Ecology and Morality ~ Reconfiguring our Moral Compass

It’s giving me much pleasure to speak to the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I am grateful for the invitations.

Edward O. Wilson is a remarkable biologist-slash-ecologist who introduced himself to his audience of a 2007 TED talk in this way: “I’ve come on a special mission on behalf of my constituency, which are the 10-to-the-18th-power — a million trillion — insects and other small creatures, to make a plea for them, the teeming small creatures that can be held between the thumb and forefinger: the little things that compose the foundation of our ecosystems, the little things, as I like to say, who run the world.”

E.O. Wilson knows his insects, particularly his ants!

Now, I’m not crazy about ants. My garden is riddled with the outdoor version of those glassed-in ant farms you could mail order some decades ago – (now it’s Uncle Milton Ant Farms on sale through the internet). But I’m really interested in a person who is . . . crazy about ants, especially one who has won two Pulitzers for his science, the Carl Sagan award for the Public Understanding of Science, AND . . . the 2010 Heartland Prize for Anthill: A Novel, his first, which he wrote at the age of 81. Should give all of us would be fiction writers hope and sustenance!

In Anthill, Wilson, describes his young hero Raff Cody through the eyes of Raff’s college professor Frederick Norville who says, “I had known Raff almost all his life. We met at the unspoiled environment of Lake Nokobee, located in the central part of South Alabama close to the border of the Florida Panhandle. It was a world few knew existed and fewer still could speak of with any understanding, a world that we shared and loved. I was the scientist and historian of this place, Raff the boy who in a sense grew up there. His intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life.

The moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life. This book was my nighttime reading, and when I read those words I sat straight up in the bed. What could that possibly mean, Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life?

Now, I need to set this against the tapestry of my own work at the time. I was immersed – drowning might be a better description – in the “earth-centered morality” section of my own writing, working with an editor who clearly was struggling with me. I was trying to articulate a concept which I’d named the space between . . . in this instance, the space between people of churches and people not – and my editor was asking me, over and over – when we got to the morality section – what are the ten commandment equivalents for the space between . . . ? I had no answer for her; all I knew was that it wasn’t the right question. Even metaphorically, it wasn’t the right question. But . . . I didn’t have a clue as to what the right question might have been. So, maybe you can imagine how Wilson’s words impacted me at a visceral level, “Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life.”

WOW! You know how sometimes you can hear or sense the truth of something before you actually can put words to it? It was like that.

The natural world – the elemental world of earth, water, creature, wind, fire – from which might emerge one’s moral compass . . . how does that work? That’s the question I was holding then, and I still am, really, holding that question, because there is a tape still looping through my brain, one that found its way inside my head during my college years. I was a philosophy major at Columbia University, and as you might imagine, the world of ethics and moral choice was reasonably important. All the early philosophers had to address the moral questions – they did it, most often, against a tapestry of . . . God.

My particular conundrum at the time was embodied in the writings of David Hume. I thought he was pretty cool. I don’t remember why, exactly. But he was right at the top of my list. What I do know is that I had a paper due in May, and if the University hadn’t gone out on strike in 1969, in protest of the Vietnam war, I would never have graduated. As it was, I – like most everybody – took incompletes. I skipped out of New York in May, played hard the entire summer, but finally, the time came to . . . pay up. I wasn’t any more disciplined at the end of the summer than I had been at summer’s beginning. I had to write seven papers in five days; my solution – I was in good company – was to stop sleeping.

It was the middle of the night, Day 5, and New York was as quiet as it ever gets. There was no one to ask, and so I dialed – dialed! – O for Operator.

“What number, please?” she asked.

“Um, it’s not a number exactly.”


“Then what is it, exactly?”

“I need some help.”

“Are you all right? Do you need a 911?”

“No, not that kind of help. I am very tired and have to turn in this paper tomorrow or I’ll flunk the class.”

“Yes?” Now she sounded more intrigued than alarmed.

“I seem to have forgotten how to spell. Do you spell the word of with an f or a v?”

The woman was mercifully kind and wanted to know what the paper was about. “It’s a paper on the philosophy of a dead man whose name was David Hume.”

I tried to explain about Hume’s thought, that you cannot derive a moral “ought” from the reality of what “is.” Hume’s explanatory words rolled off my tongue as though I knew what I was talking about, “The prescriptive does not derive from the descriptive.” I could tell I’d lost her. But she did spell of for me, with an f, and we parted as late-night compatriots of a sort.

