Ethics versus Ethos: An Orthodox Approach to
the Relation between Ecology and Ethics
by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon
Owing to a growing awareness of the impending environmental catastrophe, the church is waking up to its past and present responsibilities and it is being gradually accepted that science cannot solve the problem alone-- it needs people's co-operation, and religion has a vital role to play there. We need to remember, though, that secular ethics can function in the absence of religious ethics.
Ethics is the evaluation of behavior on the basis of the good, the right, or of what makes for happiness. Plato identified the good with the beautiful — aesthetics. Bad was what disturbed the harmony of the cosmos. In the Roman period in the West, right and good became one concept and thus rationality emerged as the focal concept. In the Middle Ages, in accordance with ideas that originated with the Stoics, the good and the right came to be identified with natural law and this "back to nature" idea is still with us today!
Today, the pursuit of happiness has become an ideal of Western culture — it is even enshrined in the US Constitution — and thus what is desirable has become good. Thus, ethics has become responsible for the ecological problem. Utilitarianism. and the pursuit of happiness have led to the exploitation of the world's resources by making that a good because it makes people happy.
No ethical critique can force us to behave in an ecological way. Ethical conflicts arise the whole time-- e.g. you have to choose between closing a polluting factory or keeping people employed and fed. It is ecology versus starvation. For solutions we need the consent of the people.
So we must revise our ethics. We must move from an anthropomonistic ethics to a cosmic ethics. Human beings are a part of the natural cosmos, and thus their salvation is a part of the salvation of the cosmos. There are two key questions here:
1. Can human beings be saved without the material world being saved too? A theological problem is created by taking the view that only human beings survive at the eschaton and that neither animals nor the rest of creation does. But we cannot dissociate ourselves from the rest' of creation history — Darwin showed this to the world-- and so we cannot divorce ourselves from it in salvation history.
2. Can the material world exist without human beings? Does it have validity without human beings? The presence of the human as the validating factor is not a theological doctrine, but natural scientists and natural philosophers take it as such. We need to move from a utilitarian to a self-sacrificial ethic. We need to recognize that we may have to lose our health, and, indeed, even our life, for the sake of creation as a whole. We must be ready — like Christ who died for the whole of creation — to sacrifice our happiness. So we must move from the ethics of domination to that of priesthood.
There is a strong distinction between ethos and ethics, in that ethos is applied within a culture and presupposes community, whereas ethics operate on the basis of principles and are rooted in systems of thought. The Orthodox tradition can contribute the following three elements of ethos (or custom, the accepted way) to produce such an ethics.
The Liturgical Ethos
Especially the eucharistic ethos, referring creation back to God ("Thine own of shine own do we offer thee").
- Transforming matter into something holy, valued of itself and for its own sake.
- Sharing the material world and communicating with each other thereby.
The Iconographic Ethos
- Making matter transparent, its existence/presence points beyond itself.
- Raising the aesthetic of the material world to that of a person.
The Ascetic Ethos
- Fasting demonstrates the limits of consumption.
The ecological problem requires not just a prescribed code of behavior but a rediscovery of culture-- an accepted way of being. The church no longer seems sure that it can influence culture. We must apply the Orthodox ethos in a culturally creative way and explore the human body as a vehicle of communion with God and with others.
The Most Reverend Metropolitan John of Pergamon was born in 1930. He studied at the Theological Schools of the Universities of Thessaloniki and Athens, and became a Doctor of Theology in 1965. He has taught Theology at a number of universities abroad, including fourteen years at the University of Glasgow. He has represented the Ecumenical Patriarchate on international church bodies and at international academic conferences, and he is the author of many scholarly studies in various languages. He was elected a metropolitan in 1986.