Because of the global scale and deepening urgency of problems like climate change, there is a growing consensus among many hard and behavioral scientists, ethicists, and international lawyers that there is a need for massive changes in the political, economic, and social systems that are the current dominant ideological frameworks for coordinating human behavior on Earth.
“Rebirth of the Sacred,” a new book by Robert Nadeau, includes important deeply interdisciplinary analyses of the causes of the human failures to protect the global environment ending with a call for a new synthesis of science, ethics, and religion that would form the basis for a world-wide social movement.
The book not only includes trenchant analyses of why current global economic and political systems are dysfunctional, it also contains very valuable explorations of many findings of contemporary physics, biology, and brain science which could form the basis of a new deeper understanding of the fact that all people around the world are part of one human community dependent upon the global environment. And so the book not only helps explain what is wrong with human affairs at a time of growing global environmental crises, it points to a way forward.
The book makes a very compelling argument about why neoclassical economic theory which is now dominating public policy prescriptions globally is based upon obsolete and scientifically disproven assumptions of 18th Century physics. As we have written about extensively on this website, there are numerous serious ethical problems with most economic analyses of climate change policy options which are based upon neoclassical economic assumptions. This new book, however, demonstrates that the neoclassical economic theory which both dominates global economic policy and often undermines climate change policy-making is not only deeply ethically flawed but also scientifically discredited. Thus the book’s explanation of the scientifically problematic assumptions of neoclassical economics is a valuable contribution to generating a better global understanding of what is wrong with the economic discourses that continue to be enormously influential in global affairs. For instance, the book explains why the widely held assumption that global markets, with a few minor government interventions, will solve pressing human problems is scientifically unsupportable.
Of particular value is the book’s explanation of recent brain science’s understanding of links between brain structure and human morality. In this regard the book concludes as follows which I now quote directly because of its potential importance:
There is now a growing consensus in both the hard and behavioral sciences that the human capacity to engage in spontaneous moral behavior is a product of evolution and is innate. And research in the behavioral sciences strongly suggest that the moral concepts and emotions associated with this behavior are universal in spite of the differences in standards for ethical behavior in diverse cultural contexts. For example, anthropologists Donald Brown (no relation to me) has compiled an impressively long list of these universal moral concepts and emotions, which includes distinctions between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; rights and obligations; prohibitions against murder, rape and other forms of violence; shame; taboos; and sanctions for wrongs against the community.
Studies done by anthropologists in existing hunter-gatherer tribes display a strong belief in fairness and reciprocity, a great capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a pronounced willingness to work cooperatively for the good of the entire community. And numerous studies done on both children and adults living in highly industrialized Western countries have revealed that a violation of the expectation that others will display a sense of fairness evokes feedbacks from the limbic system associated with outrage and indignation.
(Nadeau, 2013: 33)
And so the book argues that there are some moral universals which are consistent with scientific understanding of how the brain works and which can be appealed to to guide global behavior on serious global problems like climate change.
The book also describes important insights from brain science about the evolutionary development of some common universal moral responses by explaining differences in the brain structure that are responsible for nonverbal, spontaneous moral behavior triggered by mirror neurons and verbal, analytical responses to moral problems initiated in other parts of the brain. This distinction helps explain why some feelings of sympathy for others is felt at a deep level before rational cognition is experienced.
All of this is extraordinarily important for climate change ethics because it provides a scientific basis for the hope that appeals to morality and ethics can lead eventually to policy on climate change that is fair and just. That is, if these moral universals exist, then they can be used authoritatively to help people around the world see what is wrong with the dominant economic and political systems which are now structuring responses to global issues including climate change. This is extremely important because the dominant economic frames prescribing public policy outcomes pretend to be “value-neutral,” that is simply factual descriptions of the way the world works. To build social movements that change these frames, citizens around the world need to understand how these frames violate widely held ethical and moral values. For instance, the widely used justification for support of the existing global order is that markets will always lead to the best policy outcomes, yet not only is this claim dubious on scientific grounds as explained in this book, because unfettered markets can lead to unfair and unjust outcomes which are inconsistent with universally held ethical beliefs, an appeal to ethics and justice has the potential to generate wide-spread social opposition to using market ideology to solve serious global problems. If there is universal consensus on some moral issues, then generating wider understanding of how dominant discourses prevent attainment of these ethical and moral goals is a potent strategy for social change.
The book ends with a call for a new conversation between religion and science on the world’s most dangerous issues, a conversation in which religious sensibilities do not conflict with a scientific understanding of the evolution of the cosmos or moral sensibilities now understood by brain science. Yet an argument can be made that the first order problem is to achieve greater understanding of the moral bankruptcy of the dominant economic and political discourses which are leading to the current global crises. If this is true, all sectors of society, including religion and science, must help people understand how dominant economic and political discourses lead to ethically bankrupt outcomes.
Rebirth of the Sacred contains important insights about why dominant economic and political discourses lead to current global environmental crisis. Yet the best hope for changing the status quo may be if people armed with this understanding help others see why the status quo is morally bankrupt.
Nadeau, Robert, 2013, Rebirth of the Sacred, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology,