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ethics, geography and

  Ethics (or moral philosophy) is the systematic study of morality, concerned with what it is to make a moral judgement. Moral judgements are evaluative, involving the question of good or bad, better or worse. They are also reasoned, consistent and conclusive, in the sense that what is morally right is what should be done (though not necessarily what will actually be done). All evaluative judgements are not moral judgements and hence the concern of ethics, e.g. to use a knife to eat peas may be judged bad manners but not immoral, whereas to use a knife to kill someone may be judged bad in a moral sense, unless it is a legal execution (in which case some people may still consider it immoral). Similarly, to catch a train I ought to arrive at the station in time (i.e. it is the right thing to do), but this is not a matter of morality (unless missing the train would mean failing to keep a promise to someone, for example). What is a moral or ethical issue is itself an unresolved philosophical question.

Geography has a long-standing concern with ethical or moral issues, including the question of how geography itself should be practised. However, the explicit recognition of normative content to geography, as a major professional preoccupation, may be dated back to the radical geography of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This concern continued through the era of captivation with Marxism which followed (see Marxist geography), and onto the disquiet about the various groups of disadvantaged or marginalized \'others\' which built up during the 1980s. However, substantial publications with a strong ethical or moral focus were rare (Harvey, 1973; Buttimer, 1974; Smith, 1977; Mitchell and Draper, 1982; Tuan, 1986, 1989).

The 1990s saw an awakening of interest in the interface between geography and ethics, otherwise known as moral philosophy. This was interpreted as part of a \'normative turn\' in social theory more generally (Sayer and Storper, 1997). Indications included special sessions at meetings of the Institute of British Geographers and the Association of American Geographers, and the publication of a new journal Ethics, Place and Environment. Sack has incorporated a prominent moral perspective in his framework for understanding homo geographicus, claiming that geography is at the foundation of moral judgement: \'Thinking geographically heightens our moral concerns; it makes clear that moral goals must be set and justified by us in places and as inhabitants of a world\' (Sack, 1997, p. 24).

What distinguishes the contemporary geography and ethics movement is a much greater determination than in the past to look outwards. This involves a direct engagement with the fields of ethics or moral philosophy, with the \'articulation of the moral and the spatial\', first clearly signalled in the proceedings of a conference organized by the Social and Cultural Geography Study Group of the IBG (Philo, 1991).

Differences are sometimes imputed to the meaning of \'ethics\' and \'morals\' (or \'morality\'), associated with different usage conventions. For example, it is customary to refer to professional ethics (like medical ethics), but to conduct in some other spheres of life as morality (e.g. sexual morality). However, in the present context both terms are taken to mean the same: having to do with evaluation of human conduct, with what is considered right or wrong, good or bad, in the senses of what people ought or ought not to do and the quality of their actions or characters, in contexts which are not merely matters of etiquette or prudence. The ethics of professional practice in geography (and other fields) is somewhat distinct from broader issues of moral conduct, and is treated separately (see professional ethics).

A common division within the academic disciplines or intellectual practices described as ethics or moral philosophy is between descriptive ethics, which identifies actual moral beliefs and practices, normative ethics, which proposes solutions to moral problems, and meta-ethics, concerned what it means to think or practise ethics.

The broadest (and deepest) of these is meta-ethics, sometimes referred to as theoretical as opposed to applied or practical ethics. It concerns questions which it would be helpful to resolve, or at least consider, before solutions are proposed for particular moral problems. Thus, meta-ethics is concerned with the meaning of such terms as good and bad, right and wrong, ought or should, in a moral context, with trying to explain the fact that people hold moral views, and more generally with what moral argument is all about.

There are enormous differences among philosophers writing on meta-ethics. Smith (1994, pp. 3-4) provides a sample:

We are told that engaging in moral practice presupposes that there exist moral facts, and that this presupposition is an error … And we are told that moral commitment involves no such error …

We are told that moral facts exist, and that these facts are ordinary facts, not different in kind from those that are the subject matter of science … And we are told that moral facts exist, and that these facts are sui generis [unique] …We are told that moral facts exist and are part of the causal explanatory network … And we are told not just that moral facts play no role in the causal explanatory network, but that there are no moral facts at all …We are told that there is an internal and necessary connection between moral judgement and the will … And we are told that there is no such connection, and that the connection between moral judgement and the will is altogether external and contingent …We are told that moral requirements are requirements of reason … And we are told that it is not necessarily irrational to act immorally, that moral evaluation is different in kind from the evaluation of people as rational or irrational …We are told that morality is objective, that there is a single \'true\' morality … And we are told that morality is not objective, that there is no single true morality …

The missing text indicated by dots names numerous writers associated with the various positions identified. Theoretical diversity is expressed in competing \'isms\', representing divergent and often seemingly incompatible schools of thought. These include realism (the view that there is an objective moral reality), intuitionism (that we can know moral truth by a kind of intuition), naturalism (that moral truth can be known from some other property), subjectivism (that moral views are personal opinions and not objective truth), relativism (that morality is relative to a particular society or culture), and universal pre-scriptivism (which give prominence to reasoning about ethical judgements).

