In an essay about the theologian Abraham Heschel, environmental writer Ben Webb described the spiritual state presumed by the Christian church calendar in the fall and early winter as “morally mature”. Not spiritually mature, morally mature. What, I wondered in response, does the Earth require of a culture at this time in the evolution of humanity? Morally mature sounds about right. This leads to the question, “what does a morally mature culture look like?”
Let me offer my thesis upfront: a morally mature culture has covenants of mutuality that promote reciprocity both within the human community and between humans and the natural world. Essentially a morally mature culture recognizes that we are all in this together and provides the means for being in it together wisely. Hear me out on this and see what you think.
Culture, in the anthropological sense, includes all the tools, language, stories, and behaviors that organize our lives and that can’t be reduced to human biology. Culture sets the rules for how we relate to each other. And for most of our history, culture dovetailed human behavior with a particular place, whether it is a desert, a prairie, forest, or tundra. So culture is really about relationships: our relationships with each other, and our relationship to a specific place. Culture is designed to keep us out of trouble with all our relations. Therefore, it stands to reason that a morally mature culture would have healthy and wise relationships both within the human community and with the larger community of the natural world. Moral maturity of a culture embodies the wisdom that comes from close monitoring and recalibrating these relationships so that they are healthy and resilient. The only way that they can be healthy and resilient is if there is mutual giving and taking, if there is reciprocity. Reciprocity is essential because it guarantees that each being or community contributes its unique gifts and doesn’t take more than its share. Organisms that take more than their share risk destabilizing a community.
The problem with our culture is that it is no longer brokering healthy relationships with the natural world but almost exclusively regulating the human community’s relationship with technology. (Given the health care debate I’m wondering whether culture is even functioning to regulate our relationships within the human community.) Our primary relationships are with computers, telephones, cars and the central air conditioner, not with predators, plants that we grow or gather, animals that provide meat, clothing and tools. Even our key rite of passage is getting a driver’s license.
If we are to develop a cultural moral maturity we will have to evolve beyond our technophilia and develop principles for covenants with the natural world and with each other.
We can do this. Here are a couple of ways we’ll recognize healthy covenants and real moral maturity. First, we will have principles for coping with scarcity and abundance. The reasons for this are intuitively clear. When resources are scarce or abundant we have to decide how to use and allocate them. If we decide badly we suffer from inequality between people and we destroy the Earth’s ability to regenerate. Both inequality and ecosystem degeneration rupture our community connections.
Similarly, a morally mature culture will have resilient mechanisms for addressing crises and future generations. Crises are surprises in the immediate moment. Future generations challenge us to plan ahead, far ahead. Immature responses to crises can shred our covenants by hardening borders, narrowing community membership criteria, increasing hierarchy and therefore creating unequal access to resources. Morally mature responses are born out of anticipation and preparation. In other words, adaptation, renewal, and wholeness that lead to resilience in the face of crises. It does take planning ahead to build in and practice anticipation and preparation. Nowhere is that more evident than the long term planning and thinking that is required to protect the well-being of future generations. Morally mature cultures are able to practice care and restraint on behalf of those to come. This means that a culture is able to delay gratification as a community matter.
Future generations pose a special challenge because this generation can rightfully claim that future generations can’t participate by giving back to us and we can’t really speak for them. But that belies the fundamental truth that this generation inherited everything we have from previous generations. The reciprocal relationship, and therefore the covenant, is with our ancestors. We honor that covenant by becoming good ancestors ourselves. In this sense, moral maturity is an expression of gratitude for our inheritance and the care we take with all that we have been given on behalf of future generations.
Over the last few years, in the company of wonderful colleagues, I’ve been working with an idea that I hope is moving us towards moral maturity, the precautionary principle. The principle is a close relative of the Golden Rule, which compels me to treat you as I wish to be treated. The Golden Rule is central to the covenants of mutuality. Similarly, the precautionary principle asks me to act in such a way that I prevent harm to the greater community. I suspect if we live by these precepts we will begin our journey to moral maturity as a culture.