If human compassion is limited in scope, is a human society that is compassionate toward beings both within and beyond the boundaries of compassion realizable? If, moreover, this unsolvable aporia lies at the core of environmental ethics, how can the various discourses on this subject be relevant to the actual practices of environmental protection? Examining the ideas of Chinese thinkers such as Zhu Xi and Kang Youwei, Professor Yuki Tanaka (Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia) raised these questions at the seventh lecture in this year’s Academic Frontier Series, “The World of Coexistence with Beings of Different Genera: Environmental Ethics from the Perspective of Chinese Thought,” on May 30, 2022.
The intention behind approaching the topic “from the perspective of Chinese thought” was to challenge the problematic idea that anthropocentrism, as the ultimate cause of the environmental crisis, is something unique to the Western culture, and that we can look for examples that go beyond it in non-Western cultures, such as in China. In fact, as pointed out in the lecture, premodern China, too, had some unquestionably anthropocentric tendencies. How to combat human selfishness and achieve coexistence with the nonhuman is, therefore, a universal question that should be posed, and indeed has been posed, not only in specifically Western contexts, but also from within the tradition of Chinese thought.
Are theories of ethics really helpful for making people ethical? Before attempting to answer this grave question Professor Tanaka raised at the end of the lecture, it might be important to ask whether this is the right question to pose. In the first place, humans do not necessarily feel encouraged to live an ethical life simply by learning about a certain ethical doctrine. The better question to pose, then, might be this: In what kind of situation do we feel the need to have a theory of ethics rather than just doing what seems to be right in each particular context? In what kind of occasion, for example, do we refer to anthropocentrism as a concept and word, and how does this word function? Examining the interplay of practice and theory, explicitly verbalized or not, could itself be part of the meta-ethical inquiry into the society of “coexistence,” which obviously cannot be achieved fully by a single, elegant ethical theory.
Report by UEDA Yuki (EAA Research Assistant)