Editorial: In search of a consistent ethic of life

I was recently asked to participate in a series of talks designed to stimulate reflection on our responsibility to be stewards of all creation. The topic of my talk was euthanasia.  

A friend thought it interesting and even unusual that I should be invited to offer a talk on euthanasia as part of a series focussed on the environment. The question she posed: ‘What has a human moral issue like euthanasia got to do with environmental ethics?’ I find her reaction interesting and instructive.

Her reaction draws attention to a key assumption that shapes contemporary thinking; an assumption that has its origins in the intellectual movement we know as the Enlightenment, a movement that prioritised human reason above all else. The Enlightenment came about as a direct result of scientific insights into the marvellous secrets of nature. But, at the same time, it led us to see the world in a more objectified way. It also led to us seeing ourselves more and more as rational beings separate from, rather than deeply connected with, the rest of God’s creation. In particular, it has fostered a degree of disdain for the natural rhythms of life.

My friend’s question would not have made sense in pre-Enlightenment times because the question itself is an expression of the shift in human thinking that followed the Enlightenment period. While she is actively concerned about the environment and while she recognises that the current crisis is very much a result of human irresponsibility fuelled by a sense of ‘hubris’ based on an inflated sense of our entitlement and power, nevertheless, the separation that exists in her mind between human and environmental ethics buys into and perpetuates the idea that, because of our ability to reason, we humans are essentially separate from the rest of creation.

A recent example of this disconnection was highlighted in a news report about a new law banning the practice of “inducing” cows. Narelle Henderson writes:

“Each year, farmers buy bulls whose job it is to get their cows pregnant. Nine months later, calves are born, and the cows are given about a month to recover, before the two-month mating window opens up again. Now, occasionally a cow or two gets pregnant a little late. That puts it out of sync with the rest of the herd, and makes things difficult for the farmer. They are left with the choice of killing the calf and rebooting the cow's cycle, or killing the cow. Aborting the calf is cheaper and easier” (see http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/politics/10602636/Greens-induced-law-is-kinder-to-cattle).

This practice is undoubtedly appalling. Those who have fought to bring about the law change are to be commended. At the same time, many of the people directly responsible for this campaign continue to advocate for more liberal laws surrounding ‘human induction’. For example, one of the key campaigners against the induction of cows who is on record as describing  it as “inhumane and cruel” is also on record as stating that “it’s incredible that abortion is still such a contentious and divisive issue.” Henderson puts it well: “perhaps it is contentious for the same reason calf inductions were; that there is something special (particularly in humans) about this thing called life; that we therefore all (not just doctors and vets) have a duty of care towards it; and that there is hardly any justification for breaching that duty of care. I mean, cows are precious, but surely people are too.”       


It’s a classic case of an inconsistent ethic of life.

It is the anthropocentric notion that we are separate (as opposed to ‘distinct’) that has provided the powerful ethical justification for the destructive behaviour that we humans have wreaked upon the environment; it is this notion that has driven our desire to ‘control’ nature and provided the excuse for removing so many of the traditional limits that shaped the interaction between humans and the environment, limits still evident in the rituals, behaviours and cultural and religious beliefs of certain cultures, including our own Maori people.

These days people are, thankfully, increasingly more inclined to act to limit human autonomy in the name of giving due respect to other living things. Yet, paradoxically, people also seem increasingly inclined to leave the ‘moral’ questions about human well-being to people’s individual choice. When it comes to matters of human ‘ecology’ it seems that a different philosophy applies – human autonomy before all else. Ethically speaking, this paradox demands our continued commitment to the destructive idea that humankind is separate (as opposed to distinct) from the rest of creation.   

Human reason calls us to be consistent in our ethical reflections.  To the extent that we are prepared to see ourselves as deeply connected with all of creation, then questions related to abortion and euthanasia must also be seen as deeply ecological issues – as matters of ‘human ecology’.

We must pay closer attention to the inconsistencies that pervade our deliberations on ethical matters rather than addressing issues relating to the environment and issues relating to human well-being as if they exist in separate ethical silos.

Dr John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre.