Environmental Ethics

Here are two essays I wrote for Environmental Ethics at Washington University in St. Louis:

Redefining Wilderness

In Michael Nelson’s closing statements to his 2003 essay, The Great Wilderness Debate: An Overview, Nelson calls on the environmental community to move past bitter partisanship and find some sort of consensus on the term wilderness and all the connotations that come with it (Nelson, 206). To move forward, he argues, we must recognize that there is currently no defense for the wilderness idea that convinces those who are not already convinced. In this essay, I will set out to provide such a defense by arguing for an enlightened view of wilderness as a biotic home. I begin by conceding that the term wilderness does, in fact, evoke too many unhelpful images and ideas to contain a salvageable philosophic model for nature. However, I argue that we must protect and preserve our biotic home – an environment much like wilderness, except that it may, in certain circumstances, include humans as permanent residents. Finally, I will show that it is imperative that we understand ourselves before we attempt to understand our environment; this means that we need to understand whether our culture allows for a human-nature symbiosis or whether they must remain divided.

The term wilderness has incited much criticism for its long “ethnocentric,” “androcentric,” “unscientific,” “outmoded,” and “unphilosophic,” history (Nelson, 200). Critics charge that it is ethnocentric (and possibly genocidal) because if man and nature must be separate, either native people are then a part of “wilderness” and can be removed or destroyed as easily as deforestation or they are separate from nature, which would then imply that the term wilderness does not apply to them (and therefore is ethnocentric) (Nelson, 201). It is androcentric (male-centered) because, as Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, the “wilds” are “a proving ground for virility, male camaraderie, and the honing of a warrior caste” (Nelson, 202). It is unscientific because the wilderness we think of in America was simply the product of earlier use by native peoples (Nelson, 202). It is outmoded because the term wilderness implies that nature should be left alone whereas current ecological models show that “various scales of disturbance and discord are the normal background ‘harmony’ in nature” (Nelson, 202). Finally, wilderness is thought to be unphilosophic because it promotes a “false value dualism” between man and nature – the Colonial Puritans thought that wilderness was “the house of the devil” (making wilderness a place to be “transformed” and “civilized”) whereas neo-Calvinists see nature as “the handiwork of God” and therefore men are bad and should not touch the wilderness, even for “ecological restoration” (Nelson, 202-203).

Clearly, there are a number of problems with our current idea of wilderness. However, there are still many aspects of wilderness that are important. For instance, J. Baird Callicott, one of wilderness’ strongest critics and Dave Foreman, one of its strongest proponents, both agree that we should have separated nature reserves to protect biodiversity and ecosystems. In Wilderness Areas as Biodiversity Reserves?, Callicott writes that “there’s nothing wrong with the places we call wilderness, except that they are too small, too few and far between, and… mostly mislocated” (Callicott, 587). Furthermore, Foreman writes that “true wilderness – biological diversity with integrity” has unwisely not been the focus of our national park system (Foreman, 571). Callicott and Foreman would therefore look to refocus the places we deem natural reserves or national parks to more closely align with current ecocentric values. As Foreman ponders: “why has the world’s greatest nature reserve system failed to prevent biological meltdown in the United States?” (578)

While Callicott (to an extent) and Foreman may believe that we can simply make our nature reserves smarter, I believe that there is a fundamental problem with allowing a separation between the natural world and the human world. As Nelson argues in his overview essay mentioned earlier, this dualism allows us to separate nature from ourselves and therefore dehumanize it as an ‘other’ to the effect that we become insensitive to its destruction. This, I believe, is the main reason that America’s national parks have for so long been focused on beauty and recreation instead of on ecological utility. We use them as an escape from our real lives instead of understanding that they preserve an integral part of all of life on Earth.

