Moral Ground – K.D. Moore / M.P. Nelson, Eds. [Review]

June 6, 2012


Moral Ground - K.D. Moore and M.P. Nelson, Eds.Haunted by a Future

A Review of

Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril

Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson, Editors

Paperback: Trinity University Press, 2011
Buy now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Gregory A. Clark

Moral Ground is haunted by a future.

The editors, Moore and Nelson, begin their introduction with an analogy.  Dinosaurs continued to feed and care for their young even while an asteroid tumbled toward the earth.  When that asteroid crashed into the earth it began a chain of events that undermined the various species of dinosaurs.  So also, we (where “we” means the human species) potential dinosaurs that we are, continue our life as usual while the equivalent of an asteroid, climate change, bears down upon us.  We all ought to be haunted by the future.

But, Moore and Nelson point out that analogy is not necessity.  We are not there yet. We have three things the dinosaurs lacked: (1) a warning, (2) an imperative, and, for now, (3) a future. Let’s look at Moore and Nelson’s position on each of these points.

(1) A Warning: One distinctive feature of our culture, at least among college freshmen, is the belief that facts are objective and values are subjective, that we can reason about facts but not about values. The practice of debate on climate change, however, indicates that the distinctions are not so clear. Scientific conclusions and reasonings, especially when they impinge on politics and policy, suddenly look less objective to the general public.  Moore and Nelson acknowledge the philosophical issues at stake here, but this is not a text on the relation of facts and values, on philosophy of science, or on the place of science in public debate on policy.

So, with regard to the science of climate change, Moore and Nelson reassert a traditional view of science. The scientific community has established the facts in broad outline, and it has issued a clear warning:  “If we do not act soon, anthropogenic environmental changes will bring serious harms to the future.”  For Dean and Nelson, this position is their starting point; their text does not waste print debating the science of climate change.

(2) An Imperative: Establishing imperatives is even trickier in our culture than agreeing on what “the scientific community has established…”  Imperatives are commands to act on the basis of evaluations. But our culture often thinks it believes that values are subjective, that they are not subject to reason or argument, that they can only be asserted, expressed, shouted, or imposed.

The primary burden of this anthology is to establish this second position, that we have an imperative to act. But, it does not do this by articulating and arguing for a new account of ethics or a new form of moral reasoning. We have neither the time nor a broad enough audience for that. Instead, Moral Ground, precisely in its form as an anthology, engages in dialectical reasoning.

By “dialectical reasoning,” I am not referencing Marxist or Hegelian forms of reasoning or the in-house jargon that goes with them. Dialectical reasoning names a tradition instantiated in Zeno’s paradoxes, Plato’s Parmenides, Abelard’s Yes and No, and, yes, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, The Transcendental Dialectic.  It begins from premises provided by others, and it draws out the conclusions. In one of its forms, it demonstrates that two sets of premises which contradict each other actually lead to the same conclusion. The classic example of this form of dialectical reasoning is found in Zeno’s Paradoxes. Zeno argued, on the one hand, if space and time are infinitely divisible, then there is no motion, and, on the other hand, if space and time are not infinitely divisible, then there is no motion. Because this form of reasoning proceeds from contradictory premises and yet reaches the same conclusion, its conclusion is absolutely sure.

The argument of Moral Ground is near to this form of dialectical argument.  They have gathered short contributions from more than eighty writers.  The different regions, cultures, and ethnic groups include the following:  Inuit, Onondaga, New Zealanders, Poles, Germans, Greeks, Turks, Vietnamese, Arab-Americans, Indians, Potawatomi, Australians, Iranians, Osage, Chinese, British, African-Americans, South Africans, Kiowa, Chickasaw, Brazilians, etc.  The occupations represented also form an impressive list: novelists, biologists, philosophers, theologians, politicians, journalists, poets, activists, farmers, professors, lawyers, conservationists, anthropologists, entrepreneurs, songwriters, naturalists, historians, mathematicians, priests, even investment bankers, and there are still others.  Religious positions represented include: Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Judaism, Islam, and others.  Utilitarians, deontologists, virtue-ethicists, feminists, and others represent different traditions of ethical theory.

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