This article contrasts the instrumental-value approach, extensionist approach, and biocentric approach to environmental ethics with the Buddhist approach of Daisaku Ikeda in terms of their meaning for wildlife conservation. I argue that both anthropocentric and biocentric approaches create a false dichotomy between humans and nature and are not helpful to modern wildlife conservation, which aims to balance the needs of people with the conservation of nature. The views of Daisaku Ikeda, in particular the principle of dependent origination and the theory of the oneness of life and its environment, constitute one alternative approach that does not separate humans from the natural world but places people within the web of all living things.
Although there is disagreement regarding the proper human relationship toward the rest of the natural world, most conservationists agree that biological diversity is valuable and that the extinction of species should be avoided where possible (Cafaro and Primack 2001). Justifications for these principles vary, ranging from arguments that emphasize the instrumental value of other species for humans to ethical theories that assert that wild species have intrinsic value.
In the face of increasing human population and the related pressures on nonhuman species and their habitats, conservation efforts have to reconcile the conservation of nature with the needs of people. Especially in developing countries, people's livelihoods depend on the extraction of natural resources. It is therefore not surprising that arguments for the conservation of wildlife stress the instrumental value that certain species have for people, a value that can often be translated into economic terms. Such reasoning does not necessarily support the reckless exploitation of the environment. Rather, these arguments support the idea that species should be carefully managed as natural resources for human benefit. In fact, most international environmental policymaking is underpinned by a broadly anthropocentric approach to environmental value. At the level of popular political debate, the ethical agenda is largely composed of resource management concerns (Palmer 2003). The most commonly cited definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987) is anthropocentric (Cafaro and Primack 2001). Accordingly, it can be argued that species deserve to be protected and conserved insofar as they are good for people. The preamble to the Convention on Biodiversity, however, affirms the intrinsic value of biological diversity even before listing other values such as ecological, genetic, and economic value (SCBD 2003).
The question of whether intrinsic value can indeed be found in anything but human beings is controversial. The debate on environmental ethics is thus largely concerned with finding out whether intrinsic value in nonhumans is possible or even necessary in order to develop universal theories why humans should protect their natural environment. This theoretical debate on whether nonhumans have value independent of humans is criticized by environmental pragmatists, who claim that while philosophers argue, the environment burns.
In this article I contrast four categories of approaches toward environmental ethics—the instrumental-value approach, the extensionist approach, the biocentric approach, and the Buddhist approach of Daisaku Ikeda—and identify the meaning of each of these approaches for wildlife conservation. I argue that both anthropocentric and biocentric approaches to environmental ethics create a false dichotomy between humans and nature and are thus not useful as an underpinning for modern wildlife conservation policies, which aim to balance the needs of people with the conservation of nature. The views of Daisaku Ikeda, particularly the principle of dependent origination and the theory of the oneness of life and its environment, are one alternative approach that does not separate humans from the natural world but places people within the web of all living things.
Instrumental value in wildlife: What species are good for
There are several frequently employed arguments for the conservation of wild species. These arguments have in common that they focus on the value species have for humans. Arguments that stress the instrumental value of species for human well-being are called anthropocentric. In this view, wild species are only good inasmuch as they are good for something, that is, have a use or a value for humans. Such a value may be economic (Myers 1983). Some wildlife species are of high economic value for tourism, hunting, and live sale (Child 1970). The value of an animal in a live sale or the value of a hunting trophy can be expressed in direct cash terms. Indirect economic values accrue from the roles species play in recreation and ecotourism, waste disposal, climate regulation, and protection of soil and water resources.
Species also have aesthetic value in that they contribute to the diversity and beauty of the planet (Myers 1979a). The safari and ecotourism industries attest to the aesthetic value people attach to particular wildlife species, which causes tourists to travel large distances and to pay large amounts of money for game-viewing safaris. At least for developed nations, where opportunities to observe wildlife are steadily decreasing, it can be said that the quality of life will decline substantially with the loss of species diversity. In many developing countries, game viewing and trophy hunting generate considerable sums of money, and the aesthetic value of wildlife can thus be directly linked to an economic value.
An interesting question arises here, namely, to what degree and in what way do tribal communities see wildlife as valuable for quality of life? Members of developed nations translate the wildlife experience into a monetary value for local communities. But what value do the local communities attach to wildlife? Newmark and colleagues (1993) have shown that the support for or opposition to protected areas in Tanzania by neighboring community members is based on economic values, as had previously been found in Rwanda and Brazil. Kangwana and Mako (2001), on the other hand, state that later surveys indicate “that people living around the [Tarangire National] Park hold cultural values which drive their desire to see that wildlife continues to exist in their surroundings” and that “wildlife is seen [by local people] as having a value beyond its simple economic costs and benefits.” In Namibia, traditional tribal authorities support the establishment of protected areas to help wildlife return to their homelands (Mauney 2004).
Nature and wildlife are also a great philosophical and spiritual resource, serving as inspiration for religious, philosophical, and spiritual thought and experience. This is not only true for the direct experience of wildlife; the mere idea that we share the Earth with blue whales, orangutans, and cheetahs, for example, can be inspiring. What is valued here is the simple possibility that a species exists and survives, although one might never see it (Fisher 2001).
Many species, including endangered ones, are expected to have agricultural, industrial, and medical benefits. To lose such species diminishes the genetic stock of wild animals, so it is prudent to save them. We might not know now which species will turn out to be useful in the future; therefore, protection should extend from the current obviously useful species to those that are currently considered less useful. Myers (1979b) urges us to “conserve our global stock,” to conserve species in order to protect useful genetic material. The purpose of protecting species is thus for their “enlightened exploitation” (Rolston 2001).
It is frequently argued that many species that are not necessarily directly useful to humans still play important roles in the ecosystem. Although the loss of a few species might not be too serious now, the loss of many species will threaten the processes and interdependencies of the ecosystem on which we as humans depend, in ways that cannot possibly be foreseen. Thus species are part of a life-support system: Earth is seen as a biological habitat or home. Every species contributes to the planet's biodiversity, which keeps ecosystems healthy (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1982).
Species also serve as indicators of ecosystem health. We need to study species and their roles within ecosystems to understand their interdependencies and to predict the impacts of our actions on the environment. Species offer clues to understanding natural history and thus have historical value as records of past processes. This argument views species as a biological Rosetta stone that may enable the deciphering of the hieroglyphs of natural history (Rolston 2001). According to this argument, species have scientific value because they provide humans with insights into the text of natural history, which humans need in order to understand their own environment. Some species are curiosities and a source of fascination to enthusiastic naturalists. Generally speaking, wildlife species can be a basis for creative and intellectual thought. One of the outcomes of such thought is a better-informed perspective on the natural history of the planet and its life-forms.
Arguments centering on the instrumental value of wildlife provide a basis for valuing and protecting species. Nonetheless, arguments for the conservation of species that are based on instrumental value are problematic for conservation workers, because they put the onus of proof on the side of the conservator. Conservationists have to explicitly and successfully show that a species is worth protecting because of its value to humans; otherwise, it may well be assumed that that there is no such value. Thus this line of argument, if used alone, presents ongoing challenges for endangered species conservation, since many rare and endangered species have little instrumental value. Moreover, arguments based on instrumental value can also provide grounds for extinguishing species (e.g., pests) or for saving one species rather than another (e.g., when resources are constrained).
Forced to prove the value of wild species, many conservationists favor the economic argument, because economic value can be measured in objective terms. The economic returns to be gained from species conservation can be expressed in monetary terms, thus providing powerful arguments. In comparison, the scientific argument, the ecosystem argument, and the aesthetic argument are considered “unlikely to stand up against man-made pressures to modify and disrupt natural environments” (Myers 1979a). Consequently, it is argued that wildlife must pay its way, and economic benefits must be stressed to ensure that wildlife will survive in the face of other profitable forms of land use. This view takes for granted the manmade pressures for environmental change. Although the instrumental-value approach is based on the need to conserve species as resources for the benefit of people, this view is underpinned by a negative concept of humanity. Humans are seen as driven first and foremost by self-interest. Without external checks, such as incentives, benefits, or legislation, we are, according to this view, in profound conflict with each other and with our natural environment. This view of humanity and of ethical behavior is fundamentally pessimistic. Its conclusion is that we cannot rely on members of our own species in order to protect endangered species unless we make use of the very character traits that endangered them in the first place.
Intrinsic value in wildlife: Why we ought to protect species
Richard Routley, who later changed his last name to Sylvan, argued that positions that only stress the instrumental value of nonhuman species do not provide sufficient ground for environmental ethics. He presented the “last man” argument, a thought experiment in which he asked if the last person on Earth, well knowing that no human being will ever inhabit the planet afterward and equipped with the means to eliminate all life on the planet, would be justified in doing so. Sylvan suggests that most people would intuitively say “no” and call such destructive behavior morally wrong, although no human being would remain to experience the consequences (Sylvan 1998). This suggests that there is value in species independent of their use for humans. Whether or not intrinsic value can exist in anything other than human life, however, is debatable. Unlike economic value, which is measurable, intrinsic value is difficult to express and to prove.
Extensionist environmental ethics
One way of identifying the intrinsic value of nonhumans is to extend traditional moral theory, which concerns itself with interaction between humans, to include members of other species, stressing their similarities to humans. The search for features common to humans and other animals is an attempt at building a particular type of moral community. Most people have no difficulty in recognizing the moral bond between parents and children, for example, or between friends or partners. As we extend moral obligations beyond the boundaries of our immediate environment, we naturally look for features that give an inferential foundation for this extension. Consequently, so-called extensionist arguments ask what qualities give intrinsic value to humans, and then assert that some other beings possess these qualities, too. In the Kantian tradition, this moral criterion is rationality (Downie 1995), and one common justification for valuing animals intrinsically is that some have been shown to possess some rudimentary form of reasoning. Chimpanzees and gorillas have been taught sign language; some predators, such as wolves and lions, have the ability to coordinate hunts; dolphins, whales, and other cetaceans send complex signals that we are only beginning to understand. But basing intrinsic value on these abstract capacities seems to rule out most animals, including most invertebrate species.
Another moral criterion is sentience (Singer 2001). The argument is that because animals share the ability to experience their environment and to suffer, human actions that inflict suffering on animals are morally wrong. Using sentience as the moral criterion does include a wider class of animals within an extended ethical domain, but still restricts it to sentient animals. Plants, fungi, and single-celled organisms are effectively ruled out.
What is common to all extensionist theories is that they take the ego as the point of departure: I am intrinsically valuable because I possess the moral criterion, and I must grant others who possess the criterion the same rights. The problem with this line of argument is obvious: The scope of moral consideration will either extend only to some but not all species or lead to a very demanding code of conduct, since it is then morally wrong for humans to kill individuals of any species, unless justified through an appeal to our own survival. What is more, extensionist arguments focus on individual organisms rather than on whole species. Such individualist approaches allow no moral consideration of animal or plant populations, or of endemic, rare, or endangered species, let alone biotic communities or ecosystems, because entities and aggregations such as these have no apparent psychological experience. Conservationists, however, are concerned with the conservation of species and ecosystems rather than individual animals. Hence it is questionable whether these individualistic approaches can serve as an ethical underpinning for wildlife conservation (Cafaro and Primack 2001).
