The Real Tree-Hugger’s Manifesto

Day 27 Blog Post

Moving on from a look at interspecific justice and interactions between species, we now look at a more stringent approach to an environmental ethic: Paul Taylor’s biocentric ethic, in his The Ethics of Respect for Nature. In this he makes the “biocentric egalitarian” claim that all living things have equal inherent worth in that each living being is a goal-directed system pursuing its own good. He develops a sort of Kantian approach by giving two concepts, one being that “every organism, species population, and community of life has a good of its own which moral agents can intentionally further or damage by their actions,” and that we consider all living beings to have inherent worth. From this, Taylor develops the principles of moral consideration and intrinsic value. The principle of moral consideration holds that “wild living things are deserving of the concern and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue of their being members of the Earth’s community of life.” The principle of intrinsic value states that, regardless of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the realization of its good is something intrinsically valuable. Basically, Taylor is expanding the moral community to all things that are alive; and as good as this sounds on paper, it might be one of the most drastic, or hard to actualize, theories that we’ve looked at.

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His biocentric outlook has four main components: 1) humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members; 2) the Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being dependent on the sound biological functioning of the others; 3) each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way; 4) whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements 1 and 2 and 3 above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.

Callicott comes under fire for his “environmental fascism” that places the benefit of the ecological whole over the ecological individual – sacrificing a couple of deer for the benefit of the community that is avoiding overpopulation. But Taylor is almost the opposite. He differs form Callicott in that his more individualistic rather than holistic approaches total ecosystems as only mattering because individuals find their good within them, but since the entire ecosystem is not driven toward a goal-directed end, it’s consideration is beneath that of the individuals that make it up. This seems somewhat silly to me. I can appreciate what he means in saying that as our understanding of living things increases with the studies of biology and ecology, then so does our interactions with other organisms and empathy for their lives and ends in themselves. But the entire construct of life itself on the planet is based on the symbiotic relationships between living and non-living things. This means that some species use others in mutual ways to the benefit of both. Sometimes it’s more one-sided, as with any animal that eats another, but ecologically sustains the energy system of life.

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I do agree with his denial of human superiority. No where in the natural world are we given privilege over anything else. The privilege we think we have is completely self-constructed, so in theory it doesn’t really count in relation to the way we treat other living things. But I see what Taylor is ultimately saying here. Rather than lower ourselves or lower insects in a hierarchy of ecological importance, we must consider (sounds like Singer’s language) the lives of all living things as equally important. This obviously comes under attack when we think that the picking of a flower is as harmful as killing a person, and ecologically it might be a little too purist to follow through and put into any kind of law. I mean, it’s not like we can photosynthesize for food…

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I personally believe that people like Leopold, Callicott, and Taylor are all etching closer and closer a picture of an environmental ethic that ultimately needs to be a more ecologically-based. An approach that develops a proper ethic of human treatment toward nonhumans is necessary. After all, we are animals, we do not live apart from the planet’s ecosystems. Our own ecological niche must be examined to determine our role on the planet so that we can make ours as smooth a fit as the others.

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“As The Doctors Study, The Patient Dies”

Day 26 Blog Post

The views of Peter Singer and Tom Regan have some pretty demanding intentions when taken to heart, so to examine how better to treat animals caught up in our modern day world we look to a more stratified outline on the possible ways we can legally reform such treatment of animals. Donald VanDeVeer (one of the authors of our textbook) and J. Baird Callicott offer two critical modifications of animal rights ethics that stand to be seen.

This gives us some new ethical “-isms” to look at; one being ethical humanism, which equates higher mental/psychological functioning with moral standing. This is, essentially, glorified speciesism. Then there’s humane moralism, which gives moral standing to humans regardless of previous criteria but also determines capacity for pain and pleasure to be the ultimate factors for morality. This is where hints of Bentham’s utilitarianism peek through. And then there’s Leopold’s Land Ethic, which stresses the importance of the health of the biotic community as a whole. With the land ethic, the study of ecology made it possible to see land as a third order. But this also means that it holds the interests of the collective over the interests of the individual in what we can see becomes a paradox. Since biodiversity is key to a healthy ecosystem, a pure land ethic would advocate the removal (or death) of humans before that of an endangered species, so as to promote the welfare (biodiversity) of the whole ecosystem. Also to keep in mind is that, ecologically, the greater the population size, the less important the individual. This is a common argument on behalf of animal testing to use rabbits, hamsters, and mice because they are so renewable. But, then again, so are we.

