Ethics and the Environment
Ethics and the Environment

Some years ago The Sunday Times devoted an issue of its colour supplement to environmental questions, with particular reference to the destruction of plant species. The cover of the supplement consisted of a blown-up image of leaves from a species of tree. The caption on the cover read: You may never see this leaf again. It was taken from one of the last two trees of its kind left in the wild. Many of the illustrations accompanying the article in the magazine showed similar pictures of specimens of other species that were either extinct or on the verge of extinction. One photograph showed leaves from the Aborescent veloutier, a plant which once grew on Reunion Island but which no longer grows there or anywhere else in the world. Another showed the beautiful leaves of the Jade liana which grows in the rainforests of the Philippines but is on the point of extinction along with the [Philippines] rainforests themselves. The caption under one photograph identified a leaf from 'a species that has become extinct even since its picture was taken' (Bastable and Hincker 1991: 36). The article also contained some general facts and statistics about the alarming rate of destruction of plant species. It told its readers that in the space of 30 years, 60,000 plant species will have disappeared from the face of the earth, that thousands of species will become extinct before botanists have the chance to classify them, that if the present rate of deforestation continues, by the year 2040 there will remain just a few patches of forest here and there in the world.

These sorts of facts are now well-known and are just a small part of the expanding volume of data which contributes to a growing sense of environmental crisis. In most of the research literature on this modern problem, facts about species-extinction are interwoven with facts about global warming, the effects of acid rain, the pollution of air, soil and water, and the depletion of the ozone layer. These facts cannot be ignored and are not being ignored. There has been a response to all this information about environmental degradation. Industries have responded by cleaning up some of their operations and products, and governments have responded by introducing legislation to curb pollution, conserve energy, and slow down the rate of destruction of wild species and their habitats. International conferences have been organised with a view to achieving agreement on energy conservation and the preservation of ecological systems ('ecosystems'). Voluntary organizations such as Greenpeace and Earthwatch continually lobby governments, state agencies, and private businesses in an attempt to make people assume more responsibility for actions which cause irreversible impacts on the natural environment. In Ireland, the extent of environmental awareness was reflected in the European elections when the people elected two Green Party candidates to the European parliament.

But should there also be an ethical response to environmental crisis - a response at the level of the individual conscience? Rather than regard environmental degradation as a technical problem, or a problem that can be solved by legislation, should we all begin to develop a conscience about the way we act on our natural environment? And if we do begin to develop a conscience about the natural world, what will be the object of this new environmental conscience? Will it be nature itself? Or will it be ourselves? It is true that most of us are concerned about what's happening to the world, but is our concern a moral concern? And if it is a moral concern, what are the real grounds of this concern? Are we concerned about the human species exclusively, or are we concerned about nature in a more inclusive sense. Is there a sense in which it might be morally wrong to destroy an animal species or a plant species, or a wilderness or an ecosystem, regardless of whether such destruction has any consequences for human beings? The answers which environmentalist have offered to such questions are varied, ranging from the approach of the so-called 'shallow ecologists', who think that nature exists more or less for the benefit of human beings to the approach of the 'deep ecologists', who maintain that we need to think in a completely new way about nature, even to the extent of granting rights to all wild living things.

Deep Ecology

The distinction between shallow and deep ecologists was first made by Norwegian environmentalist and philosopher Arne Naess who defined a shallow ecologist as anyone whose concerns are confined to his fellow humans and to a narrow selection of nonhuman forms of life, mainly those which serve human purposes. What we need instead, in Naess's view, is an attitude of 'respect for nature' which will not be centred on human interest alone. His platform for the deep ecology movement includes the following formulations: (i) The flourishing of nonhuman life on Earth has as much intrinsic value as the flourishing of human life; (ii) The value of nonhuman species is independent of the usefulness these may have for narrow human purposes; (iii) The richness and diversity of the earth's life-forms are valuable in themselves and contribute in any case to the flourishing of all life on Earth, including human life; (iv) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except insofar as it is necessary to satisfy vital needs. (See Naess 1989: 29)

