ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS AND THE ETHICAL ENVIRONMENT
OF THE UNDERGRADUATE CURRICULUM

Jeffery P. Aper


This document may be too large for your printer buffer to handle. We suggest downloading this document to a disk if printing difficulties are encountered or e-mailing the author for a hard copy by clicking on his/her name.


Any society, in the end, is a moral order that has to justify ... its allocative principles and the balances of freedom and coercions necessary to facilitate or enforce such rules. The problem, inevitably, is the relation between self-interest and the public interest, between personal impulses and community requirements. Without a public philosophy, explicitly stated, we lack the fundamental condition whereby a modern polity can live by consensus ... and justice (Bell, 1976, p. 250).

All social institutions exist and carry out their business within a pervasive ethical and intellectual environment. Often this environment is so routinely accepted as part of the normal realm of thought and action that it is transparent, even invisible, to those who live within it. Universities are no exception. The powerful ethical and intellectual frames of nineteenth century quasi-Darwinian capitalism, European Enlightenment rationalism, and American pragmatism have shaped and continue to shape the American university in the 1990s.

The enormous triumphs and tragedies of the twentieth century have gradually paved the way for alternate frames of thinking about intellect and ethics. Though science has been an extraordinarily powerful manifestation of Western rationalism within the university, as Capra (1982) has noted, "Contrary to conventional beliefs, value systems and ethics are not peripheral to science and technology but constitute their very basis and driving force. Hence the shift to a balanced social and economic system will require a corresponding shift of values - from self- assertion and competition to cooperation and social justice, from expansion to conservation, from material acquisition to inner growth" (p. 397).

It is from such a perspective that Bowers (1993) has also urged a critical reassessment of the aims, methods, and direction of education. His arguments are on three fronts: First, the ongoing destruction and degradation of the natural environment is a threat to the very physical foundation of human existence; Second, the traditional market-based model of resource use and individual maximization of benefit is destructive of both social fabric and finite resources (Milton & Farvar, 1972); Third, there is strong reason to doubt whether the aims of democratic government and protection of individual liberties can be supported by a public philosophy that promotes individual interests above the common interest (Formaini, 1990; Sylvan & Bennett 1994).

Environmental issues emergent since World War II have posed a set of problems highlight the ethical and intellectual dilemmas of the late twentieth century. The ethical philosophy emerging from reflection on environmental problems involves more than declaring bad the pollution and despoliation of the physical environment; it aims at the heart of questions about what makes human life good and worthwhile, and what sustains and ultimately contributes to the quality of human life. Environmental problems have come to underscore the incomplete answers to social and political questions science can provide, and place in stark relief the contradictions that can occur between ethical, social, and spiritual values and technical, economic, and political values.

Such contradictions do not mean that ethical, social, and spiritual values are necessarily opposed technical, economic, and political values. They are all aspects of human culture, products of human intelligence, adaptability and ingenuity, and as such can never be "only" technical questions, or "only" spiritual issues (Bowers, 1993). As Bateson (1972) has argued, the conventional Western way of thinking isolates individuals into a unilateral perspective that is insensate to broad patters of interaction among the multiple aspects of the mental and the physical worlds. Broader, more integrative ways of thinking about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it, are essential if individual decisions and needs are ever to be meshed with social decisions and needs.

The university plays a central role as an agent of culture in all its manifestations. Further, American colleges and universities have always sought to hold the quality of human life as a central concern of undergraduate education. Historically, liberal education evolved as a means by which to train and prepare people for a full life as free men and women who would hold roles of responsibility in society.

Today we still hold to that ideal, and whether we call it liberal education, general education, or core curriculum, at the center of the enterprise is the desire to build good citizens, parents, voters, producers, and consumers. If students are to be ethical and moral citizens they must have the tools with which to engage fully in their roles beyond the university setting. For the university to abandon a fundamental mission of human development and education that must include the ethical dimension of our decisions and actions is inconceivable.

Unfortunately, addressing underlying cultural issues is not a simple task, even within the university, where everything is, at least theoretically, open to detailed scrutiny. Education is typically ideology bound and ideology reinforcing, yet clearly education that succeeds only as indoctrination into the prevailing paradigm does not achieve the greater aims and ideals of the university.

Higher education has sought, and must redouble its commitment and efforts, to do more than simply enhance the job prospects of those who come to study. As economist Frank Knight has stated, ~living intelligently includes more than the intelligent use of means in realizing ends; it is fully as important to select the ends intelligently, for intelligent action directed toward wrong ends only makes evil greater and more certain" (in Smith, 1993, p. 183).