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Callicott’s modification of the land ethic gives degrees of ecosystem importance as moral relevance. He advocates for very strong reform to the land ethic, and his main principle is to consider the animals’ role in the ecological community rather than value the life of each organism as the same. Callicott would have us make a hierarchy of importance in ecology. Keystone species are detrimental to ecosystems – without bees we probably couldn’t exist, yet there is no law preventing harm to bees. Callicott also says that Leopold’s land ethic is majorly based on human admiration of the “beauty” of nature – a human interpretation – biased toward our interests and poetic license. But he says skip the Sierra Club small talk because this won’t hold up, and rather we should call what we mean by its real name – intrinsic value – so that the argument has more argumentative worth. Ultimately, Callicott says we can still eat animals, but we need to reform the way we treat our ecosystems, like in implementing only small, organic farming rather than destructive monocrops. In his “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic” he says that “the implication of [Leopold’s maxim] includes the clear prospect that the individual may be sacrificed for the greater biotic good…” Regan calls this “environmental fascism” in that it leaves no room for individual rights in a world governed by one’s relationship to another. After getting called out, Callicott reformed his position.

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VanDeVeer’s main modification of Singer’s Animal Liberation is that degrees of sentience should determine moral standing. He believes that the ability to reason contributes to higher sentience, almost in a way that John Mills describes. He holds weak hierarchical positions for certain kinds of interspecific interests and offers a break down of different types of relationships humans have with other species. Radical speciesism is the nonsense that Descartes ranted about; claiming that animals are mechanic automata without thoughts or capacity for pain. VanDeVeer says there are no legitimate premises strong enough to entail radical speciesism as plausible, obviously. Then there’s extreme speciesism, which allows anything so long as it promotes some peripheral human need. This is also indefensible as the threshold for cruelty is not determined. The “interest sensitive” speciesism occurs when interests of similar importance are at stake, for example the human keeping of birds as caged pets. The humans benefit from having the bird as a pet and the bird benefits from being fed, though is still caged and under the control of the human. But, two factor egalitarianism, he says, is the trickiest relationship because it’s weighing the calculated interests of both parties. VanDeVeer “alleviates” conflict by offering higher psychological capacity as the criterion for whose interests are more important to maintain – essentially throwing the interests of “lesser” mentally capable species under the bus. But, he says, the difficulty is in weeding out the trivial wants from the basic needs that are obtained from unfavorable treatment toward the other species. This can be killing an elephant for its ivory tusks, pitting the human interest to have classy piano keys over the elephant’s tusks, and life. But the use of animals as food also falls under this relationship. It’s in this cross-benefit analysis of weighed interests that we find no solid line to draw a right or wrong. VanDeVeer also suggests that we consider people’s ability to retain memory and capacity for psychological pain to go into the negotiation of whose interests are put before others’.

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Personally, I find this part of his argument difficult to follow.  Rather than dissect our theories and make fight over nitty gritty contingencies, we need to look to what we know is true and valid. We know that other animals (dolphins, elephants, cats, etc.) have feelings, memories, and other traits we associate with what gives humans their humanity; but it’s also to say that with all of our cognitive powers and rational abilities, we as members of one species are inherently unable to truly sympathize with the worldview of other species, let alone another person. But just because we can’t really walk in another’s shoes/paws/hooves/fins doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat them with respect and allow them to live a happy life.

This Radical Old Thing Called the Land Ethic

Day 15 Blog Post

Aldo Leopold was an early 20th century American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, and probably one of the most well-known environmentalists. Leopold was influential in the development of the modern environmental ethics, for having developed his own “land ethic,” and in the movement of wilderness conservation. He held what was for his time a radical view that emphasized biodiversity and ecological health. His journey as one of the leading environmentalists of our time started when he was assigned to hunt predators like wolves and bears because of their cost to agriculture in New Mexico. He noticed that this was wrong to kill certain species within the food chain because of human dependance upon their agronomically motivated destruction, and that our attitude toward the land is in dire need of change.