Although more recent deep ecologists may use a vocabulary which is different from that used by Naess, there are certain basic intuitions that mark off the deep ecologists as a group from their critics and opponents. One of their basic intuitions is that our dominant ethical codes and philosophies, especially our Western codes and philosophies, have been too concerned with how we treat other human beings and not concerned enough with how we should treat non-human beings, including animals, plants, and nature generally. Our dominant attitude is one of systematic. Just as we regard an individual as unethical if he is self-centred, if he always acts in his own interest, so we might say that the human species as a whole is unethical if it acts only in its own interest, to the detriment of other species. To value other species ethically will mean a complete revolution in human attitudes. It will mean overcoming thousands of years of speciesism. It will mean valuing other species for their own sakes, treating them as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means to human ends. If a species of animal or plant is to be preserved, it should be preserved for its own sake and not just for the sake of the human species. This is an even more radical position than it seems. It means that nonhuman species should be regarded as having a right to exist, a right not to be damaged or polluted or destroyed. The recognition of such a right would mean the advocacy of a new environmental ethic, a nature-centred moral code which would make it immoral to always place human interests before the interests of the rest of nature, especially wild nature.

The deep ecologists are critical of any form of environmentalism that is not nature-centred. They regard any form of environmentalism that is human-centred environmentalism as shallow - shallow, because it will tend to value wild species, wildernesses, and ecosystems only to the extent that they serve human needs and interests. Nature is still being perceived as a resource, as something to be used, exploited, or consumed, rather than as something to be respected. In the view of the deep ecologist, to perceive anything as exploitable or usable is already to perceive it unethically. A properly environmental ethic cannot be derived from such an attitude. The deep ecologist believes that nature must be respected as valuable in itself, regardless of its usefulness to human beings, regardless of its beauty or ugliness, regardless even of its interest to naturalists or scientists. The natural world is to be perceived as intrinsically or inherently valuable, and not merely as instrumentally valuable. The claim is that we ought to have the same kind of concern for nature in general as we have had historically for the human species. To regard other persons morally is to regard them as having inherent worth; analogously, to have the attitude of respect for nature is to regard the wild plants and animals of the earth as possessing similar inherent worth.

This kind of point lies at the centre of Paul Taylor's book, Respect for Nature. Taylor argues that an attitude of respect for nature commits us to perceiving wild animals and plants as having a 'good of their own' which human beings have a duty to respect. By adopting such an attitude, by regarding animals and plants as having a good of their own, we will be disposed not only to give respectful consideration to their existence but also to see ourselves as bearing a moral relationship to them. This would mean treating all wild living things as ends in themselves rather than as mere means to human ends. It would mean engaging in practices and policies which are aimed at specific ways of preserving natural ecosystems and of ensuring a physical environment that is as beneficial as possible to as many species as possible. Anyone who adopts such an attitude of respect will feel pleased about any occurrence that maintains the existence of the Earth's wild communities of life, and to feel displeased about any occurrence that does harm to living things.

The respecter of nature will want to say that nonhuman creatures have claims to life that are so deserving of recognition that they can come into conflict with the claims of human beings. In other words, humans cannot assume that they constitute the only species that has rights, or that all of nature is at their disposal. Respecters of nature will try to find what Taylor calls 'priority principles' for resolving conflicts between humans and nonhumans - principles which do not assign greater inherent worth to humans. One such principle suggested by Taylor is the principle of proportionality. According to this principle, if there is a conflict between the interests of human beings and the interests of nonhuman creatures, greater weight should be given to basic than to nonbasic interests. A basic interest in this context is a vital interest, the denial of which leads to death or serious injury; a nonbasic interest is one which may be denied without causing death, injury, or even major inconvenience. The sorts of actions which would be ruled out by this principle include
Slaughtering elephants so the ivory of their tusks can be used to carve items for the tourist trade.
Killing rhinoceros so that their horns can be used as dagger handles.
Picking rare wildflowers for one's private collection.
Capturing tropical birds, for sale as caged pets.
Trapping and killing animals such alligators and turtles for their skins and shells to be used in making 'fashion' products.
All hunting and fishing which is done as an enjoyable pastime, when such activities are not necessary to meet the basic interests of humans (Taylor 1986: 274).
In all of the above examples, the vital interests of animals or plants are sacrificed to the nonbasic interests - that is, recreational or 'luxury' interests - of human beings. This is incompatible with the attitude of respect for nature. Taylor's other priority principles are (i) the principle of self-defence; (ii) the principle of minimum wrong; (iii) the principle of distributive justice (not hogging the earth's resources for ourselves, habitat allocation, organic farming, waste kept to a minimum); and (iv) the principle of restitutive justice.

