This week’s Tablet has an article by Abbot Christopher Jamison, whom I quoted a while back, on ethical engagement, and especially virtue ethics, in the context of climate change. The article is for subsribers only, but the Operation Noah inaugural lecture, of which it is a shortened verson, can be found here. He argues that “If we are to move beyond rhetoric and aspirational goals to have a tangible impact on people’s motivation to do the right thing, then our culture will need to rediscover the reality of metaphysics.” He discusses the role of the virtues in public policy and the need to rediscover the traditional understanding of “the good life”.
…let’s now take a look at how virtue plays out in people’s lifestyle and how that too is relevant to climate change. In this area, I choose as an example how the virtue of temperance can affect our lifestyle choices. We are increasingly aware that the Western lifestyle needs to change if we are to contain climate change. This is a problematic area because consumer culture is so embedded in our way of life. And of course this industrial system has brought real benefits. Too often people decry this culture’s material impact without seeing its material benefits, so what has gone wrong with this commercial process? The danger lies not simply in what consumer culture has done to our bodies but in what it has done to our souls, which in turn has led to an abuse of the material world. In this area of life, the monastic tradition offers some penetrating insights about temperance and about greed.
John Cassian was a great fourth century monk, the inspiration of St Benedict, and here is his account of greed in a monk: Greed is a work of the imagination that begins with apparently harmless thoughts. The monk begins to think that ‘what is supplied in the monastery is inadequate and can hardly sustain a healthy and robust body.’ The thought develops: ‘the monk ponders how he can get hold of at least one penny.’ When he has achieved that ‘then he is distracted with the still more serious concern of what to buy with it and how he can double it.’ This in turn leads to disillusionment with the way things are in the monastery and the monk cannot put up with things any longer so he wants to leave the monastery.
What emerges from this and other monastic writings is how deeply seriously greed was taken by the founders of the monastic tradition. The two basic insights that they offer can be readily applied to the lives of ordinary people today. Firstly, greed has its origins in the mental picture we have of our life and its needs. Secondly, if we get that mental picture wrong, it is a potential source of disintegration in the lives not only of individuals but also of communities. Armed with those monastic insights about how greed actually works, we can now look at consumer culture.
And he continues:
I believe that this ecological conversion involves individuals and society explicitly reaffirming that the classical virtues do indeed describe the good life. The churches in Britain, together with other religious communities, have a unique role to play in this regard. The four cardinal virtues have become endangered species, but the Church has given them sanctuary. They have been protected by the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. For the Christian, the cardinal virtues are rooted in the theological virtues. Does this mean that only Christians have displayed fortitude and justice, temperance and prudence? No, because these virtues are part of being human. Nor does it mean that only Christians have thought like this. What this does mean, however, is that the Church is the principal global institution that sees in these virtues hard realities that have their own science that can be taught. In addition, the Church affirms them as an integral foursome that, when rooted in faith, hope and love, adds up to the heart of humanity. It is this totality of vision that is the Church’s special contribution. As the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Baltahsar commented: “The Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics in our time.”