William Cronon, in his 1995 essay, Getting back to the wrong nature, criticizes this dualism from the opposite angle. “Wilderness,” he writes, has been romanticized into our “real home” allowing us to “forgive ourselves the homes we actually inhabit” (Cronon, 8). When we “imagine” that “the most precious part” of ourselves is in wilderness, “we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead” (8). The consequences of such irresponsibility are outlined in Ramachandra Guha’s Radical Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation. In this essay, Guha notes that when the American wilderness concept immigrated to India, it allowed the Indian elite to ignore the environmental issues affecting “poor peasants” and instead focus on “national parks” and wilderness areas to protect endangered species and “benefit rich tourists” (Guha, 341). The Indian government not only ignored the poor’s environmental issues – “water shortages,” soil erosion,” and “air and water pollution” – but it also forced the “physical displacement of existing villages and their inhabitants” in order to create more wilderness areas (341). This displacement was sadly “hailed by the international conservation community as an outstanding success” (341). By separating man from nature, the conservation community could only see the Indian wilderness through the false value dualism filter of the traditional American wilderness perspective. This dualism inevitably could not acknowledge either the environmental issues within the peasant communities (because ‘human communities do not contain valuable nature’) nor could they acknowledge the fact that the peasants had a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding environment that posed no threat to its ecosystem.

With the logical consequence that by separating humans and nature we fail to understand the value of natural environments, it may seem natural to flock to Aldo Leopold’s biotic community model. As Leopold noted, all of life is entangled in a “biotic pyramid” (168). “Land,” he explains, “is a fountain of energy flowing through soils, plants, and animals” (168). By incorporating this land ethic into our wilderness idea, we would no longer ignore the biodiversity and ecosystems necessary for the health of the Earth. We would be able to work toward the preservation and protection of nature wherever it exists and we would no longer require a dualism that forces either man or nature on an unnatural pedestal.

However, while the land ethic has many positive environmental attributes, it does not make a positive replacement for the wilderness idea. First of all, to pretend that we (in western society) live our lives as a part of the chains and layers embedded in Leopold’s biotic pyramid, is to deceive ourselves. As Leopold himself admits, even farmers – those people in our society most closely integrated with the land – will not, if given the chance, propose legislation for land-use practices that are sustainable (166). Taken to an extreme, if we are allowed to think that we are ‘one with the land’ we set ourselves up for “nefarious” concepts like the “Wise Use Movement” (Callicott/Nelson, 1). While Callicott and Nelson, in their book, The Great Wilderness Debate, attribute this movement to people like “Rush Limbaugh” who “have nothing of intellectual interest to say,” the idea is intriguing nonetheless (2). If we assume that we are a part of nature, we allow ourselves any natural resources at our disposal. Since we are simply one of many creatures, we can alter the environment to suit our needs just like beavers or ants. Furthermore, as long as we are not completely destroying entire ecosystems, we can go into what is now national parks or reserves if there are resources that could be useful to us. This slippery slope is therefore, too easy to come by when replacing the wilderness concept with Leopold’s land ethic.

The other extreme that can occur from replacing wilderness with Leopold’s land ethic is that of constant restoration. If we believe that we are a part of nature, it could follow that we must then take care of it as we would our own homes and we may attempt to replace and repair any and all processes we believe are hurtful to the ecosystem. However, our ambitions are usually larger than our wisdom and we may end up hurting the land through our efforts more than helping it. For instance, William Cronon notes that wilderness as we know it is “quite profoundly a human creation” (Cronon, 1). While we may attempt to repair an ecosystem to what we believe is its natural state, we may be grossly mistaken. This mistake is made evidently clear in William Deneven’s The Pristine Myth, where he explains that the American wilderness of 1492 had already been altered by the native population that had inhabited it for hundreds of years. He notes that “forest composition had been modified, grasslands had been created, wildlife disrupted, and erosion was severe in places” (Deneven, Abstract). His paper, written in 1992 (a relatively recent year in the history of environmental restoration), would have had large consequences had we been attempting to falsely restore all of our land to an artificially natural past.

