Science and technology tend to progress at a faster pace than do fields such as philosophy and ethics. For reasons that have been covered elsewhere, this gap became particularly apparent during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the generation alive today is now witnessing some of the results, including a global crisis of mass extinction and environmental degradation.
Those ideas in philosophy and ethics that have, thus far, proven to be the most influential to emerge from the 20th century were, for the most part, generated by people actively—personally—engaged in trying to simply do the right thing rather than to produce long-form, expository material suitable for use in academia. Some of these ideas are densely encapsulated in individual words that have now gained worldwide currency: “vegan” (Donald Watson and the Vegan Society), “genocide” (Raphael Lemkin), and “satyagraha” (Mohandas Gandhi), for example.
However, even an activist who is already consciously and fully engaged in the animal- and environmental-protection movement can benefit from exploring contemplative, reflective, and theoretical efforts to discover and, perhaps, systematize a worthy approach to individual and societal life. Below are three “keeper” works from the last century that readers may enjoy. All of these works are readily available, at no cost, at one’s local library or through inter-library loan.
A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls
(Harvard, 1971; revised edition 1999; ISBN: 0-674-00077-3)
While this piece does not even consider the possibility of animal personhood or peoplehood—other species appear to be but objects external to the discussion, e.g., “no account is given of right conduct in regard to animals and the rest of nature”—, the theory presented can nonetheless be readily upgraded. For example, Rawls’ articulation of the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance,” if modified to include the proposition that persons in the original position will not even know what species they will be in life, provides a compelling theoretical underpinning for the zoocracy system of government as well as for enactment of specific legislation, such as the abolition amendment and the faunacide convention.
The Evolving Self, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
(1993; HarperCollins; ISBN: 0-06-092192-7)
Like Frankl (below), Csikszentmihalyi places emphasis on meaning in one’s life. Drawing upon the studies that gave rise to his best-known piece, Flow, Csikszentmihalyi sets forth some, at least somewhat, programmatic ideas—such as the conscious pursuit of environments that offer ongoing opportunities to engage in “complex” activities—that establish a powerful rallying point from which to resist the mind-numbing monoculture that has largely overrun modern society.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor E. Frankl
(1946; Simon & Shuster English-language edition, 1984; ISBN: 0-671-02337-3)
Surviving internment in Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Frankl witnessed and experienced some of the most extreme horrors to which one can be subjected. Yet, through observation during the event and contemplation afterwards, he was able to extract insights that can be applied at any stage in life. This piece offers both a first-hand account of life in a concentration camp and some resolute assertions of the power of meaning, e.g., “[One who] knows the ‘why’ for his existence… will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”