Holistic environmental ethics
In contrast with individualistic environmental ethicists, other ethicists state that viewing nature as an aggregation of individuals is a distortion that does not appreciate nature's organic, integrated, and dynamic character (Palmer 2003). It is for this reason, among others, that some ethicists argue a completely new ethics is required: Environmental ethics need to challenge the philosophical tradition and to develop arguments that go far beyond simply extending traditional moral arguments (Sylvan 1998). Holistic environmental ethics focus on ethical consideration of ecological wholes (Palmer 2003), which encompass all levels of individuals, aggregations, relationships, and processes. Such non-extensionist approaches, also called naturalistic or biocentric, seek arguments to support the preservation of species, because all species represent unique biological solutions to the problem of survival (Rolston 2001). More diverse biological communities seem to be better able to deal with environmental disturbances; therefore, if we value some species, we arguably should protect the entire system of interdependent species. Examples of such holistic approaches are Aldo Leopold's “land ethic” (1970, Callicott 1998) and Rolston's “environmental ethics” (1991). Leopold's essay “The Land Ethic” (1970) is considered by many the foundational work in holistic environmental ethics, although more recent interpretations focus on anthropocentric elements in Leopold's work (Norton 1996, Palmer 2003). To Leopold, the community rather than the individual organism is the focus of moral consideration, and ecological qualities such as integrity and stability are of primary value. This approach therefore provides arguments for the conservation of species, rather than individual organisms, inasmuch as species play an important role in the stability and integrity of the ecosystem.
Approaches that prioritize the whole over the individual, particularly when the whole is the wild biotic community, are widely viewed as ethically unacceptable or even fascist (Palmer 2003). The focus on the ecological system leads to a picture of human beings, not as vital to the workings of the system, but rather as detrimental to it. Rolston goes so far as to conclude that sometimes the protection of the environment takes precedence over feeding hungry people (Rolston 2003). Thus, wildlife conservators who adopt a biocentric stance see their responsibility as protecting the ecosystem from people whose actions are perceived as harming the natural environment. As a consequence, conservation workers, in their struggle to protect the natural environment, are likely to become antagonized toward people. Such misanthropic positions sharpen the dichotomy of human versus environment and are unlikely to be helpful in balancing the interests of people with the protection of the environment, which lies at the heart of the wildlife conservation challenge.
The debate over intrinsic value has been criticized as being of little use for environmental policymaking (Light and Katz 1996). Whether or not nonhuman entities can have intrinsic value is considered by environmental pragmatists a purely theoretical discussion. The origin of the discussion on intrinsic value may lie embedded in the tradition of Western philosophical thought. Modern thinking is strongly influenced by Descartes (1596–1650), who divided the world into matter and mind, thus creating a dualism that treats humans and their environment as separate entities (Taliaferro 2001). The influence of 17th-century classical science on Western culture is pervasive. Descartes's skeptical, mathematical method underpins modern science, and rationality shapes modern Western thought. The scientific revolution replaced the organic view of nature as a living organism with the mechanistic view of nature as a machine (Merchant 1980). The organic notion of nature carried the dual connotation both of nature as a nurturing mother and of nature as an unpredictable female who causes chaos through natural disasters (Merchant 1980). The increased mechanization that followed in the wake of the new scientific discoveries not only provided a means to control and subordinate nature but also led to a mechanistic worldview emphasizing order and control. Whereas the image of Earth as a living organism had served as a cultural constraint restricting human actions in relation to the environment, the increasingly rationalized world-view resulting from the scientific revolution portrays nature as lifeless and thus sanctions its exploitation (Merchant 1980). The result is a worldview in which humans and nature are separated and in which humans are seen as subjective agents and nature as a passive object. This view makes it difficult to envision people and the natural environment as mutually interdependent. Whereas the dependency of people on their environment is obvious, the natural environment seems to be better off without people.
The oneness of self and its environment
Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, is not based on the mind–matter dichotomy (Allwright 2002) but rather on the principle of harmonious and nonviolent coexistence (Xianlin et al. 2001). Whereas the Western approach to nature has been a violent one focused on conquering nature, the Eastern approach has been characterized by respect for the rhythms, processes, and phenomena of the natural world (Lai 2001, Xianlin et al. 2001).
An example of the latter approach can be found in the work of Daisaku Ikeda, who is a Buddhist philosopher, author, and president of Soka Gakkai International, a nongovernmental organization and lay Buddhist association with more than 12 million members around the world. Ikeda's approach provides a bridge between Eastern and Western thought that is a valuable contribution to environmental philosophy.
Ikeda's philosophy is based on Buddhist thought, central to which is the concept of dependent origination (also called dependent co-arising). The doctrine of dependent origination expresses the interdependence of all things, meaning that beings or phenomena cannot exist on their own, but exist or occur because of their relationship with other beings and phenomena. In this view, everything in the world comes into existence in response to internal causes and external conditions; in other words, nothing can exist independent of other things or arise in isolation. As Ikeda explains in “Dialogues on Eastern Religion” (Xianlin et al. 2001), “According to this view, when one particular cause or set of causes exists then a certain result comes about; when one entity comes into being, so does another entity” (p. 9).
This concept of dependent origination is compatible with the biological concept of symbiosis. Each human being exists within the context of interrelationships that include not only other human beings but all living beings and the natural world. Interestingly, Ikeda does not consider this relationship as one-sided (i.e., human beings depend on the natural environment in order to flourish), but as a mutual relationship of interdependence. To give a better understanding of this idea, Ikeda explains that according to Buddhist ontology life can be described in terms of 10 factors (Ikeda 1994). The first three factors—appearance, nature, and entity—describe life from a static perspective; the next six—power, influence, internal cause, external cause, latent effect, and manifest effect—describe the dynamic functions of life. Power and influence refer, respectively, to life's inherent capacity to act and to the action that is produced when this inherent power is activated. Internal cause, external cause, latent effect, and manifest effect describe how causality links each phenomenon to its environment. Each individual phenomenon contains an internal, latent cause or disposition, which simultaneously contains a latent effect. In the right conditions, this latent internal cause is activated or triggered. External cause thus provides the link between the individual phenomenon and its surroundings. The external conditions cause a change in the internal cause, which in turn results in a change of the latent effect. The manifest effect is the physical result of the action, which arises as a result of the internal cause. Thus the individual and the external world are interlinked through a network of causality. Internal cause and latent effect are simultaneous; the one is contained in the other. The manifest effect, however, often appears later in time. The 10th factor, consistency from beginning to end, refers to the integration of all factors. They are not in themselves separate but are all different aspects of the same phenomenon. If we consider the first three factors as referring to entity and the remaining factors as referring to the function of this entity, “consistency from beginning to end” refers to the unity of an entity and its function; they are inseparable (Ikeda 1994).
The 10 factors together represent the oneness of the material and the spiritual aspect of life. Appearance represents the physical, nature the spiritual aspect of life; internal cause and latent effect refer to the spiritual, because they lie dormant within life; manifest effect, on the other hand, is perceivable in the physical world and thus refers to the material aspect of life. Thus, unlike Western thought, which is underpinned by the dualism of mind and body, Ikeda's philosophy is informed by the “non-dualities” of Buddhist thought: that is, the oneness of body and mind; the oneness of the internal and the external; the oneness of cause and effect; and the oneness of life and its environment (Ikeda 1994).
The idea of the oneness of life and its environment is of particular interest to environmental ethics. As used by Ikeda, the term environment does not denote the whole natural world; rather, it refers to the fact that each living being has its own unique environment.” In this sense, the formation of one's environment coincides with that person's birth into this world” (Ikeda 1994, p. 144). Thus, on the most fundamental level, life and environment, sentient beings and nonsentient beings, are inseparable (Ikeda 1994). Ikeda explains the Japanese term for this concept, esho funi, as follows: shō is short for shōhō, which refers to the individual life; e stands for ehō, the environment, which supports the individual. Funi means “two but not two,” referring to the impossibility of separating the two, individual and environment. The individual life influences its environment but at the same time is dependent on it (Toynbee and Ikeda 1982). To explain, Ikeda uses the analogy of a body and its shadow: The body creates the shadow, and when the body moves, the shadow changes. But in a sense the shadow also creates the body, because the absence of the shadow means that there is no bodily form. Similarly, the individual receives form and identity through the environment, and vice versa (Ikeda 1982). The functioning of internal cause, latent effect, external cause, and manifest effect forms an intricate network of relationships between the individual and its surroundings. The manifest effect produced by the factors of internal cause, external condition, and latent effect is exhibited both in the individual life and in its environment.
As human beings, we shape our environment, but we are also products of our environment. According to Ikeda, this dialectic is vital for understanding the interrelationships between human existence and the environment. Because individual life and environment are inseparable, the state of the environment is a reflection of the minds of the people who inhabit it. Environmental degradation is thus a reflection of people's ignorance of the true nature of life and the cosmos: the interrelatedness of all things. Actions based on ignorance of the interrelatedness of all phenomena result in a downward spiral of negativity. It gives rise to greed, which drives people to seek the fulfillment of their desires at the cost of others and to seek the destruction of a situation in which their own desires are frustrated. This greed goes beyond the individual level, creating economic disparities between people and countries on a global scale. The avarice of the industrialized nations has deprived people in developing countries of the conditions by which their basic needs can be met, and the greed of the human race is undermining the right of other living beings to exist. Awareness of the fabric of relatedness, on the other hand, gives rise to the desire for mutually supportive coexistence with others and with the natural environment.
Ikeda explains that this dialectic relationship between human beings and the environment means that humans must maintain the supporting energy of the environment. Life cannot flourish in an environment that is altered without maintaining its supporting energy, just as food that is eaten without digesting it does not nourish a body (Ikeda 1982).
This is not to say that the natural world does not exist independent of human beings, but that the environment of each individual is as much a product of the actions of the individual as the individual is a product of its environment.
And if we wish to describe the mutual relations that exist between human beings and the environment in these terms, we would say that the living self depends upon the environment for its existence. That is, human beings depend on the workings of the environment or natural ecological conditions for their growth and development. And conversely, as indicated by the statement above that “without life there is no environment,” the environment must wait for the activities of human beings in order to take on a particular shape or undergo changes. Human beings thus play a key role in the creation of a particular environment, and must bear the responsibility for such creation. (Xianlin et al. 2001, p. 19)
According to Ikeda, dependent origination, the interdependency of all things and all phenomena, manifests the ordering principle of the cosmos. The failure to recognize the interdependence and interrelatedness of all life is a fundamental delusion, leading to a self-destructive egocentrism that severs the strands of the web of life that support one's own existence. Awareness of the interrelated nature of life, on the other hand, enables a person to overcome instinctive self-love in order to maintain an empathic relationship with others (i.e., other people, other living beings, and nature).
The challenge for environmental ethics is to find a solid rational justification for why nature should be protected from human actions. Arguments that stress the instrumental value other species have for humans provide “practical muscle for conservation where it counts, on the ground” (Myers 1979a). However, arguments based on instrumental value imply that it is the conservationist's responsibility to prove that such value exists. Although the conservation of nature in general is widely considered valuable, conservationists find that in practice they have to fight the same battles again and again to protect wild species from harm. There is a perceived need to express the value of wild species in objectively measurable economic terms that can be employed as incentives for wildlife conservation or as arguments against land uses that are harmful to wildlife. This assumption is underpinned by a negative view of humanity, in that it assumes that people in themselves will not conserve nature unless it is clearly to their direct benefit. Humans and nature are seen as being in profound conflict with each other. The concept of the wildlife conservationist is that of a resource manager whose job is to manage natural resources for the benefit of people, but who is fighting an ongoing battle to prove the value of this work.
