John Nolt

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There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , --Henry David Thoreau1

Ethics is now generally taught in one of two broad paradigms. There is, first, the theoretical approach, which treats ethics as a subject for speculation, analysis, and clarification. Students often find theoretical ethics sterile, academic, and irrelevant. In part this reflects a mere laziness of thought. Clear thinking is difficult, and to require it is to provoke grumbling. But the discontent is at least partly justified. To sit in a classroom and debate whether the right action is the one that accords with universal moral law or the one that maximizes preference satisfaction may be a fine intellectual discipline, but it makes little difference, finally, to how we live.

Some years ago as I was teaching a course on decision theory -- a formalized version of utilitarianism -- it occurred that the methods I was teaching I had never myself actually used. At the time, my wife, Karen, and I were considering remaking an abandoned and impressively dilapidated school into a home. This seemed an opportunity. I still have the notebook containing page upon page of decision trees, estimated probabilities, expenses, and calculations of expected values. But at the end I put the notebook away, and Karen and I took a leap of faith. The decision was made not by calculating what was in any case incalculable, but from a shared desire for challenge and open possibilities, founded on mutual trust.

I don't mean that decision theory or moral theory generally is useless. But I did once tend to exaggerate its importance.

Disillusion with mere theory is a motive for switching to the second, and more recent, paradigm in moral philosophy: applied ethics. The emphasis in applied ethics is not on theory, but on practical problems or cases in a particular field: business, medicine, law, journalism, or -- my own interest -- the environment. Not that theories are ignored, but they are no longer regarded as self-standing systems from which definitive solutions can ideally be deduced. Rather, applied ethics sees theories as sets of reminders to guide attention to the salient aspects of moral problems. Increasingly the approach is pluralistic, different theories being employed simultaneously to emphasize different aspects of a specific case.

Still more recently this theoretical pluralism has been augmented (and for some thinkers replaced) by many-voiced narrative. The complexity and uniqueness of the moral situation, according to the narrative approach, defeats theoretical generalization and demands instead sensitivity to nuance of context, personality, and relationship.

I favor both applied ethics and the narrative approach but am not yet happy with either. Talk is, after all, just talk, and we do it all the time in any case -- without the stimulus of the college classroom. Perhaps college teachers, in virtue of their theoretical training, superior intelligence, or life wisdom are somehow able to stimulate better conversation than occurs outside the classroom. But that may be doubted. The doubt becomes increasingly plausible as classroom conversation becomes less theoretical and more akin to the conversations of ordinary life. Teachers of ethics begin to appear superfluous.

The solution, I think, is not to retreat once again into the realm of erudite theory where at least we have something unique to offer. Rather, it is to recognize that teaching ethics is not merely a matter of having the right sort of conversation. But to recognize this is to swim against the tide, both of college teaching and of recent Western philosophy.

From the renaissance to the end of the nineteenth century, philosophical conversation in the West centered on the nature of mind. Since the beginning of the twentieth century it has increasingly focused on language. This so-called linguistic turn was achieved by the work of Frege, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein. The analytic school of philosophy that they created undertook two tasks: (1) to elucidate existing concepts (as, say in the attempt to give an analysis of knowledge or a theory of justice) and (2) to forge new concepts where the old ones had grown obsolete. In the extreme, this meant the attempt to create an ideal language. The method in each case was logical analysis, the division and reorganization of bodies of knowledge into propositional units, arranged, ideally, into axiomatic deductive systems. After a century of work -- and particularly after several decades of constructing artificial intelligence systems which are the fruit of this method -- nearly everyone is convinced that mere logical analysis can solve few philosophical problems.

Again and again our attempts at conceptual analysis have failed because isolation and dissection so altered the concepts that they could no longer serve their ordinary uses. I could tell if I had the time, for example, the story of how in order to create a manageable logic analytic philosophy vacuumed away most of the meaning of the simple word 'if' -- and how, despite its impressive technicality, that logic does a miserable job of evaluating everyday reasoning.2 The lesson of such failures is an appreciation for the rootedness of concepts in what the later (and wiser) Wittgenstein called forms of life. Concepts, we now realize, cannot be wielded intelligently in abstraction from the cultural, biological, and ecological context from which they arise. That's why computers can't think intelligently, and it's also why discussion of theory in the abstract is sterile.

The tasks of analytic philosophy -- elucidation of existing concepts and the creation of new concepts to replace obsolete ones -- remain important, but with the demise of the analytic method, they must be transformed. Elucidation of a concept now is seen to require experience of the form of life out of which it arises, and the creation of genuinely new concepts is correlative with the creation of new forms of life.

