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Three Challenges For Environmental Philosophy

Jim Moran explains why saving the planet will be an uphill struggle.

The recent development of the branch of philosophy called ‘environmental philosophy’, or as it is sometimes referred to, ‘environmental ethics’, has been characterized by a variety of theoretical disputes about the best way to provide a philosophical basis for engagement with the environmental problems facing us, now and in the future. Many of the early writers hoped that a new environmental ethics would emerge, embodying a set of principles that could help us deal with our relation to animals and the natural world in a way that traditional ethical theories seemed to have overlooked.

One of the early contributors to this project was Aldo Leopold, who was not a philosopher but a professor of forestry and land management. His famous essay ‘The Land Ethic’, found in his 1949 book The Sand County Almanac, has stimulated a great deal of discussion about the kind of principles we need to guide us on environmental issues. Leopold argued for the extension of what we see as worthy of our respect from the human community to include animals and the natural world, or what he referred to as ‘the biotic community’. His famous principle, briefly expressed, was, ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’.

Leopold carried forward a discussion by nineteenth century conservationists about whether nature should be preserved only because of its economic and practical benefits for humans or because it provides value beyond merely supplying natural resources. He mentioned the songs of birds and the beauty of flowers as being part of nature’s bounty. He also brought into focus the importance of the interconnection of things in nature, defending the kind of holistic perspective which has since played such a crucial role in scientific ecology. He insisted that environmental ethics should focus on systems and not just on individual things. Our human dependence on nature cannot be understood without a deep ecological study of the interconnectedness of life. Rachel Carson’s famous 1962 book Silent Spring, which was so important in stimulating environmental awareness, is a good example of this approach to conservation.

Since Leopold’s early contributions, the field of environmental philosophy has expanded, with many new voices entering the debate about where we stand in relation to nature, and what metaphysical and ethical principles should shape our thinking. Some thinkers, such as J. Baird Callicott and Holmes Rolston III, have tried to develop and clarify Leopold’s insights, whereas others, such as Bryan Norton and Paul Taylor, have put forward their own approaches. I want to highlight three challenges faced by environmental philosophy which have emerged from recent debates. The first is the struggle to overcome an anthropocentric view of nature – the view which sees all of nature as serving human interests, and overlooks what has been called the ‘intrinsic value’ of nature. The second challenge is the question of how to define the place of humans in nature; are we to be regarded as equal to other natural beings, with no special privileges or rights, or do we have a higher role in shaping and managing nature? The final challenge is saying on what basis we should assign moral status, or what is sometimes called moral considerability, to animals and natural objects.

Each of these topics has been the subject of considerable discussion among environmental philosophers, and yet to this point no consensus has emerged on how best to deal with any of them. This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Most of us are aware of various disputes that have shaped environmental policy, for example between animal rights advocates and some environmentalists over the rightness or wrongness of hunting; or the purposes of wilderness preservation; or the ethics of meat-eating, etc. Philosophers seeking the theoretical foundations of environmental ethics have faced similar disagreements.

First Challenge: Overcoming Anthropocentrism

At a conference in the 1970s, to challenge human-centered attitudes towards nature, the philosopher Richard Routley (who later called himself Richard Sylvan) described the following thought experiment. Suppose you’re the last person alive after a global catastrophe, and you have the power to destroy all that’s left of nature. You realize that no other person would ever be affected by its loss, since there’s no one else left. Routley argues that our clear intuition is that it still would not be right to destroy the natural world. This suggests that natural beings and objects have intrinsic value, regardless of their practical value to humans. We need to respect nature because it is right to do so, not because of some benefit it bestows on us.

Routley’s attempt to overcome anthropocentrism by asserting the intrinsic value of nature brought forth a complex debate about what exactly we mean by ‘intrinsic value’, and whether such a concept is needed to defend the things in nature we want to be respected. Some environmental philosophers have challenged Routley’s suggestion that something can have value without any people around to value it. Many other environmentalists have agreed with his claim that ethics requires us to respect nature even when it has no human use. This principle, it is argued, applies to animals, biological systems and natural places, each of which might call for somewhat different moral duties.

I won’t trace all the complexities of the debates which have proliferated over the meaning of ‘intrinsic value’ and the rejection of anthropocentrism. However, at the core of this discussion are elements of a debate in the nineteenth century I’ve already mentioned, in which some, like the conservationist Gifford Pinchot, thought that the central reason for preserving natural places is that they will provide humans with the rich diversity of resources we need to survive, and some, like the naturalist John Muir, argued that nature provides a great many satisfactions and pleasures for humans which are not merely instrumental. For example, why should we preserve the rainforests? Some point to the many valuable medicinal cures the rainforests might provide, or the fact that they protect the global environment from carbon build up, while others view the rainforests as valuable in themselves. This distinction is important. But both views are anthropocentric in that human values determine what is valued in nature. This has led some philosophers to distinguish between a narrow anthropocentrism and one that opens up the full range of values nature provides. Recently, environmentalists adopting a form of pragmatism have argued that it is difficult to determine what practical environmental goals are lost or gained by adopting a philosophical theory based on intrinsic value versus a theory which affirms a more holistic human-centered value system. William James might characterize this as a dispute without a difference.