The existence of intrinsic value in nature, on the other hand, would free conservationists of the obligation to prove that there is value in conserving a particular species. Although it is generally accepted that human life is intrinsically valuable, the possibility of intrinsic value in nonhuman life forms a large part of the environmental ethics debate. Extensionist approaches, which aim to define moral criteria on which such value can be based, are problematic for wildlife managers because they consider individual organisms, not species and ecosystems. By drawing directly from ecological concepts rather than from a human-centered frame of reference, philosophers such as Leopold, Rolston, and others call for a rethinking of our moral framework. Nonetheless, biocentric approaches to environmental ethics can be seen as implying the prioritization of nonhuman life over human life, thus sharpening the dichotomy between humans and the natural environment. The human-versus-nature dualism that underpins both the instrumental and the intrinsic value approaches is unhelpful to wildlife conservation and management, which are concerned with balancing both social and environmental goals.
It is not surprising that the endeavor of providing a rational ethical foundation for conservation is proving difficult, considering that the Western worldview, which has become increasingly influential on a global scale, has for centuries seen the conquest and subjection of nature as its greatest challenge. In contrast, the traditional Eastern view sees humanity as part of nature, not as a rival (Ikeda 1994, p. 144). Ikeda suggests that the differing attitudes toward nature may be grounded in the differences between the Eastern and Western views of life itself.
In the tradition of Buddhist thought, Ikeda's exposition of the theories of dependent origination and the oneness of life and its environment transcends the man–nature dualism. This approach provides a bridge between environmental ethics and the resolution of practical environmental problems. Ikeda's work does not in itself constitute an environmental ethic. However, the concepts of dependent origination and the oneness of life and environment provide an ample platform for developing such an ethic. To Ikeda, ethics are not a matter of timeless rules that can be applied to particular situations. Rather, ethics depend on a sensitivity toward the principle of dependent origination. Consequently, Ikeda's aim is not the development of an abstract theory but rather the empowerment of the individual to lead “a contributive way of life…based on an awareness of the interdependent nature of our lives—of the relationships that link us to others and our environment” (Ikeda 2002).
The modern conservation paradigm, conservation for and with people, requires that we overcome the dualism of human versus nature, which creates antagonism between conservationists and other people. Ikeda's philosophy provides a basis for a conservation philosophy that sees the conservationist not as a defender of the natural world against the harmful impact of human actions but as one who realizes the interdependences both between people and between people and nature, and who strives to awaken such awareness in others in order to achieve a better future for all.
Tim Dunne, Les Underhill, David Benatar, John Paterson, and Liz Komen read earlier drafts of this paper.
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1. Introduction: The Challenge of Environmental Ethics
Suppose putting out natural fires, culling feral animals or destroying some individual members of overpopulated indigenous species is necessary for the protection of the integrity of a certain ecosystem. Will these actions be morally permissible or even required? Is it morally acceptable for farmers in non-industrial countries to practise slash and burn techniques to clear areas for agriculture? Consider a mining company which has performed open pit mining in some previously unspoiled area. Does the company have a moral obligation to restore the landform and surface ecology? And what is the value of a humanly restored environment compared with the originally natural environment? It is often said to be morally wrong for human beings to pollute and destroy parts of the natural environment and to consume a huge proportion of the planet’s natural resources. If that is wrong, is it simply because a sustainable environment is essential to (present and future) human well-being? Or is such behaviour also wrong because the natural environment and/or its various contents have certain values in their own right so that these values ought to be respected and protected in any case? These are among the questions investigated by environmental ethics. Some of them are specific questions faced by individuals in particular circumstances, while others are more global questions faced by groups and communities. Yet others are more abstract questions concerning the value and moral standing of the natural environment and its non-human components.
In the literature on environmental ethics the distinction between instrumental value and intrinsic value (in the sense of “non-instrumental value”) has been of considerable importance. The former is the value of things as means to further some other ends, whereas the latter is the value of things as ends in themselves regardless of whether they are also useful as means to other ends. For instance, certain fruits have instrumental value for bats who feed on them, since feeding on the fruits is a means to survival for the bats. However, it is not widely agreed that fruits have value as ends in themselves. We can likewise think of a person who teaches others as having instrumental value for those who want to acquire knowledge. Yet, in addition to any such value, it is normally said that a person, as a person, has intrinsic value, i.e., value in his or her own right independently of his or her prospects for serving the ends of others. For another example, a certain wild plant may have instrumental value because it provides the ingredients for some medicine or as an aesthetic object for human observers. But if the plant also has some value in itself independently of its prospects for furthering some other ends such as human health, or the pleasure from aesthetic experience, then the plant also has intrinsic value. Because the intrinsically valuable is that which is good as an end in itself, it is commonly agreed that something’s possession of intrinsic value generates a prima facie direct moral duty on the part of moral agents to protect it or at least refrain from damaging it (see O’Neil 1992 and Jamieson 2002 for detailed accounts of intrinsic value).
Many traditional western ethical perspectives, however, are anthropocentric or human-centered in that either they assign intrinsic value to human beings alone (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a strong sense) or they assign a significantly greater amount of intrinsic value to human beings than to any non-human things such that the protection or promotion of human interests or well-being at the expense of non-human things turns out to be nearly always justified (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a weak sense). For example, Aristotle (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8) maintains that “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man” and that the value of non-human things in nature is merely instrumental. Generally, anthropocentric positions find it problematic to articulate what is wrong with the cruel treatment of non-human animals, except to the extent that such treatment may lead to bad consequences for human beings. Immanuel Kant (“Duties to Animals and Spirits”, in Lectures on Ethics), for instance, suggests that cruelty towards a dog might encourage a person to develop a character which would be desensitized to cruelty towards humans. From this standpoint, cruelty towards non-human animals would be instrumentally, rather than intrinsically, wrong. Likewise, anthropocentrism often recognizes some non-intrinsic wrongness of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) environmental devastation. Such destruction might damage the well-being of human beings now and in the future, since our well-being is essentially dependent on a sustainable environment (see Passmore 1974; Bookchin 1990; Norton et al. (eds.) 1995).
When environmental ethics emerged as a new sub-discipline of philosophy in the early 1970s, it did so by posing a challenge to traditional anthropocentrism. In the first place, it questioned the assumed moral superiority of human beings to members of other species on earth. In the second place, it investigated the possibility of rational arguments for assigning intrinsic value to the natural environment and its non-human contents. It should be noted, however, that some theorists working in the field see no need to develop new, non-anthropocentric theories. Instead, they advocate what may be called enlightened anthropocentrism (or, perhaps more appropriately called, prudential anthropocentrism). Briefly, this is the view that all the moral duties we have towards the environment are derived from our direct duties to its human inhabitants. The practical purpose of environmental ethics, they maintain, is to provide moral grounds for social policies aimed at protecting the earth’s environment and remedying environmental degradation. Enlightened anthropocentrism, they argue, is sufficient for that practical purpose, and perhaps even more effective in delivering pragmatic outcomes, in terms of policy-making, than non-anthropocentric theories given the theoretical burden on the latter to provide sound arguments for its more radical view that the non-human environment has intrinsic value (cf. Norton 1991, de Shalit 1994, Light and Katz 1996). Furthermore, some prudential anthropocentrists may hold what might be called cynical anthropocentrism, which says that we have a higher-level anthropocentric reason to be non-anthropocentric in our day-to-day thinking. Suppose that a day-to-day non-anthropocentrist tends to act more benignly towards the non-human environment on which human well-being depends. This would provide reason for encouraging non-anthropocentric thinking, even to those who find the idea of non-anthropocentric intrinsic value hard to swallow. In order for such a strategy to be effective one may need to hide one’s cynical anthropocentrism from others and even from oneself. The position can be structurally compared to some indirect form of consequentialism and may attract parallel critiques (see Henry Sidgwick on utilitarianism and esoteric morality, and Bernard Williams on indirect utilitarianism).
2. The Early Development of Environmental Ethics
Although nature was the focus of much nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, contemporary environmental ethics only emerged as an academic discipline in the 1970s. The questioning and rethinking of the relationship of human beings with the natural environment over the last thirty years reflected an already widespread perception in the 1960s that the late twentieth century faced a human population explosion as well as a serious environmental crisis. Among the accessible work that drew attention to a sense of crisis was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963), which consisted of a number of essays earlier published in the New Yorker magazine detailing how pesticides such as DDT, aldrin and deildrin concentrated through the food web. Commercial farming practices aimed at maximizing crop yields and profits, Carson speculates, are capable of impacting simultaneously on environmental and public health.
In a much cited essay (White 1967) on the historical roots of the environmental crisis, historian Lynn White argued that the main strands of Judeo-Christian thinking had encouraged the overexploitation of nature by maintaining the superiority of humans over all other forms of life on earth, and by depicting all of nature as created for the use of humans. White’s thesis was widely discussed in theology, history, and has been subject to some sociological testing as well as being regularly discussed by philosophers (see Whitney 1993, Attfield 2001). Central to the rationale for his thesis were the works of the Church Fathers and The Bible itself, supporting the anthropocentric perspective that humans are the only things that matter on Earth. Consequently, they may utilize and consume everything else to their advantage without any injustice. For example, Genesis 1: 27–8 states: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Likewise, Thomas Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 3, Pt 2, Ch 112) argued that non-human animals are “ordered to man’s use”. According to White, the Judeo-Christian idea that humans are created in the image of the transcendent supernatural God, who is radically separate from nature, also by extension radically separates humans themselves from nature. This ideology further opened the way for untrammeled exploitation of nature. Modern Western science itself, White argued, was “cast in the matrix of Christian theology” so that it too inherited the “orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature” (White 1967: 1207). Clearly, without technology and science, the environmental extremes to which we are now exposed would probably not be realized. The point of White’s thesis, however, is that given the modern form of science and technology, Judeo-Christianity itself provides the original deep-seated drive to unlimited exploitation of nature. Nevertheless, White argued that some minority traditions within Christianity (e.g., the views of St. Francis) might provide an antidote to the “arrogance” of a mainstream tradition steeped in anthropocentrism.
Around the same time, the Stanford ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned in The Population Bomb (Ehrlich 1968) that the growth of human population threatened the viability of planetary life-support systems. The sense of environmental crisis stimulated by those and other popular works was intensified by NASA’s production and wide dissemination of a particularly potent image of earth from space taken at Christmas 1968 and featured in the Scientific American in September 1970. Here, plain to see, was a living, shining planet voyaging through space and shared by all of humanity, a precious vessel vulnerable to pollution and to the overuse of its limited capacities. In 1972 a team of researchers at MIT led by Dennis Meadows published the Limits to Growth study, a work that summed up in many ways the emerging concerns of the previous decade and the sense of vulnerability triggered by the view of the earth from space. In the commentary to the study, the researchers wrote:
We affirm finally that any deliberate attempt to reach a rational and enduring state of equilibrium by planned measures, rather than by chance or catastrophe, must ultimately be founded on a basic change of values and goals at individual, national and world levels. (Meadows et al. 1972: 195)
The call for a “basic change of values” in connection to the environment (a call that could be interpreted in terms of either instrumental or intrinsic values) reflected a need for the development of environmental ethics as a new sub-discipline of philosophy.
The new field emerged almost simultaneously in three countries—the United States, Australia, and Norway. In the first two of these countries, direction and inspiration largely came from the earlier twentieth century American literature of the environment. For instance, the Scottish emigrant John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club and “father of American conservation”) and subsequently the forester Aldo Leopold had advocated an appreciation and conservation of things “natural, wild and free”. Their concerns were motivated by a combination of ethical and aesthetic responses to nature as well as a rejection of crudely economic approaches to the value of natural objects (a historical survey of the confrontation between Muir’s reverentialism and the human-centred conservationism of Gifford Pinchot (one of the major influences on the development of the US Forest Service) is provided in Norton 1991; also see Cohen 1984 and Nash (ed) 1990). Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), in particular, advocated the adoption of a “land ethic”:
That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. (Leopold 1949: vii–ix)
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 1949: 224–5)
However, Leopold himself provided no systematic ethical theory or framework to support these ethical ideas concerning the environment. His views therefore presented a challenge and opportunity for moral theorists: could some ethical theory be devised to justify the injunction to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biosphere?
