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.

care

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.

dog-orangutan

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…

sun person SS

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.

Advertisements

Walking the Line

Day 20 Blog Post

So far it seems that there exists this deep dichotomy between socially opposing views of environmental conduct. It seemed as if one would have to choose between varying levels of either Baxter’s totally anthropocentrically based, free-market economic view that serves the whims of the admittedly greedy human race OR Leopold’s strictly ecocentric Land Ethic that neutralizes all hierarchies of organism dominance, placing human beings on the same level as trees and animals. Split down the middle between two completely opposite, extremist schools of thought. Surely anyone who knew that moderation is key would try to meld benefits of both, but it would seem these two ends of the spectrum can never converse with each other. Maybe that’s true, but Bryan Norton’s environmental ethic proposes something to consider.

In his paper, “Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism,” Norton seeks to identify a distinctly environmental ethic. He starts by deducing that a distinctively environmental ethic must take a stance on accepting or rejecting anthropocentrism – the view that only humans are the “loci of fundamental value.” Anthropocentrists mainly believe that anything that is deemed valuable is only so because it contributes to human well-being. Some nonanthropocentrists reverse this by saying that humans are the source of all values, but they can also ascribe value to nonhuman things. This decentralization of human beings as the start and end of anything valuable allows for at least a more flexible reasoning system that an environmental ethic would require.

Since any form of anthropocentrism takes into account human interests, it becomes necessary to illuminate what really are human interests. Norton says there are two types: felt preferences and considered preferences. Felt preferences are human desires or needs that can at least temporarily be sated by some specifiable experience of the individual. A considered preference is any desire or need that a human individual would express after careful deliberation, including a judgement that the desire or need is consistent with a rationally adopted world view. Traditional economic approaches see felt preferences as the basic platform for decision making – how many pizzas does this community want/consume, the usefulness of this forest for the indigenous population or for that company, money. The considered preference has way more thought put into it and can only really be accounted for after an individual has thought of how this particular preference mixes with his or her entire world view – I prefer to use my reusable water container because I know that by doing so I can be only less contributor to an unsustainably open-loop materials system. More thought is put into my “preference.”

Further, there is strong anthropocentrism and weak anthropocentrism. Those who think in terms of strong anthropocentrism make choices based almost completely off felt preferences. Those who have weak anthropocentrism are really making convenience less of a priority and make their choices based on their considered preferences. Logical progression would find that “weak anthropocentrism provides a basis for criticism of value systems that are purely exploitative of nature.” When you weaken the “I want, I use, I need” mentality of strong anthropocentrism, you find that “nature need no longer be seen as a mere satisfier of fixed and often consumptive (in our society) values,” but rather, Norton says, “it also becomes an important source of inspiration in value formation.”

There’s also the difference between individualism and nonindividualism. Basically, nature doesn’t cater to just one type of species. It is unquestionable that we biologically share the earth’s resources with every other living thing. Norton points out that “the satisfaction of individual interests are the basic unit of value for utilitarians, and in this sense, utilitarianism is essentially individualistic.” He clarifies that “no ethical system which is essentially individualistic, regarding less of how broadly the reference category of individuals is construed, can offer ethical guidance concerning current environmental policy in all cases.”I liken this to how the royal families would satisfy their preferences by utilizing all of the resources of the country without sharing it with the rest of French society. Life is not supportable this way, and, eventually, something must give.

Ultimately, “in a post-Darwinian world, one could give rational and scientific support for a world view that includes ideals of living in harmony with nature, but which involve no attributions of intrinsic value to nature.” Leopold wouldn’t like this very much, but I say at least it’s a realistic step in the right direction of attuning people’s relationship more directly toward nature. I think that Leopold’s Land Ethic is great, and in a perfect world it would reign supreme, but we can’t go from zero to 60 that fast. Even though the dawn of environmentalism occurred almost 30 years ago, we’re just witnessing the topic of global warming and climate change in our societies’ presidential speeches. Real progress will take time, and I think Norton’s weak anthropocentric environmental ethic is the best life preserver we can cling to while we continue to mend our policies, attitudes, and overall relationship to the planet.