Aldo Leopold viewed ethics ecologically as a “limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence,” and philosophically as a “differentiation of social from antisocial conduct.” In realizing that our relationship to land in this country is strictly economic –  entailing privileges and not obligations to it – we can see where man’s pursuit of a fatter wallet will take him if he continues on this road of ecological destruction. The conservation movement was taking root during Leopold’s time, and as the first semblances of some kind of state of harmony between western man and land, he regarded it “as the embryo of the affirmation that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong.”

Aldo saw ethics as such: “All ethics rest upon the premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” and that “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, water, plants, or animals – collectively, the land.” He points out the misconception that although as Americans we have this idea that we love our land, value it, and cherish it as the sustenance we obtain from it for our livelihood in a country built upon the “American dream,” we are obliviously incorrect. Just what and whom do we love?

“Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communicates without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.”

He proposes that “a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence…in a natural state.” And he warned that at this time of America’s booming growth, the people’s assurance that the land would “drip milk and honey” into the mouths of whomever used its endless bounty was inverse to the degree of the people’s education about the land. The problem is with our socialization. Back then, people were brought up under the notion of this “milk and honey” idea that proved to be only a short lived fantasy. Farmers were taught to do only what saves his soil, because his soil makes him money. Leopold criticized that man was too timid and too anxious for quick success to realize the true magnitude of his artificial obligations to the dollar.

Further, what’s funny about our “appreciation” for this bounty of endless land (up until the Pacific Ocean) is that we couldn’t acknowledge the role the land played in probably most human successes. Throughout our continued human struggle and preoccupied with human affairs, Leopold asks us to recognize that not all of our triumphs, in the multitude of wars that have been waged and structural and economic endeavors that we remember as beacons of human ingenuity, we all made possible or (in our great failures) impossible by our correct relationship with the land. The horrible 1930’s dustbowl is one relevant case.

The land ethic relies on the guidance of the land pyramid as a model for ecosystems. It shows the distribution of quantities of different species in the various trophic levels all balanced in a system that has evolved to be highly organized. In a most basic description, it’s broken down into the two groups: the autotrophic organisms are the plants at the bottom, sustaining themselves from the sun’s energy, and the heterotrophic organisms that derive their energy from eating other living things.

Energy moves up through the pyramid, from the sun to the autotrophic flora, from them to the heterotrophic herbivores, and from them to the carnivores and omnivores in a delicate cyclical system.

As Leopold saw it, land is not merely soil but a “fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” The world-wide disorganization in land use would be similar to a disease, a human plague, upon the sore earth; and depending on the flexibility of the ecosystem affected, it will recover, but will will yield reduced levels of complexity (biodiversity) and carrying capacities of life in its wake. Leopold suggested that if the “private land owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a land that adds biodiversity and beauty to his farm.” And since Leopold thought it impossible for government to handle all land management, he saw the only visible remedy to be ethical obligation on the part of the private land owner. What more can be done to foster this sense of belonging and obligation to the land? Leopold said we can only be ethical to something we see, feel, love, understand, or otherwise have faith in. The most practical and hopeful is education. Teaching kids from an early age to respect the land and to garner appreciation for everything outside has been effective, at least for me I like to think, in forming a generation of ecologically minded people.

All ethical theories have a principle at their base from which they make their case. The primary principle for Aldo Leopold’s land ethic was respect for the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. We need to stop seeing ourselves as “conqueror” and more as “citizen and member” of the land community. He believes the conservation movement was “paved with good intentions,” but would prove futile because it is devoid of a critical understanding of the land. He makes a good case in claiming that “the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, not toward, an intense consciousness of the land.” We must stop looking at the land as just “the space between cities on which crops grow,” for this is something that has been within our environmental psychology since the creepings of urban and suburban sprawl. The land ethic’s criterion of moral standing as being a member of the land community leaves virtually nothing as a resource to be pillaged for arbitrary economic needs. Some may find this as a little too restrictive, or even “eco-fascist.” But it’s this level of necessity that we must acknowledge in order to start making the right choices.

An application of Leopold’s land ethic in its entirety may not be the complete answer, but its the exact direction we need to start looking toward to get anything important accomplished.