The land ethic sketched by Leopold, attempting to extend our moral concern to cover the natural environment and its non-human contents, was drawn on explicitly by the Australian philosopher Richard Routley (later Sylvan). According to Routley (1973 (cf. Routley and Routley 1980)), the anthropocentrism imbedded in what he called the “dominant western view”, or “the western superethic”, is in effect “human chauvinism”. This view, he argued, is just another form of class chauvinism, which is simply based on blind class “loyalty” or prejudice, and unjustifiably discriminates against those outside the privileged class. Echoing the plot of a popular movie some three years earlier (see Lo and Brennan 2013), Routley speculates in his “last man” (and “last people”) arguments about a hypothetical situation in which the last person, surviving a world catastrophe, acts to ensure the elimination of all other living things and the last people set about destroying forests and ecosystems after their demise. From the human-chauvinistic (or absolutely anthropocentric) perspective, the last person would do nothing morally wrong, since his or her destructive act in question would not cause any damage to the interest and well-being of humans, who would by then have disappeared. Nevertheless, Routley points out that there is a moral intuition that the imagined last acts would be morally wrong. An explanation for this judgment, he argued, is that those non-human objects in the environment, whose destruction is ensured by the last person or last people, have intrinsic value, a kind of value independent of their usefulness for humans. From his critique, Routley concluded that the main approaches in traditional western moral thinking were unable to allow the recognition that natural things have intrinsic value, and that the tradition required overhaul of a significant kind.
Leopold’s idea that the “land” as a whole is an object of our moral concern also stimulated writers to argue for certain moral obligations toward ecological wholes, such as species, communities, and ecosystems, not just their individual constituents. The U.S.-based theologian and environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston III, for instance, argued that species protection was a moral duty (Rolston 1975). It would be wrong, he maintained, to eliminate a rare butterfly species simply to increase the monetary value of specimens already held by collectors. Like Routley’s “last man” arguments, Rolston’s example is meant to draw attention to a kind of action that seems morally dubious and yet is not clearly ruled out or condemned by traditional anthropocentric ethical views. Species, Rolston went on to argue, are intrinsically valuable and are usually more valuable than individual specimens, since the loss of a species is a loss of genetic possibilities and the deliberate destruction of a species would show disrespect for the very biological processes which make possible the emergence of individual living things (also see Rolston 1989, Ch 10). Natural processes deserve respect, according to Rolston’s quasi-religious perspective, because they constitute a nature (or God) which is itself intrinsically valuable (or sacred).
Meanwhile, the work of Christopher Stone (a professor of law at the University of Southern California) had become widely discussed. Stone (1972) proposed that trees and other natural objects should have at least the same standing in law as corporations. This suggestion was inspired by a particular case in which the Sierra Club had mounted a challenge against the permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service to Walt Disney Enterprises for surveys preparatory to the development of the Mineral King Valley, which was at the time a relatively remote game refuge, but not designated as a national park or protected wilderness area. The Disney proposal was to develop a major resort complex serving 14000 visitors daily to be accessed by a purpose-built highway through Sequoia National Park. The Sierra Club, as a body with a general concern for wilderness conservation, challenged the development on the grounds that the valley should be kept in its original state for its own sake.
Stone reasoned that if trees, forests and mountains could be given standing in law then they could be represented in their own right in the courts by groups such as the Sierra Club. Moreover, like any other legal person, these natural things could become beneficiaries of compensation if it could be shown that they had suffered compensatable injury through human activity. When the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was determined by a narrow majority that the Sierra Club did not meet the condition for bringing a case to court, for the Club was unable and unwilling to prove the likelihood of injury to the interest of the Club or its members. In a dissenting minority judgment, however, justices Douglas, Blackmun and Brennan mentioned Stone’s argument: his proposal to give legal standing to natural things, they said, would allow conservation interests, community needs and business interests to be represented, debated and settled in court.
Reacting to Stone’s proposal, Joel Feinberg (1974) raised a serious problem. Only items that have interests, Feinberg argued, can be regarded as having legal standing and, likewise, moral standing. For it is interests which are capable of being represented in legal proceedings and moral debates. This same point would also seem to apply to political debates. For instance, the movement for “animal liberation”, which also emerged strongly in the 1970s, can be thought of as a political movement aimed at representing the previously neglected interests of some animals (see Regan and Singer (eds.) 1976, Clark 1977, and also the entry on the moral status of animals). Granted that some animals have interests that can be represented in this way, would it also make sense to speak of trees, forests, rivers, barnacles, or termites as having interests of a morally relevant kind? This issue was hotly contested in the years that followed. Meanwhile, John Passmore (1974) argued, like White, that the Judeo-Christian tradition of thought about nature, despite being predominantly “despotic”, contained resources for regarding humans as “stewards” or “perfectors” of God’s creation. Skeptical of the prospects for any radically new ethic, Passmore cautioned that traditions of thought could not be abruptly overhauled. Any change in attitudes to our natural surroundings which stood the chance of widespread acceptance, he argued, would have to resonate and have some continuities with the very tradition which had legitimized our destructive practices. In sum, then, Leopold’s land ethic, the historical analyses of White and Passmore, the pioneering work of Routley, Stone and Rolston, and the warnings of scientists, had by the late 1970s focused the attention of philosophers and political theorists firmly on the environment.
The confluence of ethical, political and legal debates about the environment, the emergence of philosophies to underpin animal rights activism and the puzzles over whether an environmental ethic would be something new rather than a modification or extension of existing ethical theories were reflected in wider social and political movements. The rise of environmental or “green” parties in Europe in the 1980s was accompanied by almost immediate schisms between groups known as “realists” versus “fundamentalists” (see Dobson 1990). The “realists” stood for reform environmentalism, working with business and government to soften the impact of pollution and resource depletion especially on fragile ecosystems or endangered species. The “fundies” argued for radical change, the setting of stringent new priorities, and even the overthrow of capitalism and liberal individualism, which were taken as the major ideological causes of anthropogenic environmental devastation. It is not clear, however, that collectivist or communist countries do any better in terms of their environmental record (see Dominick 1998).
Underlying these political disagreements was the distinction between “shallow” and “deep” environmental movements, a distinction introduced in the early 1970s by another major influence on contemporary environmental ethics, the Norwegian philosopher and climber Arne Næss. Since the work of Næss has been significant in environmental politics, the discussion of his position is given in a separate section below.
3. Environmental Ethics and Politics
3.1 Deep Ecology
“Deep ecology” was born in Scandinavia, the result of discussions between Næss and his colleagues Sigmund Kvaløy and Nils Faarlund (see Næss 1973 and 1989; also see Witoszek and Brennan (eds.) 1999 for a historical survey and commentary on the development of deep ecology). All three shared a passion for the great mountains. On a visit to the Himalayas, they became impressed with aspects of “Sherpa culture” particularly when they found that their Sherpa guides regarded certain mountains as sacred and accordingly would not venture onto them. Subsequently, Næss formulated a position which extended the reverence the three Norwegians and the Sherpas felt for mountains to other natural things in general.
The “shallow ecology movement”, as Næss (1973) calls it, is the “fight against pollution and resource depletion”, the central objective of which is “the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.” The “deep ecology movement”, in contrast, endorses “biospheric egalitarianism”, the view that all living things are alike in having value in their own right, independent of their usefulness to others. The deep ecologist respects this intrinsic value, taking care, for example, when walking on the mountainside not to cause unnecessary damage to the plants.
Inspired by Spinoza’s metaphysics, another key feature of Næss’s deep ecology is the rejection of atomistic individualism. The idea that a human being is such an individual possessing a separate essence, Næss argues, radically separates the human self from the rest of the world. To make such a separation not only leads to selfishness towards other people, but also induces human selfishness towards nature. As a counter to egoism at both the individual and species level, Næss proposes the adoption of an alternative relational “total-field image” of the world. According to this relationalism, organisms (human or otherwise) are best understood as “knots” in the biospherical net. The identity of a living thing is essentially constituted by its relations to other things in the world, especially its ecological relations to other living things. If people conceptualise themselves and the world in relational terms, the deep ecologists argue, then people will take better care of nature and the world in general.
As developed by Næss and others, the position also came to focus on the possibility of the identification of the human ego with nature. The idea is, briefly, that by identifying with nature I can enlarge the boundaries of the self beyond my skin. My larger—ecological—Self (the capital “S” emphasizes that I am something larger than my body and consciousness), deserves respect as well. To respect and to care for my Self is also to respect and to care for the natural environment, which is actually part of me and with which I should identify. “Self-realization”, in other words, is the reconnection of the shriveled human individual with the wider natural environment. Næss maintains that the deep satisfaction that we receive from identification with nature and close partnership with other forms of life in nature contributes significantly to our life quality. (One clear historical antecedent to this kind of nature spiritualism is the romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as expressed in his last work, the Reveries of the Solitary Walker)
When Næss’s view crossed the Atlantic, it was sometimes merged with ideas emerging from Leopold’s land ethic (see Devall and Sessions 1985; also see Sessions (ed) 1995). But Næss—wary of the apparent totalitarian political implications of Leopold’s position that individual interests and well-being should be subordinated to the holistic good of the earth’s biotic community (see section 4 below)—has always taken care to distance himself from advocating any sort of “land ethic”. (See Anker 1999 for cautions on interpreting Næss’s relationalism as an endorsement of the kind of holism displayed in the land ethic; cf. Grey 1993, Taylor and Zimmerman 2005). Some critics have argued that Næss’s deep ecology is no more than an extended social-democratic version of utilitarianism, which counts human interests in the same calculation alongside the interests of all natural things (e.g., trees, wolves, bears, rivers, forests and mountains) in the natural environment (see Witoszek 1997). However, Næss failed to explain in any detail how to make sense of the idea that oysters or barnacles, termites or bacteria could have interests of any morally relevant sort at all. Without an account of this, Næss’s early “biospheric egalitarianism”—that all living things whatsoever had a similar right to live and flourish—was an indeterminate principle in practical terms. It also remains unclear in what sense rivers, mountains and forests can be regarded as possessors of any kind of interests. This is an issue on which Næss always remained elusive.
Biospheric egalitarianism was modified in the 1980s to the weaker claim that the flourishing of both human and non-human life have value in themselves. At the same time, Næss declared that his own favoured ecological philosophy—“Ecosophy T”, as he called it after his Tvergastein mountain cabin—was only one of several possible foundations for an environmental ethic. Deep ecology ceased to be a specific doctrine, but instead became a “platform”, of eight simple points, on which Næss hoped all deep green thinkers could agree. The platform was conceived as establishing a middle ground, between underlying philosophical orientations, whether Christian, Buddhist, Daoist, process philosophy, or whatever, and the practical principles for action in specific situations, principles generated from the underlying philosophies. Thus the deep ecological movement became explicitly pluralist (see Brennan 1999; c.f. Light 1996).