While wilderness is an important concept – without which we lose any focus on biodiversity and ecosystem preservation – it has a number of fundamental flaws in its conception. In order to save the philosophy of wilderness, we must allow a separation between man and nature, but we must also be careful not to let this separation define our interactions with the environment. We must consider ourselves integrally related to the ecosystems that make up the Earth, but we must also be careful not to assume too much anonymity nor overstep our abilities as healers. This is no small task; yet I believe that through this discussion, we have built up the resources to answer this call.

We begin with Leopold. An understanding of the biotic world that we live in is integral to any ethic of the land. We must understand the dynamic nature of a world that can change to adapt to negative interference and yet whose ecosystems can be as fragile as a stream, with man-made sediment buildup that can destroy an entire ecosystem. Our new wilderness will need to assume the shape of all natural land that surrounds us, including the trees that line our streets, the water that flows through our sewers, into our lakes, the farms that surround our towns and villages, as well as the forests, prairies, and mountains that exist outside of ‘civilized’ society. We must take responsibility for all this land, for it is the only home that we have.

When conflicting values are at stake, we must turn introspective. Can we, as a human society, live among undomesticated plants and animals without destroying their ecosystems? If so, as many native peoples may attest to, our biotic home and the duties it entails will be in keeping up the land that surrounds us. If not, as our American history proves that we are not, we must still envision our natural landscapes and the ecosystems they entail as a part of our biotic home. While larger landscapes should remain separate, we must acknowledge their importance to our own lives as well as to the lives of all other life on earth.

The hope, then, is that we will be inclined to protect large areas of land, not for beauty’s sake, nor for recreation, but because it is our duty to keep our home healthy. We will understand that life is too fragile, and American society too violent to allow shared rooms between its people and its diverse landscapes. Finally, we will be able to respect those cultures who can live within nature without feeling that they are closer to or further from their true selves than we are, because the biotic home has one roof under which we all live.

Works Cited

  1. Callicott, J. Baird and Nelson, Michael. The Great New Wilderness Debate, University of Geor-
    gia Press, 1998.
  2. Callicott, J. Baird. “Should Wilderness Areas Become Biodiversity Reserves?” Callicott and
    Nelson. The Great New Wilderness Debate, University of Georgia Press, 1998. 585-615.
  3. Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Un-
    common Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1995.
  4. Denevan, William. “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.” Annals of the
    Association of American Geographers, 82:3. Blackwell Synergy, 1992. 369-385
  5. Foreman, Dave. “Wilderness / From Scenery to Nature.” Callicott and Nelson. The Great New
    Wilderness Debate, University of Georgia Press, 1998. 568-584.
  6. Guha, Ramachandra. “Radical Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World
    Critique.” Pojman and Pojman. Environmental Ethics, Thomson Higher Education, 2008. 338-
  7. Leopold, Aldo. “Ecocentrism: The Land Ethic.” Pojman and Pojman. Environmental Ethics,
    Thomson Higher Education, 2008. 163-172.
  8. Nelson, Michael. “The Great New Wilderness Debate: An Overview.” Pojman and Pojman. En-
    vironmental Ethics, Thomson Higher Education, 2008. 200-207.

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A Critique of Regan’s Case for Animal Rights

“Reason compels us to recognize the equal inherent value of these animals. And with this, their equal right to be treated with respect.” (89)

So argues Tom Regan in “The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights.” In this “cerebral” yet compassionate work, Regan unrelentingly calls for the “total dissolution” of all parts of our society which view animals as instruments for our use (83-84). Through a thorough investigation and rejection of past theories concerning how to view animals, Regan concludes that many animals deserve to receive the same respect as their human animal counterparts. Regan’s critique of other theories and why they do not give an adequate framework for a moral discussion on animals is convincing. However, his idea of “inherent value” seems to cause as many problems as it solves. Furthermore, his rights view lacks a strong definition for the “subjects of a life” who hold them and therefore, falls short in drawing the line for deciding which animals deserve rights. Finally, it is unclear in his essay what responsibilities moral agents have toward rights-holders outside of showing them equal respect and therefore, his extensionism could lead to unrealistic expectations.

