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What Would Aristotle Do?

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sheehan2.jpgBY BEN LAUER

Editor's note: Catch future installments of Frontiers on the Environment Wednesdays at noon Central Time live in St. Paul or online.

"Sustainable Development: What Would Aristotle Do?" The intriguing lecture and conversation that launched the Institute on the Environment's Fall 2012 "Frontiers" lecture series last Wednesday tied together the two subjects of sustainability and philosophy. Presented by IonE's own John Sheehan, the presentation addressed the question: "How and where do these two worlds intersect?"  

In his 30-minute talk, Sheehan explains that we will come closer to concrete answers by simply starting a conversation. In his words, a dialogue that reaches out into the ethical places of impasse in our society will uncover exactly where the misunderstanding lies. When all parties start to talk, listen and learn, the hope becomes that an uncovering of an impasse will some day lead to resolution. 

Eventually, these strong noted points then led to what the speech had intended to begin in the first place:  A conversation on multiple levels. References to many contemporary thinkers as diverse as E.O. Wilson, John Rawls and Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel spawned the question of the importance of an ethically just society and its relation to people's general happiness. Ensuing arguments of the benefits and pitfalls of economics surrounding justice disintegrated the normal limits of conversation to the core of their arguments.

In one example Sheehan indirectly posed the question: Should our society benefit personal rights, or economic ones? Again, the talk returned to Aristotle's idea that the conditions to which human beings aimed, what he believed to be an active condition of our soul, "...fulfills our characteristic as thinking beings." 

While sustainability remains one of many topics in which our society has trouble discussing, Sheehan's speech contends that the path to any collective decisions begins with a declaration of the initial separation of these views. The resulting discussion between the audience and Sheehan resulted in a collective agreement that sustainability is not simply a political issue.  In the end, sustainability needs to be treated as an ethic that relies on our society's initiative to start the conversation.

Ben Lauer is a communications intern for Momentum and IonE and an undergraduate student at Macalester College. Photo of John Sheehan and friends courtesy of John Sheehan.

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