The most obvious meta-ethical question with which geographers can (and do) engage is that of relativism. The moral codes which people have devised and observe (or otherwise) vary from place to place — i.e. what is good and what is right is to some extent relative to place (and to time), or specific to a particular culture: examples include inherited titles, differentiated life chances according to ethnicity or race, women being expected to obey men, and \'arranged\' marriages. However, some values do seem to be held very widely, even universally: examples include the virtues of courage and honesty, and of special consideration towards the weak or needy. A major unresolved question is therefore whether it is possible to discover or invent ways of judging some moral code(s) as better or worse than some other(s). In other words, are there some universal, trans-historic (and — geographic) moral standards by which those of particular societies can be compared and ranked? That there are such standards was a fundamental tenet of the Enlightenment, which has been challenged in this era of what some consider postmodernity. If there are some grand, universal ideals, like justice and liberty, to which all human beings could be expected to subscribe, then these will be rather vague, or \'thin\' (Walzer, 1994). An important task for geography is therefore to examine their contextual thickening, or what they have come to mean to particular people in place and time.

Sack\'s moral perspective on homo geographicus involves adopting a point of view away from local particularity. Transcending partiality is part of growing up, of expanding horizons, of knowing more about the world and its peoples and the consequences of our actions. Thus, his approach is informed by a perspective \'that strives to be rational and realistic, but takes the necessity of our differences and situatedness seriously — navigating between the arrogance of modernity and the relativizing tendencies of postmodernity\' (Sack, 1997, p. 7; cf. situated knowledge). The most graphic expression of the moral significance of place is in Sack\'s recurrent image of thick and thin. As boundaries become porous, this changes the thicker places of premodern society, with their strongly partial moral codes. Thus, \'the local and contextual should be thin and porous enough not to interfere with our ability to attain an expanded view, and the local can be understood and accorded respect only if people attain a more objective perspective, enabling them to see beyond their own partiality and to be held responsible for this larger domain\' (Sack, 1997, p. 248).

The study of moral geographies has emerged in recent years, covering various kinds of empirical investigations into aspects of spatial patterns and relationships which invite a moral reading. Philo (1991, p. 16) comments on this application of a \'moral lens\' to human geography as follows:

such an investigation will take us towards the moral \'relativists\', in that we will seek to establish the geography of everyday moralities given by the different moral assumptions and supporting arguments that particular peoples in particular places make about \'good\' and \'bad\' / \'right\' and \'wrong\' / \'just\' and \'unjust\' / \'worthy\' and \'unworthy\'. There can be little doubt that these assumptions and arguments do vary considerably from one nation to the next, from one community to the next, and one street to the next.Work on moral geographies has become common enough to stimulate sections in Progress in Human Geography reviews of both social and cultural geography (Matless, 1995) and political geography (O\'Tuathail, 1996). Some writers prefer the terms moral landscapes and moral order, or moral terrain\' and \'moral location\'.

There are links here with the work of Sibley (1995) and others on boundaries, movement and social exclusion. Sibley asks who places are for, who do they exclude, and how are these prohibitions maintained in practice: \'Exclusionary discourse draws particularly on colour, disease, animals, sexuality and nature, but they all come back to the idea of dirt as a signifier of imperfection and inferiority, the reference point being the white, often male, physically and mentally able person\'. As mixing carries the threat of contamination, spatial boundaries are in part \'moral boundaries\', with spatial separation symbolizing \'moral order\' — as in the case of \'ethnic cleansing\'. Who belongs is an important moral aspect of community (Smith, 1998b).

Another moral issue in which geography is clearly implicated is whether, and to what extent, distance makes a difference to how people should be treated by others. This is a question which has been considered directly in papers by scholars from outside geography (Vetlesen, 1993; Ginzburg, 1994), as well as less directly in elaborations of an ethic of care. There is a contradiction between what might appear to be the natural human sentiment of care relating which favour our nearest and dearest of family, friends and community members, who are likely to be close geographically as well as emotionally, and the Enlightenment ideal of impartiality which suggests universal beneficence. How these tensions might be resolved has been explored in a discussion of how far (in a literal geographical sense) we should care for others (Smith, 1998a). This issue links into development ethics, which involves responsibility to distant strangers (Corbridge, 1993, 1998).

