A Gardener's Duty

This Milo Winter illustration from 1919 shows one of the fables attributed to Aesop, who lived in the 6th century BC; the story itself has been traced back to the myths of Ancient Egypt. In this story, a lion spares the life of a mouse. Later when the lion is trapped, the mouse returns the favor by gnawing the ropes and setting the lion free. The enduring popularity of this and similar stories across many different cultures is evidence of an innate human belief that helping others is ultimately a benefit to ourselves. Or as the last line of Aesop’s fable states, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted." This image is courtesy of Project Gutenberg via the Wikimedia Commons.


This is a very old idea in ethics, sometimes called “the principle of nonmaleficence.” The idea is simple: If you are in a position to hurt someone else but don’t have to, don’t.

Ethicists refer to this as an ethical duty. The duty of nonmaleficence is embodied in the words of the Greek physician Hippocrates(460-370 BC)—who wrote that physicians should do good when they can but, “above all, do no harm.”

The duty of nonmaleficence is not the only duty. It must be balanced with the duty of fidelity, which involves such things as keeping promises and not telling lies; the duty of autonomy, which means respecting others’ freedom of choice; the duty of justice, which equates with what most people mean by fairness; and the duty of beneficence—which means that, given the opportunity to do something good, you should. The Oxford English Dictionary defines beneficence as “active kindness.”

Philosopher David Hume, who died in 1776, said that the sense of duty is fundamental to human morality. The evidence: that the duties not only appeal to us rationally but also have the support of “sentiment”—an 18th century way of saying that they appeal to us innately. Recent investigations into the way the human brain works support the notion that a sense of right and wrong—a conscience, if you will—is probably built in to most humans. Most likely it evolved because people who treated others well were usually treated well in return, improving their chances of survival.

A duties-based approach to ethics is less taxing than the rules-based approach many of us were brought up with. Duties require us to do our best in each situation—trivial or earth-shattering, it doesn’t matter. But the approach also recognizes that sometimes duties can conflict. Having trouble deciding whether to help that elderly person cross the street? You can weigh the benefit the elder derives from your good deed against the harm done to the drivers of oncoming cars, and to yourself and others if it will make you late.

Living this way, you may never be the opening story on the 11 o’clock news. But you will be able to look yourself in the mirror and sleep at night. And you know what? Someone who lives a life of nonharming, trustworthiness, respect for others, fairness, and doing good will add as much to the sum of happiness in the world as anyone can. If you don’t believe me, you are hereby condemned to sit down and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” one more time.

What does this have to do with gardening? Well, not to let the big corporate types off the hook--but the choices made by millions of individuals have emerged as one of the major causes of planetary degradation. Choices made in the way we manage land—even if it’s a half-acre back yard—affect the quality of our air and water, species diversity, and a host of other matters of more-than-passing interest to a lot of creatures for a lot of reasons.

Frequently these choices are of little consequence to us. That oceanic expanse of lawn, requiring the riding mower and truckloads of chemicals, may be there for no better reason than because the neighbors have one and so we thought we ought to have one too.

The principle of nonmaleficence requires us to think before we hop on that mower or call for those trucks. Is what I am about to do harmful? If so, can it be avoided without doing even more harm to someone else? How?

The principle of beneficence calls upon us to ask whether we can actually do some good. Is there something we could plant instead of lawn that would be of greater benefit?

Flexibility is built in: If you manage a golf course you are allowed to keep the lawn while you look for ways to do good (beneficence) without putting your family in the street (fidelity and nonmaleficence).

Yet, at the same time, you are required to recognize that duty to others—not just yourself or, for that matter, even your employer—is an inextricable part of ownership or control over land. It comes with the territory, so to speak. The power to do good implies a duty to do good. The power to harm implies a duty not to. To quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

One’s duty isn’t always obvious. A criticism of any flexible approach to ethics is that it allows rationalization—as in, “the harm done to me if I am two minutes late is greater than the harm I would do by leaving an elderly person stranded in the middle of the street.” (The criticism of rigid ethical systems, however, is that they lead to absurdities—as in, “I will help this elder across the street even if I cause several fender benders in the process.”)

Living dutifully also requires information, because we cannot gauge the effect of our actions without it. Duties are not abstract—they arise from, and can be exercised only in, practical situations. (This is probably why a duty-based approach to ethics has always been popular in medicine. It is also, I suspect, why duty could be making a comeback.)

Figuring out what it means to manage land in a dutiful way, giving people the information they need to make those judgments—that’s what I’d like this blog to be about. Maybe, instead of calling what I do wild gardening, I should have called it “dutiful gardening.” Or how about beneficent gardening? Gardening with active kindness.

1 comment:

hannah said...

i feel fortunate to have found your blog. thank you. your humor, sincerity and information and greatly appreciated.