Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Going out on a limb over ethics, and then onto large chunks of granite

I'm about to step in it, but I've got to lay it out. In academic ethical discourse, there exists an 800 lb. gorilla in the room, the little "r". Just as for some reason scientists are forced to pick sides in regards to religion, ethicists have to eventually deal with the little "r".

I'm talking about relativism.

And so, to get this right out in the open, let's be frank: The author of this blog is not a relativist in the ethical sense. Without going too deep, let's just say that part of it stems from some ethical conundrums that show themselves in a relativist ethical world, that part of it is faith, and that part of it is an understanding that humans share certain traits.

It's this last point that I'd like to focus on. In a conversation today with a colleague, we discussed the nature of great, beautiful natural places, and how an increased awareness of and even (gasp!) use of these places for recreation and leisure can lead to better protections for them. In this context, the following idea worked out:

Send a group of twenty children on a tour of Yosemite Valley, and, on average, the following will happen: Two will inevitably have a bad day, because they were having a bad day; sixteen will have a great time, get out of the classroom, get to see some beautiful things, meet a ranger, etc.; and two will be moved for all time, their lives will never be the same. These last two may go into activism, or become rangers or wardens or park planners or poets. But, they will be forever shaped by the beauty and power they experienced, witnessing the largest granite monolith in the world, or the most massive living things on earth, or the tallest waterfall in North America. They will be moved because we are all moved by these, else why would so many millions come from tens of thousands of miles away? We aren't moved because these things are American. We are moved because we all see something within the place. And whether we are Pakistani, Japanese or Californian, we all recognize something within these places, creatures, and events.

There is something universal in these experiences, something we as humans share. It is similar to what is recognized in great literature from civilizations long past. We all want to watch a beautiful sunset, or watch a whale take a breath. Whether these are universal because of a Creator, or are universal due to the similarity of our neural pathways and gene codes I will leave to another place. But there is no denying that they are shared by humanity.

From this shared set of feelings, ethics seeks to gain some footing. It's not usually solid ground, but still, it is often recognized, and it is often found in experiences with the wild. That's one great thing about visiting wild places. In leaving civilization, we often find our relationships with other people stronger, more visible, more pronounced. And we get to sense something that we understand is, without pretense or scharade, shared by humanity.

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