34A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

An Ethical Environment
June 4, 2008

"What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?"
In a recent perusal of the environmental ethics entry published in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and copyright by Metaphysics Research Lab CSLI, Stanford University, we found an interesting evolution.  That evolution is the gradual movement away from anthropocentric interpretations of ethical and moral behavior typical of western philosophers.  e.g. Aristotle in Politics claims “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man,” and that the value of nonhuman nature is instrumental and not intrinsic.  This view is mirrored in religious perspectives typified by the Old Testament where God created man and then handed him dominion over nature and the animals.  To be fair, Christianity discouraged animal sacrifice and St. Francis was patron Saint and protector of the animals.  Philosopher Immanuel Kant (“Duties to Animals and Spirits”, in Lectures on Ethics), suggests that the wrongness of animal cruelty desensitizes man to cruelty toward other humans.  And anthropocentric ethics recognizes the destruction of environment by man is deleterious to man’s well being.  In fact a major argument against anthropocentric pollution is that it will bring about human demise.  The idea is that human tendency toward self-preservation will outweigh the tendency for well being.

Environmental ethics has several ways of looking at foundational morality - e.g. when is an action good or bad, right or wrong?   Stanford suggests that the consequentialist view is that an action is right or wrong dependent upon its consequence as good or bad.   Basically the consequentialist says that right actions must tip the outcome balance to the good - a rather fancy way of saying the end justifies the means.  On the other side of this view is the deontological perspective which says that irrespective of outcome balance, there are moral rules or values we must follow, e.g. “not to kill or otherwise harm the innocent”, “not to lie”, “to respect the rights of others”, “to keep promises.”  This view, again with a fancy name, reflects a tradition of moral and spiritual teaching that says, if we agree that to steal is wrong, then to steal to feed one’s family must also be wrong, even if necessary for survival.  Tom Regan, animal activist uses this approach to argue that we have a prima facie moral duty not to harm sentient animals.  Meaning that animal experimentation and vivisection is wrong regardless of outcome balance consequence. 

On the communal side of environmental ethics we have land-ethical holism which uses forester Aldo 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.”   This view put forth by J. Baird Callicott (1980) says that 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.   This is the view that has been used to position nearly any anthropomorphic or individual action as an enemy.  It is a view widely criticized as misanthropic and Tom Regan condemned holistic land ethic's disregard of the rights of the individual as “environmental fascism”.   Callicott subsequently revised his view and now maintains that the biotic community (any community to which we belong) as well as its individual members all have intrinsic value.

What is so interesting about ethics in the first place, at least with regard to their effect on people’s nature, is how we behave in light of them.  While globally accepted  laws, social and religious values claim that certain behavior is always wrong (e.g. stealing, cheating, lying) there appears to be a need to allow such things when pursuing environmental land-ethical holism or consequentialist points of view.  The presumption is that actions that compromise the biotic community justify remedial actions even if they are unethical or immoral.  From this perspective any action (lying, cheating, stealing) can be justified as long as we can claim the communal good slightly outweighs the bad.  But then are we not stuck with how to define communal good?  And what happens to the integrity of people who compromise their selves to meet a communal good?  If everyone was to follow this moral code would we not end up with a community of compromised people living in a somewhat less compromised environment?  And can any person who acknowledges an inner spiritual life, live without guilt or shame in a pristine environment if they have compromised themselves to preserve it?   What is a tarnished soul walking in natural beauty if not a blight upon the landscape? 

The challenge for environmental ethics is to find ways to protect the intrinsic value of our natural world while acting ethically.  That is to recognize the intrinsic value in the animal and plant kingdoms, the beauty of the Creation and the natural place of human and nonhuman life within it.   Unethical actions may be a shortcut to environmental protection, but in the end unethical actions to protect are no different than unethical actions to exploit