Kathleen Dean Moore is coeditor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University. Last month, she participated in a panel discussion at Yale University about Journey of the Universe, a new film, accompanied by a book, that celebrates the sweeping story of life from the Big Bang to today. We asked Kathleen four questions about the film, and how a narrative exploration of the universe might inspire us to honor the earth. The film opens on Sunday in Washington DC.
The development of life, culture, and consciousness from a swirl of elemental gases is, of course, astonishing. Does that story—the story told in Journey of the Universe—carry special meaning or moral instruction for humans?
The film calls us to understand how extraordinary the earth is, and so reminds us of our duties of respect and caring. Some people say you can’t deduce an ought from an is, that you can’t reach a conclusion about what you ought to do from factual premises, no matter how complete. But you can. Of course you can, if you are willing to affirm the missing premises, the unspoken moral convictions that link a story of the universe with a moral story.
What are those premises?
The conviction that it is wrong to take what we need for our comfortable, profligate lives and leave a ransacked and dangerously unstable world behind.
The conviction that, to let it all slip away, through indifference or recklessness or (god forbid) higher priorities, to let it all slip away—the billions of years it takes to grow the song in a frog and the purple stripe in the throat of a lily—is an abomination, not worthy of us as moral beings.
The conviction that we have affirmative moral obligations to leave a world as rich in creative possibilities as our own—obligations based on justice, compassion, personal integrity, and reverence.
And the conviction that our moral obligations trump every economic argument and every appeal to short-term advantage and corporate rights.
If we affirm these principles, then we cannot fail to act to protect this beautiful Earth and still call ourselves moral beings.
At the moment, though, we are failing. We haven’t honored the story. One might even argue that we’ve actively dishonored it. Is there a role for grief in telling the universe story?
Grief is essential, because it is a measure of the worth of what we stand to lose, and shame is a measure of what we have to ask of ourselves. The Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen said in an interview, “Yes, we live in a broken world, with broken hearts, but that’s no excuse for anything. We have to sing a broken-hearted halleluiah.” That’s what Journey of the Universe is: a beautiful, ringing halleluiah chorus for a broken time. It says, “Look! Just look at the astonishing fact of this universe and our participation in its creative unfurling. Hold that in your mind. Imagine! Rejoice.”
What gives you hope?
I have heard it said that even the most tragic and dreadful circumstances give rise to the conditions of their own healing. Journey of the Universe is a part of that: in a time of terrible peril, here is a new story about who we are and what we must do. This is a great gift. The film calls us to recover a sense of wonder and joyous astonishment. It calls us to humility. It calls us, above all, to gratitude. That we are alive in the midst of all this life. That we are breathing, in the midst of all these breaths, the in and the out.
If these aren’t the virtues that will carry us forward, I don’t know what will.
Visit journeyoftheuniverse.org to learn more about the project, watch a trailer of the film, and see a schedule of upcoming national events.