Implementing these ethics will not only do much to halt the degradation of ecosystems and combat climate change, but also solve many social ills that come about due to our separation from the natural world. For instance, issues like poverty, malnourishment, and Nature Deficit Disorder would be greatly reduced if people learned to see themselves as part of the natural world and lived in harmony, and not against, their environments.
Though many of the environmental ethics covered in the course advocated an extension of the moral community to include animals, plants, and/or all living things in general, I was not convinced by the arguments establishing sentience or life as the criterion for moral standing. This is not to say that I believe rationality is a good criterion either; a person is valuable not because of how much utility we can get from them, or how much pain they can feel, or how rational they are, but rather because they possess inherent dignity as a child of God. I believe that we have direct duties to every human being and indirect duties to the natural world. As such, in a moral conflict in which I had to decide between the life of an animal and the life of a human, such as the slum child and sewer rat example posed by Peter Singer, I would always choose the human.
Singer may call me a speciesist, but I do not think my views are incompatible with the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold, or with the ideas presented in Journey of the Universe. After learning a great deal about various environmental ethics, I do not feel compelled to become a vegetarian; however, I am convinced of my duty to live in a way that is respectful of the natural world, striving to use resources wisely and reduce my consumption and carbon footprint. Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” I have found that in their very simplicity, these words provide a true and feasible environmental ethic.