"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." ~ John Stuart Mill
Libertarians and the Environment, Part 3 of 3: Christian Interpretations
Column by Lawrence M. Ludlow.
Exclusive to STR
Environmentalism and Christian Libertarians
There are some among the anti-environmentalists – libertarians and otherwise – who call themselves Christians. Some of them believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and they often base their approach to the natural environment on the following verses from Genesis 1:26 and 28 (New American Standard Bible):
26. Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
28. And God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
The anti-environmentalist Christians tend to interpret words such as rule, fill, subdue, and rule over in terms of maximum collateral damage. Perhaps they envision a full-scale invasion of the planet – something like the “shock and awe” tactics used by Dubya to destroy the unfortunate people of Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, the English word subdue (verse 28) is a valid translation of the Hebrew root word kâbash – which can be translated as tread down, conquer, subjugate, and even violate. Just ask the Palestinians: they have become very familiar with this terminology at the hands of the Likudniks. Offering a slight contrast, the English words rule and rule over (used in verses 26 and 28) are based on the Hebrew root word râdâh, which can be translated as tread down, subjugate, crumble off, have dominion, and prevail over. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that in the King James version, the editors chose to translate râdâh by using the words have dominion over. Similarly, when Saint Jerome (the foremost Christian linguist of the late 4th century) translated râdâh into Latin for the Vulgate, he chose the Latin word praesit in verse 26 and the word dominamini in verse 28. The Latin word praesit means be before, set over, preside over, rule over, have charge, have command, and superintend. The word dominamini means be lord and master, have dominion, bear rule, domineer, rule, reign, and govern. Consequently, the words derived from râdâh have a more benign connotation than those based on kâbash. They connote a custodial, supervisory relationship. So how should we interpret these phrases?
On one hand, Christian libertarians may find it useful to view them as evidence of an ancient grant of title (property ownership) over the earth. If so, as responsible custodians, they would be interested in preserving the value of this earthly investment. Correct? They would not trash it. After all, do we leave toxic waste lying about in our own kitchens to be mixed up by accident with the spices and plutonium? Do we pass bodily wastes in the living room? Yes, I know that there always will be a few exceptions (if only to prove that they can, indeed, be reckless, by God!), but exceptions are just that: atypical. Furthermore, most of us would find it distasteful to associate with such people on a regular basis – either personally or in business. For them, social ostracism is a powerful and appropriate tool, and libertarians should get used to exercising it when necessary to curb bad behavior.
On the other hand, some people will not accept the theory that these verses are an encouragement to take custodial care of the earth. They will appeal to the message of subjugating and treading down and conquering. And while we are examining these phrases, what of the word fill as in fill the earth? While environmentalists can hope that thoughtful humans would only populate the planet to a reasonable extent (whatever that means), the anti-environmentalists will happily translate the Hebrew word for fill as “to stuff the planet full to the maximum pre-explosion elastic limit like a distended sausage in a Chicago meat-packing plant.” Take your pick between these options. In any event, if libertarians occasionally remembered that their fellow human beings also constitute what is known as the labor supply – with each additional member representing an incrementally different marginal utility – they would better understand what Mises was trying to tell us in this regard.
Can Christians Take a Higher Road?
Since a literal interpretation of Genesis yields equivocal results, can Christians gain insight from another source of interpretation? For protestant believers, I cannot offer much help, but for those who appeal to Roman Catholic doctrine, there is no better source than Thomas Aquinas. Then again, even protestant Christians will find Thomas useful: just as a significant part of protestant doctrine has passed through Saint Augustine and thence to Martin Luther, a good helping of that material, in turn, has passed through the sieve of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Alone among the Catholic doctors of the church, it was Thomas who was honored by the Council of Trent. And remember: it was in Trent that the Catholic Church conducted its doctrinal reform in answer to the Protestant Revolution unleashed by Martin Luther. There, the Summa theologiae of Thomas was placed on the altar, together with the sacred scripture and the decrees of the popes. But rather than sift through the entire written production of Thomas for an answer, perhaps it would be best to understand a few basic ideas about how Thomas perceived the value and meaning of the physical world.