The explicit public philosophy that undergirds the current moral order of the United States is expressed in social institutions, including schools and universities, that routinely exhort young people to follow a personal value compass that is not directed solely by the poles of material gain and self-interest (Barber, 1992). But the behaviors and attitudes most highly and publicly rewarded are those of competition, maximization of individual self-interest, and the successful exploitation for profit of human and natural resources. The ethics of the market praise and reward those who successfully exploit, hoard, and consume. Still, there is at least equal reason to believe that such attitudes and behaviors as mutual concern, trust, and openness are essential components of participation in a shared learning process and meaningful public and private life (Freire, 1971; Sullivan, 1982).

In fact, cooperation has a longer historical pedigree in human society than bald competition. Kropotkin (1923) long ago contrasted the quasi-Darwinian social view that human society is based on competition with abundant examples from nature and human history demonstrating cooperation and even altruism as adaptive, far from the prevailing focus in the West on individualism and competition. The Hobbesian view of a society of antagonists who can live together only by submitting to a tyrannical power is certainly one way of thinking about human culture and society, yet is wildly out of balance with the political values of democratic polity and individual liberty espoused in the United States.

As Dewey (1916) argued, the worth of educational institutions and activities were measured by "the extent to which they are animated by a social spirit" (p. 415). Many years later, he concluded that "intelligence is a social asset and is clothed with a function as public as is its origin, in the concrete, in social cooperation" (1963, p. 67).

This social spirit is essential to the work of the university. American social institutions are drawn increasingly, whether by design or by demographic, economic, and intellectual change, to work to foster an essential sense of pluralistic collaboration and recognition of the differences between private gain and public good (Bell, 1976; Bowers, 1987; Dewey, 1916, 1963; Martin, 1986; Schumacher, 1983; Wirth, 1983). Even more concretely, it is an essential part of the mission of the university to encourage tolerance and to combat bigotry, racism, sexism, chauvinism of all kinds, as well as the mentality that asserts the primacy of individual enrichment or gratification above all else (Sylvan & Bennett, 1994).

The aim of a changed ethical environment for the university curriculum is not the development of, or obedience to, a set of commandments or methods of calculating right or wrong, good or bad. There is no factual foundation from which to derive universal values and normative statements, but normative statements may be derived from initial ethical principles (Marietta, 1995).

The complexity of human interactions means that ethical or moral decisions are often choices between competing goods (Dewey, 1932). University students will face in their lives frequent "conflict between ends, responsibilities, rights, and duties" (p. 174), to quote Dewey. An essential mission of undergraduate education, then, is the fostering in students of an ability and a willingness to engage in "reflective morality."

The university cannot hope to arrive at, nor should it strive for, a rigid orthodoxy of thought intended to provide definite answers to difficult and even unanticipatable circumstances. Efforts to encourage and enhance such reflective powers must focus on the centrality of personal decision (Dewey, 1932). Research clearly suggests that economic and social development and the ongoing sustainability of modern society rests in many ways on individual acts and choices (Attfield, 1994). As Parfit (1984) has observed, "quite trivial actions on the part of millions of consumers produce far-reaching aggregated effects, giving those actions an unprecedented moral significance. In the limited area over which individuals have some measure of control, decisions affecting the life or death of distant people, of future generations and of entire living species are liable to be made" (p. 241). Individual choices in everyday, mundane matters, are central to the resolution of difficult issues related to resource use and environmental destruction (Sylvan & Bennett, 1994).

Economic activities, perhaps more than any other sphere, reflect the values of society. Malthusian arguments notwithstanding, it is, at least for the time being, our choices as individuals more than the Earth's resource constraints that perpetuate division and misery among the people of the world. Still, the collective impact of individual economic decisions is often little understood or appreciated by those with the power to make the choices.

Such decisions are central to a consumer-driven American economy. Yet conventional economic rationality in a nominally capitalist society is turned on its head by an ethical perspective that holds that "the purpose of economic activity is to help achieve and maintain the public good" (Wirth, 1983, p. 37). The question of whether the economy exists to support and benefit people or people exist to support and benefit the economy is one whose answer has profound implications for our society (Schumacher, 1973).

The values we espouse assert that human beings be educated and valued as more than factors in the calculation of profits or the achievement of ever greater efficiencies of scale and production (Freire, 1971). If there is a new public philosophy that reflects a changing set of values and ethics, it may well reflect economic behavior shaped by careful weighing of social and environmental costs, whether to local, national, or global communities and recognizes human values of compassion, tradition, and community as being at least as valuable as those variables that lend themselves more readily to quantitative analysis (Wirtz, 1977).

Students do not leave the university just to become economic consumers, though. They also assume roles as economic producers. Every student who leaves the university with a degree should have had full opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes to engage in fulfilling work and leisure. This cannot mean simply passing on rote skills and information that will facilitate a successful job search. Students should be helped to identify what Schumacher (1973) referred to as "good" work. His description of the "good" work place was one that allowed a person "to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with others in a common task" (p. 51).