While Næss’s Ecosophy T sees human Self-realization as a solution to the environmental crises resulting from human selfishness and exploitation of nature, some of the followers of the deep ecology platform in the United States and Australia further argue that the expansion of the human self to include non-human nature is supported by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which is said to have dissolved the boundaries between the observer and the observed (see Fox 1984, 1990, and Devall and Sessions 1985; cf. Callicott 1985). These "relationalist" developments of deep ecology are, however, criticized by some feminist theorists. The idea of nature as part of oneself, one might argue, could justify the continued exploitation of nature instead. For one is presumably more entitled to treat oneself in whatever ways one likes than to treat another independent agent in whatever ways one likes. According to some feminist critics, the deep ecological theory of the “expanded self” is in effect a disguised form of human colonialism, unable to give nature its due as a genuine “other” independent of human interest and purposes (see Plumwood 1993, Ch. 7, 1999, and Warren 1999).
Meanwhile, some third-world critics accused deep ecology of being elitist in its attempts to preserve wilderness experiences for only a select group of economically and socio-politically well-off people. The Indian writer Ramachandra Guha (1989, 1999) for instance, depicts the activities of many western-based conservation groups as a new form of cultural imperialism, aimed at securing converts to conservationism (cf. Bookchin 1987 and Brennan 1998a). “Green missionaries”, as Guha calls them, represent a movement aimed at further dispossessing the world’s poor and indigenous people. “Putting deep ecology in its place,” he writes, “is to recognize that the trends it derides as “shallow” ecology might in fact be varieties of environmentalism that are more apposite, more representative and more popular in the countries of the South.” Although Næss himself repudiates suggestions that deep ecology is committed to any imperialism (see Witoszek and Brennan (eds.) 1999, Ch. 36–7 and 41), Guha’s criticism raises important questions about the application of deep ecological principles in different social, economic and cultural contexts. Finally, in other critiques, deep ecology is portrayed as having an inconsistent utopian vision (see Anker and Witoszek 1998).
3.2 Feminism and the Environment
Broadly speaking, a feminist issue is any that contributes in some way to understanding the oppression of women. Feminist theories attempt to analyze women’s oppression, its causes and consequences, and suggest strategies and directions for women’s liberation. By the mid 1970s, feminist writers had raised the issue of whether patriarchal modes of thinking encouraged not only widespread inferiorizing and colonizing of women, but also of people of colour, animals and nature. Sheila Collins (1974), for instance, argued that male-dominated culture or patriarchy is supported by four interlocking pillars: sexism, racism, class exploitation, and ecological destruction.
Emphasizing the importance of feminism to the environmental movement and various other liberation movements, some writers, such as Ynestra King (1989a and 1989b), argue that the domination of women by men is historically the original form of domination in human society, from which all other hierarchies—of rank, class, and political power—flow. For instance, human exploitation of nature may be seen as a manifestation and extension of the oppression of women, in that it is the result of associating nature with the female, which had been already inferiorized and oppressed by the male-dominating culture. But within the plurality of feminist positions, other writers, such as Val Plumwood (1993), understand the oppression of women as only one of the many parallel forms of oppression sharing and supported by a common ideological structure, in which one party (the colonizer, whether male, white or human) uses a number of conceptual and rhetorical devices to privilege its interests over that of the other party (the colonized: whether female, people of colour, or animals). Facilitated by a common structure, seemingly diverse forms of oppression can mutually reinforce each other (Warren 1987, 1990, 1994, Cheney 1989, and Plumwood 1993).
Not all feminist theorists would call that common underlying oppressive structure “androcentric” or “patriarchal”. But it is generally agreed that core features of the structure include “dualism”, hierarchical thinking, and the “logic of domination”, which are typical of, if not essential to, male-chauvinism. These patterns of thinking and conceptualizing the world, many feminist theorists argue, also nourish and sustain other forms of chauvinism, including, human-chauvinism (i.e., anthropocentrism), which is responsible for much human exploitation of, and destructiveness towards, nature. The dualistic way of thinking, for instance, sees the world in polar opposite terms, such as male/female, masculinity/femininity, reason/emotion, freedom/necessity, active/passive, mind/body, pure/soiled, white/coloured, civilized/primitive, transcendent/immanent, human/animal, culture/nature. Furthermore, under dualism all the first items in these contrasting pairs are assimilated with each other, and all the second items are likewise linked with each other. For example, the male is seen to be associated with the rational, active, creative, Cartesian human mind, and civilized, orderly, transcendent culture; whereas the female is regarded as tied to the emotional, passive, determined animal body, and primitive, disorderly, immanent nature. These interlocking dualisms are not just descriptive dichotomies, according to the feminists, but involve a prescriptive privileging of one side of the opposed items over the other. Dualism confers superiority to everything on the male side, but inferiority to everything on the female side. The “logic of domination” then dictates that those on the superior side (e.g., men, rational beings, humans) are morally entitled to dominate and utilize those on the inferior side (e.g., women, beings lacking in rationality, non-humans) as mere means.
The problem with dualistic and hierarchical modes of thinking, however, is not just that that they are epistemically unreliable. It is not just that the dominating party often falsely sees the dominated party as lacking (or possessing) the allegedly superior (or inferior) qualities, or that the dominated party often internalizes false stereotypes of itself given by its oppressors, or that stereotypical thinking often overlooks salient and important differences among individuals. More important, according to feminist analyses, the very premise of prescriptive dualism—the valuing of attributes of one polarized side and the devaluing of those of the other, the idea that domination and oppression can be justified by appealing to attributes like masculinity, rationality, being civilized or developed, etc.—is itself problematic.
Feminism represents a radical challenge for environmental thinking, politics, and traditional social ethical perspectives. It promises to link environmental questions with wider social problems concerning various kinds of discrimination and exploitation, and fundamental investigations of human psychology. However, whether there are conceptual, causal or merely contingent connections among the different forms of oppression and liberation remains a contested issue (see Green 1994). The term “ecofeminism” (first coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne in 1974) or “ecological feminism” was for a time generally applied to any view that combines environmental advocacy with feminist analysis. However, because of the varieties of, and disagreements among, feminist theories, the label may be too wide to be informative and has generally fallen from use.
3.3 Disenchantment and the New Animism
An often overlooked source of ecological ideas is the work of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of critical theory founded by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno (Horkheimer and Adorno 1969). While classical Marxists regard nature as a resource to be transformed by human labour and utilized for human purposes, Horkheimer and Adorno saw Marx himself as representative of the problem of “human alienation”. At the root of this alienation, they argue, is a narrow positivist conception of rationality—which sees rationality as an instrument for pursuing progress, power and technological control, and takes observation, measurement and the application of purely quantitative methods to be capable of solving all problems. Such a positivistic view of science combines determinism with optimism. Natural processes as well as human activities are seen to be predictable and manipulable. Nature (and, likewise, human nature) is no longer mysterious, uncontrollable, or fearsome. Instead, it is reduced to an object strictly governed by natural laws, which therefore can be studied, known, and employed to our benefit. By promising limitless knowledge and power, the positivism of science and technology not only removes our fear of nature, the critical theorists argue, but also destroys our sense of awe and wonder towards it. That is to say, positivism “disenchants” nature—along with everything that can be studied by the sciences, whether natural, social or human.
The progress in knowledge and material well-being may not be a bad thing in itself, where the consumption and control of nature is a necessary part of human life. However, the critical theorists argue that the positivistic disenchantment of natural things (and, likewise, of human beings—because they too can be studied and manipulated by science) disrupts our relationship with them, encouraging the undesirable attitude that they are nothing more than things to be probed, consumed and dominated. According to the critical theorists, the oppression of “outer nature” (i.e., the natural environment) through science and technology is bought at a very high price: the project of domination requires the suppression of our own “inner nature” (i.e., human nature)—e.g., human creativity, autonomy, and the manifold needs, vulnerabilities and longings at the centre of human life. To remedy such an alienation, the project of Horkheimer and Adorno is to replace the narrow positivistic and instrumentalist model of rationality with a more humanistic one, in which the values of the aesthetic, moral, sensuous and expressive aspects of human life play a central part. Thus, their aim is not to give up our rational faculties or powers of analysis and logic. Rather, the ambition is to arrive at a dialectical synthesis between Romanticism and Enlightenment, to return to anti-deterministic values of freedom, spontaneity and creativity.
In his later work, Adorno advocates a re-enchanting aesthetic attitude of “sensuous immediacy” towards nature. Not only do we stop seeing nature as primarily, or simply, an object of consumption, we are also able to be directly and spontaneously acquainted with nature without interventions from our rational faculties. According to Adorno, works of art, like natural things, always involve an “excess”, something more than their mere materiality and exchange value (see Vogel 1996, ch. 4.4 for a detailed discussion of Adorno’s views on art, labour and domination). The re-enchantment of the world through aesthetic experience, he argues, is also at the same time a re-enchantment of human lives and purposes. Adorno’s work remains largely unexplored in mainstream environmental philosophy, although the idea of applying critical theory (embracing techniques of deconstruction, psychoanalysis and radical social criticism) to both environmental issues and the writings of various ethical and political theorists has spawned an emerging field of “ecocritique” or “eco-criticism” (Vogel 1996, Luke 1997, van Wyk 1997, Dryzek 1997).
Some students of Adorno’s work have argued that his account of the role of “sensuous immediacy” can be understood as an attempt to defend a “legitimate anthropomorphism” that comes close to a weak form of animism (Bernstein 2001, 196). Others, more radical, have claimed to take inspiration from his notion of “non-identity”, which, they argue, can be used as the basis for a deconstruction of the notion of nature and perhaps even its elimination from eco-critical writing. For example, Timothy Morton argues that “putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration” (Morton 2007, 5), and that “in the name of all that we value in the idea of ‘nature’, [ecocritique] thoroughly examines how nature is set up as a transcendental, unified, independent category. Ecocritique does not think that it is paradoxical to say, in the name of ecology itself: ‘down with nature!’ ” (ibid., 13).
It remains to be seen, however, whether the radical attempt to purge the concept of nature from eco-critical work meets with success. Likewise, it is unclear whether the dialectic project on which Horkheimer and Adorno embarked is coherent, and whether Adorno, in particular, has a consistent understanding of “nature” and “rationality” (see Eckersley 1992 and Vogel 1996, for a review of the Frankfurt School’s thinking about nature).
On the other hand, the new animists have been much inspired by the serious way in which some indigenous peoples placate and interact with animals, plants and inanimate things through ritual, ceremony and other practices. According to the new animists, the replacement of traditional animism (the view that personalized souls are found in animals, plants, and other material objects) by a form of disenchanting positivism directly leads to an anthropocentric perspective, which is accountable for much human destructiveness towards nature. In a disenchanted world, there is no meaningful order of things or events outside the human domain, and there is no source of sacredness or dread of the sort felt by those who regard the natural world as peopled by divinities or demons (Stone 2006). When a forest is no longer sacred, there are no spirits to be placated and no mysterious risks associated with clear-felling it. A disenchanted nature is no longer alive. It commands no respect, reverence or love. It is nothing but a giant machine, to be mastered to serve human purposes. The new animists argue for reconceptualizing the boundary between persons and non-persons. For them, “living nature” comprises not only humans, animals and plants, but also mountains, forests, rivers, deserts, and even planets.
Whether the notion that a mountain or a tree is to be regarded as a person is taken literally or not, the attempt to engage with the surrounding world as if it consists of other persons might possibly provide the basis for a respectful attitude to nature (see Harvey 2005 for a popular account of the new animism). If disenchantment is a source of environmental problems and destruction, then the new animism can be regarded as attempting to re-enchant, and help to save, nature. More poetically, David Abram has argued that a phenomenological approach of the kind taken by Merleau-Ponty can reveal to us that we are part of the “common flesh” of the world, that we are in a sense the world thinking itself (Abram 1995).
