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Ranching and the Categorical Imperative

When I was in grade school, my mother was a graduate student in philosophy, and I learned from her about the categorical imperative. What I grasped at that impressionable age was that if you are thinking about doing something, you should imagine that everyone around you, even everyone on earth, will do the same thing. Because if you have the right to do it, then, of course, so does everyone else. I immediately saw that I should not throw my gum wrapper out the car window. If everyone did that the air would be thick, the ground covered, with foil and paper. The categorical imperative has stuck with me as a very sensible guide for good citizenship. I often find myself measuring my actions—or others’ actions—against it. And so it’s not surprising that when I first heard about Cliven Bundy and his protest against the federal government, my first thought was: “Mr. Bundy, what gives you the right to graze your cattle on federal land for free? What if everyone did that? What would the country look like?” Once I saw the Bundys and their followers on TV, however, these thoughts were swept aside by fear and sadness. Their words, actions, postures and especially their guns told me that they are not just ready for a showdown, they are hoping for it. To me it looked as if they were eager for some kind of apocalypse, and when the BLM wisely backed down, I sensed a bit of disappointment that they had been robbed of the big fight. Being willing to die for what you believe in can be admirable. Creating the situation in which you can die for what you believe in is fanatic and dangerous to the rest of us. I’m a mediator, mostly of natural resource disputes and I have dealt with a full range of passionate interests at the table—ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, industry, developers, tribal leaders, and more. Also at these negotiating tables are government representatives, maybe state, federal, local, or maybe all three. The issues are complex and the stakes are high. The goal is to reach a common understanding of each other and to forge some kind of agreement. It doesn’t always work, and I imagine if Mr. Bundy were at the table my job would be very tough, because the first step is to give up that sense of entitlement and realize that everyone at the table has competing needs. That would be a hard sell for Mr. Bundy. I wish my mother could get a hold of him and teach him about ethics. That would be a real showdown.