It would please me now to make the claim and mean it that I still understand Hume’s argument that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” But I’ll try. He was saying, I think, that you can’t take something like a Walden Pond experience and derive a moral framework from it. The Walden Pond is the “is” and it’s really not going to tell us much about the “ought” – at least according to David Hume – how we ought to behave.

But . . . here’s the thing. Hume’s rationale – like any of the anthropocentric, and by that I mean human-centered, ethicists of today, and they are legion – rested on the unchallenged premise of human primacy and entitlement —humans are set apart, distinct from the rest of the biotic world—a premise that is not only flawed but altogether wrong . . . and one that remains unchallenged, and, for the most part, one that remains unexamined.

This is important, because it suggests – continues to suggest – that human morality can be forged independently – disconnected – from the rest of the biotic community. It suggests that morality exists only human-to-human, or,for many people, human-to-God. And that’s just not true. The reason . . . that my editor’s question about the ten commandment equivalents for the space between was the wrong question, was that she was asking me about human-to-human morality and human-to-Divine morality, and nothing else.

What Edward Wilson’s novel makes clear, is that one’s moral compass has everything to do with that person’s understanding of his or her proper place within the biotic world. Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life. Raff knew his place. His place was in/within the Nokobee. He was not a visitor, not an observer/scientist, not an exploiter. He was of the Nokobee, and, as such, knew that he was of no greater or lesser value than any other Nokobee denizen . . . even an ant. He knew that his moral behavior was intricately and inextricably connected to the health and well-being of his real home, the Nokobee.

So I guess my question is: how did we arrive at an understanding of morality that was based only human-to-human, or human-to-Divine? How did we get there? And how do we get from there to where we need to be, namely that morality is systemic, intricately interwoven with the elemental world of earth, water, creature, wind, and fire? How do we get there?

So . . . let’s start with the first question. How did we arrive at the understanding that morality that was based solely on the human-to-human, or the human-to-Divine relationship? In the biblical narrative contained in the Book of Exodus, Moses is said to have received the moral law direct from God, in the form of two stone tablets containing a total of ten commandments. What’s important for this discussion is this: they were delivered from an external authority; they are linear; they are hierarchical. And . . . they deal only with human-to-Divine and human-to-human relationships. Whether or not we want or choose to rely on the Ten Commandments for our moral frame, they’ve infiltrated the culture. There are no boundaries, in this case, between scripture and culture. The beauty of this particular moral system was that it reflected the hierarchical structure laid out in the Genesis story of Creation. It reflected what the early biblical writers knew of the ordering of the universe.

God dwelt in the highest of the heavens – the heaven of heavens. Then came just the plain old ordinary heavens. That’s where the Angels lived, angels and other semi-divine beings. Then came the waters above the firmament. Windows and doors opened onto the heavens, the sun . . . moon. . . stars.

And then the earth. Below earth, Sheol, sometimes called Hades, or Hell, and several layers of that.

So . . the idea that I’ve been working with for a couple years, emerges from the observation that a biblically based morality was based on the known ordering of the world. Linear and hierarchical.

Assuming that this observation has value, then we can ask ourselves what a moral structure would look like if it corresponded to the world as we know it today.

Let me say this another way. In the same way that the ten commandments reflected the way the world was presumed to work at the time of their writing, the moral frame we need to develop from a biocentric perspective has to reflect the real structure of the world as we know it today.

What we know is this: the structure of the earth community is a web, and so it needs to have its parallel in the development of a biocentric – not hierarchical – moral framework.

Think about a web for a minute. Think about it as a metaphor. It’s basically circular. Each component – or filament – of a web serves to strengthen the whole system; without any one of the filaments, the web degrades or even collapses. The same will be true of a moral framework.

In a biocentric universe, the “is”—the real world—is what we have, and perhaps all we have, to ground a biocentric morality. It’s not David Hume after all. And it’s from the world as it really is that we can begin to talk about appropriate human responses and choices. The difficulty we’re having, shifting moral paradigms, stems from an unfamiliarity with appropriate moral language for where we are, and what we know today . . . stems from the fact that a biocentric moral framework cannot be linear. And it cannot be external. And it cannot be hierarchical.

So what are the touchstones of a biocentric morality? How might we imagine the web itself, along with its filaments as a new moral paradigm?

