Monday, April 21, 2008

On ethics, and why we should teach kids outdoors

At times, a person can become jaded, believing that public pleas for individual self-restraint and responsibility are akin to yelling into the hurricane. And people all too often choose to act in manners which harm others. James Madison's Federalist Paper #51, ("if men were angels...") goes to the heart of the beauty and difficulty of government arising out of libertarian foundations of utter equality and therefore democratic rule, and this is especially appropriate as one reads into "government" the idea of governing as limiting.

Madison's concern was with the excesses of government arising out of human flaws, while trying to convince a skeptical audience of its need. However, there exists in a democratic republic the temptation, over time, to abrogate our responsibilities to a few representatives. Add to this our conception of the letter of the law (that if the law doesn't say we can't, then we can), and people begin to equate the law with ethics. Throw us into a gigantic, overpowering free market that encourages excess, and, as players in a system where a small group is thought to make the ethical decisions for everybody, most come to believe that they are always to try to acquire as much as absolutely possible, even if this means bending the spirit of the law.

But ethics are inherently personal, individual decisions in the moment, far more often than codified laws. In the US, for the most part, laws are created as ways to keep people from occasional lapses in personal judgment. We come to general consensus about the direction of the law through democratic representation, arising out of some social agreements of right and wrong. But when people are not directly involved in these decisions, we tend to reverse the concepts and place the law as the ethical limit, rather than ethics determining the nature and extent of laws. This is true with people in general, and especially true with children, who do not have the authority to exercise their own rights.

But exercising ethical decisions is powerful. People take an honest look at their responsibility, and understand their power, when they have an ethical choice unbounded by the law or other people's perceptions of them. Too infrequently in our daily lives are we given opportunities for true, immediate ethical decisions; most are made for us. Outdoor experiences, however, often provide chances for real ethical decisions, because they give us a place where our actions have repercussions, and they are real, physical decisions in the moment.

Outdoor experiences cut to the heart of ethical conduct at the personal level. Environmental laws exist, of course, but since the reason for getting into the outdoors for many people includes a measure of solitude and quiet, law enforcement is greatly diminished. Oftentimes, people come upon ethical decisions while hiking, camping, and fishing. Damaging trails by cutting up switchbacks, taking threatened or endangered plant species, or feeding the animals are all decisions with an ethical bent, and the right decisions often require a sensitivity to a place, not just a love for the environment. Hunting is a particularly amazing activity with regards to the number and depth of ethical decisions that must be decided by the individual, while no one else is looking.

For those unfamiliar with hunting, and for those who believe the act of hunting is inherently unethical, this last comment may sound absurd. I'll address those reactions in future posts, but for now, (and especially for those of you who hunt) I want to use this idea simply as a suggestion for teaching ethics. Take a kid to the outdoors, teach them to be stewards of a place, not just of the "environment". Teach them the value and power of particular animals and plants, not just of "nature". And teach them that they have tremendous power and responsibility as humans. But don't always tell them, or these decisions become as rote as the letter of the law. Ethics are dead if they are not lived, personal experiences.

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