From Vampires to Aristotle: Some Thoughts on Sustainability

Copyright (c) 1994 by Ricardo L. Castro, all rights reserved. This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the author.

In Neil Jordan's latest movie "Interview with the Vampire," adapted from Ann Rice's successful pop-Gothic novel, one of the main characters, Louis de Pointe du Lac , the interviewee, has been a vampire since the 18th century. An unusual member of the species, who has managed to preserve some ethical values from his former human life, he harbours a nostalgic longing for the light of the sun. In one of the most alluring sequences of this otherwise flat film, the vampire confesses that he has indeed managed to feed his addiction to daylight, without compromising his eternal vampire life. It is through the medium of movies that he has availed himself of the opportunity to see the brightness of the sun. Du Lac's reliance on this vicarious experience can be interpreted as a metaphor to describe the way in which we currently tend to perceive reality .

Today, movies, radio and television manage to manipulate an extraordinary complex of information. Their mediating role has become so pervasive and powerful that is not surprising that they have become the frequent targets of recent cultural criticism.(1)

The consequences are serious. For instance, architect Peter Eisenman has pointed out that if in the past what occurred on the screen was a reflection of the real, today the real often comes as a reflection of what happens on the screen.(2) The tragic outcome of this reversal was illustrated by the recent death of teenagers who lay down in the middle of a busy highway, imitating a daredevil stunt featured in an episode of a popular television show.

But , if at times what happens on the screen influences and dictates the modes of action in reality , on a macroscopic level this continuous re-iteration of images forces us to become oblivious to what they present on the screen everyday. In short, we have begun to experience violent crime, ecological disasters, and natural calamities at arm's length, exploiting this distance as a buffer to reassure ourselves of our own immunity. Little do we realize that one day we may be caught in the middle of tragedy, that one day we may be actors in that reality which we perceive vicariously, and that by then it may be too late.

On November 7th, 1994, Time magazine published a special essay entitled "Taking the Pulse on the Planet". This report analyzed the progress made in the area of sustainability since the famous 1990 Earth Day, which had been conceived to publicize "the plight of an ailing planet" and in the two years since the Rio Earth Summit Conference, where "heads of state pledged to take action against such perils as global warming, and the destruction of wildlife."(3)

As you may know the grades given by Time were far from encouraging, even worse when considered in our current academic North American context of inflated grading: Overpopulation B-, Climate Change D, Deforestation F, Ozone Depletion C+, Extinctions C- , Pollution C, and Waste was granted a B. Paradoxically, the report also conveyed a sense of cautious optimism, by indicating that the level of public and business awareness of the obligations of sustainability had been increased thanks to the Rio meeting. It is not necessary here to dwell on the details.

Contrary to Time Magazine's overall assessment, I would suggest that there is a general awareness of the detrimental processes affecting life on this planet.This has existed, particularly in academia, since the beginning of the ecological revolution in the 1960s.(4) The awareness, however, is unaccompanied by an active resistance against those detrimental processes. Some segments of the population--I speak of Canada, my adoptive country, and particularly of Montreal the city where I live--people walk, car-pool, and bike to work. They recycle, save energy, avoid contaminating the water--in other words they follow some of the sound practices which emerged in the mid 60s in response to environmental problems.

But I would argue that we, like the vampire du Lac, feel ourselves satisfied with the experiences provided by a mediated reality . We are aware of things as they are--the what is--Chenorbyl, the forest ravages in the North American Northwest , Siberia , and the Amazon Basin, the current conflict in former Yugoslavia or in East Timor are just examples. Even the desolation and destruction caused by the burning of oil wells in Kuwait can be experienced in a long feature production in the gigantic reality of IMAX omni-vision. On the screen ecological disaster becomes aesthetized. One can be "in front of the line" without having to go through the inconveniences, as proven recently by the Gulf War. Unfortunately ethics--the what ought to be--is absent in the equation.

I would argue that without the definite return to the adoption of a clear ethical instance at all levels, of particular significance in the context of academic teaching in the design professions, we are bound, like the smirking members of the orchestra in the sinking Titanic, to continue contemplating the ailing planet, and moving, ineluctably, to its demise.

Behind the buzzword "sustainability "--"the principle that current economic progress should not endanger the prospects of future generations," lie much deeper issues. These fall in the domain of ethical practices and principles. Only by questioning them and applying them will it be possible to achieve a true sensitivity to the issues; a "real" perspective on the what is; and a willingness to bear the sacrifices to get back on track.

I believe this questioning of current ethical practices has important repercussions at many levels. I would like to suggest a mode of action in which each issue is brought directly into the everyday activity of teaching, particularly the teaching of design professionals.

In a recent conference on Architecture, Ethics, and Technology, Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville stated:

Ethics is not just a fashion. The search for ethics represents our generation's revolution in consciousness, and a major part of this research is carried out in the professions, which include architecture. In this secular, end-of-the-twentieth- century, western world, professions are value-forming, value-carrying, value-affirming, and value-destroying institutions. (5)

In fact the stage was set in the 1970s and 1980s when history--the two century old discipline which had been kept isolated in the closet by the educational institutions in the design professions--made its comeback. In the last decade of the millennium , ethics--the thousand-year old discipline--may be just the vehicle needed to strive for harmony between the myriad of issues that must be addressed, even in the most basic conceptualization of a sustainable future. Ethics will help us to be aware but above all to be implicated.

