I’ve written before in several posts about Ethics but here I am trying to bring a lot of my previous thoughts together. So lets begin….
Animism is about relationship. Animism is about person-hood. Animism is about respect. Animism is about community. Animism is about interdependence. Animism is about harmony.
Lets start this discussion of Animism and Ethics with a look at the foundations for ethics. Where can we find these as Animists? Animism begins with the hypothesis that all things experience, all things have consciousness, all things are persons. By acknowledging this person-hood inherent within all things, rather than following a materialist assumption that things can be split into animate or inanimate, the way we relate to the world changes. If everything around us has inherent value because it has person-hood, then our primary setting towards the world around us must naturally be one of Respect. We realise that it is not us against the world, it is us as one part of a vast, interconnected web of life. We are not some superior species that can treat the world as we wish, but rather one part among many, in relationship to all others. And here we find the second animist ethic – Humility. Humbly we accept our place in the universe, in the grand scheme of life playing out on this remarkable yet lonely planet in the vastness of space. We are not chosen by god, we are not made in his image, we are simply a part of nature, a member of the community we call Earthlings.
The ancient Stoics talked about people have a “primary impulse” of self-preservation or self love, while Albert Schweitzer talked of the “will to survive” inherent in all living things. These great thinkers pointed out that everything wants to live, to survive, to avoid suffering and therefore everything puts a value on this thing we call “life.” Nature has given us not just this impulse, but also our ability to reason and to be empathetic. By observation and reason, we can reason that all life wishes to live and by empathy we can sympathise with other life forms because we realise they share a similar basic nature and desire to ourselves. If we value the preservation of our own lives, naturally we should value the preservation of their lives too. This is called Reverence for Life. Darwin taught us that through evolution, we all share a common ancestor – all life is family, all life is kin, the earth is our mother. Albert Einstein talked of the need to widen “our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Aldo Leopold said “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Science teaches us through evolution teaches us that, contrary to the popular notion of “survival of the fittest”, in reality it is those who adapt to and live most in harmony with their environment who survive. Science teaches us through ecology that we are all interdependent and interconnected – that everything we do, every action we take or word we say, has consequences. No one is an island. Whether you call this Karma, Wyrd or simple cause and effect – everything we do affects everything else…and ultimately creates the world we live in. Taking this notion a step further, one realises that there is no need for some divine agency to punish or reward us when we choose to do good or bad things – we punish or reward ourselves because everything we do has an effect on the world around us. All these truths point to the next Animist ethic – Harmony. If we want to live our lives without bad things happening to us, if we want to survive, if we don’t want to face negative consequences from our actions, then we must seek to live in harmony, in peace, with all those who live around us – not just human, but more than human too. Peace with ourselves, peace with other people, peace with plants and animals, peace with Mother Nature. Seeking to live as peacefully as possible is a central goal for Animists. Now this doesn’t mean we are all pacifist hippies. Nor does it mean we all believe we live in a world of fluffy bunnies where everyone and everything loves us. The fact is that the universe is pretty much indifferent to our lives. What matters ultimately is the whole, and we are just one small part. Nature can be violent, bloodthirsty and is rarely just. But it is also the source for our ethical principles as animists. While we may not all agree on the exact ways to apply those principles, our common foundation – nature and the acknowledgement of person-hood in all, leads us to these common principles.
Now that we have looked at the foundations, lets move into more specific applications of these ideas. If respect towards all things is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about being polite and courteous? How about acknowledging the value of others by really taking time to listen to them, not to treat them as things valuable only because of their use to us?
If humility is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about acknowledging our debts to previous generations, to our family and the earth by honouring our ancestors, obeying our parents and looking after them in old age, or by not doing things to destroy the earth? How about being non-judgmental, tolerant, open to new ideas, grateful and always willing to follow the evidence no matter where it might take us?
If reverence for life is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about giving thanks to the earth and the plants or animals in our food before we eat? How about eating as low on the food chain as possible so we do the minimum damage or suffering we can? How about not purchasing products that destroy habitat or how about getting involved in conservation efforts – whether through giving or volunteering? How about supporting animal rights and the welfare of all living things?
If harmony is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about practicing Ahimsa – non violence? How about doing something kind for others every day? How about forgiving rather than getting angry? How about being truthful so people can trust you? How about being patient when things annoy you and realising that we are all ultimately alike? How about being compassionate, merciful, forgiving, hospitable and generous to those who have less than us?
There are many ways to live a life inspired by animist ethics, a life in relationship, respect and harmony with everything around us. Today I have suggested a few applications but there are many more. What are the sources of your ethics? How do you define the good life? What makes you act in the way that you do?
To finish, lets remember the 10 Commandments of Mother Earth –