Shallow Ecology

How do the somewhat maligned shallow ecologist respond to the arguments of their deeper brethren. A recent critic of deep ecology has been the Australian philosopher John Passmore. Nothing is to be gained, in Passmore's view, by insisting that human beings share a moral community with the rest of nature:
Bacteria and human beings do not recognize mutual obligation, nor do they have common interests. In the only sense in which belonging to a community generates ethical obligation, they do not belong to the same community. To suggest, then ... that animals, plants, landscapes have a 'right to exist', is to create confusion. The idea of 'rights' is simply not applicable to what is non-human. (Passmore 1980: 116).
He is not convinced that there is anything evidently right about preserving biological diversity, or anything evidently wrong with destroying a whole species. It all depends, he thinks, on the species. Is it so obvious, he asks, that a universe consisting of human beings and a cobra is better than a universe consisting of human beings only? Should St. Patrick be condemned for driving the snakes out of Ireland? 'And if to drive them out of Ireland is worthy of praise, should it not be equally praiseworthy to drive them out of the world?' (119).

In Passmore's view, the core concepts of morality, such as the concept of rights, do not apply to something called Nature. Animals and plants, either individually or collectively, do not recognize mutual obligations, do not participate in the moral community. The claim that it is intrinsically wrong to cut down a tree, or clear a wilderness, or even destroy a species of animal or plant, is 'merely ridiculous.' It is ridiculous because it introduces a concept of morality which is barely intelligible to us, as if new moralities are the kinds of things that can be devised at will. One is reminded, he says, of the exchange between Glendower and Hotspur in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Pt.I:

Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man.
But will they come when you do call for them?

Calling for a new morality, for the recognition of the intrinsic worth of all living things, is like calling spirits from the vasty deep. It sounds fine and worthy but ultimately it is an ineffectual gesture. New moralities cannot be conjured out of the air anymore than spirits from the vasty deep. A morality can only grow out of existing practices, values, and attitudes of mind, as an extension or development of them. People who are concerned about the environment are therefore better off working with and within the value-systems that already exist in whatever cultural and ethical tradition they find themselves. For example, the idea of reverence for life which is promoted in the writing of some environmentalists is best understood as the development of an idea which is to be found in traditional religious and ethical thinking, namely, the idea of reverence for human life. It can be linked most specifically to the Jewish principle that it is wrong unnecessarily to destroy:

'Thou shalt not destroy' was indeed converted by Rabbinical commentators into a general moral principle. The eighteenth-century philosopher, Baumgarten, writing in the same tradition, condemns ... what he calls 'the spirit of destruction' or 'the habitual delight in the death of things' and urges that a man possessed by it be shunned. One could go at least this far: the moral onus is on anyone who destroys. This is particularly so when, as in the case of species, the destruction is irreversible. (124)

There is, then, such a thing as wanton destruction of nature, just as there is such a thing as wanton destruction of property or cultural artifacts. The reverence for non-human life which is demanded by deep ecologists can be seen as an extension of the sort of reverence people already feel for historical or cultural artifacts like works of art, monuments, or great buildings. This reverence is nothing radically new - it is embodied in the concept of 'vandalism'. Most cultures have a concept of vandalism, of wanton destructiveness of valued objects, and at the same time they cultivate attitudes of respect towards objects and places of antiquity. Such antiquities are 'time-honoured' - they are valued just because they are ancient and have earned their keep, as it were. It is arguable that this attitude of respect for time-honoured antiquities may be extended to things that are older than human time, things that are as old as the earth itself. If we can endorse a cultural taboo against the vandalizing of antiquities and works of art, we can also endorse a similar taboo against the needless destruction of nature's own antiquities, namely, wild species and wildernesses. As Passmore says, 'The man who cuts his name on a redwood is being a vandal, just as much as the man who scratches his initials on the portico of Wells Cathedral' (125).

