Catholic academic argues for ‘multispecies lens’ in moral theology

Catholic academic argues for ‘multispecies lens’ in moral theology

(Credit: Pixabay.)

Celia Deane-Drummond is the director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute at Campion Hall at Oxford University. Her latest book is 'Theological Ethics through a Multispecies Lens.'

[Editor’s Note: Celia Deane-Drummond is the director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute at Campion Hall at Oxford University. She began her academic career in the natural sciences, focusing on plant physiology and agricultural botany, particularly the biochemistry of nitrogen nutrition in plants and the biophysics of ion transport across plant cell membranes using novel tracers. The global and ethical challenges of the use of GMOs encouraged her to retrain in theology, education, and environmental ethics. She spoke to Charles Camosy about moral theology and the environment.]

Camosy: There is so much going on with you at the moment that it is difficult to know where to begin. But let’s start with the past. If you can tell us briefly, how did you come to be a Catholic moral theologian and how did you come to have such strong theological interests in the non-human?

Deane-Drummond: My journey to becoming a Roman Catholic came before I became a Catholic moral theologian, but a very significant part of this journey was going to Assisi and living like a Franciscan for a week in a community set up to encourage greater understanding of Franciscan spirituality and practice. We lived very simply on rough straw bales as beds, shared meals together, and reflected on Francis of Assisi’s writings. It was inevitable I would be drawn to thinking about the non-human world. In addition, I was always curious about the natural world and started my academic career as a plant physiologist, soaking myself in trying to work out how things other than humans worked.

Celia Deane-Drummond. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

As ecological issues started coming to the fore in public consciousness, I felt a strong desire to think through the global and ethical aspects of agricultural practice, especially the rapid development of GM crops that a next door laboratory was developing, which were not really being discussed by my scientific colleagues. My worry about the moral aspects of this were largely dismissed by them, but I persisted, and turned to theological training, studying for an honors degree and then doctorate which specialized in the intersection between in theology and ecology.

I also started working part time with a consultancy called the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture, which pioneered the development of educational materials in religion and ecology. The Alliance of Religion and Conservation grew out of this group. I continued my academic career, eventually enlarging my own area of study to include moral theology.

And that journey has led you here, as founding director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute (LSRI) at Oxford. Can you tell us more about the hopes for the Institute?

The Institute has been founded by the initiative of the Jesuits in Britain and their determination to include intellectual as well as practical work in their portfolio of activities related to Laudato Si. We are one, therefore, of a number of different works which focus on Laudato Si’.

So, as the name implies, we are inspired by this papal encyclical, but we want to do rather more than just educate others in these themes. Instead, we want to embody a new way of being a research institute that takes the perspectives of the most marginalized seriously, as key players in creating alternative bases for knowledge, so that we hear more accurately the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Our vision, therefore, is to bring intellectual traditions together with the wisdom of religion, particularly but not exclusively Catholic theology, so that together we can find better ways forward in dealing with the pressing and urgent eco-social problems of our time.

And, as a research institute we are interested in promoting dialogue, innovation arising through that dialogue, and partnering with activists and those who are working for practical eco-social change. We think that bringing activists and academics together in this way is fruitful for both. We have been based in Oxford for just over a year, so we are growing in our activities all the time. You can find more about us here, We are building a network of supporters as well as developing a global research network in Laudato Si’, alongside a comprehensive research and visiting scholar program. Anyone who is seriously interested can sign up to get an alert before it happens.

It looks like you’ll be hosting some important dialogues attempting to imagine a post-COVID world. What do you hope to come from these dialogues? Are they open (virtually) to the public?

