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Fragile environments: moral and ethical responsibility

By Michael Paton - posted Thursday, 21 December 2006

The term “moral responsibility” conjures pictures of philosophers, theologians, sociologists and anthropologists sitting around panelled rooms in profound discussion about the meaning of life.

It is, however, my background in rather different academic fields that brings me to add my thoughts from geological, geographical and historical points of view to this topic. My contribution to this conversation is from a “southern” cultural and environmental history perspective.

It derives from the view that our general understanding of eastern and western cultures is premised on a false dichotomy and it calls me to take account of differences between moral and ethical responsibility. Further, from consideration of the environmental history of China and Australia, I believe that humanity’s basic ethical responsibility is the survival of the species with any other responsibility being beholden to this tenet.


From a southern perspective, I look to the north and outside mere geographical divisions see the idea of East and West to be a northern hemisphere political construct. And it is in politics and the media that much of the problem lies with such a construct.

Politicians and the media would have us believe that western culture is fundamentally Christian, does critical thinking and is based on the individual whereas eastern culture is Confucian, does correlative thinking and is based on the family.

The problem with this type of stereotyping is that it does not have sufficient historical credence. Eastern and western cultures are not so markedly delineated. There is, for example, some evidence for Roman settlements in China during the Late Han dynasty, but at least ever since the arrival of Marco Polo in the court of Kublai Khan there has been increasing cultural exchange from East to West and vice versa.

It is not common knowledge but two of the most famous early modern philosophers of science, Leibnitz and Spinoza, used ideas derived from China to formulate their concepts.

Another early modern scientist and philosopher of science, Francis Bacon, stated that the basis of modern civilisation was gunpowder, the compass and paper money, not realising at the time, of course, that each of these was invented and had been in use in China for hundreds of years.

An excerpt from the history of religion is another case in point: after reading a Chinese translation of the Christian Bible in the 1830s a gentleman in south-western China dreamt that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. From this dream, he and his followers proceeded to take over approximately one third of China in a movement known as the “taiping tianguo” (the heavenly kingdom of the great peace). British mercenaries stopped the movement at the gates of Nanjing thus saving the Manchu government.


However, it is in the present day context that resonances between East and West become most apparent. Traditional Chinese practices such as taiji (or taichi from English romanisation trying to understand Mandarin through Cantonese), macrobiotics and fengshui, have all become staple in modern western culture.

In China, however, the opposite has occurred. For the past 100 years, European thinkers such as Marx and Nietzsche have become more important to Chinese philosophy than Confucius, Mencius or Han Fei. Last October I spent one month teaching at a university in Wuhan and the students there were much more interested in discussing Nietzsche’s Will to Power and Man and Superman than they were in discussing any traditional Chinese thought.

Perhaps the most useful way of thinking of East and West in the context of culture may be to use the ancient Chinese cosmological system of yin and yang. In this system, yin and yang are mutually connected such that they are never found without each other. Hence eastern perspectives are defined by western and vice versa; that is, there is yin within yang and yang within yin.

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This article is based on a talk given at a seminar hosted by The Independent Scholars Association of Australia Inc in August 2006.

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About the Author

Michael Paton teaches in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney. His early academic training was in geology to be followed by doctoral research in the history and philosophy of science in China.

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