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A Cloud of Witnesses; The Unfolding of Community Over Time and an Intergenerational Ethic

By David Poultney in All Sorts

Reflecting on ways of being a sustainable community

A Cloud of Witnesses
The Unfolding of Community Over Time and an Intergenerational Ethic

November 1st is All Saints Day, often Methodists make little of this, it is an option to observe it on the first Sunday of November but many of us don’t. This first Sunday of November has traditionally seen many Methodist presbyters at Conference with other things on their minds. Most unusually here I include an observance of All Souls – the remembrance of the “faithful dead” which seems a natural continuation with All Saints. Be it in Church or in society we are in community and these communities did not begin with our entry and hopefully won’t end with us. The recent death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of King Charles have reminded us of the continuity of community over time.
Does awareness of this being in community over time, being part of a community in which we receive and pass on ways of being lead us towards a particular ethical way of being.
I would suggest an intergenerational ethic, an ethic informed by a sense of obligation to future generations, to nurturing the optimal conditions for them. There is an old saying that we borrow the world from our children, this comes perhaps to the heart of the matter.
As we become ever more aware of the multiple environmental crises the World faces this becomes ever more pressing. How then should we be?
The ethicist Bruce Jennings reminds us of the four traditional components of ethical evaluation.
• an evaluation of the character and intentions of the agent—what virtues/vices does the agent exemplify?
• an evaluation of the inherent properties of an action—what rights or duties does the action fulfil or violate?
• an evaluation of the consequences (most often understood as causal effects) of an action—what benefits or harms are brought about by the action?
• an evaluation of the context within which actions take place—does the action support or undermine the system or context which makes the action possible and meaningful in the first place?
It is the last point that has the most direct connection with the commonsense meaning of the concept of “sustainability”—not undermining the prerequisites of what you are doing, living on the land
without ruining it, using without using up, limiting how much you draw down reserves so that you do not deplete fast than you replenish. But all four aspects are relevant to sustainability, which is not only about living with constraints, parameters, and limits but also about prescribing some inherently wrong or causally harmful types of action, and about creating the proper kind of sensibility, motivation, and moral commitment in people. In sum, virtue, rightness, consequence, and context are all ethically important in navigating sustainability.
A sustainable society lives within the carrying capacity of its natural and social system. It has a system of rules and incentives that promote replenishing and limit depletion and pollution. A sustainable society builds upon the commitment of its members to conform to these rules voluntarily, and it enforces them when necessary.
As we reflect upon our experiences of both receiving and transmitting ways of being in community let us remember this.

David Poultney