Forget fear of public speaking. Forget fear of flying. My biggest fear on this book tour for MORAL GROUND: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril is of that moment toward the end of the evening when a student – it’s always a student – stands up in the back of the auditorium and says, “There’s no hope. Nothing I do will make any difference. I can’t save the world from climate change or ecological collapse. So I’ll just keep on buyin’ and burnin’, the way I always have. There’s no point in sacrificing for nothing.”
First I want to shake the student. Then I want to give him a hug. But I’m a philosophy professor, so I challenge his reasoning. “What kind of logic is that? You don’t do the right thing because it will have good results. You do the right thing because it’s the right thing. What would you say to a slave-owner who made the same kind of argument? Alas, I could free every one of my slaves and it wouldn’t make a dent in the slave trade. The institution of slavery is so much bigger than one little owner. So I’ll just keep on working these people in the day and chaining them up at night. No point in sacrificing for nothing. What would you say to that? You’d say, It doesn’t matter if you can or cannot change the world. What matters is that you can change yourself. And that’s what I say to you.” If it’s wrong to take more than your fair share of the Earth’s resources and possibilities, leaving what’s left of a degraded and destabilized world for people in other nations or other times (and I believe it is); if it’s wrong to reap the benefits of the profligate use of fossil fuels and foist off the costs on other people, especially future people who are completely powerless to defend themselves (and I believe it is); if it’s wrong to bulldoze what is beautiful and life-giving and billions of years in the making (and I believe it is); if poisoning the water and the air is an utter betrayal of the children, whom we love more than anything else in the world (and I know it is) — then we shouldn’t do it. Period. End of question.
We in the western world have inherited a bizarre moral tradition. It’s an aberration in the moral history of the universe. But because it has infused our ways of thinking, we think it’s the normal – or the only — way to think. The name of the tradition is consequentialism, and its central principle is that an act is right if it has good consequences; otherwise it is wrong. If that’s how we judge right and wrong, by this complicated cost-benefit analysis, then we have to be always “fixated on the future,” as my friend and co-editor Michael P. Nelson writes, “perpetually . . . justifying means by their ends. So we have built a society that can be readily disempowered.” And of course, the student is completely disempowered – but not by hopelessness. He’s disempowered by this bizarre idea that the only acts worth doing are those that will have some sort of payoff.
What I want to tell the student is that there is a huge, essential middle ground between hope and despair. This is not acting-out-of-hope, or failing-to-act-out-of-despair, but acting out of virtue, an affirmation of who we are and what is worthy of us as moral beings. This is integrity, which is consistency between belief and action. To act lovingly because we love. To act justly because we are just. To live gratefully because this life is a gift. If you are horrified by the gyre of plastic in the middle of the Pacific, I want to tell the student, don’t buy plastic. If you think it’s terrible, what beef cattle are doing to the rivers, don’t buy beef. If you don’t like the thought of Chinese children boiling out the heavy metals in a junk pile of discarded electronics, don’t buy the latest in electronic equipment. If you are sickened by reports of oil slathering the ocean floor, use alternative energies. Like conscientious objectors in any other war, do not allow yourself to be made into an instrument of death and injustice.
When all is said and done, make sure that you are able to say you lived a life you believe in, conscientiously refusing what is wrong and destructive, exhibiting in your life choices what is compassionate and just. Even if hope is rapidly failing that you can make a difference to the future of the Earth, you can always make a difference to who you are. Standing at the podium, trying to steady my voice, here’s what I say to the student: “Don’t ask, will my acts save the world? Maybe they won’t. But ask, do my actions match up with what I most deeply believe is right and good? This is our calling – the calling for you and me and everybody else in the room: To do what is right, even if it does no good; to celebrate and care for the world, even if its fate breaks our hearts.”