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Ecological Ethics

Tim Madigan asks, what is the right attitude to take to all life?

One of the central areas of philosophy is ethics, the study of what is the right thing to do. In particular, ethics is concerned with value judgments: it not only looks at why we act in certain ways, but asks whether or not such actions are right. At least in the Western world, until fairly recently the primary focus of ethics has been on human beings. Some theists have argued that humans occupy a privileged position over other life on Earth, and all other forms of life are here to serve us, since we alone have been created in God’s image. (This attitude is now being challenged by theists who maintain that God wishes humans to be stewards, or protectors, of life on Earth – thereby showing the malleability of Scriptural interpretation.) And in their different ways philosophers such as Aristotle and Kant have argued that only humans are moral creatures, since only humans have the ability to think rationally. It is this which makes us accountable for our actions, in that we do not act merely from instinct, and can thus be held responsible and accountable for what we do. For most ethical thinkers of the past, animals and other forms of life had no moral standing, but rather could be used as means to human ends. This approach is often called ‘anthropocentrism’, and for the most part it went unchallenged until contemporary times. This is not so surprising, since it is only in the last 150 years, thanks to the theory of evolution, that the concept of human beings’ place in the grand scheme of things has changed.

The debate about sustainability is intimately connected with an evolutionary understanding of life. If one does not recognise the interconnectedness and the fragility of life, then one’s moral framework will likely lack a commitment to sustainability.


Philosopher Peter Singer, one of the prime movers in the animal rights movement, is in the forefront of those arguing that the very nature of ethics has been evolving, and that it should no longer be overwhelmingly concerned with human beings, but should rather take a more holistic approach. He has coined the term ‘speciesism’ to denote a bias toward the members of one’s own species. Speciesism is analogous to racism and sexism, and is as morally unacceptable. Singer argues that just as it was once inconceivable for whites to consider other races as equal in virtue, and for men to consider women as nonsubservient, so we have reached a new conception in our ethics. While it has traditionally been the case that the study of right and wrong can only be applied to humans, this view is being overridden by a concern for alleviating suffering for all beings capable of feeling pain. We now recognize that Homo sapiens differs from other life-forms by degree, not kind. Does this imply that we must incorporate these other life-forms within our ethical system? And if we don’t, aren’t we guilty of speciesism?

Earlier thinkers such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume and Kant were in basic agreement that not all human beings were truly equal, nor should they be treated alike. It was only in the Nineteenth Century, Singer argues, that arguments in favor of abolishing human slavery (which had been based upon the view that some humans were born to be servants and could not by nature be free), started to be taken seriously, and only in the Twentieth that a general acceptance that racism is immoral began to predominate in ethical theorizing. Likewise, arguments in favor of women’s equality, while possible to trace back to the time of Plato, were not truly accepted until roughly the same time, and much still remains to be done to put such views into practice. The point is that today racism and sexism are generally considered immoral, and the burden of proof is now upon those who would argue otherwise. Now, in the early Twenty-First Century, arguments against speciesism are only beginning to be taken seriously; but future generations will likely look back upon our reticence as another example of unenlightened thinking. However, the comparison of speciesism to racism and sexism has been strongly criticized by philosophers such as Bonnie Steinbock, who argue that ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ are terms relating specifically to human beings, and that the analogy with ‘speciesism’ is at best a category mistake. While there are certainly great similarities between humans and some other animals, especially the primates, how close is the comparison with snails and sunflowers? Does the analogy break down at any point, and if so, where?

The species point is pertinent to environmental sustainability. Furthermore, taking an evolutionary approach, Singer maintains that humans must move from an anthropocentric attitude to biocentrism (life-centeredness), and extend the concept of obligation beyond our own species in order to truly be moral agents. One reason why ethicists have perhaps not taken the interspecies debate to heart is that applying evolutionary principles to ethical thinking is still a controversial move, even more than one hundred and fifty years after On the Origin of Species first appeared.

