Important Questions In Environmental Ethics

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Transcript Important Questions In Environmental Ethics

Introduction to Environmental Ethics ~ Key questions regarding
diagnoses & prescriptions
Bron Taylor
The University of Florida
Key Questions In Environmental Ethics
1) Diagnosis: What is/are the cause/s of
environmental decline (diagnosis).
2) Prescription: How to slow, halt, and
reverse these trends?
3) Which environmental ethics are
best? Individualistic/holistic?
4) Who/what has standing? Humans?
Sentient creatures? Plants? Ecosystems?
5) What trumps what? (see above)
Types of diagnoses (sometimes seen as
related and mutually reinforcing)
Transformations in technology and livelihoods / modes of
E.g.: Agriculture/domestication. Capitalism/Industrialization.
Population growth related.
Maladaptive human-social relations precipitate decline.
E.g.: injustice, hierarchy, patriarchy
Maladaptive (bad) ideas and corresponding practices.
E.g.: religious, philosophical, economic, ethical, scientific
Population dynamics (boom/bust), perhaps exacerbated
by the above.
E.g.: carrying capacity and biology-focused explanations
Key Questions In Environmental Ethics
~ on ideas
What role (if any) does religion,
and especially religious ideas,
play in environmental decline?
Can religion be part of the
Is western religion the
Critics cite 4 anti-nature
tendencies in western
1) Domination of Nature
Genesis: God commands humans to
"fill the earth and subdue it; and
have dominion over the fish of the
sea and over the birds of the air and
over every living thing...”
2) Rejection of animism
and pantheism
Animists believe that every part of the
environment, living and non-living, has
consciousness or spirit. Therefore, all beings
deserve reverence.
Pantheists believe the world (or cosmos) as a
whole is divine. Therefore nature is sacred or
holy and people should have reverence for it.
3) Wilderness is cursed; Pastoral,
agricultural, and City landscapes
are Holy, Promised Lands
4) The sacred is beyond
the world - earth is devalued
in favor of heavenly hopes
Lynn White (1973)
Yet a man-nature dualism is deep-rooted
in us. . . . Until it is eradicated not only
from our minds but also from our
emotions, we shall doubtless be unable
to make fundamental changes in our
attitudes and actions affecting ecology.
The religious problem is to find a viable
equivalent to animism (White 1973:
Our traditions promote a care-giving stewardship
not domination of nature. (Noah story)
 Some
admit the general destructive tendency, but say:
 Minority
"traditions within the wider tradition" are
But these religions are currently mutating.
Some new forms have emerged that are
concerned about the environment. Will they
prove to be adaptive and survive?
Is western philosophy -another culprit?
Critics blame its “dualism,” viewing
humans as separate from and
superior to nature.
Rene Descartes is often blamed
Rene Descartes (1596-1650):
believed that animals have no
minds and cannot suffer
Humans have minds and
souls, they are different from
So for Descartes,
HUMANS are separate
from nature and
superior to it.
And the natural world
became an objectified
Some critics say this
objectification of nature
is a key to science and
Francis Bacon is also blamed
Francis Bacon
(1561-1626) was the
father of the
Scientific method.
Critics say he
promoted a view of
nature as a
Many passages reveal that
he likened nature to
women and slaves, and
implied all should be bound
into the service of men
Many scholars think such
thinking shaped the anti-nature
views of Judaism and
Christianity, and thus warped
human-nature relations in the
The main divide in both
religious and secular
environmental ethics:
Both holistic and individualistic
environmental ethics address --
Whose interests count?
Whose interests must we
I.e.: Who has ‘standing’?
Human Individuals?
The environment is
valuable to the extent is useful or
necessary for human well being
 Usually
"rationality" or some "intellectual" criterion is
critical in the West for moral standing
 Not much new here in the overall approach
Who has standing?
Sentient animals?
