.

  • Written by Roger Crisp, Professorial Fellow, Dianoia Institute of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University
What would Socrates say about coal mining? Or recycling? www.shutterstock.com

As world chiefs and youth leaders gather in New York at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, many of us as individuals are feeling powerless and overwhelmed. Making big personal changes can appear costly in terms of happiness. And anyway, why should I bother when any difference I can make will be negligible?

As we contemplate our future, we can seek insight from the great philosophers of the ancient world to guide our choices.

Virtue

Socrates wrote nothing, but many of his ideas found their way into the dialogues of his star pupil, Plato. The main character in these dialogues is indeed Socrates himself. In Plato’s most famous work, the Republic, Socrates suggests that he and those around him discuss the most important question there is: how one should live?

Individual action can be guided by ancient wisdom. Picture: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

One of his interlocutors rather aggressively suggests that the answer is obvious: you should do anything that gives you money, power, and pleasure, and ignore all the constraints of so-called morality, which is just a con dreamed up by the powerful to keep us in our place.

The conflict between the personal goods that Thrasymachus (a sophist and character in The Republic) lists and virtue – or doing what’s right – is at the heart of the climate crisis. Should I take this highly paid job with an international oil company, or work for a local environmental charity? Shall I buy a new SUV, or donate the money and put up with the inconvenience of public transportation?

A harmonious soul

Socrates has some snappy responses for Thrasymachus, but they don’t really work, so he starts to develop a more sustained argument based on the idea of “the soul” – that set of qualities that make us the kind of living beings we are.

There are three main aspects to the soul: reason, desire, and spirit (or emotion). Socrates suggests that the best souls will have reason in charge, shaping and directing the desires with the help of the emotions. So though I may want to be sitting right up there in that SUV, feeling powerful and loving the admiring looks I get from passers-by, what I should ask is whether this is what I have strongest reason to do.

Sure, driving the big car might be fun but is it right? Shahzin Shajid/Unsplash, CC BY

Thrasymachus will of course say: “Obviously, yes!” But Socrates compares souls to cities, and he compares the souls of people like Thrasymachus, who follow their desires wherever they lead, to tyrannies.

While it might seem great to be a tyrant, Socrates predicts that tyrants will slide into a frenzied search for ever greater power and pleasure, never tasting true freedom or friendship. His idea is that you are essentially a rational being, and if you are led by your desires then you are not actively living a life at all. Politicians, take note.

The apparent conflict between personal goods and virtue, then, is only apparent, since you will be not truly happy without virtue. And there does seem to be some modern support for the Socratic view from modern “positive psychology”. This relatively new field suggests many people who care about others and commit themselves to moral goals, report higher well-being and a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Having this sense of life’s purpose has even been associated with a lower risk of death.


Read more: Explainer: what is positive psychology and how can you use it for yourself?


Plato. www.shutterstock.com

The doctrine of the mean

But at a time when change is needed, how do I decide exactly what the virtuous thing to do is? Here we can learn from Plato’s most famous pupil, Aristotle.

Aristotle sees that human life consists in various spheres, and that each sphere can often be characterised in terms of a feeling or an action. Take anger. To live virtuously, you have to feel anger in the right way – at the right time, for the right reasons, towards the right people and so on. And there are two ways you can go wrong, by feeling anger in the wrong way, or by failing to feel anger in the right way. The moral life, then, consists in our attempt to hit the sweet angry spot between the two ways that anger can go wrong.

The analysis works in the same way with actions. Generosity is to do with giving away money, and that should be done in the right way. If you don’t do it in the right way, then you are stingy; if you do it in the wrong way, then you are wasteful.

In terms of our climate, this relates to the releasing of CO2. So the central environmental virtue is eco-sensitivity. Someone who releases carbon in the wrong way (leaving their engine running while they visit the shops, for example) is eco-insensitive, and there might also be cases of eco-oversensitivity (refusing to call an ambulance, say, for someone who needs urgent help).