First, anyone can come to these dialogues, and any other event that is put on by the Institute, unless there are specific restrictions named. Symposium events, for example, are often closed events, accessible to invitees only, to keep the conversation focused, but we will make it clear on our site what is open or not. We are trying to embody in our post-COVID event program how generative discussions can be when bringing activists and academics into dialogue with one another.  Already we have found that such dialogues generate fruitful conversation on vitally important topics that are relevant to how we envisage a post-COVID future; thus dealing with the work of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development and CAFOD [the international development agency of the English bishops] and its most recent attention to issues of food and agriculture, discussions on a new economy, and so on. We have leading scholars in the field who have agreed to participate in these dialogues. The link to register for these events is here,

This year you published an important book titled Theological Ethics Through a Multispecies Lens. Can you say something about what is going on in that book and how it intersects with what you’re doing at the LSRI?

I finished writing this book in 2018, so a year before LSRI was set up in Oxford. However, the background influence of Laudato Si’ is very strong in the way this book is framed. Laudato Si’ speaks a lot about interconnectedness, the need for dialogue and the need to listen to the voices of indigenous communities. It also talks about the importance of valuing creation, the earth as gift, and how we need to move away from damaging and dominating versions of anthropocentrism. I likely go further than Pope Francis does in generating the arguments of this book, but it is still inspired by these basic instincts.

(Credit: Oxford University Press.)

What I am trying to argue for is that our moral life, specifically our ability to express the specific virtues of compassion, justice and wisdom are not a bolt on to our brutish nature, but that other animals also show tendencies which act like preludes to the subsequent cultural development of virtues.

Virtue ethics is not, therefore, a bolt on restraint that adjusts our animal natures, but in concert with those natures. In this I both resonate with but also part company from the work of Thomas Aquinas, who recognized, at minimum, that other animals have a type of prudence and were able to show affection to each other. I also hope by showing arguments connected with current research in evolutionary anthropology, that there is strong reason to suppose that our own moral natures became established through our relationships with other animals in particular, and that these animals were perceived as agents and even persons.

I make an argument for treating animals as persons in this book, which itself has strong ethical implications. That is why the book cover has a provocative image of an orangutan and also features our beloved dog, Dara, to whom the book is dedicated. Her tragically short life influenced me as I wrote this book, and I tell the story of her passing in the book itself. I do not draw out what ethical implications are precisely, as the purpose is to generate a foundation and theoretical account of why a multispecies approach is rather more convincing intellectually compared with alternatives, such as animal rights, for example.

There are, therefore, some unsolved puzzles about how to prioritize which particular animal in difficult ethical decisions, but my sense is that developed compassion, wisdom and justice gives us all the tools we need to make good choices.

The subtitle of the book is provocative: “The Evolution of Wisdom, Volume I.” Does that mean we can hope for a Volume II?

Yes indeed, and Volume III too, God willing! I was aware when exploring the different virtues that the tendency for the opposite, vice, can also help illuminate the virtues, as it shows up what they are not, as well as what they are. I also didn’t want to create the impression that could have arisen from Volume 1 that the natural world, including humanity, is just prone to virtue on its own – we have to take a clear look at the dark side.

I think personally there has been too much attention to this, and we have often been fascinated by evil, darkness and death. COVID-19 has reinforced that. But, in Shadow Sophia, Evolution of Wisdom Volume 2, which is the title of the next book due to be published in February 2021, I tackle why it is that we need stories about what to do with evil and how to explain it, and what the different cardinal vices in particular mean in relation to tendencies in the non-human world. I end up concluding, though, that even the worst vices can often start of seeming to be good to the individual, so one crucial aspect of vice is the ability to deceive those that are in its grip. It is a sliding away from true virtue very subtly and, in cultural terms, often without even being noticed by an individual or community.

This deceptive power of vice and evil can create cultural strangleholds that are hard to break. But the third volume will start to show how the life of the Spirit can and does work to turn this around, and in this book, not yet written, I will address how the theological virtues as gift both show our dependency on God but also how all is not lost once we become aware of evil, suffering and death in our midst.

You can order Theological Ethics through a Multispecies Lens here, and receive a 30 percent discount by using the promo code AAFLYG6

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