Second Challenge: Our Place in Nature

In his famous 1967 essay, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’, Lynn White assigned some of the blame to the Judeo-Christian doctrine found in Genesis, that we humans are created in the image of God and have been placed in charge of nature, and thus can use animals and natural objects for our own purposes. As a result there emerged a certain arrogance toward nature, which White argues was bolstered by the growth of science and technology. White acknowledges that there was a gentler, more respectful tradition of stewardship, often associated with Saint Francis of Assisi, but also found in Biblical passages.

While there has been much debate about White’s claims by historians, many environmentalists have found it necessary to challenge the supremacy assumed by humans, believing that many environmental problems are the result of our arrogant disregard for the rights of other living things. They have sought to promote a more egalitarian or holistic view of the place of humans in nature, one which sees humans as a part of the biological environment and not above or outside of nature. For example, in his carefully-argued 1986 book Respect For Nature, Paul Taylor defends a biocentric egalitarianism in which all living organisms have rights claims. He even attempts to outline moral principles (referred to as ‘priority principles’), which will help to guide us in cases of conflict between ourselves and things in nature. By way of illustration, Taylor claims that hunting and fishing for sport are wrong, but taking space from animals to build a library or airport is justified, because these serve the higher needs of humans and thus justify this intrusion on the space of other biological rights-bearers.

Taylor has been challenged on these assertions because such human-excusing value-judgments seem at odds with biological egalitarianism, and they point to the tension between assigning humans an equal place in nature and assuming that we guide our actions by standards that seem contrary to the natural way followed by other biological creatures.

Some environmentalists have wanted to describe humans as part of nature, doing what all creatures do, but at the same time try to limit our actions regarded as a threat to the environment. However, beavers build dams that disrupt other habitats, for instance; and all biological creatures pollute through their waste. This raises the question of just what are the proper limits to impose on our ‘natural’ intrusion into nature. Nature itself does not provide a definite answer.

A further illustration of the tension of placing humans in nature and yet assigning us special rights and duties is found in the claim that we should preserve species. Nature has eliminated many species over time, and it might very well be the case that some species cannot coexist with other species. Moreover, it seems that if the larger animals are to survive in the future, it will be because humans undertake to protect their living space. This places us in the role of stewards of nature, not just biological creatures acting in ways fixed by evolution. But if humans are placed in charge of species’ survival, it seems we are assigning ourselves a very special role in nature – a somewhat dominant role at odds with biocentic egalitarianism.

In short, how should we define our place in nature? This remains a challenge.

Third Challenge: Defining Moral Status

In arguing about whether to include animals in the moral realm, and thus reduce the suffering and exploitation of animals, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) commented, “Can they feel? If they can, then they deserve moral consideration.”

While the animal welfare and animal rights movements have not always had the same goals as environmentalists, they do have a shared concern to find a philosophical basis for assigning moral status to organisms and natural places. In an essay from 1972 entitled ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’, the legal philosopher Christopher Stone argued that natural places should have the legal right to be protected from improper use. Stone was responding to the case of Disney versus the Sierra Club. Disney wanted to build a resort in an unspoiled area of wilderness. Stone argued that the courts should recognize the claims of natural places to be protected.

The question of just what moral status animals, biological areas and natural places should have has been the subject of much discussion by environmentalists. Aldo Leopold’s land ethics was an attempt to affirm the moral status of ecological areas, and Paul Taylor’s biological centrism assigns moral status to all living things. In the case of animals, many have agreed with Bentham’s claim that unnecessary suffering should not be inflicted on beings who can experience it.

Many philosophers have come to accept that ethical traditions have not adequately dealt with the moral claims of animals. Through his 1975 book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer has been the most important contemporary spokesperson for the moral status of animals. Yet how Bentham’s or Singer’s claims apply to various levels of animal life raises complex issues of animal psychology. Many would agree that the great apes, who are so close to humans, deserve much the same moral regard as humans, while fleas, ants and bacteria do not. In his 1923 book The Philosophy of Civilization, Albert Schweitzer defends the doctrine of ‘Reverence for Life’. He states that all living things are worthy of respect, arguing that one should not kill bugs, ants or even plants if this can be avoided. This extension of moral consideration might strike some as problematic, in that it might seem at odds with our condition as biological creatures who live at the expense of other living forms. Schweitzer leaves himself some room for qualifications by saying we should not engage in ‘unnecessary’ exploitation of living things. By contrast, many environmentalists and environmental organizations have not always been sympathetic to moral claims that challenge natural or evolutionary patterns. This explains their hostility to anti-hunting or fishing philosophies which are not justified on ecological and preservation terms.

The last topic to briefly mention is the moral status of natural places. Places do not experience pleasure or pain, so what would be wrong with defacing a mountain ridge or an old-growth tree? We might say that the aesthetic violation here would spoil the beauty of nature for others, and thus cause harm. Many of the environmental debates about preserving natural places involve a conflict between those who want to use places for economic ends, and those who want to preserve the aesthetic values of nature. Of course, other considerations enter the debate as well, such as ecological balance, the importance of biological systems, etc.

In short, the extent and nature of the moral status of animals and nature remains a challenge. Yet the question of how to weigh differing values, and what moral status to assign to nature, has been the stimulus for environmental philosophy.

© Dr James A. Moran 2012

Jim Moran is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Daemen College in Amherst, New York.


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