Aristotle notes that we are often more attracted to one particular vice, and here that is of course eco-insensitivity. What we should do, then, is reflect on our own practice. If we think we are tending towards that vice, we should try to come closer to the mean. We don’t have to aim at perfection. We can take one step at a time in the right direction. And – if Socrates is right – we will find that you have not sacrificed much, if anything, of your happiness as you do so.

Choices. So many choices. www.shutterstock.com

Modern virtues

Since ancient times, other virtues have been added to the list, and hope is another important virtue in facing the environmental crisis.

The ancients did not really consider cases in which a group of people are doing something terrible, though each individual’s contribution makes no perceptible difference. One of the central environmental virtues here is collaborativeness, which leads us in the direction of political as well as personal action.

We are also more aware than the ancients were of the moral significance of allowing things to happen, as opposed to actually doing something about them. We need to take “negative responsibility”, not just stand by and watch as our planet is damaged.

Virtuous action is needed, from the individual up. But by looking to the ideas of the ancient philosophers we can recognise that, at least as far as the climate is concerned, morality requires only small shifts in each moment rather than the seismic shifts that many might fear.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Roger Crisp does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Authors: Roger Crisp, Professorial Fellow, Dianoia Institute of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University

Read more http://theconversation.com/be-excellent-how-ancient-virtues-can-guide-our-responses-to-the-climate-crisis-123854

Is your horse normal? Now there’s an app for that

Vet: are you happy? Horse: neigh. evilgurl/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SASince ancient times, horse behaviour, and the bond between horses and humans, has been a source of intrigue and fascination. The horse-l...

Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney - avatar Paul McGreevy, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney

Small histories: a road trip reveals local museums stuck in a rut

Berry, and other tourist towns, are out of step with modern museum curation which is trying to include Aboriginal communities and their stories. ShutterstockAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander read...

Jen Saunders, Phd candidate, University of Wollongong - avatar Jen Saunders, Phd candidate, University of Wollongong

Curious Kids: how are stars made?

Stars come into existence because of a powerful force of nature called gravity. ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy SchmidtIf you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it...

Orsola De Marco, Astrophysicist , Macquarie University - avatar Orsola De Marco, Astrophysicist , Macquarie University

What is perimenopause and how does it affect women's health in midlife?

Perimenopause lasts months for some women, and years for others. from www.shutterstock.comAll women know to expect the time in life when their periods finish and they reach menopause. Many might even...

Gita Mishra, Professor of Life Course Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Queensland - avatar Gita Mishra, Professor of Life Course Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Queensland

Vital signs. Our compulsory super system is broken. We ought to axe it, or completely reform it

We're taking money from people, letting it fall through the cracks, and spending no less than we were on pensions. ShutterstockThe just-announced inquiry into Australia’s retirement income syste...

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW - avatar Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

Might consciousness and free will be the aces up our sleeves when it comes to competing with robots?

Our advantage lies in incommensurables, and it'll grow in importance. Franck V. on UnsplashThe rise of artificial intelligence has led to widespread concern about the role of humans in the workplaces ...

Allan McCay, Law Lecturer, University of Sydney - avatar Allan McCay, Law Lecturer, University of Sydney

Should I stay or should I go: how 'city girls' can learn to feel at home in the country

Shutterstock/The ConversationA move to the country is often presented in popular culture as an idyllic life, a place where you can escape the pressures of the city. It’s in television shows su...

Rachael Wallis, Lecturer and Honorary Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland - avatar Rachael Wallis, Lecturer and Honorary Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland

Grattan on Friday: Storm clouds avoid the bush, darken over the economy

National Farmers' Federation president Fiona Simson says she doesn't think the government has a drought policy. ShutterstockGovernment sources insist shock jock Alan Jones didn’t drive Thursday&...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Julianne Schultz appointed chair of The Conversation

Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAMA has been appointed chair of The Conversation Media Group, following the retirement of Harrison Young. Since becoming chairman in April 2017, Harrison has improved ...

Misha Ketchell, Editor & Executive Director, The Conversation - avatar Misha Ketchell, Editor & Executive Director, The Conversation

Cats are not scared off by dingoes. We must find another way to protect native animals

New research suggests feral cats can probably outsmart dingoes. Wikimedia/AAPFeral cats are wreaking havoc on our native wildlife, eating more than a billion animals across Australia every year. But ...