In her work, Freya Mathews has tried to articulate a version of animism or panpsychism that captures ways in which the world (not just nature) contains many kinds of consciousness and sentience. For her, there is an underlying unity of mind and matter in that the world is a “self-realizing” system containing a multiplicity of other such systems (cf. Næss). According to Mathews, we are meshed in communication, and potential communication, with the “One” (the greater cosmic self) and its many lesser selves (Mathews 2003, 45–60). Materialism (the monistic theory that the world consists purely of matter), she argues, is self-defeating by encouraging a form of “collective solipsism” that treats the world either as unknowable or as a social-construction (Mathews 2005, 12). Mathews also takes inspiration from her interpretation of the core Daoist idea of wuwei as “letting be” and bringing about change through “effortless action”. The focus in environmental management, development and commerce should be on “synergy” with what is already in place rather than on demolition, replacement and disruption. Instead of bulldozing away old suburbs and derelict factories, the synergistic panpsychist sees these artefacts as themselves part of the living cosmos, hence part of what is to be respected. Likewise, instead of trying to eliminate feral or exotic plants and animals, and restore environments to some imagined pristine state, ways should be found—wherever possible—to promote synergies between the newcomers and the older native populations in ways that maintain ecological flows and promote the further unfolding and developing of ecological processes (Mathews 2004). Panpsychism, Mathews argues, frees us from the “ideological grid of capitalism”, can reduce our desire for consumer novelties, and can allow us and the world to grow old together with grace and dignity.
In summary, if disenchantment is a source of environmentally destructive or uncaring attitudes, then both the aesthetic and the animist/panpsychist re-enchantment of the world are intended to offer an antidote to such attitudes, and perhaps also inspirations for new forms of managing and designing for sustainability.
3.4 Social Ecology and Bioregionalism
Apart from feminist-environmentalist theories and Næss’s deep ecology, Murray Bookchin’s “social ecology” has also claimed to be radical, subversive, or countercultural (see Bookchin 1980, 1987, 1990). Bookchin’s version of critical theory takes the “outer” physical world as constituting what he calls “first nature”, from which culture or “second nature” has evolved. Environmentalism, on his view, is a social movement, and the problems it confronts are social problems. While Bookchin is prepared, like Horkheimer and Adorno, to regard (first) nature as an aesthetic and sensuous marvel, he regards our intervention in it as necessary. He suggests that we can choose to put ourselves at the service of natural evolution, to help maintain complexity and diversity, diminish suffering and reduce pollution. Bookchin’s social ecology recommends that we use our gifts of sociability, communication and intelligence as if we were “nature rendered conscious”, instead of turning them against the very source and origin from which such gifts derive. Exploitation of nature should be replaced by a richer form of life devoted to nature’s preservation.
John Clark has argued that social ecology is heir to a historical, communitarian tradition of thought that includes not only the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, but also the nineteenth century socialist geographer Elisée Reclus, the eccentric Scottish thinker Patrick Geddes and the latter’s disciple, Lewis Mumford (Clark 1998). Ramachandra Guha has described Mumford as “the pioneer American social ecologist” (Guha 1996, 210). Mumford adopted a regionalist perspective, arguing that strong regional centres of culture are the basis of “active and securely grounded local life” (Mumford 1944, 403). Like the pessimists in critical theory, Mumford was worried about the emergence under industrialised capitalism of a “megamachine”, one that would oppress and dominate human creativity and freedom, and one that—despite being a human product—operates in a way that is out of our control. While Bookchin is more of a technological optimist than Mumford, both writers have inspired a regional turn in environmental thinking. Bioregionalism gives regionalism an environmental twist. This is the view that natural features should provide the defining conditions for places of community, and that secure and satisfying local lives are led by those who know a place, have learned its lore and who adapt their lifestyle to its affordances by developing its potential within ecological limits. Such a life, the bioregionalists argue, will enable people to enjoy the fruits of self-liberation and self-development (see the essays in List 1993, and the book-length treatment in Thayer 2003, for an introduction to bioregional thought).
However, critics have asked why natural features should significant in defining the places in which communities are to be built, and have puzzled over exactly which natural features these should be—geological, ecological, climatic, hydrological, and so on (see Brennan 1998b). If relatively small, bioregional communities are to be home to flourishing human societies, then a question also arises over the nature of the laws and punishments that will prevail in them, and also of their integration into larger regional and global political and economic groupings. For anarchists and other critics of the predominant social order, a return to self-governing and self-sufficient regional communities is often depicted as liberating and refreshing. But for the skeptics, the worry remains that the bioregional vision is politically over-optimistic and is open to the establishment of illiberal, stifling and undemocratic communities. Further, given its emphasis on local self-sufficiency and the virtue of life in small communities, a question arises over whether bioregionalism is workable in an overcrowded planet.
Deep ecology, feminism, and social ecology have had a considerable impact on the development of political positions in regard to the environment. Feminist analyses have often been welcomed for the psychological insight they bring to several social, moral and political problems. There is, however, considerable unease about the implications of critical theory, social ecology and some varieties of deep ecology and animism. Some writers have argued, for example, that critical theory is bound to be ethically anthropocentric, with nature as no more than a “social construction” whose value ultimately depends on human determinations (see Vogel 1996). Others have argued that the demands of “deep” green theorists and activists cannot be accommodated within contemporary theories of liberal politics and social justice (see Ferry 1998). A further suggestion is that there is a need to reassess traditional theories such as virtue ethics, which has its origins in ancient Greek philosophy (see the following section) within the context of a form of stewardship similar to that earlier endorsed by Passmore (see Barry 1999). If this last claim is correct, then the radical activist need not, after all, look for philosophical support in radical, or countercultural, theories of the sort deep ecology, feminism, bioregionalism and social ecology claim to be (but see Zimmerman 1994).
4. Traditional Ethical Theories and Contemporary Environment Ethics
Although environmental ethicists often try to distance themselves from the anthropocentrism embedded in traditional ethical views (Passmore 1974, Norton 1991 are exceptions), they also quite often draw their theoretical resources from traditional ethical systems and theories. Consider the following two basic moral questions: (1) What kinds of thing are intrinsically valuable, good or bad? (2) What makes an action right or wrong?
Consequentialist ethical theories consider intrinsic “value” / “disvalue” or “goodness” / “badness” to be more fundamental moral notions than “rightness” / “wrongness”, and maintain that whether an action is right/wrong is determined by whether its consequences are good/bad. From this perspective, answers to question (2) are informed by answers to question (1). For instance, utilitarianism, a paradigm case of consequentialism, regards pleasure (or, more broadly construed, the satisfaction of interest, desire, and/or preference) as the only intrinsic value in the world, whereas pain (or the frustration of desire, interest, and/or preference) is the only intrinsic disvalue, and maintains that right actions are those that would produce the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.
As the utilitarian focus is the balance of pleasure and pain as such, the question of to whom a pleasure or pain belongs is irrelevant to the calculation and assessment of the rightness or wrongness of actions. Hence, the eighteenth century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1789), and now Peter Singer (1993), have argued that the interests of all the sentient beings (i.e., beings who are capable of experiencing pleasure or pain)—including non-human ones—affected by an action should be taken equally into consideration in assessing the action. Furthermore, rather like Routley (see section 2 above), Singer argues that the anthropocentric privileging of members of the species Homo sapiens is arbitrary, and that it is a kind of “speciesism” as unjustifiable as sexism and racism. Singer regards the animal liberation movement as comparable to the liberation movements of women and people of colour. Unlike the environmental philosophers who attribute intrinsic value to the natural environment and its inhabitants, Singer and utilitarians in general attribute intrinsic value to the experience of pleasure or interest satisfaction as such, not to the beings who have the experience. Similarly, for the utilitarian, non-sentient objects in the environment such as plant species, rivers, mountains, and landscapes, all of which are the objects of moral concern for environmentalists, are of no intrinsic but at most instrumental value to the satisfaction of sentient beings (see Singer 1993, Ch. 10). Furthermore, because right actions, for the utilitarian, are those that maximize the overall balance of interest satisfaction over frustration, practices such as whale-hunting and the killing of an elephant for ivory, which cause suffering to non-human animals, might turn out to be right after all: such practices might produce considerable amounts of interest-satisfaction for human beings, which, on the utilitarian calculation, outweigh the non-human interest-frustration involved. As the result of all the above considerations, it is unclear to what extent a utilitarian ethic can also be an environmental ethic. This point may not so readily apply to a wider consequentialist approach, which attributes intrinsic value not only to pleasure or satisfaction, but also to various objects and processes in the natural environment.
Deontological ethical theories, in contrast, maintain that whether an action is right or wrong is for the most part independent of whether its consequences are good or bad. From the deontologist perspective, there are several distinct moral rules or duties (e.g., “not to kill or otherwise harm the innocent”, “not to lie”, “to respect the rights of others”, “to keep promises”), the observance/violation of which is intrinsically right/wrong; i.e., right/wrong in itself regardless of consequences. When asked to justify an alleged moral rule, duty or its corresponding right, deontologists may appeal to the intrinsic value of those beings to whom it applies. For instance, “animal rights” advocate Tom Regan (1983) argues that those animals with intrinsic value (or what he calls “inherent value”) have the moral right to respectful treatment, which then generates a general moral duty on our part not to treat them as mere means to other ends. We have, in particular, a prima facie moral duty not to harm them. Regan maintains that certain practices (such as sport or commercial hunting, and experimentation on animals) violate the moral right of intrinsically valuable animals to respectful treatment. Such practices, he argues, are intrinsically wrong regardless of whether or not some better consequences ever flow from them. Exactly which animals have intrinsic value and therefore the moral right to respectful treatment? Regan’s answer is: those that meet the criterion of being the “subject-of-a-life”. To be such a subject is a sufficient (though not necessary) condition for having intrinsic value, and to be a subject-of-a-life involves, among other things, having sense-perceptions, beliefs, desires, motives, memory, a sense of the future, and a psychological identity over time.
Some authors have extended concern for individual well-being further, arguing for the intrinsic value of organisms achieving their own good, whether those organisms are capable of consciousness or not. Paul Taylor’s version of this view (1981 and 1986), which we might call biocentrism, is a deontological example. He argues that each individual living thing in nature—whether it is an animal, a plant, or a micro-organism—is a “teleological-center-of-life” having a good or well-being of its own which can be enhanced or damaged, and that all individuals who are teleological-centers-of life have equal intrinsic value (or what he calls “inherent worth”) which entitles them to moral respect. Furthermore, Taylor maintains that the intrinsic value of wild living things generates a prima facie moral duty on our part to preserve or promote their goods as ends in themselves, and that any practices which treat those beings as mere means and thus display a lack of respect for them are intrinsically wrong. A more recent and biologically detailed defence of the idea that living things have representations and goals and hence have moral worth is found in Agar 2001. Unlike Taylor’s egalitarian and deontological biocentrism, Robin Attfield (1987) argues for a hierarchical view that while all beings having a good of their own have intrinsic value, some of them (e.g., persons) have intrinsic value to a greater extent. Attfield also endorses a form of consequentialism which takes into consideration, and attempts to balance, the many and possibly conflicting goods of different living things (also see Varner 1998 for a defense of biocentric individualism with affinities to both consequentialist and deontological approaches). However, some critics have pointed out that the notion of biological good or well-being is only descriptive not prescriptive (see Williams 1992 and O’Neill 1993, Ch. 2). For instance, even if HIV has a good of its own this does not mean that we ought to assign any positive moral weight to the realization of that good.
