Promethean Fear and the Motivation to Act – By Mary Warnock

August 3, 2015

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In the face of environmental collapse, Baroness Mary Warnock considers what motivates us to act in ways which can have a positive impact on our habitat.

In the final chapter of my new book, I address a question posed by the philosopher Bernard Williams in an article first published in 1992. The article is entitled ‘Must a concern for the environment be centred on human beings?’. To this question he answers: No. And I agree with him in so far as I do not hold that our motive for trying to save the natural world from degradation or destruction is not a species of altruism. It arises out of our relation to the natural world itself, not towards the human beings who may or may not inhabit it in future.

In looking for motives in action we are looking to what David Hume called passion, as opposed to reason. He held that no amount of calculation or deductive logic can galvanize a person into action. For that the person needs to experience a passion, a wish or want that he will satisfy if he can by doing, not merely thinking. Hume distinguishes, among the passions that we feel, the direct from the indirect. The former are exemplified by love and fear, which may cause us to act immediately we perceive the loved or the feared object, or even when we think about or envisage such an object. Indirect passions, on the other hand, arise from objects to which we might be quite indifferent were they not in some way connected with ourselves, and Hume’s prime examples of such passions are pride and humility, (which I translate as ‘shame’). A main thread running through my book is that pride in our property causes us to act to preserve it, and to experience shame if we let it fall into neglect.

Now both Bernard Williams and I agree with Hume that to have a motive to act, it is not enough merely to think about things; you need to feel about them as well. And the feeling, according Williams, which is enough to motivate us to act for the preservation of the environment is what he calls Respect. This respect, he suggests, is like the respect we feel for something that is more powerful than ourselves, the healthy respect we may have for mountainous territory or treacherous seas. And of course he notices that ‘respect’ in this sense is closely connected with fear, and what he calls ‘Promethean fear’. It is at this point that in my book I try to make some further distinctions, and get into deep water, from which I think I emerge rather bedraggled. Williams admits, though does not make much of the point, that part of our attitude to the natural world is that of enjoyment and gratitude, from which the Promethean fear is absent.

I want to emphasise this aspect of our attitude to nature, and to argue that in one way our attitude to the natural world, especially perhaps our own natural environment, its landscape, the flora and fauna that flourish in it can only be described as love (and it should be added that it is not only the natural world with which we are directly familiar that we may love in this way, but the marvellous and astonishing natural world that can be brought to us by the techniques of photography). In this sense, the natural world constitutes for us an intrinsic value. A value, that is, that we embrace for its own sake, not for the sale of anything else, and for which nothing else is any substitute. With regard to this aspect of our relation with the natural world we want to save it because we love it; its destruction is our irreparable loss.

9781781955475But there is another aspect of our relation with the natural world which may well be called Promethean fear. We have always known of extremes of climate, of natural disasters such as hurricanes, the eruption of volcanoes or giant waves. But in the past, we thought of these phenomena as natural disasters, even as Acts of God, and though we no doubt feared them, we did not feel any sense of responsibility for bringing them about. Now, however, both the phenomena seem more frequent, more widespread in their consequences and closer to home, but we realize that it is we, human inhabitants of the planet who ultimately bring them about. Thus our fear is truly Promethean.

Prometheus introduced fire to human beings, the beginning of all technology. We may not be punished as he was by being chained to a rock, our eyes torn out by Zeus in the form of an eagle, but our punishment may be another kind of destruction, the destruction of the inhabited universe. I do not argue that our responsibility for the introduction entails that we should take responsibility also for reversing the damage. I do not think that there is a necessary entailment between the two; and if there were, the logical connection itself would not be enough to provide us with the motive we need to take action. It is the passion of fear and that alone that can motivate us. That was my argument. The trouble is that the action still eludes us. I can sit on the side-lines, a kind of bleating Cassandra, crying ‘don’t just stand there! Do something!’ But it is still open for people to say, in reply ‘OK – Do what?’

Mary Warnock is a philosopher.  She has recently retired from the House of Lords.  Her new book Critical Reflections on Ownership is published by Edward Elgar.

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