Bronwyn Fancourt, Adjunct Research Fellow, University of New England - avatar Bronwyn Fancourt, Adjunct Research Fellow, University of New England

Curious Kids: does chewing gum stay inside you for years?

Swallowing a lot of gum can cause it to stick together or stick to food in your gut. www.shuttershock.com, CC BYIf you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskids@th...

Jerry Zhou, Lecturer, School of Medicine, Western Sydney University - avatar Jerry Zhou, Lecturer, School of Medicine, Western Sydney University

Don't believe your ears: 'enhancing' forensic audio can mislead juries in criminal trials

Audio used as evidence in criminal trials can often be unreliable.  Many criminal trials feature forensic evidence in the form of audio recordings, typically from bugging houses or cars, or intercep...

Helen Fraser, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of New England - avatar Helen Fraser, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of New England

The case for 'inclusion riders' in creative industries: what Australian discrimination law says about quotas

In March last year, Frances McDormand won the Academy Award for Best Actress. In her acceptance speech, she drew attention to the female nominees in the room and left them with two final words: &ldq...

Liam Elphick, Adjunct Research Fellow, Law School, University of Western Australia - avatar Liam Elphick, Adjunct Research Fellow, Law School, University of Western Australia

The Portal review: can meditation change the world?

The Portal uses individual stories of meditative transformation to suggest a bigger change is possible. SuppliedThe Portal follows six individuals who undergo a personal transformation from trauma an...

Peggy Kern, Associate professor, University of Melbourne - avatar Peggy Kern, Associate professor, University of Melbourne

Why white married women are more likely to vote for conservative parties

Women’s perceptions of 'gender linked fate' were contingent on two dimensions: their race and their marital status. ShutterstockThe polls were wrong in the last US and Australian federal electi...

Leah Ruppanner, Associate Professor in Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab, University of Melbourne - avatar Leah Ruppanner, Associate Professor in Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab, University of Melbourne

Thoughts and prayers: miracles, Christianity and praying for rain

In a speech in Albury last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told his audience that he was praying for rain in drought-affected areas. “I pray for that rain everywhere else around the count...

Philip C. Almond, Emeritus Professor in the History of Religious Thought, The University of Queensland - avatar Philip C. Almond, Emeritus Professor in the History of Religious Thought, The University of Queensland

Prime Minister's science prizes awarded for algebra expertise, anti-cancer research and excellence in science teaching

Cheryl Praeger was awarded the 2019 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. She has spent more than four decades inspiring a love for maths in others, and has created a vast body of academic work i...

Michael Hopkin, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation - avatar Michael Hopkin, Science + Technology Editor, The Conversation

Curious Kids: is it OK to listen to music while studying?

Does music usually put you in a better mood? That might help you try a little bit harder and stick with challenging tasks. Shutterstock I am in year 11 and I like to listen to music when I am studyin...

Timothy Byron, Lecturer in Psychology, University of Wollongong - avatar Timothy Byron, Lecturer in Psychology, University of Wollongong

A requiem for Reformasi as Joko Widodo unravels Indonesia's democratic legacy

It’s deeply ironic that Indonesia’s third president, BJ Habibie, died on September 11 – less than a week before the national legislature passed a law that gutted the highly-regarded ...

Tim Lindsey, Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society, University of Melbourne - avatar Tim Lindsey, Malcolm Smith Professor of Asian Law and Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society, University of Melbourne

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company

LifeStyle

Questions to ask yourself before buying your watch

There are more and more watches on the market. And more and more brands are trying to seduce consu...

How to Thoroughly Prepare Children for a Professional Photoshoot at a Studio

Children are only young for a moment, which is why, for a lot of parents, it's essential to take a...

What to Expect at the University of Florida Tour

The University of Florida is a dream college for most aspiring students. Not only because of its p...

7 Professions that Will Be Huge in the Next Decade

In order to embark on a career path that requires a lot of training and experience, you might ne...