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.