After my post about Kant and No Impact, an assistant professor of philosophy at Indiana State University, Brian Morton, wrote me a very long email telling me what he thought philosophers from Locke to Sartre would think of the No Impact Experiment. Fascinating! This post is my edited summary of what Brian had to say about the intersection of some of the thinkers and No Impact. Any grammatical errors belong to me. Comments in square brackets are mine.
Confucius focuses on living the life of virtue, and he firmly believes that one person being virtuous can induce others to imitate them. Indeed, his recipe for political change is for good private people to do right until rulers decide to imitate them, and then many, many people will imitate the rulers, and the government will be reformed…For Confucius, the key virtue is benevolence, or humaneness (jen) and it is about being genuinely human, and caring for all other humans.
Confucius would approve of setting up rules to prevent Americans from taking more than their fair share. He would suggest that these rules could be enforced by being made to seem part of politeness. If we treated excess as being vaguely impolite, people would start conforming to austerity more. Confucius is also a big fan of frugality.
Aristotle believed that the key virtue is prudence (sophrosyne) or the wise balancing of many competing interests. Each moral vice always has its opposite flavor on the other side of the mean. Eating too much, so that it harms you health is the vice of gluttony. Eating too little so that your health suffers is over-strictness. Thus, the key virtue of prudence typically manifests as moderation of action.
Aristotle says little of environmentalism, but if he saw a culture where people spent natural resources too freely, he would condemn it as a moral vice, comparable to being spendthrift and urge moderation of action. Indeed, he’d be a little more censorious of others than No Impact Man has been.
But how much spending is too much spending is something that rules can never really do justice to. It takes a human using wisdom or common sense to decide on a case by case basis. Rules are just substitutes for judgment that can be useful guidelines, but are by their nature never quite as appropriate to the situation as a wise human’s judgment.
Aquinas believed that voluntary poverty [and more moderately self-restraint? NIM] is the foundation of perfect love. It is a quite different thing from involuntary poverty which is spiritually dangerous because humans will be tempted to do bad things to escape it. But choosing to be impoverished [or to restrain one’s consumption? NIM] for the sake of love that is a special thing for those in special walks of life.
Aquinas also has a famous doctrine called double effect. What do you do when an action will have both good and bad consequences, like NIM’s breaking his no buying anything new rule to buy sticky putty for the poster? Aquinas says that this is OK sometimes, but there are lots of restrictions.
You have to intend the good part and merely allow the bad part (if you knew a way to get the good without the bad or some comparable bad, you would take that). The action can’t be intrinsically wrong in anyway, but can only be wrong through its effects (a lie to do good wouldn’t pass this hurdle). The hoped for good must be enough to compensate for the bad. The hoped for good must be at least as causally proximate as the bad (you can’t do a bad thing now, in hopes that a good will come of it later, the good and bad must be together).
By the way, Plug It Out!--Unplugged in NYC and Beyond, which promotes collective monthly unplugged days is having its fourth monthly unplugging event on Saturday. To join in or read more go here.