Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once defined ethics as “knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is the right thing to do.”
Ethics is about knowing, about discernment. Ethics is about thinking carefully and seeing clearly. Ethics is also about doing the right thing, about action.
On the environmental front, we know scientists are speaking with near consensus about climate change and the causes of global warming. We also know that there are stumbling blocks that keep us from engaging in constructive and corrective action.
The first stumbling block is distorted pride or arrogance. Another word for distorted pride is anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism means man-centeredness. When we are anthropocentric, we believe that we are more valuable than all of creation past and future. We believe we are more important than the Creator. We think we can discard the Creator’s moral imperatives.
The Genesis story about Adam and Eve is a story about anthropocentrism.
A Texas evangelist disclosed spiritual anthropocentrism when he said that “Jesus died for souls, not dirt,” contending that God’s creation had no inherent value.
Mark Twain even addressed anthropocentrism, when he said, “What gets us in trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
The second stumbling block is ignorance. Human ignorance has contributed to much human suffering. Slavery, witch hunts, infanticide, crusades and genocide are but a few examples of actions rooted in ignorance.
Ignorance takes two forms: (1) the lack of knowledge, which is self-explanatory; and (2) the preservation of unawareness, the preservation of untruthfulness.
The tobacco industry is an example of the second form of ignorance. That industry has tried for years to discredit scientists and sought to deceive the public. The tobacco industry sought to keep the public ignorant about the harm of their product.
Like the tobacco industry, other industries and some ideologies advance ignorance about global warming.
Of course, these industries are rooted in greed and their ideological traveling companions are beneficiaries of corporate profit.
The third stumbling block is greed.
The Russian novelist Tolstoy told a story about a man who was promised all the land he could run around in a single day. Off ran the man. He ran all day. He encircled more and more land. He envisioned greater and greater wealth. At the end of the day, at sunset, he stumbled. He fell. He died. Greed had literally run the man to death.
Gandhi reminded us, “The earth can provide for our need but not our greed.”
Greed is one reason why some refuse to hear scientists speak about global warming and why others refuse to take proactive initiatives to address climate change.
The fourth stumbling block is indifference. Other words for indifference are apathy and sloth. The medieval-Latin word for sloth means “without care.”
Moral indifference is the failure to think about the consequences of global warming and the failure to act to solve the problem.
We know that those harmed most by climate change are the poor, the ones who contribute least to global warming. The poor experience more disease, more flooding, more food insecurity due to climate change.
Regrettably, those who talk the most about their faith often care the least about their neighbors. Too many folk don’t care enough about their neighbors to care about global warming.
The Greek word “oikos” means household. “Oikos” is the root word for ecology, economics and ecumenism. Ecology, economics and ecumenical faith are bound together on household earth.
If we are to care for household earth, we need a new ethic rooted in an ancient ethic. As a Christian ethicist, I root my approach to ethics in the teachings of Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbors.
We need to love our current neighbors. We need also to expand our definition of neighborhood beyond geography to chronology. We need to love our neighbors across time.
The only way we can really love our neighbors across time is to act now ensuring them a decent place to live.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. This editorial summarizes presentations made earlier this week at Athens State University in Athens, Ala.