In thinking along these lines, shallow ecologists go a long way with the deep ecologist - but they give different reasons for what they are doing. They advocate respect for nature, not because nature has rights, or has inherent worth or a good of its own, but because such an attitude is consistent with living a rational, moral and humane life. By destroying aspects of nature we risk our own health and the health of future generations, and also debase ourselves by being destructive, cruel, or simply insensitive.

A position similar to Passmore's has been taken by American philosopher Joel Feinberg. Feinberg asks what sorts of beings or things may be said to have rights, and bases his own answer on what he calls 'the interest principle.' The sorts of beings that can have rights are precisely those that have (or can have) interests. First, a holder of rights must be capable of either claiming rights or having its rights represented; second, a rights-holder must be capable of being a beneficiary in its own person. But a being or thing cannot be represented and cannot be a beneficiary if it has no interests because (a) a being without interests has no 'behalf' on which others might act, and (b) a being without interests is a being that is incapable of being benefitted or harmed, since it has no good or 'sake' of its own. Interests presuppose awareness, expectation, belief, desire, aim, and purpose: 'without awareness, expectation, belief, desire, aim, and purpose, a being can have no interests; without interests, it cannot be benefitted; without the capacity to be a beneficiary, it can have no rights' (Feinberg 1974: 61).

On the basis of this relationship between awareness, interest, and rights, Feinberg excludes vegetable life from the rights community. Trees and plants do not have even a rudimentary mental life; they do not therefore have interests; and if they do not have interests, they cannot be beneficiaries of any rules designed to protect them. And if they cannot be beneficiaries, they cannot have a right to protection. Trees and other plants are just not the sorts of things that can have their own 'sakes'. Having no conscious wants or goals of their own, trees cannot know satisfaction or frustration, cannot sense pleasure or pain. Hence, there is no possibility of kind or unkind treatment of trees. We may speak of plants thriving or flourishing, withering or languishing, but such idioms have to do with human perceptions and purposes, not with the self-perception or purposes of the plants themselves. We may also talk about the kinds of conditions that are in the interests of a plant but, again, these interests are assigned by human beings rather than by the plants themselves. To say that a tree needs sunshine and water is to say that without them it cannot continue to grow, but, according to Feinberg, 'unless the growth and survival of trees are matters of human concern, affecting human interests, practical or aesthetic, the needs of trees alone will not be the basis of any claim of what is "due" them in their own right' (54). The needs in question are assigned needs, related to human perceptions and interests; they are not the felt needs of the plants themselves.

The only part of the nonhuman world that can be said to have rights is the animal world, according to Feinberg. Animals, especially the so-called higher animals, have appetites, needs, sentience, awareness, and the capacity to feel pain, frustration, or deprivation. They have interests which can be represented by human beings; they can be the beneficiaries of rights and can be harmed if their interests are neglected. Although Feinberg is reluctant to say that all animals have rights, he nonetheless accepts that animals are the sorts of beings of whom rights can meaningfully be predicated or denied. There are certainly ways of treating animals that may be described as immoral for the reason that they are cruel or wantonly destructive. It does not follow, however, that animal species have rights. Individual elephants can have interests but the elephant species do not have interests because a species, if it is an entity, is not the sort entity that can have interests. (By the same logic, the human species, considered as a species, does not have interests either.) Therefore, the elephant species does not have rights, not even the right to survive. This does not mean that the species ought not be protected. It means only that the argument for its protection must be based on other grounds. We can say, for example, that we have a duty to protect threatened species, not in the sense of duties to the species themselves as such, 'but rather duties to future human beings, duties derived from our housekeeping role as temporary inhabitants of this planet' (56).

