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To What End, Ethics? (II)

A few final thoughts about The Ethical Imagination

Somerville concludes her reflections upon how and why we must find a well-grounded basis for a shared ethic with a plea for a return to “past virtues for a future world.” Our humanness ought to be held in trust for future generations—in other words, we have an obligation not to radically alter, through our various technologies, the essence of what it is to be human. Trust, courage, compassion, generosity, hope—these are all thought to be vital components of thinking and acting ethically in a context where human beings possess unprecedented capabilities to alter what it means to be human.

Throughout this book I found myself agreeing with Somerville’s ethical conclusions, but disagreeing with the means by which she arrives at them. I remain unconvinced that “the natural” can bear the ethical weight that Somerville wants (needs?) it to. It remains unclear to me how appealing to what is natural can legitimate any argument for the promotion of the virtues she wishes to emphasize.

The following quote, near the end of the book, has been bouncing around in my head for the last couple of days:

Ethics is fundamentally about not “messing it up”—not only for ourselves, but especially for future generations. I believe our primary obligation is not only to leave future generations with as many options—natural, material, ethical, spiritual—as we have, but, even more important, to leave them with nothing less than ourselves – the miraculous outcome of 850 million years of evolution that, it is to be hoped, will also result in their children and their children’s children in the generations to come.

Is this truly all we can say about ethics? That it is fundamentally about not “messing it up?” To preserve a certain biological minimum base for future generations? Perhaps. It could be that in a pluralistic society, characterized by so many competing voices, we ought to simply affirm what we can, at rock bottom, agree upon and try to build upon this foundation. To be fair, Somerville’s aims do seem to be primarily pragmatic rather than theoretical. It may be that Somerville has identified a useful (although theoretically inadequate) place from which to launch ethical discourse in a political climate as complex as ours.

Still, I can’t help but contrast this book with some of the themes discussed in one of my courses this past semester. In a discussion of theological anthropology for a Systematic Theology course, John Stackhouse described the human beings who bear God’s image as “deputized gardeners.” Our role is (and always was) to seek maximal flourishing in all areas of creation, not just the preservation of a biological category. Undoubtedly, seeking to protect the category of “human being” will be a part of the “deputized gardener’s” role, but it will go beyond that. Ethics will be about more than “not messing up” (although that will obviously be included) but trying to creatively enhance and improve upon the world that God created (Genesis 1-2 do not say that the world was created “perfect,” but “good”). Flourishing, not bare preservation, was what God intended his image-bearers to pursue.

From my perspective, the Christian who adopts anything like this “deputized gardener” vision of what it means to be human and to act ethically can happily affirm Somerville’s conclusions, and even, to a limited extent, her motivations and methods. In our present context, it is simply naive to think that everyone will agree upon the Christian’s starting point for ethics. A “lowest common denominator” approach may be the most useful to get stuff done with so many competing visions of what it means to be human and to act ethically.

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