Once there was no caring on Earth; today caring has gone global – at least in ideal; sometimes, if but partly, in real. Ethics has been around for millennia; the Golden Rule is perennial. But we have only recently become aware of evolutionary natural history and threats to the biodiversity it has generated. Concern on Earth comes to include concern about Earth. This starts with human concerns for a quality environment, and some think this shapes all our concerns about nature from start to finish. Humans are the only self-reflective, deliberative moral agents. Ethics is for people. But humans co-inhabit Earth with five to ten million species. If the values that nature has achieved over evolutionary time are at stake, then ought not humans to find nature sometimes morally considerable in itself? Nature has equipped Homo sapiens, the wise species, with a conscience. Perhaps conscience is less wisely used than it ought to be when, as in classical Enlightenment ethics, it excludes the global community of life from consideration, with the resulting paradox that the self-consciously moral species acts only in its collective self-interest toward all the rest. Perhaps we humans are not so “enlight-ened” as once supposed – not until we reach a more considerate, environmental, Earth ethic.
Here is another critical threshold, recognizing a difference crucial for understanding the human possibilities in the world. Humans can not only be altruists one to another; they can be still more inclusive altruists when they recognize the claims of nonhuman others: animals, plants, species, ecosystems, a global biotic community. This most altruistic form of ethics embodies the most comprehensive caring. It really loves others. This ultimate altruism is, or ought to be, the human genius. In this sense the last becomes the first; this late-coming species with a latterday ethics is the first to see and care about the story that is taking place. This late species, just because it has the most capacity for caring, must take a leading role
One species is challenged to care for the whole community of life, challenged today more than ever before in human history. To say that there is nothing but systemic indifference seems to ignore these principal results of natural history, including those embodied in us. Even those who retain doubts about [caring in] natural systems cannot doubt that in human systems caring is omnipresent. Nor that better caring is urgent and among our most challenging tasks.
Dealing with causes, we interpret the results in terms of the precedents (A causes B). Dealing with stories, and histories, however, we may need to interpret the beginnings by thinking back from the endings (Y has been unfolding toward Z). Complexity is often to be understood not just bottom up, but top down. To that we add, in closing, that the caring-complexity in which we find ourselves must be understood comprehensively – in terms of conclusions, not just origins. That ending lies ahead, but en route, we humans are at the forefront of the story. Increased caring, like the increased complexity that supports it, is an ever open niche. That invites us to see such a world, and our task in it, as sacred, even divine.
“Care on Earth: Generating Informed Concern,” in Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen, eds., Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pages. 204-245.
Re-issued in their Canto Classics series, 2014, featuring the most successful titles published by Cambridge over the past half-century.