Philosophy in general, and ethics in particular, are therefore inadequately conceived merely as the study of ideas. Since ideas are unintelligible apart from the forms of life from which they arise, philosophy is also a study of forms of life. Not that philosophy is anthropology, for the object of anthropology is other forms of life. The object of philosophy is mine. Philosophy is nothing less than self-reflective living.

It follows that to teach philosophy or ethics it does not suffice merely to stimulate the proper sort of conversation. At least as important are the practices out of which that conversation arises. To understand a concept we must live it -- that is, engage in the practices from which it has evolved or is evolving.

Now not much engagement in the practice of environmental ethics can be achieved in the classroom. Ideally, teacher and students would live together in a community of inquiry, not merely conversing, but deliberately experimenting with the techniques of environmentally responsible living: local organic agriculture; solar power generation; minimal consumption; recycling of wastes; the disciplines of nonviolence, independence, and self-sufficiency; eating seasonally and low on the food chain; and so on. Unfortunately, such arrangements are seldom possible on a university campus.3

They are, however, possible elsewhere. Such a community of inquiry exists, for example, at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center in Grainger County, Tennessee. Begun about six years ago by Bill Nickle, a visionary United Methodist minister, Narrow Ridge has grown into a 500-acre environmental education complex that includes a library and resource center, housing facilities, a small student dormitory, orchards and gardens. The buildings, erected with student help, put embody sustainable architecture and solar power generation and heating. There are gray water systems and composting toilets for waste disposal. Water is either collected from the rain or pumped from a well by solar energy.

Students who stay at Narrow Ridge for some time learn first-hand the practices of sustainability: going without lights to conserve electricity after a string of cloudy days; eating and living simply; being responsible for one's own wastes; replacing electronic entertainment with conversation, home-made music, or contemplation; respecting the nonhuman inhabitants of the land (even when the deer get into the gardens); accepting a life within material limits as sufficient, and ultimately more satisfying than the life of hectic consumption that has become typical in America.

Such students gain, it seems to me, an understanding of environmental ethics that is deeper in a variety of ways than understandings attainable in the classroom. Just as to read and talk about and watch dance is not yet to dance, so to read and talk about and even watch the practice of environmental ethics is not yet to live responsible. And just as only the dancer knows the dance "from the inside," and so can tell whether it is good to dance, so only someone who has practiced an environmental ethic can know whether it is a satisfying way to live.

Students at Narrow Ridge acquire other kinds of know-how not typically conveyed in the classroom. They are experienced with the tools of sustainable living and have seen that they work. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to classroom teaching of environmental ethics is the students' resignation and despair. Having experienced only the consumptive life, many students cannot believe that anything else is humanly possible. So they have concluded, quite logically, that human greed will ultimately devour just about everything of real worth. But their premise is false. Other ways of living are possible. I do not know, however, of any way to make these possibilities vivid and alive for students confined within a classroom. It does, however, happen at Narrow Ridge. To apprehend vividly a possibility that one had not seen or only dimly grasped before is certainly to have learned something. Such learning may even kindle hope.

There is something else students at Narrow Ridge sometimes learn that I have never seen taught in a classroom. That is that the great antidote to despair is willing work, particularly work in community, and most especially principled work in a community of faith. By faith I do not mean traditional religious belief, though I do not exclude it. Rather, I mean action for the sake of acting well, not for the sake of reward. Faith in that sense is unteachable in a university, which runs on the fuel of reward -- the grade, the diploma, the packed resume, the lucrative career. In a strict sense, such a faith probably cannot be taught at all. But it can be communicated by example. The staff at Narrow Ridge live comfortably -- in some respects richly -- on salaries below the poverty level. Such exemplary ways of life are seldom found in universities.

Though Narrow Ridge approximates an ideal setting for teaching environmental ethics, much good work can still be done within more conventional institutions. If, as I have argued above, philosophy is self-reflective living, then environmental ethics is self-reflective living in regard to one's relationships with nature and the broader world. To teach environmental ethics, then, is to inspire the students to live self-reflectively in these respects. Occasionally, though only occasionally, that can be done by getting them to read good books. Thoreau's Walden is the best I know of for this purpose.

But students cannot be expected to take the books seriously unless the teacher does. A teacher who teaches Walden but does not live it teaches, no matter what she says, that Thoreau was an impractical dreamer and that contemporary college professors know better.

It is, then, an absolute prerequisite of the teaching of self-reflective living that the teacher live self-reflectively. Reading the textbooks and writing lecture notes are only the most superficial forms of preparation. The real work in teaching ethics is personal, practical and spiritual. This is particularly true in environmental ethics, which demands exacting and unconventional attention to matters of daily living. The environmental ethics teacher who drives a car to work, uses unrecycled paper, mows his lawn with a power mower, goes to the fast food restaurant for lunch, jets from conference to conference, keeps the classroom lights burning when he could open the blinds, has more than two children, or engages in any unnecessary and destructive form of consumption undermines the importance of what he is teaching.4 He is probably doing more harm than good.