But which ethics?

To explore this question, I want to take sides with Alasdair MacIntyre, the well known ethicist and philosopher. His 1984 work, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory(6) puts forward a convincing platform of action. MacIntyre argues that the present moral situation is the result of the historical events which once and for all severed the thinking that suggested that morality was closely tied to the practice of virtues. This separation occurred during the 18th century with the emergence of the Enlightenment when established classical ethical models were displaced by a new rationale for conduct. From this point onward, the rationality for ethics has centered in isolating morality by offering a single rational reason for its existence.

As a result, according to MacIntyre we find ourselves two centuries later in a moral vacuum and at a critical crossroad. "We are faced with the stark choice of following the supreme idealist who, philosophically, represents the prototype emotivist: Nietzsche; or of following the philosopher who understood the importance of our membership of the community which conferred identity upon us: Aristotle."(7) arete, sing., aretai, plur.). A return to such a model, MacIntyre proposes, centers on the adoption of a historical narrative.

He points out:

A central thesis...begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question `What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question `Of what story or stories do I find myself part?'....there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resource. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. Vico was right and so was Joyce. And so too of course is that moral tradition from heroic society to its medieval heirs according which the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.(8)

MacIntyre argues convincingly that history is inextricably tied to the idea of ethics. Moreover, he emphasizes that the idea of ethical principles isimplicit in the historic narratives of any given period. Thus the Iliad and the Odyssey become in Pre-classic Greece the foremost source of ethical conduct: physical strength, courage, cunning, and friendship are virtues representing "a sustained thinking about one ought to behave in public and in private."(9)

The Homeric Virtues, enriched, eventually become the Athenian virtues which have, according to MacIntyre, four versions (Sophic, Platonic, Tragedian and Aristotelian.) Of them, the Aristotelian version is the most coherent, complete, and the most relevant to our discussion.

For Aristotle, there are two kinds of virtues.(10) On one hand, moral virtues--courage, magnificence, magnanimity, patience, etc., and on the other intellectual. The former can only be cultivated by habit and are related to the irrational part of our soul. The latter are related to the rational part of our minds and can be cultivated through instruction . We will concentrate on the intellectual virtues, since they are at the basis of any discourse or practice on sustainability. They may be briefly presented as follows:

Techne, or Art or Technical Skill. The know how required to bring something into existence whether a poem, a building, or a dam, both functionally and in a pleasing manner; Episteme or scientific knowledge which addresses the cultivation of knowledge of the facts of the universe and the laws which govern them; Phronesis or prudence, best described as common sense, this is undoubtedly the most important of the virtues. Without it, the remainder revert to mere skills; Nous, intelligence or intuition, the motor of the intellectual virtues; and finally, Sophia or wisdom, is provided by experience.(11) These concepts, first through Rome and then through the Christian philosophers, who gave us Medieval Ethics, acted as the fundamental structure of western ethics until the 18th century.

How can we apply these Aristotelian virtues, indeed, how can we apply MacIntyre's discourse linking ethics and narrative history, to issues of sustainability?

A sustainable future depends of course on the way the virtues (aretai) are transmitted and communicated to the subsequent generations. It depends on the historical narratives that we opt to follow--thinking, writing, making, remembering and teaching--in order to guide our understanding and actions. Ethics binds these field of action, transgresses their borders and affirms their presence.

As a way to proceed in the direction of a truly sustainable future, the ethical quest thus becomes a practical one. As MacIntyre suggests:

The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter.(12)

How is this to be done? By learning to see the problems at a contextual level as advocated by recent applied ethics, accepting the relevance of the temporal dimension, that is, of history.(13) Only then may we begin to counteract the critical situation in which our moment exists. Equally important, this may also be the only way to re-engage reality once again.


1.. In 1994, in a publication entitled L'art du moteur (Paris, Galilee, 1993) the French architect and critic Paul Virilio reacted against the "mediatisation" which conditions our apprehension of reality. The word mediatisation in French has a rich and grave connotation and implies a deliberate imposition of a seemingly familiar intermediary (person or ideology) which in fact pays obeisance to its generator. Virilio suggests that originally mediatisation was the opposite of communication and points out that "until the 20th century, to be mediated meant literally, to be deprived of immediate rights." Virilio's response offers one of the first manifestos of a new practice of resistance which sets up an opposition between writing and the screen, particularly the television screen.

The Canadian Architect, May 1994, vol. 39, No. 5, pp. 28-30.

Time, Nov. 7, 1994, Vol. 144, No. 19, pp. 42-47

5.. Margaret A. Somerville, "Ethics and Architects: Spaces, Voids, and Travelling-Hope," in Louise Pelletier and Alberto Perez-Gomez, eds., Architecture Ethics and Technology, (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), p. 71.

7.. Peter Vardy and Paul Grosch, The Puzzle of Ethics, (Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1994,), p. 115.

9.. Vardy and Grosch, 106.

11.. The four secondary virtues are: Eubolia or resourcefulness; Sunesis or understanding; Gnome or judgement; and Denoites or cleverness.

13.. Earl P. Winkler and Jerrold R. Coombs, Applied Ethics : A Reader, (Cambridge , Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.), p. 4.