The Morality of Ecology

The Morality of Ecology
by Michael Szul on 2007-06-05 09:21:25

David Hume (2000) once wrote, in A Treatise of Human Nature, his most famous philosophical work:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterates all these chimeras. (p. 269)

Nature has a tendency to heal. She heals both physical wounds and those wounds that deliberately eat away at our hearts and minds. She even heals herself. But when you have an open wound and you continually poke and prod at it, it will not heal. It isn’t given the chance. The wounds of the Earth, though she is a self-healing creature, are not being given a chance to repair. We continually abuse this giver of life in our daily pursuit for cold hard cash and materialistic advances. We stress monetary productivity over natural order.Is the Earth truly there for us to use as we please? Are we really masters of the pecking order? Should nature’s secrets be “tortured out of her” as Francis Bacon was quoted saying in Bernt Capra’s (1991) conversational movie Mindwalk?

Or have we overstepped our boundaries in our mechanistic view of the world? Should rights extend also to the land beneath our feet and the animals that parade around our homes, and not just be an intrinsic power solely for the human race?

A deep examination of environmental ethics coupled with a basic understanding of biology and the biosphere will reveal to us just how much an ecological world view is necessary. Major criticisms need to be dispelled, revealing the redundancy of those that fight against ecological conservation.

The major criticisms of environmental ethics that we must dispel are: (1) interest in survival is the basis of the human life and to supplant the human interest is against reason; and (2) environmental ethics does little more than identify a problem and offers little help in a solution or a moral basis. Richard Watson (2002) quotes George Sessions as admitting “[…] little headway has been made in finding […] acceptable grounds for an ecosystem ethics other than a growing intuitive ecological awareness that it is right.”

The first critique is purely an egocentric standpoint that shows the audacity of the human race in placing ourselves above and beyond the rest of the biotic sphere. This ego directly results in the acceptance of a self-centered view as we try to justify our otherwise delinquent actions. The second critique is a preposterous statement that may show the misunderstanding of a humanity that basically states: if you don’t tell me what to do, I can’t change my ways. Apparently people who use this argument forget that identification of the problem is the first step to finding the solution. Of course, not only must we identify the problem of the destruction of the ecosystem, we must also identify the “how” of how humanity has approached this point of destruction.

There are three major causes of environmental ignorance, and all of these causes were ingrained in us long ago: (1) anthropocentrism; (2) our mechanistic view of the world; and (3) the varied piecemeal vision of our surroundings.

Judith A. Boss (2002) in Analyzing Moral Issues quoted Lynn White as saying “By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” This isn’t to say that we should go back to the days of paganism or become pantheistic and worship nature. White was simply pointing out that once we anthropomorphized God, we rose ourselves above all other creations and made ourselves unique. This resulted in an anthropocentric view of the world.

John Locke, whose philosophies basically founded the American institution, based his natural rights ethic on just this belief: that human beings were a special and unique creation of God. Locke’s anthropocentric world view of humans not only disallows non-human beings having rights, but also grants humans the right to exploit non-human nature with impunity.

When we’re brought up with this mindset, which is placed in us by religion, government, and sometimes even the education system, we accept the notion that the world revolves around us. The last time our ego was so inflamed was when we believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. Remember what happened to that theory! We are in the same situation with this anthropocentrism. We believe that we are special, unique, and are placed above all other plants and animals. Unfortunately, biology disputes this egotistical rambling. Consider the fact that if all humans were removed from the biosphere, the Earth would continue to flourish just fine without us. However, remove the plants from the biosphere (the self-feeding autotropes) and everything on the planet dies. Are we really so bold as to believe that we are the center of the Earth?

Another problem with anthropocentrism — asides from its obvious invalidity — is how it affects the human mindset. Determining what is moral may require the proper reasoning skills, but to be motivated in this reasoning, you need sentiment. David Hume’s virtue ethics theory introduced us to the concept that all moral actions are based on sentiment. We are motivated to take the right action based on the sympathy that we share with the victims of an immoral act. We consider outright murder to be a heinous and vicious act because we sympathize with the victim and their family; but what about sentiment when dealing with the Earth? When read in comparison with Aldo Leopold’s (1966) “The Land Ethic” essay (which will be discussed later), we are able to see how Hume’s theory on sentiment is involved in our outlook on ecology. We come to the realization that we need to sympathize with nature and treat it like the living organism that it is.

However, due to our anthropocentric views, and Locke’s imprint on modern democratic society, we view nature as nothing more than a tool or an object — something to be used. With this mindset, we are unable to sympathize with nature, thus we offer nature no rights and are not motivated to act in nature’s favor. Even when we toy with the idea of nature in an anthropomorphic way and call it Mother Nature, we still view it as subservient to our patriarchal society, and forgo any sentiment towards nature if it isn’t in our best interest.

This lack of sentiment is not only due to anthropocentrism. Conceivably, we could egotistically view ourselves as the center of the world and still care for those things around us that don’t share our “special standing.” But our lack of sympathy for nature also stems from our mechanistic view of the world. Rene Descartes, one of the most famous rationalists in philosophy (not to mention a pretty decent scientist) likened the workings of the universe to that of a clock. This analogy succeeds in helping us visualize the ordered universe; however, it often is accompanied by several drawbacks. By comparing nature to a clock we are making it impersonal and mechanical, a machine that can be adjusted and tweaked, or “fixed.” Nature became a machine that could be taken apart and put back together, and when possible, substitution in parts may occur. Unfortunately for us, this way of thinking by Descartes was glorified by Isaac Newton and became a staple of modern scientific thought.