Two Types of Biocentrism

There are two basic types of biocentric approaches. The so-called ‘Gaia principle’ (a term coined by the biologist James Lovelock, who named it after the Greek earth goddess) says that we must take into consideration the interests of the biosphere itself in our actions. Our actions must be based on what benefits the whole of life.

This is the ultimate version of utilitarianism, an ethics which strives to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. As Singer has urged, a true utilitarian would apply this ethic not just to what benefits the greatest number of human beings, but what brings about the most pleasure, and least pain, for all beings who can experience these things. The other approach to biocentrism is often called ‘environmental individualism’ and originated with the naturalist Aldo Leopold. This holds that we must take into consideration the good of not only species in general, but each individual member of a species. A prime example of this view is Albert Schweitzer’s ‘reverence for life’ philosophy: all living things are deserving of esteem, and must be treated with respect. This view can be connected with the duty-based ethics developed by Immanuel Kant (who was, by Singer’s standards, an ardent speciesist as well as a racist and sexist, but who nevertheless came up with an approach to ethics which theoretically treats all beings as equal in moral worth).

Each of these biocentric approaches are problematic. Taken to its extreme, the Gaia principle could be used to justify the extinction of those species that cause untold suffering for other species. The whole of the living world – Gaia itself – might benefit by the removal of certain of its constituent parts. This outlook is best expressed in a chilling poem by the occultist Aleister Crowley (which he ironically entitled ‘The Optimist’):

Kill off mankind
And give the Earth a chance.
Nature may find
In her inheritance
Some seedlings of a race
Less infinitely base.

This is also the view of some of the more radical members of groups such as Earth First! They often seem to take a dim view of humankind. As for the environmental individualistic approach, much depends upon just how one defines ‘reverence’ or ‘respect for life’. Even Schweitzer, while he may have felt saddened by his conclusions, advocated killing mosquitoes which spread the typhus disease. As George Orwell might have put it, all life is equal, but some life is more equal than others.

Edward O. Wilson and Anthropocentrism

A frequent criticism of anthropocentrism is that human beings have no right to determine the course of events for other species. But it is still an open question if it is even possible for us to transcend a human-centered outlook. In fact, one might argue that it is those who take a biocentric approach who are guilty of arrogance or hubris. Unless we can become like Doctor Doolittle and learn the languages of other species, who are we to take up their proxy in moral matters? Isn’t this a secular version of playing God? Furthermore, at the heart of many biocentric arguments is the presumption that there is a bona fide ‘balance of nature’ – a harmonious interconnectedness of all living things – which the human species is causing to go off course. But this seems similar to controversial economic arguments that there is an invisible hand that should guide all transactions, which governmental regulation causes to go off course. In both cases it is not clear if there is a ‘perfect’ situation which is being ruined, or if the ‘interfering’ behavior is not itself part of the natural process. Those who are concerned about environmental sustainability need not postulate a perfect balance of nature. They must, however, be motivated by the hope that human actions can make a difference for life on Earth for all creatures great and small. At any rate, those concerned about environmental sustainability need to be sensitive to the anthropocentric versus biocentric debates.

Environmental humility is an important part of sustainability. We recognize that protecting the planet and the life on it is a human concern. Furthermore, biology tells us that all of life is indeed interconnected, and the destruction of one species harms countless others. This is the argument used by people such as the biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson is the Pellegrino University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, where he was also Curator of Entomology at its Museum of Comparative Zoology. He has pointed out the utility of saving the rainforests, since they may well contain plant life which, although presently undocumented, could hold the cure for many human ailments. But Wilson is quick to add that his is not merely a crude anthropocentrism. He also argues for what he calls biophilia – a desire to feel as one with the natural world, coupled with an aesthetic appreciation of the beauties of nature.