I think the web itself represents . . . sense of place. Humans have long understood ourselves – misunderstood ourselves – as existing outside the order of the natural world, imbued with the privilege and power-over, that comes with entitlement. We’re entitled, we think, to do as we will with regard to the earth and water and air and all creatures. To each other, for that matter. Power-over extends to the human realm as we well know.

So, first, we have to remember – or, as the Greeks thought of it – we have to lose our forgetfulness with regard to our proper human place within and not external to the web. That . . . is a moral imperative. We have to do this. We have to relocate ourselves. The late eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote, “In the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth. And now, the desolation of the earth is becoming the destiny of the human.” Berry’s invitation is to rejoin the community of life from which we emerged. I think of it as the pivotal ethical imperative. I see this as the ethical ground out of which our moral compass might be re-configured.

So . . . if the web is to represent, metaphorically and ethically, our re-imagined sense of place, then what might be some of its moral filaments?

In her poem Testimony, Rebecca Baggett writes:

“I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.”

It’s that little word must. Anyone who notices the world must want to save it.

That word must indicates moral imperative. So . . . mindfulness . . . attentiveness . . . is the moral filament which emerges from a true sense of place. If we know our place in the world, then the moral imperative is to be mindful, to pay attention. Mindfulness . . . attentiveness . . . is also a moral practice. We’re not really very practiced at the moment, most of us. We’re not yet willing to release our sense of human privilege and entitlement. Anthropocentrism continues to be the order of the day.

A second filament of a re-imagined moral web is gratitude. Gratitude for the magnificence, complexity, and mystery of the universe emerges – can do nothing else but emerge – from mindfulness, from paying attention. In the radio broadcast of a couple years ago, They Don’t Call her Mother Earth for Nothing, Alice Walker speaks of her joy at being alive on the earth at this particular time. “Blessed with the opportunity to witness to the earth’s beauty, majesty, and grace. That’s the ecstasy,” she says.

Mindfulness and gratitude, two moral practices which not only support and strengthen one another, but also reinforce the ethical ground of a reconfigured moral compass – a sense of true place. I can suggest another filament of this web we’re constructing – compassion. Karen Armstrong, in her Charter for Compassion, acknowledges that compassion “lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions.” So, if we are to understand that a true sense of place – metaphorically weblike – lies at the heart of a re-configured ethics, then compassion is another of its filaments.

Mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion, these three, bring me to the question of the proper human role within the biotic community. It’s not exactly stewardship, although we’re all familiar with the concept and consider it, for the most part, a worthy endeavor. But stewardship has to do with oversight. When we talk about stewardship – many religions talk about stewardship – we’re perpetuating the mistaken notion that we humans are in charge. And we’re not.

So if I were to take a stab at rewriting Rebecca Baggett’s last sentence of her poem, meaning no disservice to her, but really for the purposes of this post, I would write,

Anyone who notices the world with a grateful and compassionate heart, must want to serve it. It’s true to say that I never for a moment would have thought I could articulate my ethics in one sentence. But I think I just did. Anyone who notices the world with a grateful and compassionate heart, must want to serve it.

And if I am given the opportunity to expand on this just a bit, I would say, Anyone who notices the world with a grateful, humble, and compassionate heart, with curiosity, joy, and wonder, must want to serve it.


  1. Rebecca Baggett on April 4, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    Hi, Caroline — I find bits and pieces of “Testimony” all over the web, but this may be one of my favorite uses — nice to find my work in a talk on deep ecology. That particular poem is in a chapbook from Pudding House Publications that may be out of print, but I have some new collections over the past couple of years — “God Puts on the Body of a Deer” from Main Street Rag and “Thalassa” from Finishing Line Press. Best wishes on your work! Rebecca Baggett

  2. Tim Holt-Wilson on October 1, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    YES, Caroline !
    Thank you for articulating so thoughtfully what needs to be said !
    And one further step to consider:- consciously including the abiotic world within our care and service. Is there value in rocks, fossils, landforms and geomorphological processes on Earth? Is there nature on the Moon and Mars? I believe there is. An ethical field theory is in the making…
    Best wishes,

    • Caroline Fairless on October 1, 2013 at 6:34 pm

      Thank you, Tim. And you are right, of course. I learned from a friend to be intentional about the biotic and abiotic worlds. In my own mind I embrace the abiotic with the phrase “earth community”, or the more-than-human world. I think of all of it as living, all of it invaluable, all in some form of dynamic.

      The language is critically important, and I appreciate your call to intentionality.

      Thank you,

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.