This mechanical view then leads us into our third problem, which is that of our piecemeal vision of the world. By thinking of the world as mechanical we assume that if one portion is not working correctly, we can fix it, or replace it with another part. We never look at the whole picture and determine whether what we are doing is going to have some greater effect on the entire ecosystem. It is often philosophically said that a butterfly that changes direction will ultimately affect the entire wind pattern of the Earth. Though this is a bit of a drastic thought, it helps us understand that we do not know what long term consequences our tampering will have on the Earth as a whole. And by focusing our attention on only the pieces, we never get in tune with the big picture.

Aldo Leopold stated in the “Round River”:

As for diversity, what remains of our native flora and fauna remains only because agriculture has not got around to destroying it. The present ideal of agriculture is clean farming; clean farming means a food chain aimed solely at economic profit and purged of all non-conforming links. (p. 199)

Our mechanistic and piecemeal views of nature are resulting in us tampering with the natural ecosystem in an attempt to fatten wallets and make life better for humanity. In the process, we are stream lining diversity to make it more economically friendly rather than ecologically.

All of this is the result of attempts to increase the materialism of our own lives, since our passions motivate us to increase our pleasures. But we do so with indifference, and without conscience, at the expense of those things that we cannot sympathize with.

Leopold often approached ethics from a social standpoint. He believed that as social creatures our ethics developed out of our awareness that we are interdependent parts of a community. Leopold wanted us to expand our community to include soil, water, plants, animals, etc. – essentially what biology refers to as the ecosystem. Leopold may have been right about ethics popping up out of the awareness of our interdependence with each other; for even Hume admits that certain traits considered virtuous, like justice, are the direct result of our interaction with the community. This ethic, however, is driven by the passions that impress upon our lives as we interact. It is still driven by sentiment, which humanity sorely lacks when nature is brought into the picture. Before our ethical community can include the entire ecosystem, the human mind must be capable of sympathy towards this nature.

Leopold saw this problem as he examined our dedication to the land, but then wondered just whom we were dedicating ourselves to:

Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down the river. 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 communities without batting an eye. (p. 239)

Aldo Leopold not only saw the trappings of a society without sympathy towards the ecosystem, but he also saw the problems of an anthropocentric view: “In short, a land ethic, changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Aptly stated, humanity must accept that it is a member of a much larger community. We must realize that we are a part of the interdependent system and do not exist outside or above this sphere. It may be a blow to our ego, but in the long run, it may just save the Earth.

Martin Heidegger (2003) professed that humanity is “thrown from Being itself” into the true nature of “Being” so that in this form of existence he could guard the “truth of Being.” He states that existence is not Decartes’ cogito. Nor is it the interaction of subjects. Instead, existence is the “ecstatic dwelling in the nearness of Being.” “It is the guardianship […] for Being.” Heidegger essentially separates “existence” and “Being.” To him, “Being” is something greater. It is not simply a singular point of consciousness. Existence on the other hand, was the guardianship, or care, for this “Being.” This “Being” is an encompassing mass, an interconnectedness on scale with that of the biotic web of life, and we, as existent creatures are the guardians of this web. We are not the rulers. We are not even at the center.

Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” (1971) alludes to an interconnectedness of things through the totality of “Being” and the presentation that humanity’s existence lies in its guardianship of this interconnectedness. He further develops this theory in his work Building Dwelling Thinking in which he picks apart the human language through etymology to explain the true root of what it means for humanity to dwell and build on this Earth:

The Old Saxon wuon, the Gothic wunian like the old world bauen [building], means to remain, to stay in place. But the Gothic wunian says more distinctly how this remaining is experienced. Wunian means to be at peace […] The word peace, Friede, means the free, das Frye, and fry means: preserved from harm […], safeguarded. To free really means to spare […] To dwell, to be set at peace, means to remain at peace within the free sphere that safeguards each thing in its nature. The fundamental character of dwelling is this sparing and preserving.

Heidegger goes on to explain that humanity’s being consists of dwelling on the Earth. He then states that:

[…] ‘on the Earth’ already means ‘under the sky.’ Both of these also mean ‘remaining before the divinities’ and include a ‘belonging to men’s being with one another.’ By a primal oneness the four — earth and sky, divinities and mortals - belong together in one.

Heidegger continues to explain how humanity belongs to this fourfold, but that we exist in this fourfold through dwelling on the Earth. However, we already know that dwelling does not consist solely of cutting down a few trees and throwing up a shack. Dwelling consists of preserving, just as earlier Heidegger mentioned how existing consists of guarding:

Mortals dwell in that they save the earth […] To save really means to set something free into its own presencing. To save the earth is more than to exploit it or even wear it out. Saving the earth does not master the earth and does not subjugate it, which is merely one step from spoliation.

Heidegger reveals to us that dwelling is the basic characteristic of humanity’s being and is inherent in our nature. However, he admits, and it is clearly evident today, that humanity does not truly dwell. We have fallen out of our responsibility in the fourfold nature. We have loosed ourselves from the interconnectedness on the web of life and persist in believing that we are somehow more special than everything else around us, even though our own language and human nature contradicts this.

When the ecological movement is taken in totality, we see that without sentiment towards nature and with our current self-centered attitude, and belief that we dwell outside of the normal biosphere, we will never admit that what we are doing is wrong. And even if we ever do admit this, with no sympathy for the Earth, we will lack the passion to motivate us into moral action, and nature will continue to suffer. It is an ignorant fool that believes that we are here like the caterpillar, and that we use what we must to evolve into a greater being; but it is a truly enlightened person that can see that we are really nothing more than a small thread on the web of life that is ecology. We are only one small connection. Humanity must find its place within the biotic community and not continually insist that we exist above it. We must learn to truly dwell as those before us, who created our language, intended us too.


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