What type of ethics is appropriate for our time? Part II

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The preceding blog entry reveals the inadequacies of conventional modes of ethical thought today. Within the reality of a complex interconnected world, simple, reductionist formulas (like utilitarian’s ‘greatest good for the greatest number’), rigid or decontextualized procedures (like deontology – who wouldn’t lie to save someone’s life), deny justice to countless subjects, endless communities and ecosystems. Even the concept of justice, while generally understood at the abstract level, when applied at a concrete local level, could mean adversity for countless other subjects.

No longer can we ignore what is right and good for other-than human subjects (more on that later), future generations, and subjects at the other end of the globe.

Take the concept of ‘common good’ a prominent principle of Catholic social teaching as an example. This principle refers to the ‘sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily’ (to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1906,which is really something Pope John XXIII wrote in 1961 in Mater et Magistra). What does the common good even suggest when the projected rate if biodiversity loss is human caused and so massive in proportion to normal species extinction rates, that it constitutes the 6th major extinction in Earth’s history?

In short, humanity is being faced with problems that seem to defy easy characterization, let alone clear solutions. For this reason, they are sometimes referred to as ‘wicked problems’.

So what are we to do? Certainly doing business as usual won’t help. We cannot separate events from context, the local from global, nor – and this is the big one – the other-than human subjects (toads, giraffes, trees and rivers) from human subjects. An ethic appropriate for our time will have to embrace all these realities.

An ethic I am promoting to do this is what I am calling ‘messy ethics’, one that is complicated, difficult to work with, far more humble in what we can presume we know about the world, and lacking in precision. I will unpack what messy ethics consists of in the next blog.

~Simon Appolloni

What type of ethics is appropriate for our time?

For the next few posts, I’d like to explore this question, as it will take more than one go to discuss what type of ethics we will need for our time.

I admit, this might seem like an odd question to ask. ‘Isn’t ethics ethics?’ you ask? When we are told ‘to act ethically,’ it simply means that we should do the right thing right? Well, no and yes: for one, there are multiple ethical approaches, and what the right or ethical course of action is in any situation is not always clear. There is more going on here though: what IS our current situation?

Think of it this way: today, our money, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, our electronics tools (the computer on which you are reading this), our jobs, indeed our everyday lives, are so intertwined with a complex, globalized capitalist world system, that it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to discern how our decisions are affecting (i.e.: exploiting or assisting) people, cultures, animals and ecosystems on the other side of the world.

In the case here, I am concerned with the larger world community. And, in the interest of clarity, I’d like to discuss the three main (and traditional) ethical responses for deciding what is right or wrong.

Virtue ethics has the individual build up a good character or moral disposition – virtue – so that when confronted with an ethical dilemma, she/he will know what to do. For example, the virtue of temperance – being moderate in desires and action – will keep you from consuming in excess.

Deontology (a fancy word for duty) has the individual following rules (such as do onto others as you’d have them do to you).

Consequentialism (looking to the consequences of our actions) will inquire whether the outcome(s) will be either good or bad for other subjects or groups. For example, utilitarianism, a form of this thinking, might want to weigh the costs and benefits to obtain the greatest good or wellbeing and for the greatest numbers.

These three main moral maps, or ethical approaches have much to offer; however, they all assume the relationship is clear and straightforward between knowledge (of what is going on) and responsibility (to do something about it). They all suggest that the action will be obvious and attractive. 

While this might have been true long ago, and in small communities, it is not so today: take your morning coffee (or tea) at work:

  • you bring your reusable cup instead of using a disposable one, something deontology might suggest you do. Who made that cup? A child? Perhaps an adult, but for Such a low wage that she cannot afford to feed her family? Was the cup made in a sustainable manner?
  • You purchase fair-trade (an arrangement designed to help producers in developing countries achieve better trading/working conditions), at the local shop, something consequentialism might suggest. How was the coffee shipped to you? How is the person serving you the coffee being treated, does she receive benefits?
  • You do not purchase the drink at the store, but make your own fair-trade drink, a just action in line with virtue ethics. Who made the coffee machine you are using? Were the minerals mined to make the coffee maker sustainably sourced?

You start to get the picture. To know and follow through with the right (just) course of action, is not always clear to us, or even possible for us. As Chris J. Cuomo puts it, our “moral imagination is woefully inadequate to address the intricate webs of relation created by global capitalism, postcolonial realities, and the fact that the environment has no borders.” She goes on to say we are “prosperous/preposterous moral beings with a litany of responsibilities that seem nearly impossible to know, let alone act.” (see http://fore.yale.edu/disciplines/ethics/essays/getting-closer-thoughts-on-the-ethics-of-knowledge-production/)

This is not the end of the story; for instance, ought we even be bothered by things beyond our control? Surely the intention is what matters. In the next post, I’d like to dig deeper into what this situation really demands. 

– Simon Appolloni


In the 1200s, Francis of Assisi made people feel uncomfortable about their lavish lifestyles and disregard for the poor. He got into much trouble for his prophetic lifestyle. Eventually, he was lauded for his beautiful model of voluntary poverty and his love for all creation as brother and sister.

Today, his influence seems confined to a lawn ornament.

In the 1970s, imbued by the same sense of love for the poor and creation, many Christians raised issues of social justice and the destruction of Earth. Countless church-basement prophets worked tirelessly to form ecumenical coalitions for justice to counter the injustices suffered by our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, Latin America and here in Canada. It was then that liberation theologian Leonardo Boff penned the words, “the cry of the Earth, cry of the poor.”

As the decades progressed, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the prophetic voice of public justice within church structures, as too many Christians and their leadership, were uncomfortable with their messages.

In 2013, Pope Francis rekindled our collective hearts and imaginations by naming himself after St. Francis of Assisi (the first pope to do so). His Encyclical Laudato Sí begins: “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us… This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her. …” Pope Francis, like his namesake, makes many Catholics feel uncomfortable about their destructive lifestyles and disregard for the poor. 

For some time now, criticisms from various factions within our church and its leadership have mounted (Fortunately, or perhaps not surprisingly, Pope Francis sees this as a badge of honour).

Last month, on September 23, in New York, Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg continues to make us feel uncomfortable about the cries of Earth and the cries of the poor, declaring at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

How dare we indeed! Yet, for some time now, too many people have been challenging Greta’s motives, her sincerity, and even the (very accurate) science she repeats to support her claims. 

In John 16:1, Jesus seems to be warning us of the backlash we will receive when we speak up for and with the poor and creation:  “I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

It’s human to feel uncomfortable (I know I do); it’s dishonest and wrong, though, to disregard the uncomfortable prophetic words.

To all the persecuted prophets today, I uphold,

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5: 10-12).

–Simon Appolloni

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