Objection #5. The Middle Way applied to practical ethics provides excuses for not doing what we really ought to do.

This is, essentially, the objection given to me some years ago by Niall Scott, a Kantian environmental ethicist with whom I had shared an office for a lot of the time I was working on my Ph.D. at Lancaster. Of all the objections I have ever received, this is probably the one which has given me most pause for thought. It probably takes its strongest form considered in relation to environmental ethics. It could run something like this: the Middle Way requires us to address all conditions including psychological ones. This means that psychological concerns actually limit our commitment to outward action to address the pressing issues which threaten to destroy our environment. For example, Niall talked about the fact that I used to live in the countryside, in a place with no public transport, and commute into Lancaster by car. I felt I could defend this using the Middle Way because of the psychological benefits I derived from living in the countryside, particularly as a quiet, reflective context when studying. But was what I was doing sustainable? In Kantian terms, was I acting in a way I would really want everyone else to act?

We are now at a stage when it is possible that nothing we could do will be enough to save the environment. Global warming, for example, may have gone past the tipping point at which our activities have set off a further climatic feedback mechanism which produces further climate change. The effects of our actions may already be catastrophic. This is not a justification for fatalism or an excuse for doing less than we can, and the catastrophe looming may still be less of a catastrophe because of our attempt at moral action. The problem lies with the word "can". What can I do?

It is clearly recognised by all that we cannot do more than we are physically able to do. For example, as a living animal, I cannot live without producing some carbon dioxide emissions. However, for some reason psychological capability is often discounted from moral assessments. If you have a belief in metaphysical freewill, you can indeed do what you really want to do regardless of psychological conditions. People with merely "psychological" addictions can suddenly give them up on the decision of an instant. Those conditioned to environments full of both comfort and stimulus can, apparently, suddenly and voluntarily adopt different ones. Well, this may be true in some cases, but to assume that it is true in all cases is far beyond experience and entirely metaphysical. There are not only physical limits to what we can do in terms of environmental ethics, there are also psychological ones. Perhaps it would be best, in the abstract, if we all gave up burning any fossil fuels whatsoever instantaneously, and simply put up with all hardships that would result from doing so. Physically we could do this. However, we cannot all in fact do this because of our psychological conditioning, any more than a polar bear can survive if dumped in the middle of the Sahara desert. In any calculations based on experience rather than metaphysics, the probability of us all instantaneously giving up fossil fuels is as near zero as makes no difference.

If what morality really means, in terms of our own experience rather than mere ideals, is doing the most of what we can do, it then becomes something we can actually ask of people - rather than something that, if asked, would be automatically rejected (or falsely and unrealistically accepted) in the vast majority of cases. If we get closer to turning moral demands into what people actually can do, we might experience the exhilaration of being good, of being able to affirm ourselves rather than being institutionalised sinners. In brief, things might start changing for the better very much faster. All we need to do is stop asking what we should do in abstraction from all conditions, and instead consider how what we believe we actually can do can be stretched into a little more.

The Middle Way, properly observed, is not an excuse for not doing what I should be doing, but rather a demand to do what I am able to do, beyond what I currently do. It may well be that Niall was right in the specific case mentioned above, and I could have done more to avoid commuting by car. It is possible that the application of the Middle Way to that example should have been reconsidered. Given the inevitably provisional nature of all conclusions reached using the Middle Way, it could not be other than subject to revision. However, whatever faults that particular personal conclusion may have had, a conclusion reached using a metaphysical version of ethics would not have been better. All it would do is institutionalise a sense of failure at not having achieved an unreachable target. Middle Way targets are not undemanding because they are based on an integrated version of our present psychological conditions, but they are achievable. If what is achievable turns out to have been inadequate in relation to the environment, then we simply could not have done more and will have to reconcile ourselves to that.

Links to more discussion relating to this objection

Chapter on environmental ethics in "A New Buddhist Ethics"

Section on Kant from thesis

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