But assuming that the teacher is willing himself to live responsibly, it may, even within a university, be possible to succeed in teaching environmental ethics. Not, however, wholly within the classroom. One method that sometimes works is the group project involving real work in local community. I require each student in my environmental ethics course to perform at least fifteen hours of community service with a group.

Since a class of 30 or 35 divides up into six or seven groups of about five students each, it is impossible for me to work very closely with each group. It is therefore necessary to find others who are willing to guide the students. Fortunately, many organizations are more than willing to accept student volunteers. Among the organizations my students have worked with are the Knoxville/Knox County Community Action Committee (which sponsors and inner city gardening and recycling program), Ijams Nature Center (which conducts cleanups of local urban creeks), the Humane Society (which deals with stray animals and pet overpopulation), Project Witherspoon (a citizens' group formed to advocate cleanup of chemical and nuclear waste sites in the low-income Vestal community), and Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center (where they helped to erect buildings, grow wheat, or work in the gardens). Students are also free to create their own projects. One semester, a group organized and then reported on a nonviolent anti-nuclear demonstration. Others have formed independent projects around such important local issues as the influx of chip mills or the decline of rare fish species in Tennessee streams.

All such projects bring students into closer touch both with the issues and with the people who are most concerned about them. This, it seems to me, is important at a time when many students spend much of their lives between headphones or in front of a TV or computer screen. It comes to some students as a revelation to see and smell an urban creek, to learn that there are three superfund sites in a residential community just across the river from UT, or to watch a chip mill in operation and understand the danger it poses to the surrounding forests.

I have thus far emphasized the unconventionality of what I consider to be effective teaching in environmental ethics. This may leave the impression that I advocate a kind of anti-intellectual "touchy-feely" course that ignores theory and dispenses with rigor. On the contrary, what I advocate is a course that combines theory and praxis in mutually illuminating ways. The course begins with a survey of theories of justice, with an eye to their social and environmental implications.5 It then examines, once again from a theoretical perspective, various forms specifically environmental ethics -- the land ethic, deep ecology, biocentrism, ecofeminism, and so on. There are quizzes and essay tests on these theories and their implications. Moreover, each group is required to produce a final paper containing a theoretical justification of what they have done.

The last part of the course is, however, devoted entirely to application. Many of the classes in this final section are conducted by guest speakers -- local people who have dealt in some exemplary way with an environmental problem. These people not only bring to the class detailed knowledge of specific principles and issues, but (more importantly, I think) they function as role models, showing the students what is possible, though sometimes at considerable cost or risk. Such guests have included a whistleblower who was employed at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, a physician who made national news and suffered recriminations when he attributed adverse health effects to pollution from the Oak Ridge weapons facilities, and two Catholic missionaries who helped peasants in the Philippines defend their native rainforest in the face of deadly violence. Courage and conviction are rare, but they exist. Students need to meet them.

If we teach nothing but theory in environmental ethics, or if we bandy issues at arm's length, then what we are really teaching is that ethics is just another academic game whose goal is a grade and ultimately a diploma. But ethics is not about what you do with your brain or your mouth but what you do with your life. Ethics lives only in action. To teach it is to enter the action ourselves.


  1. Walden and Other Writings, Joseph Wood Krutch, ed., New York, Bantam Books, 1962, pp. 115-16.

  2. The story is told in Section 3.1 of my textbook Logics, Belmont, CA, Wadsworth, 1996 (in press).

  3. There are exceptions. Sustainable living programs involving some of these features have been established at California Polytechnic at Pomona and at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. See Sharon R. Stine, "Learning Towards a Sustainable Future," Solar Today, July/August 1995, pp. 30-33, and Nicole Whittick, "CCAT System Upgrade," Home Power 43, October/November 1994, pp. 67-71.

  4. Those who doubt that these activities are immoral are invited to read Chapter 2 and the section on population in Chapter 7 of my book Down to Earth: Toward a Philosophy of Nonviolent Living, Washburn, TN, Earth Knows Publications, 1995. On the issue of driving to work, see also Julia Meaton and David Morrice, "The Ethics and Politics of Private Automobile Use," Environmental Ethics 18, 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 39-54.

  5. The textbook for this portion of the course is Peter S. Wenz, Environmental Justice, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1988. This superbly readable book skillfully illustrates the relevance of theoretical considerations to current and historic environmental disputes. Wenz falls squarely into the applied ethics pardigm described above. He is a moral pluralist, advocating the application of many diverse theoretical principles simultaneously to the elucidation of particular cases.

    Copyright John Nolt

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