Regan begins his essay by laying out the basic claims of the animal rights movement: we must completely abolish the use of animals in science, as well as the industries of animal agriculture, hunting and trapping. He separates himself early from other animal activists by making this extreme claim and defends it by arguing that “you don’t change unjust institutions by tidying them up (83).” While he does not provide any solutions as to how this could feasibly be done, he makes it clear early on that he is just a philosopher, and would simply like to lay out principled ideals and leave politicians and community organizers to work out the details. This claim seems reasonable, since one can imagine a society that could exist which follows his moral guidelines even if they seem implausible in the present day.

Regan follows with the meat of his argument: the current moral theories concerning animals are flawed and cannot give a comprehensive understanding of how we ought to treat them. He begins by defining direct versus indirect duties. “Direct duties,” he explains, means we have direct responsibilities in our actions toward something or someone. “Indirect duties” means that while we may associate a responsibility with an object (such as a car) our responsibility lies with someone with whom we have direct duties associated (the owner). He goes on to discuss a few different ways people argue that humans only have indirect duties to animals. First, he brushes aside those arguments that no “rational person” would attest to – such as that animals feel no pain, or that somehow, by definition, only human pain matters. He then discusses a “crude version” of contractarianism which simply states that people have direct duties only to those who can understand and reciprocate the moral and ethical theories of the day. While it seems that he may be deliberately simplifying contractarianism in order to prove it wrong, even more refined versions – one of which he mentions – would be forced to associate only indirect duties to children or mentally handicapped people. Because of this, his argument that contractarianism and other indirect duty views lack proper scope is convincing. (84)

The next theory that Regan attempts to prove inadequate is what he calls the “cruelty kindness” view: we have a direct duty to be kind and a direct duty not to be cruel to animals. Regan starts his argument somewhat inadequately with respect to this view. He relates a “generous racist” (85) to the cruelty kindness view and says that because a racist who is kind to his own race is wrong in his racism, so would a kind speciesist be wrong overall even though he may be kind to his own species. While it may have just been a lack of space to flesh out the argument, this idea provides a false analogy to the cruelty-kindness view. In the cruelty-kindness view, a person would have the obligation to be kind to all animals, not just his own species. Therefore, in Regan’s example, if the person were to be kind to his own race at the expense of kindness to another race (especially if it meant cruelly misrepresenting that other race) that person would be morally reproachable under the cruelty-kindness view. Furthermore, while it is true that “there is no guarantee that a kind act is a right act” (85), if a racist were kind to someone with whom he was racist against, that does not stop his act from being right. A white supremacist who helps an elderly black woman across the street is doing a kind (and right) deed despite the fact that he may later regret it or later do some horribly racist deed against other blacks.

Regan’s second argument against the cruelty-kindness view fairs much better as a persuasive criticism. He argues that while cruelty is bad, it is not the only wrong we can do to an animal. If a person feels bad for killing her pigs but still believes it is the right thing to do in order to feed people pepperoni, that person may not be cruel, but she is still (according to Regan) morally wrong. He extrapolates this view effectively to humans in that those who perform abortions “are not cruel, sadistic people” (86) and yet the act is still a difficult, moral question.

Regan’s final discounted theory is utilitarianism. He saves the most nuanced and widely held belief for last in order to thoroughly dissect it and closely contrast it with his own views. Regan begins with a generous and objective definition for utilitarianism: utilitarians believe everyone’s interests count and count equally and moral agents should act in order to enact the greatest balance of satisfactions. After this fairly short, objective description he begins to subjectively describe utilitarianism in ways he later attempts to chastise as inadequacies. For instance, he describes utilitarianism as considering each animal a meaningless container that holds important satisfactions and frustrations. He believes that this is wrong because it does not put any value on the life itself and therefore, the ends can always justify the means.