First of all, medieval Christianity is frequently misrepresented as being hostile to the outward-looking study of the universe – as if it were focused only on the human journey toward salvation. It can be argued that that particular viewpoint came after the Middle Ages, and it was more a result of the influence of Martin Luther than anything else. Furthermore, it is important to remember that unlike both Martin Luther and Saint Augustine (upon whom Luther leaned heavily), Thomas Aquinas did not view the physical world or the human body through a Manichaean lens (don’t forget that Augustine was at one time a Manichaean, and it had a lifelong influence on him).
Aquinas did not think that the physical world was intrinsically evil or unimportant. Instead, Thomas believed that the physical world was a “good” creation of God, just as the human body was. Furthermore, under the growing influence of Aristotle, who was being explored in new and better translations in the 13th century, Thomas considered the earth and its contents to be worthy objects of scientific study – something from which to learn and, in particular, something from which to learn about God. In Thomas’ thinking (common in the Middle Ages), the physical world bore traces of and was an analog reflection of God (just as human beings were). Consequently, Thomas would have agreed with Saint Bonaventure, who wrote the following statement: “The creatures of this visible world signify the invisible attributes of God, because God is the source, model, and last end of every creature, and because every effect points to its cause, every image to its model, every road to its goal” (St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium mentis in Deum, I, 14). Going even further, the famous historian of medieval philosophy, Etienne Gilson, wrote that for Thomas, the created universe “must of necessity be an analogue of God,” who was its creator (E. Gilson, Spirit of Medieval Philosophy).
At the heart of his philosophy, Thomas Aquinas emphasized the importance of existence itself (being). Moreover, to Thomas, existence itself was the most significant reflection of God’s divinity in the universe. Indeed, Thomas believed that existence was not only the most significant attribute of God, but that God Himself can be defined as nothing less than a pure act of being. For Thomas, the most definitive philosophical statement about God in the Bible can be located in Genesis 3:14, when God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush:
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
Very existential, no? Furthermore, throughout Book 3 of Summa contra gentiles (note chapters 19, 20, 21, and 69 in particular), Thomas explored causality as a way to explain the relationship of the physical (existing) universe with the existential being called God. For Thomas, God “communicated” the likeness of his being and the likeness of his causality (the ability to act on things) into living creatures. Consequently the creatures and objects that God created “participate” (or share) in God’s perfection, which was communicated to them. Furthermore, any detraction from the perfection of these beings is considered a detraction from the perfection of God’s power. Indeed, to vilify nature (vilificare naturam) is a philosophical error for Thomas, and all injustice towards the causality of creatures becomes an injustice towards the goodness of God.
Consequently, we can see that for Thomas, all creatures in the universe somehow resemble and are “playing a part” that eventually points the way to God. Furthermore, since God created all things to glorify himself, the optimal “state of being” for these creatures is to honor the glory of God more than their own glorification. As a result, when human beings act in such a way as to dishonor other creatures, they are dishonoring themselves and their divine and earthly purpose. They are thus failing to live up to their designed potential as human beings made in the likeness of God. From this, we can safely conclude that for Thomas, the physical universe is worthy of the highest level of respect by humans. How this works out in practice as we eat various living animals and plants is a personal matter, but from reading Thomas, one gets the idea that a type of “reverence for life in all of its forms” would be appropriate.
The reverent approach of Thomas Aquinas, however, is a far cry from the attitude displayed over the oil-suffocated wildfowl and other creatures that made their homes in and around the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began in April 2010. One posting by Lew Rockwell even characterized the alarm shown over the oil spill as “hair-on-fire media hysteria.” Libertarians have enough trouble explaining themselves to the world without having to apologize for that kind of rhetoric. While I personally lack the requisite faith to be a Christian, my advice to anti-environmentalist libertarians – whether Christian or not – is simple. Remember the words of Henry Hazlitt. Think of the widespread and long-term consequences of an action. Then think about your positions on these issues and the way you state your opinions about them. People learn things about you from your behavior. Contempt for the natural world and its creatures is unworthy of you, and it can detract from your many fine contributions to libertarianism.