Over the past few days I have been reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Laudato si”. This work presents a radical critique of modernity. While I deeply disagree with Francis in some respects, this work should be read by anyone interested in politics, history or philosophy because it challenges some of the most basic presuppositions that many modern people take for granted. I cannot discuss all of “Laudato si”, but in particular, I want to focus on how humans relate to non-human nature. Francis discusses this topic in depth in “Laudato si” and contrasts the Christian relation to non-human nature with that of modernity. It seems to me that both the relation of nature encapsulated within the so-called modern tradition and Francis’ approach are modes of thought are problematic as they fail to fully appreciate the relation of the good of humanity to the good of non-human nature.
The modern tradition that Francis decries sees non-human nature as something that possesses no inherent value. According to this approach, man simply needs to figure out how to use the formless mass that is the Earth to serve his purposes; our relation to non-human nature is like a craftsman working with raw matter with no ethical significance. Francis critiques this perspective on numerous grounds including that it encourage ecological devastation, fails to respect the inherent goodness of nature, and encourages man to see himself as a God like being who only has to figure out he want to use nature, instead of asking how God intended nature to be used. In addition Francis points out that this view of non-human nature cannot help but affect the way we relate to other human beings and encourages us to see other humans too as objects to be exploited. Consequently our relation to non-human nature cannot be completely isolated from our relation to humanity.
Contrastingly, Francis puts forward a view of the way we should relate to non-human nature that sees nature as intrinsically valuable, and a reflection of God’s glory. Furthermore, he notes that it is man’s task to be a steward over the Earth and care for it. This is not only because the Earth is a common home for humanity, but because God has entrusted the care of Earth to mankind not only as a home for humans, but as a creation that needs to be cherished for its intrinsic worth. Man may have dominion over the animals, but he must take care of creation, rather than ruling over without due consideration for its worth. For Francis this requires not only changing law and behaviour, but fundamentally altering our understanding of the way we relate to non-human nature, such that we see it as God’s creation that must be cared for, rather than as something to be simply used for our convenience.
The modern perspective that Francis critiques is quite clearly problematic, and for those of us who are non-Christian, like myself, do not need to reference scripture to notice its shortcomings. At the most basic level all we need to do is recognize that non-human lives can go well or poorly, and these non-human lives matter in some sense. I think this is a plausible belief to hold because when we reflect, even if we believe that it is justifiable to slaughter animals for the resources they can provide, it does not seem justifiable to treat them in whatever way suits our ends at that given moment. For example, if wolf testicles were found to produce an oil that rejuvenated skin and prevented the appearance of aging it still seems horrifying to go around and castrate wolves or start raising wolves in conditions that don’t allow for the activities of the excellence of a wolf display itself, like having them live in small, isolated cages where they are not able to move, play or hunt to access these oils. Consequently, nature puts a claim on us, and I would agree with Francis that we have the responsibility to care for the Earth and other beings, and more specifically, all other things being equal, to try to ensure that we adopt a mode of life, that allows the lives of all beings to go well.
But what does it mean to ensure that the lives of all beings goes well? Is there a natural harmony of interest between the species that occupy the Earth that would allow all species to flourish simultaneously? The first of these questions is quite difficult for me to answer, and I will not get to it here, but to the second question I have to say that the answer tends to be no if we adopt a plausible conception of what makes a life go well. The flourishing of one species and another are not necessarily mutually supporting. The concept of “the ecosystem” sometimes has the hypnotic effect of making us think that there is a natural harmony in the environment such that we imagine nature as if it were the Garden of Eden. But this perspective does not hold up as from a very basic evolutionary perspective the ecosystem has no such harmony over time. If nature is understood in terms of species struggling for their survival, sometimes against other species, who compete with them for food and resources then it seems plausible to think that the flourishing of one species could come at the expense of another. Does this mean that humans should just struggle for their survival at all costs and not care for other beings? No, of course not. We, as beings capable of reflection on nature and value, have a responsibility to care for the Earth and ensure that its intrinsic worth is preserved. But this does not mean that non-human nature poses no threat to us. There is always the possibility that humans could be wiped out, or damaged by another species, whether it is a virus or super intelligent, malevolent Otters. From a historical perspective we have good reason to think that Cro-Magnon overtook Neanderthal man through violence among other means. So, I see little reason to think that non-human nature poses no threat to human flourishing.
