Monday, April 21, 2008

Moral Imagination

The following has submitted by Jacinta Faber to the Hays Daily News. It has been slightly revised from the form that was posted on April 21.

A gentleman named G.J. Warnock described empathy as “moral imagination.” He viewed putting oneself in another’s shoes as one of the components of a moral compass leading to the good life. I am married to a philosopher, and as a family, we have spent many an evening around the dinner table discussing what living the good life means. When our kids were younger, our son tended to equate the good life with the number of toys he owned. His acquisitiveness was scorned by his older sister, who thought that there must be more to living the good life than acquiring things. She seemed to be more on the path of developing her moral imagination.

The industrial wind project is challenging the moral imagination of Ellis County. The situation reads as follows. First, there are one hundred plus families who are located in or on the border of the wind project and who feel threatened by having an industry located close to their homes. Second, we have land owners who want as many turbines as possible on their land to augment their income. Lastly, we have a wind company which is determined to place the industry in the same spot where a formal protest petition, as designed by law, was able to stop the first go around.

How can Ellis County use its moral imagination to resolve this conflict? Shouldn’t zoning take care of the situation? After all, as stated in the regulations, the chief purpose of zoning is, “To promote the health, safety, comfort and general welfare of the citizens of Ellis County, Kansas.” Can laws promote empathy in people? Much of the time we have selfish motives for keeping the law. We tend to keep to the speed limit to avoid paying a fine, not to expand our moral conscience.

In our zoning laws, for example, a 1000 foot setback for turbines from residences is required in Ellis County. If you have taken a trip east lately, you probably have seen the Smoky Hill Wind Project. The towers inspire awe in most people due to the incredible size of the blades spinning in the Kansas sky. Now imagine having one of those turbines 1000 feet from your doorstep, or as seen in the latest proposal from the Hays Wind Project, being surrounded by the turbines in every direction from your home. It would seem unwise to think zoning would stir our moral imagination.

What about the land leasers? One argument given is “It’s my property. I can do what I want with it.” Another is, “My Dad wants ‘em.” These arguments fall more in line with property rights and desire, but don’t speak to the “walk a mile in another man’s shoes” theology. In fact, the zoning chair is leading the consideration of the rules that could help determine the number of turbines he could profit from on his property during phase two or three of the project. He even went so far as to indelicately rub his fingers with his thumb (the money sign) when discussing the optimum setback to allow for the most turbines. Self –interest tends to dull the moral imagination.

Add to this, three more zoning commissioners with substantial interest in the wind project, aided by Iberdrola blowing hot air, and we now have a collective moral imagination dangerously close to withering on the vine.

Would a wind company like Iberdrola base its decisions for Ellis County on the Golden Rule? I doubt it, but if anyone has witnessed this in action, please let me know. Iberdrola would be a shoo-in for the number one spot in the Eight Wonders of Ellis County, if not the world. In reality, mega-corporations don’t become mega by doing good deeds, but by making mega profits.

This leaves us to our last resort: the county commissioners. It is time for them to use their moral imaginations. The law cannot demand that someone uses his moral imagination. The county commissioners are in the unique position to seek the welfare of the people of the county. They have been given an opportunity—and responsibility—through their elective office to exercise their moral imagination.

Jacinta Faber

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