The Science-Ethics-Praxis Triad
Today, as I write, I am no longer in the desert of southern California, nor in the beech-maple forest of New Hampshire, but on a glacial drumlin in Waubesa Wetlands—a large marsh four miles south of Madison, Wisconsin. Here Ruth and I have our home, and here I study creatures whose watery habitats my neighbors and I have worked to save from eventual destruction. While my desert study site now is covered by a city where people live alone in the land—absent the desert creatures—my wetland study site remains occupied by all kinds of native plants and animals. Embracing it is the Town of Dunn, whose land stewardship plan helps people understand, serve, and maintain this and the other ecosystems. Our town stewardship plan encourages restoration of the landscape, protects agricultural lands, and strives to transmit an intergenerational heritage of secure and wholesome homes, livelihoods, and habitats for the animals, plants, and people that live here. We live largely in harmony and accord.
House-building on slabs poured onto desert sands first alerted me to the question of praxis, the third point on the napkin. But it was later, in my work as organizer of the Waubesa Wetlands Scientific and Agricultural Preserve, and as supervisor and later as chair of the Town of Dunn, that I came to realize that science and ethics do no earthly good unless put into practice. In serving my town, I came to apply what I had learned in the desert: praxis uninformed by science and ethics usually creates more problems than are solved.
“How do you put it all together?” those students in New Hampshire wanted to know. For me, it was building a framework for stewardship that simultaneously considered the questions “How does the world work?” “What is right?” and “What then must we do?” This science-ethics-praxis triad is a framework for living, for learning, for teaching, and most importantly for acting. It is a framework for stewardship.
In order to live and act rightly in the world, we need to know how the world works. We need to know how the systems that sustain us work, and how we interact with them. Without such knowledge we could drown in a flash flood, have our homes undercut by desert winds, cross the street in the path of an oncoming car, or get sick from consuming foods with toxic ingredients. As human beings develop more and more of the world, and as the reach of human actions extends regionally and globally, our knowledge must increase accordingly. This knowledge is not limited to what we acquire from a formal education; it also includes the knowledge we gain from family and friends, and from experience and experiment. In order to live and act rightly in the world, we need to know how the world works.
In order to live and act rightly in the world, we need to know what we ought to do. A century ago, this question was addressed in many colleges across America in a course for graduating seniors on moral philosophy. The purpose of this course was to convict students that they should apply their knowledge for the pursuit of good instead of pursuing self at others’ expense. At my university, this aspect of college education is expressed in a quotation from Abraham Lincoln carved in stone on a bench behind Lincoln’s statue at the top of Bascom Hill: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, dare to do our duty.” The question “What is right?” is represented by the ethics corner of our triad. Moving directly from the Science corner to the praxis corner, or from the ethics corner to the praxis corner, proves problematic, even disastrous. Consider the result of going from knowledge of nuclear fission (science) directly to producing and dropping an atomic bomb (praxis), or moving from the belief that death is bad (ethics) to removing dead wood from forests (praxis); both are examples of these disastrous shortcuts.
But knowing the science and observing the ethics of this stewardship framework does absolutely no good if it is not put into practice—placed into service. By themselves, the very best science and the most substantial ethics are no substitutes for action. We need to act appropriately and deliberately in the light of scientific and ethical knowledge. Praxis by itself, without being grounded in science and ethics, results in mere activism—activism that is unlikely to do good and that may produce harm. All three corners of the triad are essential—but not by themselves. Taken together and working interactively, they provide a framework for stewardship.
But will these three operate in dynamic interaction? Will they interact in ways that preserve and achieve the integrity of human life and the environment? The answer depends on what we know and understand about ourselves and the world (science), what we believe we should do (ethics), and what we in fact do, and how we respond to our successes and failures (praxis). It depends on our will, our motivation, our determination, and our dedication to strive for a harmonious world of creatures before their Creator. What might make us strive for such a world?
Part 3 explores the challenge of translating ideals into concrete actions.