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Rethinking ecological ethics and human happiness

ZHANG PENGSONG | 2021-03-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Tourists bathe under the Sun by a beach in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. Photo: Ozzie Ou/ PROVIDED TO CSST

Since the ancient times, humanity has pursued the unity of virtue and happiness. Specific interpretations have varied, from the Hellenistic view that happiness was focused narrowly on good actions, known as “eudaimonia,” to the medieval notion of happiness as the truest good in a divine sense, the Enlightenment’s humanistic approach, to the Confucian idea of benevolence. They all share something in common: the inherited morality of happiness. 
Modernity ethics
However, modernity ethical discourse positions humans in the natural world and debates over the inherence of nature’s value. This ethical approach seems to be detached from human society and individual happiness, and is thus no more than a normative externality applied to human behavior rather than an internalized belief. 
Contemporary ecological ethics lacks discourse on happiness, so it fails to turn theories into action, or become an internal driver for modern people pursuing happiness. Therefore, as a brand-new moral paradigm, ecological ethics needs to leave the boundaries of modernity ethical discourse by deconstructing the dichotomy between the biosphere and the human sphere. Instead, it needs to turn to internal links between nature, society, and happiness, to provide a more sensible moral reason for humans to protect the environment and improve themselves.
Ecological ethics is generally considered to have originated after ecological crises resulting from anthropogenic impact on the environment, necessitating the protection of nature. Two disparate or even opposite theories exist, however, in the logic underlying calls for natural protection. Ecocentrism puts nature at the center, and believes in its inherent value. Anthropocentrism, on the other hand, highlights human’s inherent value. This argument indeed has theoretical significance, which can be uncovered by unravelling the relationship between nature and humans. But if we don’t go beyond this theoretical construct, to reach out to social realities, we are at risk of diverging from the mission of ecological ethics and falling into a trap of modernity ethical discourse, caught up in the dilemma of environmental protection. 
Ecological ethics has to build an organic link between nature and humans and confront the current discourse system. This link can be made by reflecting on the cyclical nature of economic crises, which arise from modern society’s materialistic lifestyle and evolve around economic growth. It is also important to understand the mental crisis of a general decline in happiness caused by imbalances in our psychological ecology.
The real problem facing ecological ethics is not only ecological but existential. Materialistic lifestyles blunt the human ability to attain happiness through internal exploration, narrowing the focus of life by reducing humans into atomized individuals, which separates life from both nature and the human experience. Ecological ethics is based on moral thinking about ecological crises. Protecting nature to preserve its “inherent value” indicates a surface-level understanding of ecological ethics. The end goal should be a deep reflection on human life and social life, so that human existence and the human capacity for happiness can be improved through moral actions and belief in ecological morality.
Therefore, to eliminate ecological crises once and for all, we must integrate the natural sphere with human life. This way, ecological ethics can advance from theoretical discussions to realistic concerns on lifestyle and mental well-being. It has potential to resolve a common human existential crisis and overcome “consequences of modernity” such as human’s separation from nature. Otherwise, the protection of nature is an external limit rather than a realistic human need.
Ecological ethics is about natural protection, but it is still bounded by humanistic values established in the transfer from traditional to modern society, such as human dignity, human values, the meaning of life, and the pursuit of happiness. Without the drive of humanism, natural protection would lose its practical significance. Humanism is the evolving core of modern ethical discourse. From the Renaissance to the Reformation, which advocated for the liberation of human nature, extolled the value and dignity of humanity, and defended the mortal pursuit of happiness in our present lives, to the Enlightenment which emphasized the power of reason, the pursuit of freedom, equality, and the right to happiness, the ethical framework of humanism was established and the ethical foundation of the modern humanistic spirit was laid. 
As Kant pointed out in Critique of Practical Reason, “In this order of purpose, man (and with him every rational being) is to be thought of as being an end in himself; that is to say, he is never to be used by anyone, not even by God himself, as a mere means.”
Nevertheless, Western humanistic ethics has its flaws. At face value, it has laid the foundation for modern morality. But in effect, it creates a divergence between ethical life and happiness by reducing the former into “dependence on objects” and trapping it in “the labyrinth of means.” Modern society, developed under Western ethics, is motivated by the capitalistic logic of “utility” and “proliferation,” facilitated by economism, consumerism, and technologism, and disguised in humanism, is implicitly wreaking havoc on nature and harming human life itself. 
Ecological ethics
Ecological ethics, however, focuses on nature and profoundly understands nature’s inherent value. It creates new grounds for humanism without violating humanistic moral principles by extending ethical theories into nature. This reveals, not only gaps in modernity ethical discourse’s understanding of the connection between humans and nature, but also the consequences of “objectification” in modern society. Ecological ethics takes root in moral reflections about social life, which extends the range of ethical concerns into the natural world, and looks for human perspectives and possible approaches to happiness within the relationship between man and nature.
Ecological ethics conforms with modern humanism but goes beyond the notion of morality delineated by modernity ethical discourse. It builds upon contemporary ethical theories, which emphasize happiness as a fundamental human right. It also reflects on the modern notion of a moral life to generate a new lifestyle that encourages the pursuit of internal balance for a happy life. Happiness is life’s goal and the driver of human society. It is constant improvement and the discovery of a balance between inward and outward development.
People in modern society can pursue happiness in many ways, but most of these are based on material satisfaction, or the need for outward development, rather than internal self-satisfaction. This approach disrupts internal balance which would lead to happiness, blocking the way for inner growth. In particular, modernity Western ethical discourse encourages relentless expansion into the external world, causing negligence of the inner world, emotional intelligence, and the original human experience.
Search for meaning
At a time of material abundance, we should not endlessly crave more from the external world. Instead, we should explore within to discover the meaning of our existence and feel the beauty of our inner world. This way, we feel genuinely happy and avoid “endless emptiness” which stems from a lack of meaning. Happiness indeed demands material satisfaction, which is the strength of modern society over traditional society. But in the absence of spiritual belief and inner moral character, human life is deprived of its original richness and rendered monotonous.
Ecological ethics integrates the natural sphere and the human sphere by seeing nature in a new light and discovering innovative value in humans. It represents more than the preservation of nature; it has a more profound goal of both regulating human behavior and fostering a moral belief in natural protection. It stimulates the need for inward self-development and self-satisfaction to fill the void created by a material life of overconsumption and build the human capacity for happiness. Though ecological ethics aims to preserve nature, it also serves to protect humans themselves.
Zhang Pengsong is from the School of Philosophy at Heilongjiang University.


Edited by WENG RONG