The part of his rights view that solves this problem is to give out “inherent value” (87) to certain individuals. He believes this inherent value will make people care more for individuals because it dictates that each and every life is valuable and therefore, a life cannot be sacrificed simply for the ‘greater good.’ While this is a nice idea, it leaves out the fact that there will usually be competing needs in any situation. As a basic example, take someone on a stranded island on which the only things edible to a human are other mammals – wild boars, for instance. Is it morally wrong for the human to kill the wild boar? If she does, she will be infringing on the rights of the boar – but if she does not, her own right to survive is being infringed upon. Or, if that case seems too subjective, add in the hand of God. Should God’s hand kill the boar to feed the human or save the boar and let the human die? Does Regan want to adopt the Hippocratic Oath and simply ‘do no harm?’ If so, he would let millions of humans, monkeys, dogs, and cats die in order to save one ferret (if a situation could be concocted as such). However, Regan does not answer these cases, and so his so-called solution to the problem of looking at animals as containers of needs instead of inherently valuable individuals does not give much practical philosophical advantages.

If we allow that Regan would want us to do no harm to all those who hold rights we still run into two problems. First, we must know who holds rights. Regan believes that all animals that “want and prefer things; believe and feel things; recall and expect things” are “subject[s] of a life” and therefore have the characteristics necessary to hold rights (88). However, this view is fundamentally flawed. To begin with, while Regan attempts to disqualify others’ views using the marginal case example – that we cannot say only humans deserve inherent value because there is no trait that all humans possess that no animal possesses – he does not take it into account for his own argument. If an animal must “want and prefer things” and so on, then does a human in a coma not deserve to have rights? How about a severely mentally handicapped person? While it seems clear that infants would qualify, newborns may not and therefore killing them may not be considered morally wrong.

On the opposite side of the fuzzy definition is the line that Kenneth Goodpaster draws for moral considerability. Goodpaster believes that because sentience is probably incidental to living beings – coming from our desire to go on living – we cannot look at anything short of being alive as a line to draw for moral considerability. While not the exact same idea, I believe that Goodpaster’s argument holds for moral rights as well. How can we judge an animal on its memory or preferences, when these are simply evolutionarily advanced ways of keeping the animal alive? It seems that there is no good line short of being alive to draw on giving moral rights to animals and therefore Regan’s “subject of a life” is too subjective for the lives of animals.

It is further unclear what it means for us to ‘respect the right’ of an individual. While Regan does not flesh this idea out well in his essay, Mary Anne Warren writes in her “A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory” that “moral rights generate duties not only to refrain from inflicting harm upon beings with inherent value but also to come to their aid when they are threatened by other moral agents” (92). This definition presumably comes from Regan’s book from which she critiques. If this is truly his definition, I believe it is a flawed one. As I alluded to in my introduction, if we are to come to the aid of animals when they are threatened, we must come to their aid universally if they receive the same type of threat – and this is unrealistic. It makes no sense to say that an animal has the right to not be killed by one individual yet not by another if the circumstances are identical (i.e. for the aggressor to survive). Therefore, while it is a nice thought to put all the responsibility – whether positive or negative – in carrying out these rights on moral agents, it does not seem plausible that a rights view could say an animal has the right to receive protection by moral agents from moral agents, but not by moral agents from non-agents. Either an individual has the right to survive or it does not. If it does have the right to survive universally, then it would be the job of a moral agent to protect it from all dangers – something clearly impossible for the scope of Regan’s rights holders.

In conclusion, Regan makes a strong case that a new theory must be made for how we treat animals. In the process he clearly defines that it is morally wrong to not have direct duties to animals and that we should put some value on individuals above “the greater good” to prevent cases where someone may say the ends justify the means. However, his definitions are vague at times and some of his ideas develop new but equal problems as the arguments he protests against. Finally, Regan does not explain well what it means to hold a right and therefore, it is hard to find applications for his arguments that are any less problematic than earlier theories.

Works Cited

  1. Regan, Tom. Louis Pojman, and Paul Pojman. “The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights.” Environmental Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008.
  2. Warren, Mary Anne. Louis Pojman, and Paul Pojman. “A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory.” Environmental Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2008.

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