Both classrooms and workplaces can and should be "good" in this sense - where rigorous efforts, both intellectual and physical, are important and exerted with recognition of the necessity of individual creativity and a mutually supportive community environment. The crucial importance of meaningful work, of contributing to the betterment of society and not contributing to its ills, are key components of the processes by which individuals become actively and creatively engaged in the greater community. In such ways, economic activity may be seen as a matter of cooperation valued above simple material gain: the production of socially useful goods in ways that preserve the environment, support human dignity and growth, and contribute to the general welfare rather than compounding, even indirectly, social, economic, and political problems (Cooley, in Wirth, 1983; Laszlo, 1978).

The university should also aim to prepare students to engage in their lives beyond the university in ways that support their reasoned and thoughtful activity as participants in a democratic political environment (Attfield, 1994). As Bellah, et al. (1991) have indicated, the civic impulse is fundamental to addressing many of society's most vexing problems. The democratic civitas emphasizes the value of both individuality and community. Economically and politically, a democratic order recognizes the individual as "both end and means, combining ... reason and ... actions in empowered participation" (Silvert, 1977, p. 117).

The virtues of community and social spirit are essential to the development and maintenance of a stable society, as well as the growth of the full potential of the individual. To the extent that universities have a genuine commitment to these ends, they must rethink the nature and purpose of the curriculum - its content, delivery, scope, sequence, and aims.

The problems that confront society in the l990s will not be solved through the same mindset that helped cause them. They will not be solved by following the patterns of the past century to a greater degree. The world of experience university graduates will face requires of them intelligence, compassion, a civic spirit, adaptability, and a moral compass based on a higher conception of community if there is to be hope that we might achieve those highest aims of self-fulfillment, social justice, political liberty and equity, and economic systems that serve the needs of people. This is a fundamental mission of the university in American society - to pave the way for a new and better day of wholeness for the Earth and the life it sustains, human and otherwise.


References

Attfield, Robin (1994). Environmental philosophy: Principles and prospects.

Barber, B. R. (1992). An Aristocracy of everyone: The politics of education and the future of America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, W. (1978). The Illusion Technique. New York: Anchor Press.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine.

Bell, D. (1976). The cultural contradictions of capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

Bellah, R., et al. (1991). The good society. New York: Knopf.

Bowers, C. A. (1987). Elements of a post-liberal theory of education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bowers, C. A. (1993). Education, cultural myths, and the ecological crisis: Toward deep changes. Albany: SUNY Press.

Capra, F. (1982). The turning point: Science, society, and the rising culture. New York: Bantam.

Daly, Herman E. & Townsend, Kenneth N. (1993). Valuing the earth: Economics, ecology, ethics.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, J. (1932). "The nature of moral theory," in Ethics, Dewey, J. & Tufts, J. H., pp. 171-176. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Dewey, J. (1963). Liberalism and social action. New York: Capricorn Books.

Formaini (1990). The myth of scientific public policy. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York Herder and Herder.

Kropotkin, P. (1923). Modern science and anarchism. New York: Freedom Press.

Laszlo, E. (1978). The inner limits of mankind. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Marietta, D. E. (1995). People and the planet: Holism and humanism in environmental ethics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Martin, J. R. (1985). Reclaiming a conversation: The ideal of the educated woman. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Martin, J. R. (1986). Redefining the educated person: Rethinking the significance of gender. Educational Researcher, 15(6), 6-10.

Milton, J. P. & Farvar, M. T. (1972). The careless technology: Ecology and international development. Garden City, New York: Natural History Press.

Moore, T. W. (1986). Philosophy of education: An introduction. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Oakeshott, M. J. (T. Fuller, Ed.) (1989). The voice of liberal learning: Michael Oakeshott on education. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper Torch Books.

Shils, E. (1981). Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Silvert, K. H. (1977). The reason for democracy. New York: The Viking Press.

Smith, G. A. (1993). The purpose of wealth: A historical perspective. In Daly, H. E. & Townsend, K. N., Valuing the earth: Economics, ecology, ethics, pp. 183-210. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sullivan, W. (1982). Reconstructing public history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sylvan, Richard & Bennett, David (1994). The greening of ethics.

Whitehead, A. N. (1949). The aims of education and other essays. New York: New American Library

. Wirth, A. G. (1983). Productive work - in industry and schools: Becoming persons again. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Wirtz, W. (1977). Education for what? In D. W. Vermilye (ed.), Relating work and education, pp. 268-275. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our common future. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

.


Copyright Jeffery P. Aper

FAX: (423) 974-6146


Talk to the Conference Participants


Questions and comments may be directed to the Conference Convenor, Alvin G. Burstein or individual authors by clicking on his/her name.

HOME


This page has been accessed times.

Last updated: June 13, 1996