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Can Nature Enhance Ethical Decision-Making in Business? Insight from John Hausdoerffer, Part 1

Can Nature Enhance Ethical Decision-Making in Business? Insight from John Hausdoerffer, Part  1

John Hausdoerffer

When John Hausdoerffer asks you what kind of ancestor you want to be, he’s only partly referring to what your kids and grandkids will think of you. There’s a bigger question being asked by the environmental philosopher and professor at Western Colorado University. If we shift our perspectives, as if looking back at ourselves from the future, it may spur us to consider how ethically we’re behaving in the here and now — and change the way we make decisions about how we live our lives. In an occasional series of interviews with leading ethicists about where ethical behavior begins and how to encourage more of it, Alphy talked with Hausdoerffer, the founding dean of the Clark Family School of Environment & Sustainability, director of the university’s Master in Environmental Management program, and author of three books. In the first of a two-part Q&A, he offers intriguing perspectives on the importance of our daily decisions and their long-term implications, for more ethical decision-making in business. 

You're an environmental philosopher. What does that mean in brief? 

I look at how different cultures think about humans' place in nature and what humans don't just owe each other ethically but also how to care for the natural world.


We sometimes make the leap into thinking that we can care for the planet before we've cared for ourselves and each other. 

If we don't have equal partnerships in the home between domestic partners, or in our society, between genders or ethnicities, how can we expect to have equity of respect between humans and the more-than-human world?


How would you define ethics? 

For me, ethics is our ability to evaluate moral claims. Society is making moral claims — that's all  coming from outside of you, from your parents to your teachers to your government to religion to the media to popular culture. Ethics is your capacity to try out those moral claims and decide if you agree with them, whether something's right or wrong. 

Another way to look at ethics is as an exploration of the good life. Ethics stretches that lens out to an ever-expanding sphere. It goes from what’s “good for me” to “good for the people I empathize with the most” and out into the wonders of difference across the human community as “good for them,” and then out into the ecological world that sustains us all — out into a cosmos that we're starting to pollute and control and colonize. The moon's being called the eighth continent, for crying out loud. 

Ethics is that balance: good for me, good for others, good for humans, and good for non-humans.


How can people be inspired to be ethical? And why do you ask people “what kind of ancestor do you want to be?” That’s provocative. It’s also the title of your latest book. Are those two separate questions?


No, they're similar. Calls for ethical or political change are very depressing, very negative. I can pile data on you and tell you that about a third of all bird species have gone extinct since I was born, that there are polar bears floating on melting ice caps, and that there are Chinese farmers without the water they need to survive. But after a while, you just get this overwhelming sense of dread.

I don't think guilt and dread are sustainable fuels for ethical change. What's renewable is joy. There's a poet named Ross Gay, who has a book, Inciting Joy. It’s this new movement in ethics where we try to frame things around the exciting future that exists on the other side of ethical change, like food that's healthier and tastes better, and also happens to be better for the planet and better for workers. 

This morning, I went skiing, and my connection with nature, being out on skis in the woods, made for a more joyful day and made me want to take on climate change and want to take the bus to work tomorrow instead of driving to work tomorrow. Promoting ethical behavior has to be about inciting the joy that's on the other side of a new set of choices, rather than a feeling that we're sacrificing the good life. 

And so that ancestor question is an example of that. It's not “How will you avoid global catastrophe being your fault?” Instead, it’s “What kind of ancestor do you want to be?” It's empowering. We each have that agency in the moment to set in motion values and systems that make the world more livable. It's a very positive framing. 


Because you catch more flies with honey than vinegar…? 


Yes. Think of the vinegar the environmental movement has been using linguistically:  “reduce, reuse, recycle, leave no trace, shrink your carbon footprint.” We're not a society that wants to be smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. 

There's a philosopher named Arne Naess who says there's a difference between big and being great. Sure, in the context of big, our carbon footprint's too big. The size of my truck is too big. That big American attitude is problematic in the world. And so, yes, we want to shrink that carbon footprint and reduce our waste. Those are important tactics.

But when we think of the spirit of a transformation, it's not inspiring to call for people to shrink themselves or to be smaller. So rather than smallness instead of bigness, let's make it about greatness instead of bigness. Be a great ancestor — that's greatness. Live a great life where you care about the people and the planet around you, rather than constantly shrinking through guilt and fear.

Why is it hard for people to be respectful of themselves, others, and the planet?  

I don't think enough environmentalists look enough at the depression anxiety epidemic, the loneliness epidemic, the obesity epidemic to fully understand why we're not caring for the planet, and we're not caring for ourselves. 

A lot of that lack of self-care comes from an isolated society. There's a brilliant book called Bowling Alone that traces the public bowling league's decline. The basic argument is that sometime between our grandparents' coming of age and our coming of age, public life became less pleasurable than private life. Kids today can be on their phones staring at TikTok all day. My generation was playing video games inside. For the previous generation, it was television. Each generation has found more and more reasons to not take social risks, to not date, to not get outside, and to not be part of a public sphere. When private life becomes more pleasurable than public life, we become incredibly isolated, especially in a post-pandemic context. 

There's a clear connection between being isolated and depression, and a clear connection between depression and not caring for oneself. There's a lot tied to that isolationism, and then that ties to the exploitation of the planet. I have a one-click ability on Amazon to move resources, land and labor right to my doorstep. The only questions I have to ask are, “Do I desire it?” and “Can I afford it?” — I don't have to ask, “Do I agree with the impact,” or “Do I agree with the consequences of my comforts because I don't have to see them?” because, again, I'm in this private life. So I think that isolationism has led to both a lack of care for the planet and a lack of care for each other. 

Three takeaways:

  1. Future Perspective: Envisioning ourselves as future ancestors can inspire sustainable and ethical behaviors.

  2. Ethical Scope: Ethics involves evaluating moral claims that extend beyond personal benefit to societal and environmental impacts.

  3. Joy Over Guilt: Promoting ethics through the joy of positive outcomes is more effective and sustainable than using guilt.

Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director and AI editor of Alphy.

Forest photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash; John Hausdoerffer photo courtesy of John Hausdoerffer

Reflect AI by Alphy is an AI communication compliance solution that detects and flags language that is harmful, unlawful, and unethical in digital communication. Alphy was founded to reduce the risk of litigation from harmful and discriminatory communication while helping employees communicate more effectively.


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