Wilson is perhaps best known for his theory of ‘sociobiology’, which holds that behavior – including human behavior – is primarily caused by genetic and evolutionary processes rather than being culturally determined. This view, first explicated in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, continues to generate much discussion and controversy, particularly in the related field of Evolutionary Psychology. (Wilson first came to prominence for his work in entomology, the study of insects, particularly on the understanding of ant societies. He has received the Pulitzer Prize twice, once for his writings on sociobiology and once for his writings on ants.) Another major topic that Wilson has popularized is biodiversity, the importance of appreciating the diverse nature of life. Science, he argues, has still not grasped the underlying mechanisms of the ecosystem, and until such a time that they are understood, it is imperative that all living things be maintained. Wilson has also advocated the concept of consilience, the idea that all knowledge can be unified under a single framework. This goes against the prevailing trend, in which different disciplines no longer interact or even feel they are dealing with the same topics. Wilson here hearkens back to the encyclopaedic Enlightenment ideals of such thinkers as Condorcet, and he is proud to be a modern exponent of the Enlightenment.

Wilson is not a professional philosopher, and has been criticized by philosophers who question the depth of his understanding of philosophical concepts. But he is an important public intellectual, and remains one of the most prominent exponents of evolutionary theory. He has been called by many ‘Darwin’s Natural Heir’, and his writings offer a practical guide for preserving the environment both as an end-in-itself and as a beneficial means for humanity.

Anti-Human Ethics

Interestingly enough, taking an evolutionary view does not necessarily lead to extolling the continuation of the human species. For instance, as mentioned above, the Gaia principle could well be used to argue that humans are now more of a hindrance than a help in the grand scheme of things.

German philosopher Eduard von Hartmann (1842-1906) came up with an evolutionary view antithetical not only to anthropocentrism, but to biocentrism as well. Following in the footsteps of pessimistic Arthur Schopenhauer, he argued that ethics should be grounded in a realization of the utter futility of life. Combining Schopenhauer’s pessimistic metaphysics with the ethical writings of Immanuel Kant and the process philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, von Hartmann published a series of books which received wide recognition and made him one of the best-known thinkers of his day.

Von Hartmann’s first and most popular work, The Philosophy of the Unconscious, was published in 1869 and became an immediate bestseller. In it he advocated what he called ‘Spiritual Monism’ – the view that matter is both idea and will, and that the opposition of these two forces accidentally created consciousness. The existence of consciousness creates a problem, though, as conscious beings become increasingly aware of the misery in the world. The evolution of human beings, with their highly developed awareness of the world around them, led to three stages in the attempt to combat pessimism. The first stage claimed that happiness is possible in the here-and-now. This was identified with the Roman Empire and its claims to have pacified the world. When this Peace was found untenable, the second stage arose, which claimed that happiness would be found in the next world – as taught in the doctrines of the neo-Platonists, Christianity and Islam. The third stage, identified with the rise of Positivism and Socialism, claimed that true happiness would be found in a future state of Earthly utopia. Yet, von Hartmann argued, consciousness increasingly shows that all three stages are mere wishful thinking. This is indeed the best of all possible worlds; but it would be much better if no world existed at all. Growing awareness of this fact will eventually lead to a cooperative effort among all conscious beings to bring about the end of existence. Suicide would not be sufficient, as this would merely eliminate individuals. And even the complete destruction of human life would not suffice, as other life-forms would eventually become conscious of the same futility. Therefore, the proper goal would be for the full development of all wills, to the point where the final solution, the termination of the universe itself, could be executed through cooperative efforts.

Von Hartmann thought this was the epitome of ethical thinking, as it gave a common goal which could truly unite all beings. Previous attempts to ground ethics upon formal principles – the pursuit of pleasure, or transcendental wish-fulfillment – were doomed to failure, because the evolving consciousness would see through such falsehoods eventually.

Von Hartmann’s advocacy of the destruction of all life puts even Crowley to shame. Environmentalists can nonetheless benefit from his criticisms of transcendental escapism and his objections to secular utopian visions. The realization that not just human but all life could come to an end might lead one to shift one’s moral focus to the importance of sustainability.

Surprisingly, von Hartmann’s advocacy of eventual mass destruction met with an enthusiastic audience, and his unique approach to pessimism made him a popular writer until his death in 1906. Amongst other things, von Hartmann was a strong critic of liberal Protestant Christianity, which he felt to be the last gasp of Christian transcendental ethics. The Social Gospel movement, which tried to shift the emphasis of Christian teachings from the next world to bettering the present worldly condition, was merely a move from the second to the third stage of mass optimistic illusion.