There are many other issues being explored at the interface of geography and ethics. Ongoing research into questions of race, gender and sexuality raise moral questions, including what kind of people and interpersonal relationships are considered to belong where. This might be construed as part of the subject of social justice; indeed it is difficult, and ultimately not very fruitful, to try to resolve where the boundary between ethics and social justice in geography should be drawn. Renewed interest in social justice (e.g. Smith, 1994; Harvey, 1996) is part of the broader normative turn which has brought ethical issues to the fore. And the presence of a strong emphasis on environmental ethics (see environmental justice) is ensuring that the almost exclusively human focus of the concern with social justice during the era of radical geography is not repeated.

Among the questions raised by the geography and ethics movement is whether there is a distinctive role for the geographer in the difficult terrain of moral thinking and practice. At the very least, growing familiarity with work in moral philosophy should make geographers circumspect when it comes to their own value judgements, or supporting the judgements of other (in city, regional and development planning, for example). Contributions to meta-ethics may be best left to philosophers, more familiar than any geographer is likely to be with a vast and tortuous literature. The most obvious, and promising, scope for geography is probably in recognizing, emphasizing and seeking to understand something philosophers often appear to overlook: the diversity of humankind, and of the settings in which practical answers have to be found to the problems of conflicting aspirations, and values, in the practice of making a living together. (DMS)

References Buttimer, A. 1974: Values in Geography. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Geographers, Commission on College Geography, Resource Paper 24. Corbridge, S. 1993: Marxisms, modernities, and moralities: development praxis and the claims of distant strangers. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 11: 449-72. Corbridge, S. 1998: Development ethics: distance, differenece, plausibility. Ethics, Place and Environment 1: 35-53. Ginzburg, C. 1994: Killing a Chinese mandarin: the moral implications of distance. New Left Review 208: 107-20. Harvey, D. 1973: Social Justice and the City, London: Edward Arnold. Harvey, D. 1996: Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford: Blackwell. Matless, D. 1995: Culture run riot? Work in social and cultural geography, 1994. Progress in Human Geography 19: 395-403. Mitchell, B. and Draper, D. 1982: Relevance and Ethics in Geography. London: Longman. O\'Tuathail, G. 1996: Political geography II: (counter) revolutionary times. Progress in Human Geography 20: 404-12. Philo, C., ed., 1991: New Words, New Worlds: Reconceptualising Social and Cultural Geography. Lam-peter: Department of Geography, St. David\'s University College. Proctor, J.D. 1998: Ethics in geography: giving moral form to the geographical imagination. Area 30: 8-18. Sack, R.D. 1997: Homo geographicus: A framework for action, awareness, and moral concern. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Sayer, A. and Storper, M. 1997: Ethics unbound: for a normative turn in social theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15: 1-17. Sibley, D. 1995: Geographies of exclusion: society and difference in the west. London: Routledge. Smith, D.M. 1977: Human geography: a welfare approach. London: Edward Arnold. Smith, D.M. 1994: Geography and social justice. Oxford: Blackwell. Smith, D.M. 1998a: How far should we care? On the spatial scope of beneficence. Progress in Human Geography 22: 15-38. Smith, D.M. 1998b: Geography, morality and community. Environment and Planning A 31, 19-35. Smith, M. 1994: The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell. Tuan, Y.F. 1986: The Good Life. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Tuan, Y.-F. 1989: Morality and imagination: paradoxes of progress.Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Vetlesen, A.J. 1993: Why does proximity make a moral difference? Coming to terms with lessons learned from the Holocaust. Praxis International 12: 371-86. Walzer, M. 1994: Thick and thin: moral argument at home and abroad. Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press.

Suggested Reading Proctor, J.D. 1998: Ethics in geography: giving moral form to the geographical imagination. Area 30: 8-18. Proctor, J.D. and Smith, D.M., eds, 1999: Geography and ethics: Journeys in a moral terrain. London and New York: Routledge. Singer, P., ed. 1991: A companion to ethics. Oxford: Blackwell. Smith, D.M. 1997: Geography and ethics: a moral turn? Progress in Human Geography 21: 596-603. Smith, D.M. 1998c: Geography and moral philosophy: some common ground. Ethics, Place and Environment 1: 7-34.



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