Doing Value Studies

I want to share some experiences from inviting Christian friends to contribute to a course on "the values of nature", and my own shifting position on one of the major ethical issues of our age.

Until recently I tried to steer clear of academic treatment of ethics and values.  I was trained as a natural scientist, where ethics were never discussed except as extrinsic issues to be avoided (or navigated with minimal fuss) when planning research projects.  Then the term "values" also seemed to have postmodern overtones of subjective preferences detached from any normative reality.  Finally, I felt, as a Christian, that ethics was so closely tied to my faith that it was daft to imagine it could be studied in a neutral secular way.  But was I being narrow-minded?

My attitude is changing now, for several reasons.  For the last few years I've been following research opportunities into the areas of environmental policy development and evaluation, engaging with discourse on the ethics of biodiversity conservation.  Finding ways that a non-reductionist Christian framework can help illuminate treatments of ethics has been exciting, and I've also realised that there are live discourses around the term "values" that are not so subjectivist.  Finally, the university where I now work has an Institute of Value Studies whose modules are available to undergraduates doing any course.  As it happens, this university has a Christian foundation that's not completely hidden from public view, although the general expectations and atmosphere are still quite secular.  So I've sensed a call to seek to contribute to the teaching of value studies courses as I develop my thinking.

Sure enough, I was soon asked to develop and lead a course on "The Values of Nature".  This involves setting reading materials, marking response papers and chairing weekly conversations with my students.  So a significant element of my teaching is listening carefully to students from a range of backgrounds, as we explore perspectives where worldviews - whether traditionally religious or not - are an important factor.  In addition, I'm expected to invite external contributors to lead some of the sessions, exposing us to a range of wise and experienced voices.  So I listen to my guests too, and engage with them.

The session I want to talk about was one where I invited a couple I know to talk about Christian perspectives on our theme.  One of them, Philip Sampson, has recently published a book about animal ethics, and they decided to look at human attitudes to animals within a biblical framework.  What was fascinating was how closely their views aligned at some points with those of my students, several of whom are studying Animal Welfare.  But my guests grounded their approach in a Christian worldview, sketching how the narrative of Creation, Fall and Redemption may provide a more compelling framework for compassion than prevailing secular framings that are bound to the modern dualism of nature versus culture.  Christians, and especially traditional evangelicals, as Philip explains, have historically been prominent advocates for kindness towards other animals.  Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, for example, were active in campaigning against vivisection and other forms of cruelty, alongside their more celebrated activism for human welfare.  It seems unlikely that they would have sponsored the 'factory-farming' methods of the indoor units where the vast majority of our meat is now produced.

My guests led a full two-and-a-half hours of lively conversation based around slides, group activities and the "virtual field trip" that's obligatory in each session (in this case to a series of pig farms).  What seems poignant to me is how great a contrast needed to be drawn between what my guests call the nonconformist view and the consensus Christian view in which, arguably, animals are little different from plants.  My students found it hard to grasp the idea that some Christians had been at the forefront of advocating for kindness towards non-human animals.  I'm thankful for the conversations we had in that session, and for the echoes of them that continue to appear in some of my students' written work.  All the same, from within the Church, it looks like a long uphill journey to recover what I'm convinced is a biblical perspective.

Value studies is perhaps changing me more than I expected!  Surely we do need to engage in systematic inspection of our personal ethics and seek ways to confront them with the ethic of the Kingdom of God?

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