Explanations of von Hartmann’s popularity include the clarity of his writing style, his use of up-to-date scientific findings, and his rejection of the shallow religious and secular utopian movements of his time. In addition, the paradoxical view that human beings (indeed all life forms) could be united under one common project was appealing to those of a universalist bent, even if that project was the end of all life. Still, after his own cessation of being, von Hartmann’s writings fell into obscurity.

There is an ongoing body of work which speculates on what the world would be like if human beings should disappear from it. In 2007, Alan Weisman wrote a book entitled The World Without Us (it was also made into a NOVA television special in 2009). In it he imagines in great detail how various life-forms would evolve and thrive, before the Earth itself finally ceases to be. Surprisingly, given its rather bleak thesis, it was a New York Times bestseller.

Marilyn Vos Savant, in her popular Parade Magazine column, addressed the question of how long it would take the Earth to return to a ‘pristine’ state if all human life were to vanish. She writes: “Buildings, roads, dams, and bridges would become ruins in just a few centuries, but they’d take thousands of years to disappear entirely. Meanwhile, nuclear waste in long-term storage would gradually become harmless. Without human attention, our hundreds of active reactors would catch fire or melt down and release radiation, but even that wouldn’t stop nature’s rapid return… Excess carbon dioxide would be cleansed by the oceans over tens of thousands of years. By then, added methane would be long gone. The toxic impact of pollutants such as DDT wouldn’t last even a century.” (Parade, May 1, 2011) She goes on to say that “So the planet would forget all about us in maybe 50,000 years – far less time than humankind has existed. And if an unaltered atmosphere isn’t an essential part of what you call a pristine state, our influence would be gone in less than half that time – and maybe much less.” Chilling words indeed. But notice, it is still human beings who are doing the speculation. And while some, such as Crowley or von Hartmann, might take cold comfort in thinking about, and hoping for, the end of humanity, others will feel a motivation to do what they can to avoid such a calamity. Those who secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, wish to see Crowley’s vision come true are engaging in what Friedrich Nietzsche perceptively called a ‘cheerful pessimism’. Yet it is a strange thing to desire the destruction of one’s own species.

A Pragmatic Appreciation of Sustainability

The pessimism of von Hartmann and the optimism of utopianism both seem to lack what the philosopher John Dewey would have called a ‘pragmatic’ basis. For pragmatists like Dewey, such views do not address the very real environmental concerns that face us. If human beings are necessarily going to cause their own extinction, or if no matter what we do we will somehow be rescued by Divine intervention, then sustainability is really not our primary concern. But for Dewey, human intelligence must always be applied to problems at hand. (See my article ‘Dewey and Darwin’ in PN Issue 71 for more details.)

Even in his own time Dewey could see that our growing awareness of environmental issues goes together with the knowledge that species evolve over time, and that most species ultimately become extinct. This provides real challenges to contemporary ethical thought. In the words of Larry Hickman, Director of the John Dewey Center and one of that philosopher’s most noted commentators, “As a committed evolutionary naturalist, Dewey argued for the view that human beings are in and a part of nature, and not over against it. It was his contention that human life constitutes the cutting edge of evolutionary development (but not its telos [target]), because, as he put it, humans make self-reflection a part of evolutionary history when they come to consciousness by means of social intercourse” (Pragmatism as Post-Postmodernism, 2007, p.132).

Dewey attempted to break down dualisms which led to antagonisms and misunderstandings. Perhaps ‘biocentrism’ and ‘anthropocentrism’ are such dualisms. If species are both interacting and constantly evolving, then our speciesism is indeed problematic. Dewey’s call for an evolutionary ethical approach is still a worthy cause, and one which can give philosophical support to the continuing efforts to implement sustainability. Contemplating the possibility of the end of the human species or human civilisation is a necessary step, but is not an ethically acceptable end to aim for. As another noted pragmatist, Benjamin Franklin, put it in a different context: we must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2012

Tim Madigan teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, and is a US Editor of Philosophy Now.

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