Yet Francis does not mention this threat that non-human nature puts to humanity. I think there are two reasons for this. The first likely lies within Francis’ Christian anthropology. If God gave the Earth to humans to care for as Francis thinks, than it seems plausible to think that part of the structure of the universe is that humans will maintain their dominion over non-human nature until the end of time. The other reason however is that Francis’ understanding of goodness is rooted in the Christian notion of love or Agape. For Francis, it seems that the core of living well for a human being is to participate in Agape, God’s love for all creation, by loving and caring for one’s fellow human beings and for creation. According to this understanding human goodness is never at odds with the goodness of other species or nature as a whole, rather Agape unites all of creation and relates it back to God.
Now while Agape is a very powerful notion I have a difficult time seeing it as the fundamental core of goodness. For example, let us consider a person who is kind, courageous, caring and generous. In one set of life circumstances this person is a slave to a wealthy landlord. The wealthy landlord does not physically abuse her, but she lacks the ability to pursue many of her own interests and so while she is always kind, courageous, caring and generous, she is never able to pursue romantic love, or develop her interest in the plastic arts or music. Now, on the other hand imagine this same person lives in a society where she is an equal citizen with access to resources that allow her to pursue romantic love and her artistic interests, and consequently she pursues these activities. From the standpoint of character, in both circumstances this women lives equally excellent lives as in both the woman is kind, courageous, caring and generous. But in another sense the latter life circumstances allow the women to live a better life than the former life circumstances, as in the latter life she not only can develop her ethical character, but also can develop other capabilities such as the expression of romantic love and beauty that seem integral to a good life. This is a point that Aristotle makes in the ethics when he suggests that certain external conditions need to obtain for man to have a life that is good in a fundamental sense such as wealth and health. The slave can exhibit positive character traits, but in not being free certain forms of goodness are closed off to him.
In this sense we might say that there are two forms of goodness that need to be present for the best kind of life: the first is goodness of character, and the other is goodness of circumstance. The former ensures the development of intrinsically worthy qualities of character, while the latter ensures that one lives in a context that allows one to pursue the range of activities necessary for the best kind of life. The modern tradition that Francis critiques focuses exclusively on goodness of circumstance by focusing on transforming raw nature to serve human ends and make human life commodious. Contrastingly, Francis seems to be overly fixated on goodness of charaacter to the degree to which he cannot recognize that non-human nature presents a threat to man. Now Francis does not deny that we should try to develop technology and institutions to support the increase of material prosperity for all, but he seems to think that we can do this without any cost to nature, as nowhere in “Laudato si”, does he ever suggest that human flourishing might come at the expense of the flourishing of God’s creation. But if we return to my earlier point about evolution this seems far from plausible. While we can do our best to care for nature and creation to ensure that it flourishes we sometimes have to face the agonistic choice of the flourishing of our species and the decline of another. Without looking at the specifics of the case it is difficult to say what the right choice is in this case, instead, we need to see that, as humans we bear the responsibility of trying to figure out how to make these painful decisions. In this sense human flourishing and the flourishing of non-human nature can come into conflict and in some cases one good will have to be take priority over another, so I find Francis’ suggestion in “Laudato si” that there is a complete harmony between the good of man, and the good non-human nature implausible.
In response to this someone might say that there is no conflict if we reconceive human flourishing so that it is less focused on material prosperity and more on spiritual health, as the conflict is not between human flourishing per se and the flourishing of other species, but between material prosperity for humans and the flourishing of other species. However, this objection seems misguided as imagine that an insect carries a disease that like Syphilis eventually ends in madness, and we have made no progress in understanding how to cure this disease. It probably makes sense to purge this species of fly from urban areas if possible, as this species not only affects physical health, but spiritual and moral well-being, and so there is a genuine conflict between the good of this fly and the good of humanity.
It is possible that I am misreading Francis, and that we actually agree at the most basic level, but if that is the case than Francis has been too willing to conceal the conflict that exists between humanity and non-human nature, such that he make it seem like there is a natural harmony of interests between the two. One of the most profound difficulties in caring for all beings is that some of these beings may pose a threat to us, and our flourishing. So we need to take note of this difficulty.