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Moral Moments

Whose Environment Is It?

by Joel Marks

A peculiarity about the contemporary discussion of the proper human treatment of other animals is that, when the topic is broached at all, it often falls under the rubric of ‘environmentalism’. No doubt this is an unintended consequence of the otherwise welcome prioritizing of an ‘environmental crisis’, which was highlighted in the last issue of this magazine. It is peculiar nonetheless because it begs a rather key question: whose environment is it?

The word ‘environment’ has its roots in the notion of surrounding. We humans are ensconced in an environment that surrounds us, and other animals are surely a part of that. But every living being lives in an environment, so humans are equally a part of the environment of other animals. When we speak of the environment, I suspect that the unspoken assumption is that it is our human one. I doubt that most people have even considered the possibility that there could be others. The current use of ‘environment’ therefore appears to be largely egocentric in a species sense, or in a word, anthropocentric.

This suggests an even deeper ambiguity in what we mean by ‘our’. When we speak of ‘our environment,’ do we mean the human one, or the animal one? After all, humans are animals. Obviously, placing the discussion of other animals under the rubric of environmentalism delimits ‘our’ to the human. But was this a conscious decision based on good grounds, or simply an habitual thought pattern based on unexamined assumptions? And what are the implications and consequences of such a division between humans and other animals? It seems to me that the whole plight of other animals, that is, their mistreatment at human hands, could be due to this very division.

Perhaps ‘environmental ethics’ was not the happiest term to begin with. Suffice it to say that the main idea environmentalists typically mean to convey is that all animals and even all life shares a single planet, such that we are completely interdependent for our survival and thriving. For that matter, all animal life is in interaction and interdependent with the inorganic world as well. This is as obvious and immediate as the elements of which we are composed, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the neighborhood hillside we quarry, not to mention global warming. Thus, we modern people need to have greater respect for the whole world that surrounds us, and not treat it solely as our private goldmine or our garbage dump, since doing so distorts our true relation to reality and hence puts us in peril.

That is surely a compelling idea, but a person who is concerned about the proper treatment of all animals (not to mention all life) cannot be satisfied with such a view, insofar as the anthropocentricism of ‘the environment’ remains a possible implication of it. For then it would still be the case that other animals are seen in their relationship to us but not vice versa. It is our survival and thriving which would remain the touchstone of what is right and wrong. This is apparent in, for example, the ‘environmentally friendly’ organic food movement, which is far more likely to tout the human health benefits of detoxified animals than to display any deference to the animals’ welfare. Thus, according to Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s new book on The Way We Eat, the milk and cheese and eggs and meat in ‘natural food’ stores are just as likely to be the products of pain and suffering and premature death, and just as deceptively disguised, as the food in the supermarket: this is because the treatment of the animals will still conform to minimal standards dictated by economic competitiveness. In this way animal issues can become hijacked by an anthropocentric environmentalism, with animals conceived as just another ‘sustainable resource’ for human use, well-being, and enjoyment.

Meanwhile, might it not be mainly wishful thinking, or some kind of beyond-scientific faith in an all-good providence, that “what’s good for humans is good for other animals”? This is an empirical claim, despite its intuitive appeal, therefore we cannot simply assume that there is this pre-established harmony in this best of all possible worlds, such that humans could never be called upon to make a genuine sacrifice for the welfare of other species (or vice versa). Frankly, I find this harmony hypothesis as questionable as the theological idea that an all-good God exists. It also falls prey to the Achilles heel of any consequentialist theory of ethics – which bases the rightness of actions and policies on the goodness of their outcomes – since it is well-nigh impossible to predict the total (ie relative net) long-term consequences of anything.

Instead, and in essential agreement with ethicists such as Paul W. Taylor and Tom Regan, I submit that all sentient and perhaps all living beings merit respect as ends-in-themselves, regardless of our interdependency. Certainly facts about our interconnections, just like other contingencies, will be relevant to deriving specific moral recommendations and injunctions. But the underlying moral principle will have to do with the intrinsic worth and dignity of the respective beings – perhaps of all existents or existence, analogous to the way God looked down upon every created thing and deemed it good – and not with their place in somebody else’s environment, specifically the human.

© Joel Marks 2008

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at moralandothermoments.blogspot.com.

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