Sentient animals are those who can
experience pleasure and/or pain
Bentham: early utilitarian theorist,
provided a basis for extending moral
standing beyond humans
Peter Singer: "Animal Liberation" theory
provided a utilitarian argument pro-Animal
Who has Standing?
Entities with ‘Interests’
Living entities that have "interests" -- a good that can
be harmed -- have moral standing
Wm Blackstone: Humans do, and have a right to a liveable
environment, upon which all other rights depend
Joel Feinberg (1974): Those with conscious wishes, desires,
hopes (etc.) have interests, and HBs have duties to them.
Animals and unborn humans have such interests.
Christopher Stone (1972/74): Individual natural objects,
including trees, can have standing
 Conservator/trustee notion analogous to mentally
deficient humans
Tom Regan: Animals who are "subjects of a life" have a
"right" to that life.
Problems with
(1) Animal Liberation: How can
you measure pleasure/suffering
perennial problem with
(2) Animal Rights: boundary of
moral considerability is very
(3) Why base
moral standing
of non-human
beings on
human traits?
(Why do
animals matter
only if they are
“like us” in
some way we
think is
Problems with
(4) How can we
determine what the
"interests" of a living
thing are?
 who
should decide?
(5) Individualistic
provide no basis
for prioritizing
concern for
The trend in environmental
ethics seems to be toward
holistic Approaches -- their
basic idea:
The whole is greater (and more
valuable) than the constitutive parts
(it’s the ecosystem stupid!)
3 Holistic Approaches
life-centered ethics
ecosystem-centered ethics
Deep Ecology
‘identification’ and kinship ethics
Excursus ~ Aldo Leopold’s
Ecocentric ‘Land Ethic’
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)
This excursus provides key
quotes from Leopold.
Leopold’s Ecocentric Land Ethic
"All ethics so far evolved rest upon a
single premise: that the individual is a
member of a community of
interdependent parts.”
The Land ethic “enlarges the boundaries of the
community to include soils, waters, plants,
and animals, or collectively: the land”
Note: ‘the land’ = all life, and all that constitutes it.
Therefore, with a land ethic:
A land-use decision "is right when it tends to preserve
– Baruch
the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends
– Henry
– John Muir
For Leopold
Ethics evolve, and they involve self-imposed
limitations on freedom of action derived
from the above recognition
• Precursors:
– Baruch
– Henry David
– John Muir
“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a
product of social evolution because nothing so
important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’ . . .
The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as
well as emotional process.”
Leopold’s promoted humility and feelings of ‘kinship’
with non-human organisms. In this, he was inspired by
Charles Darwin.
"It is a century now since Darwin gave us the
first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now
what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of
generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with
other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.
This new knowledge should have given us . .
. a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to
live and let live; a sense of wonder over the
magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.”
The Land Ethic: "changes the role of Homo Sapiens
from conqueror of the land-community to plain
member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his
fellow-members, and also respect for the [land-]
community as such."
For many, Leopold provides compelling ground
for valuing and defending biological diversity
"The outstanding scientific discovery of the 20th
century is . . . . the complexity of the land
organism. Only those who know the most about
it can appreciate how little is known about it.
The last word in ignorance is the man who says
of an animal or plant: 'what good is it?’”
Aldo Leopold articulated an
ecological metaphysics of complexity,
interconnection, and mutual dependence.
This was a part of an all-encompassing organicist
metaphysics. In A Sand County Almanac he spoke
of the land as an organism, as alive.
“The land is one organism. . . . [and ] the
outstanding discovery of the twentieth
century is . . . [its] complexity. If [we
understand the] whole is good, then every part
is good, whether we understand it or not.”
Leopold’s ‘Round River’ parable:
Wisconsin’s Round river flowed into itself "in a neverending circuit" symbolizing "the stream of energy
which flows out of the soil into plants, thence into
animals, thence back into the soil in a never ending
circuit of life.”