More recently, the distinction between these two traditional approaches has taken its own specific form of development in environmental philosophy. Instead of pitting conceptions of value against conceptions of rights, it has been suggested that there may be two different conceptions of intrinsic value in play in discussion about environmental good and evil. One the one side, there is the intrinsic value of states of affairs that are to be promoted - and this is the focus of the consequentialist thinkers. On the other (deontological) hand there is the intrinsic values of entities to be respected (see Bradley 2006, McShane 2014). These two different foci for the notion of intrinsic value still provide room for fundamental argument between deontologists and consequentialist to continue, albeit in a somewhat modified form.
Note that the ethics of animal liberation or animal rights and biocentrism are both individualistic in that their various moral concerns are directed towards individuals only—not ecological wholes such as species, populations, biotic communities, and ecosystems. None of these is sentient, a subject-of-a-life, or a teleological-center-of-life, but the preservation of these collective entities is a major concern for many environmentalists. Moreover, the goals of animal liberationists, such as the reduction of animal suffering and death, may conflict with the goals of environmentalists. For example, the preservation of the integrity of an ecosystem may require the culling of feral animals or of some indigenous animal populations that threaten to destroy fragile habitats. So there are disputes about whether the ethics of animal liberation is a proper branch of environmental ethics (see Callicott 1980, 1988, Sagoff 1984, Jamieson 1998, Crisp 1998 and Varner 2000).
Criticizing the individualistic approach in general for failing to accommodate conservation concerns for ecological wholes, J. Baird Callicott (1980) once advocated a version of land-ethical holism which takes Leopold’s statement “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” to be the supreme deontological principle. In this theory, the earth’s biotic community per se is the sole locus of intrinsic value, whereas the value of its individual members is merely instrumental and dependent on their contribution to the “integrity, stability, and beauty” of the larger community. A straightforward implication of this version of the land ethic is that an individual member of the biotic community ought to be sacrificed whenever that is needed for the protection of the holistic good of the community. For instance, Callicott maintains that if culling a white-tailed deer is necessary for the protection of the holistic biotic good, then it is a land-ethical requirement to do so. But, to be consistent, the same point also applies to human individuals because they are also members of the biotic community. Not surprisingly, the misanthropy implied by Callicott’s land-ethical holism was widely criticized and regarded as a reductio of the position (see Aiken (1984), Kheel (1985), Ferré (1996), and Shrader-Frechette (1996)). Tom Regan (1983, p.362), in particular, condemned the holistic land ethic’s disregard of the rights of the individual as “environmental fascism”.
Under pressure from the charge of ecofascism and misanthropy, Callicott (1989 Ch. 5, and 1999, Ch. 4) later revised his position and now maintains that the biotic community (indeed, any community to which we belong) as well as its individual members (indeed, any individual who shares with us membership in some common community) all have intrinsic value. To further distance himself from the charge of ecofascism, Callicott introduced explicit principles which prioritize obligations to human communities over those to natural ones. He called these “second-order” principles for specifying the conditions under which the land ethic’s holistic and individualistic obligations were to be ranked. As he put it:
... obligations generated by membership in more venerable and intimate communities take precedence over these generated in more recently-emerged and impersonal communities... The second second-order principle is that stronger interests (for lack of a better word) generate duties that take precedence over duties generated by weaker interests. (Callicott 1999, 76)
Lo (in Lo 2001) provides an overview and critique of Callicott’s changing position over two decades, while Ouderkirk and Hill (eds.) 2002 gives an overview of debates between Callicott and others concerning the metaethical and metaphysical foundations for the land ethic and also its historical antecedents. As Lo pointed out, the final modified version of the land ethic needs more than two second-order principles, since a third-order principle is needed to specify Callicott’s implicit view that the second second-order principle generally countermands the first one when they come into conflict (Lo 2001, 345). In his most recent work, Callicott follows Lo’s suggestion, while cautioning against aiming for too much precision in specifying the demands of the land ethic (Callicott 2013, 66 - 7).
The controversy surrounding Callicott’s original position, however, has inspired efforts in environmental ethics to investigate possibilities of attributing intrinsic value to ecological wholes, not just their individual constituent parts. Following in Callicott’s footsteps, and inspired by Næss’s relational account of value, Warwick Fox has championed a theory of “responsive cohesion” which apparently gives supreme moral priority to the maintenance of ecosystems and the biophysical world (Fox 2007). It remains to be seen if this position escapes the charges of misanthropy and totalitarianism laid against earlier holistic and relational theories of value.
Individual natural entities (whether sentient or not, living or not), Andrew Brennan (1984, 2014) argues, are not designed by anyone to fulfill any purpose and therefore lack “intrinsic function” (i.e., the function of a thing that constitutes part of its essence or identity conditions). This, he proposes, is a reason for thinking that individual natural entities should not be treated as mere instruments, and thus a reason for assigning them intrinsic value. Furthermore, he argues that the same moral point applies to the case of natural ecosystems, to the extent that they lack intrinsic function. In the light of Brennan’s proposal, Eric Katz (1991 and 1997) argues that all natural entities, whether individuals or wholes, have intrinsic value in virtue of their ontological independence from human purpose, activity, and interest, and maintains the deontological principle that nature as a whole is an “autonomous subject” which deserves moral respect and must not be treated as a mere means to human ends. Carrying the project of attributing intrinsic value to nature to its ultimate form, Robert Elliot (1997) argues that naturalness itself is a property in virtue of possessing which all natural things, events, and states of affairs, attain intrinsic value. Furthermore, Elliot argues that even a consequentialist, who in principle allows the possibility of trading off intrinsic value from naturalness for intrinsic value from other sources, could no longer justify such kind of trade-off in reality. This is because the reduction of intrinsic value due to the depletion of naturalness on earth, according to him, has reached such a level that any further reduction of it could not be compensated by any amount of intrinsic value generated in other ways, no matter how great it is.
As the notion of “natural” is understood in terms of the lack of human contrivance and is often opposed to the notion of “artifactual”, one much contested issue is about the value of those parts of nature that have been interfered with by human artifice—for instance, previously degraded natural environments which have been humanly restored. Based on the premise that the properties of being naturally evolved and having a natural continuity with the remote past are “value adding” (i.e., adding intrinsic value to those things which possess those two properties), Elliot argues that even a perfectly restored environment would necessarily lack those two value-adding properties and therefore be less valuable than the originally undegraded natural environment. Katz, on the other hand, argues that a restored nature is really just an artifact designed and created for the satisfaction of human ends, and that the value of restored environments is merely instrumental. However, some critics have pointed out that advocates of moral dualism between the natural and the artifactual run the risk of diminishing the value of human life and culture, and fail to recognize that the natural environments interfered with by humans may still have morally relevant qualities other than pure naturalness (see Lo 1999). Two other issues central to this debate are that the key concept “natural” seems ambiguous in many different ways (see Hume 1751, App. 3; Mill 1874; Brennan  2014; Ch. 6; Elliot 1997, Ch. 4), and that those who argue that human interference reduces the intrinsic value of nature seem to have simply assumed the crucial premise that naturalness is a source of intrinsic value. Some thinkers maintain that the natural, or the “wild” construed as that which “is not humanized” (Hettinger and Throop 1999, p. 12) or to some degree “not under human control” (ibid., p. 13) is intrinsically valuable. Yet, as Bernard Williams points out (Williams 1992), we may, paradoxically, need to use our technological powers to retain a sense of something not being in our power. The retention of wild areas may thus involve planetary and ecological management to maintain, or even “imprison” such areas (Birch 1990), raising a question over the extent to which national parks and wilderness areas are free from our control. An important message underlying the debate, perhaps, is that even if ecological restoration is achievable, it might have been better to have left nature intact in the first place.
Given the significance of the concept of naturalness in these debates, it is perhaps surprising that there has been relatively little analysis of that concept itself in environmental thought. In his pioneering work on the ethics of the environment, Holmes Rolston has worked with a number of different conceptions of the natural (see Brennan and Lo 2010, pp.116–23, for an analysis three senses of the term "natural" that may be found in Rolston’s work). An explicit attempt to provide a conceptual analysis of a different sort is found in Siipi 2008, while an account of naturalness linking this to historical narratives of place is given in O’Neill, Holland and Light 2008, ch. 8 (compare the response to this in Siipi 2011).
As an alternative to consequentialism and deontology both of which consider “thin” concepts such as “goodness” and “rightness” as essential to morality, virtue ethics proposes to understand morality—and assess the ethical quality of actions—in terms of “thick” concepts such as “kindness”, “honesty”, “sincerity” and “justice”. As virtue ethics speaks quite a different language from the other two kinds of ethical theory, its theoretical focus is not so much on what kinds of things are good/bad, or what makes an action right/wrong. Indeed, the richness of the language of virtues, and the emphasis on moral character, is sometimes cited as a reason for exploring a virtues-based approach to the complex and always-changing questions of sustainability and environmental care (Hill 1983, Wensveen 2000, Sandler 2007). One question central to virtue ethics is what the moral reasons are for acting one way or another. For instance, from the perspective of virtue ethics, kindness and loyalty would be moral reasons for helping a friend in hardship. These are quite different from the deontologist’s reason (that the action is demanded by a moral rule) or the consequentialist reason (that the action will lead to a better over-all balance of good over evil in the world). From the perspective of virtue ethics, the motivation and justification of actions are both inseparable from the character traits of the acting agent. Furthermore, unlike deontology or consequentialism the moral focus of which is other people or states of the world, one central issue for virtue ethics is how to live a flourishing human life, this being a central concern of the moral agent himself or herself. “Living virtuously” is Aristotle’s recipe for flourishing. Versions of virtue ethics advocating virtues such as “benevolence”, “piety”, “filiality”, and “courage”, have also been held by thinkers in the Chinese Confucian tradition. The connection between morality and psychology is another core subject of investigation for virtue ethics. It is sometimes suggested that human virtues, which constitute an important aspect of a flourishing human life, must be compatible with human needs and desires, and perhaps also sensitive to individual affection and temperaments. As its central focus is human flourishing as such, virtue ethics may seem unavoidably anthropocentric and unable to support a genuine moral concern for the non-human environment. But just as Aristotle has argued that a flourishing human life requires friendships and one can have genuine friendships only if one genuinely values, loves, respects, and cares for one’s friends for their own sake, not merely for the benefits that they may bring to oneself, some have argued that a flourishing human life requires the moral capacities to value, love, respect, and care for the non-human natural world as an end in itself (see O’Neill 1992, O’Neill 1993, Barry 1999).