The parable reflected Leopold’s organicist metaphysics;
even bordering on a Gaia-like pantheism:
"The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own
parts, compete with each other and co-operate with
each other. The competitions are as much a part of
the inner workings as the co-operations. You can
regulate them -- cautiously -- but not abolish them.”
“If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every
part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the
biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we
like but do not understand, then who but a fool would
discard seemingly useless parts?
To keep every cog in the wheel is the first
precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Leopold also spoke in a melancholy way of the
penalty of an ecological education:
• “One of the penalties of an ecological education is
that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of
the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to
the layman”
• Many with such an education know exactly how he felt.
Leopold was also a social/cultural critic:
Misguided religion and philosophy work against
the emotional ties, felt kinship, and the sense of
loyalty to the land that his ethic demands. But
"Conservation is getting nowhere
because it is incompatible with our
Abrahamic concept of land.
‘No important change in human conduct is ever
accomplished without an internal change in our
intellectual emphases, our loyalties, our affections,
and our convictions. The proof that conservation
has not yet touched these foundations of conduct
lies in the fact that philosophy, ethics, and religion
have not yet heard of it.’
“We abuse land because we regard it as a
commodity belonging to us. When we see land
as a community to which we belong, we may
begin to use it with love and respect.”
Leopold’s “land ethic” ~ practical applications
• "The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that
it has lost to the stability necessary to build them, were
even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more
salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for
a plethora of material blessings.”
• "We have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer to the point of
admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the
presence or absence of economic advantage to us.”
• “A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, reportorial birds,
and fish-eating birds.”
Leopold continued that the development of a land ethic that values predators, is
"still in the talk stage. In the field the extermination of predators goes merrily
In this, his most famous essay, which sought to inspire
respect for predators, Leopold began by asserting that
“mountains have a secret opinion about” wolves,
adding, “My own conviction on the score dates from
the day I saw wolf die.” Then he wrote:
– “We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of
which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we
thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in
white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and
shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A
half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the
willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails
and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves
writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot
of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill
a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but
with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep
downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were
empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg
into impassable side-rocks.”
"We reached the old wolf in time to watch the green fire
dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever
sense, that there was something new to me in those eyes -something known only to her and to the mountain. I was a
young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because
fewer wolves meant more deer, than no wolves would mean
hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I
sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with
such a view.”
Leopold’s ethic has decisively shaped the
American conservation movement, and
has become increasingly influential
around the world. The next slide shows
the land ethic as a panel at a large
exhibition at the 2002 United Nations
World Summit on Sustainable
‘A thing is right
when it tends to
preserve the
integrity, stability,
and beauty of the
biotic community’
Aldo Leopold’s Land
Ethic, present in the
Voyage to Antarctica,
at the World Summit
on Sustainable
Johannesburg (2002)
Leopold’s wide influence
is due in part by his ability to write in a way that
evoked in his readers a sympathy for life
beyond their own species.
This ability to empathize was viewed by Darwin
as an adaptive outgrowth of evolution.
That this capacity is a part of the human
repertoire both helps to explain the global
presence of dark green spirituality, as well as its
of potential as an eco-political force.
Back from excursus to Holism more
generally . . . Lovelock’s holistic
planetary ‘Gaia hypothesis’
Lovelock argued in Gaia: A new look at life on earth
(1979) that the biosphere is a self-regulating living
system that maintains the conditions for the
perpetuation of life
Although not intended as an ‘ethics,’ a biospherecentered (large-ecocentric) ethics has been deduced
from it, claiming:
 People
ought not degrade and imperil this wonderful
system, upon which all life depends.
Holistic Approaches -Key criticism:
Individuals get hurt when you
ignore them in favor of wholes
is the key criticism of all
ends-focused theories
In environmental ethics, the
common charge is of "ecofascism"!
Despite all the various points of view, something
new does seem to be evolving in the emergence
and evolution of “environmental ethics,” both
secular and sacred, involving
The Gradual Extension of Moral Concern
Beyond our Own Species