5. Wilderness, the Built Environment, Poverty and Politics
Despite the variety of positions in environmental ethics developed over the last thirty years, they have focused mainly on issues concerned with wilderness and the reasons for its preservation (see Callicott and Nelson 1998 for a collection of essays on the ideas and moral significance of wilderness). The importance of wilderness experience to the human psyche has been emphasized by many environmental philosophers. Næss, for instance, urges us to ensure we spend time dwelling in situations of intrinsic value, whereas Rolston seeks “re-creation” of the human soul by meditating in the wilderness. Likewise, the critical theorists believe that aesthetic appreciation of nature has the power to re-enchant human life. As wilderness becomes increasingly rare, people’s exposure to wild things in their natural state has become reduced, and according to some authors this may reduce the chance of our lives and other values being transformed as a result of interactions with nature. An argument by Bryan Norton draws attention to an analogy with music. Someone exposed for the first time to a new musical genre may undergo a transformation in musical preferences, tastes and values as a result of the experience (Norton 1987. Such a transformation can affect their other preferences and desires too, in both direct and indirect ways (see Sarkar 2005, ch. 4, esp. pp. 82–7). In the attempt to preserve opportunities for experiences that can change or enhance people’s valuations of nature, there has been a move since the early 2000s to find ways of rewilding degraded environments, and even parts of cities (Fraser 2009, Monbiot 2013).(
By contrast to the focus on wild places, relatively little attention has been paid to the built environment, although this is the one in which most people spend most of their time. In post-war Britain, for example, cheaply constructed new housing developments were often poor replacements for traditional communities. They have been associated with lower amounts of social interaction and increased crime compared with the earlier situation. The destruction of highly functional high-density traditional housing, indeed, might be compared with the destruction of highly diverse ecosystems and biotic communities. Likewise, the loss of the world’s huge diversity of natural languages has been mourned by many, not just professionals with an interest in linguistics. Urban and linguistic environments are just two of the many “places” inhabited by humans. Some philosophical theories about natural environments and objects have potential to be extended to cover built environments and non-natural objects of several sorts (see King 2000, Light 2001, Palmer 2003, while Fox 2007 aims to include both built and natural environments in the scope of a single ethical theory). Certainly there are many parallels between natural and artificial domains: for example, many of the conceptual problems involved in discussing the restoration of natural objects also appear in the parallel context of restoring human-made objects.
The focus on the value of wilderness and the importance of its preservation has overlooked another important problem—namely that lifestyles in which enthusiasms for nature rambles, woodland meditations or mountaineering can be indulged demand a standard of living that is far beyond the dreams of most of the world’s population. Moreover, mass access to wild places would likely destroy the very values held in high esteem by the “natural aristocrats”, a term used by Hugh Stretton (1976) to characterize the environmentalists “driven chiefly by love of the wilderness”. Thus, a new range of moral and political problems open up, including the environmental cost of tourist access to wilderness areas, and ways in which limited access could be arranged to areas of natural beauty and diversity, while maintaining the individual freedoms central to liberal democracies.
Lovers of wilderness sometimes consider the high human populations in some developing countries as a key problem underlying the environmental crisis. Rolston (1996), for instance, claims that (some) humans are a kind of planetary “cancer”. He maintains that while “feeding people always seems humane, ... when we face up to what is really going on, by just feeding people, without attention to the larger social results, we could be feeding a kind of cancer.” This remark is meant to justify the view that saving nature should, in some circumstances, have a higher priority than feeding people. But such a view has been criticized for seeming to reveal a degree of misanthropy, directed at those human beings least able to protect and defend themselves (see Attfield 1998, Brennan 1998a). The empirical basis of Rolston’s claims has been queried by work showing that poor people are often extremely good environmental managers (Martinez-Alier 2002). Guha’s worries about the elitist and “missionary” tendencies of some kinds of deep green environmentalism in certain rich western countries can be quite readily extended to theorists such as Rolston (Guha 1999). Can such an apparently elitist sort of wilderness ethics ever be democratised? How can the psychically-reviving power of the wild become available to those living in the slums of Calcutta or São Paolo? These questions so far lack convincing answers.
Furthermore, the economic conditions which support the kind of enjoyment of wilderness by Stretton’s “natural aristocrats”, and more generally the lifestyles of many people in the affluent countries, seem implicated in the destruction and pollution which has provoked the environmental turn in the first place. For those in the richer countries, for instance, engaging in outdoor recreations usually involves the motor car. Car dependency, however, is at the heart of many environmental problems, a key factor in urban pollution, while at the same time central to the economic and military activities of many nations and corporations, for example securing and exploiting oil reserves. In an increasingly crowded industrialised world, the answers to such problems are pressing. Any adequate study of this intertwined set of problems must involve interdisciplinary collaboration among philosophers and theorists in the social as well as the natural sciences.
Connections between environmental destruction, unequal resource consumption, poverty and the global economic order have been discussed by political scientists, development theorists, geographers and economists as well as by philosophers. Links between economics and environmental ethics are particularly well established. Work by Mark Sagoff (1988), for instance, has played a major part in bringing the two fields together. He argues that “as citizens rather than consumers” people are concerned about values, which cannot plausibly be reduced to mere ordered preferences or quantified in monetary terms. Sagoff’s distinction between people as consumers and people as citizens was intended to blunt the use of cost-benefit analysis as the final arbiter in discussions about nature’s value. Of course, spouses take out insurance on each others’ lives. We pay extra for travel insurance to cover the cost of cancellation, illness, or lost baggage. Such actions are economically rational. They provide us with some compensation in case of loss. No-one, however, would regard insurance payments as replacing lost limbs, a loved one or even the joys of a cancelled vacation. So it is for nature, according to Sagoff. We can put dollar values on a stand of timber, a reef, a beach, a national park. We can measure the travel costs, the money spent by visitors, the real estate values, the park fees and all the rest. But these dollar measures do not tell us the value of nature any more than my insurance premiums tell you the value of a human life (also see Shrader-Frechette 1987, O’Neill 1993, and Brennan 1995). If Sagoff is right, cost-benefit analysis of the kind mentioned in section 5 above cannot be a basis for an ethic of sustainability any more than for an ethic of biodiversity. The potentially misleading appeal to economic reason used to justify the expansion of the corporate sector has also come under critical scrutiny by globalisation theorists (see Korten 1999). These critiques do not aim to eliminate economics from environmental thinking; rather, they resist any reductive, and strongly anthropocentric, tendency to believe that all social and environmental problems are fundamentally or essentially economic.
Other interdisciplinary approaches link environmental ethics with biology, policy studies, public administration, political theory, cultural history, post-colonial theory, literature, geography, and human ecology (for some examples, see Norton, Hutchins, Stevens, Maple 1995, Shrader-Frechette 1984, Gruen and Jamieson (eds.) 1994, Karliner 1997, Diesendorf and Hamilton 1997, Schmidtz and Willott 2002). Many assessments of issues concerned with biodiversity, ecosystem health, poverty, environmental justice and sustainability look at both human and environmental issues, eschewing in the process commitment either to a purely anthropocentric or purely ecocentric perspective (see Hayward and O’Neill 1997, and Dobson 1999 for collections of essays looking at the links between sustainability, justice, welfare and the distribution of environmental goods). The future development of environmental ethics depend on these, and other interdisciplinary synergies, as much as on its anchorage within philosophy.
6. Sustainability and Climate Change
The Convention on Biological Diversity discussed in section 5 was influenced by Our Common Future, an earlier United Nations document on sustainability produced by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987). The commission was chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway at the time, and the report is sometimes known as the Brundtland Report. This report noted the increasing tide of evidence that planetary systems vital to supporting life on earth were under strain. The key question it raised is whether it is equitable to sacrifice options for future well-being in favour of supporting current lifestyles, especially the comfortable, and sometimes lavish, forms of life enjoyed in the rich countries. As Bryan Norton puts it, the world faces a global challenge to see whether different human groups, with widely varying perspectives, can perhaps “accept responsibility to maintain a non-declining set of opportunities based on possible uses of the environment”. The preservation of options for the future can be readily linked to notions of equity if it is agreed that “the future ought not to face, as a result of our actions today, a seriously reduced range of options and choices, as they try to adapt to the environment that they face” (Norton 2001: 419). Note that references to “the future” need not be limited to the future of human beings only. In keeping with the non-anthropocentric focus of much environmental philosophy, a care for sustainability and biodiversity can embrace a care for opportunities available to non-human living things.
However, when the concept “sustainable development” was first articulated in the Brundtland Report, the emphasis was clearly anthropocentric. In face of increasing evidence that planetary systems vital to life-support were under strain, the concept of sustainable development is constructed in the report to encourage certain globally coordinated directions and types of economic and social development. The report defines “sustainable development” in the following way:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
- the concept of “needs”, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
- the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.
Thus the goals of economic and social development must be defined in terms of sustainability in all countries—developed or developing, market-oriented or centrally planned. Interpretations will vary, but must share certain general features and must flow from a consensus on the basic concept of sustainable development and on a broad strategic framework for achieving it. (WCED 1987, Ch. 2, paragraphs 1–2)
The report goes on to argue that “the industrial world has already used much of the planet’s ecological capital. This inequality is the planet’s main ‘environmental’ problem; it is also its main ‘development’ problem” (WCED 1987, Overview, paragraph 17). In the concept of sustainable development the report combines the resource economist’s notion of “sustainable yield” with the recognition that developing countries of the world are entitled to economic growth and prosperity. The notion of sustainable yield involves thinking of forests, rivers, oceans and other ecosystems, including the natural species living in them, as a stock of “ecological capital” from which all kinds of goods and services flow. Provided the flow of such goods and services does not reduce the capacity of the capital itself to maintain its productivity, the use of the systems in question is regarded as sustainable. Thus, the report argues that “maximum sustainable yield must be defined after taking into account system-wide effects of exploitation” of ecological capital (WCED 1987, Ch. 2, paragraph 11).
There are clear philosophical, political and economic precursors to the Brundtland concept of sustainability. For example, John Stuart Mill (1848, IV. 6. 1) distinguished between the “stationary state” and the “progressive state” and argued that at the end of the progressive state lies the stationary state, since “the increase of wealth is not boundless”. Mill also recognized a debt to the gloomy prognostications of Thomas Malthus, who had conjectured that population tends to increase geometrically while food resources at best increase only arithmetically, so that demand for food will inevitably outstrip the supply (see Milgate and Stimson 2009, Ch. 7, and the discussion of Malthus in the Political Economy section of the entry on Mill in the Spring 2016 Edition). Reflection on Malthus led Mill to argue for restraining human population growth:
Even in a progressive state of capital, in old countries, a conscientious or prudential restraint on population is indispensable, to prevent the increase of numbers from outstripping the increase of capital, and the condition of the classes who are at the bottom of society from being deteriorated (Mill 1848, IV. 6. 1).
Such warnings resonate with more recent pessimism about increasing human population and its impact on the poorest people, as well as on loss of biodiversity, fresh water scarcity, overconsumption and climate change. In their controversial work The Population Bomb, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, argue that without restrictions on population growth, including the imposition of mandatory birth control, the world faced “mass starvation” in the short term (Ehrlich 1968). In a subsequent defence of their early work, the Ehrlichs declared that the most serious flaw in their original analysis “was that it was much too optimistic about the future”, and comment that “Since The Bomb was written, increases in greenhouse gas flows into the atmosphere, a consequence of the near doubling of the human population and the near tripling of global consumption, indicate that the results will likely be catastrophic climate disruption caused by greenhouse heating” (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2009, 66). It was also in 1968 that Garrett Hardin published his much cited article on the “tragedy of the commons” showing that common resources are always subject to degradation and extinction in the face of the rational pursuit of self interest. For Hardin, the increasing pressure on shared resources, and increasing pollution, are inevitable results of the fact that “there is no technical solution to the population problem” (Hardin 1968). The problem may be analysed from the perspective of the so-called prisoner’s dilemma (also see the free rider problem). Despite the pessimism of writers at the time, and the advocacy of setting limits to population growth, there was also an optimism that echoes Mill’s own view that a “stationary state” would not be one of misery and decline, but rather one in which humans could aspire to more equitable distribution of available and limited resources. This is clear not only among those who recognize limits to economic growth (Meadows et al. 1972) but also among those who champion the move to a steady state economy (Daly 1991) or at least want to see more account taken of ecology in economics (Norgaard 1994).
The Brundtland report puts less emphasis on limits than do Mill, Malthus and these more recent writers. It depicts sustainability as a challenge and opportunity for the world to become more socially, politically and environmentally fair. In pursuit of intergenerational justice