If Feinberg is right, then the claims of deep ecologists - especially the claim that nature has rights - cannot be sustained. We cannot claim that rivers, mountains, forests, wildernesses, ecosystems have rights, or that human beings have a duty towards them. We cannot even claim that species have rights. If we are to make a case for preserving wildernesses, ecosystems, and wild species it will have to be on human-centred grounds, including economic, scientific, or aesthetic grounds. To the question, 'Do we need an environmental ethic?' Feinberg would reply that such an ethic is untenable if it is going to be based on the belief that nature has rights or interests that can be represented. If we are going to be concerned for the environment, it should be in terms of our own interests and values as human beings; and if we are going to call this an ethical concern, it can only be on the basis that damaging the environment sometimes involves cruelty to sentient creatures, and puts the life and health of future generations of human beings at risk. If we wish to use the term 'duty' in this context, it can only be in the sense that we may have duties regarding animals that are not at the same time duties to animals, just as we may have duties regarding rocks, or buildings, or lawns, that are not duties to the rocks, buildings, or lawns. (Cf. Kant, Lectures on Ethics)

The deep ecologist will argue that the shallow approach is unethical because it is not nature-centred - that we should have the same respect for nature that we have had traditionally for the human species. There is one major problem, however, with this sort of claim. It does not seem possible to model our relationship with nature on the relationship we have with each other as members of the same species. It is not just because morality involves some degree of mutual recognition of obligation, but because a nature-centred environmental ethic would require us to relate to our environment in ways which would, on the face of it, make our own natural lives impossible. It is precisely because of our biological, creaturely, animal natures that we cannot respect (the rest of) nature in the way that we may respect each other. It is significant that when we wish to state graphically the extent to which one person disrespects another we say: He walked all over her. To walk on someone, in some figurative if not literal sense of the term, is to show great disrespect for her. Yet, this is what we must do to get about in the (non-human) world - walk on it, step on it, make holes in it, dig into it, plough it up, mine it, bury rubbish in it. We must also destroy things that grow on the earth and out of the earth if we are to eat; having eaten we must expel waste from our bodies, which will always cause some degree of pollution, even if at a very local level.

In the course of exercising our nature-given, if not God-given, human intelligence we also create or manufacture all sorts of objects which increase the production of waste matter. Of course, we must control and manage all of this pollution, but it is not possible for us to opt for zero-pollution, zero-waste, zero-consumption, or zero-destruction (in the way that we can opt for zero-murder or zero-dishonesty). To put it another way, it is not possible for us to opt for absolute conservation or absolute preservation (in the way that we can opt for absolute respect for each other's lives, or absolute honesty). To opt for absolute conservation would mean never making use of any part of the natural world, or seeing any part of it as a resource. Everything would have to be left as it is, not used, worked on, or consumed. Likewise with absolute preservation. To opt for absolute preservation - at least in the sense of preserving every specimen of every species - would mean never consuming any part of any other species, whether animal or plant. Which would mean that you could never eat, or at least not with a good conscience. Even walking about on the surface of the earth would become a source of moral anxiety, since we frequently damage small-scale plant and animal life when we move around in the natural world, even when we do so carefully. For these sort of reasons, we cannot entirely agree with Kant when he says that destructiveness is immoral. Certainly, wanton or unnecessary destruction is immoral, but the level of destructiveness that it takes to pull up a plant, break it apart and eat it - or perhaps to kill an animal and eat it - is a necessary level of destructiveness for a species that, like all other creaturely species, has to take its sources of energy from outside itself. An attitude of respect for nature which would be on a par with our prescribed respect for other members of our species would make it impossible for us to do live, since living implies the relatively destructive activity of eating and the relatively or potentially polluting activity of excreting waste matter from our bodies. We are not pure spirits, at least not in our biological manifestation, and we must hunt and gather and harvest, and find shelter, and clothe ourselves, and make some arrangement for the carrying away and dispersal within the natural world of our bodily waste.

Once we unpack all the implications of what it is to live, then we see that that we must regard some parts of nature as sources of food and energy. We must see that some of these sources are going to be things that are themselves alive, even if only as plants. We see also that we must compete with other species for relatively scarce resources such as clean water and land, that we must deliberately grow things purely for our own good rather than for the good of the things themselves, that we must sometimes treat other species as means to our ends rather than as ends in themselves. If we treated everything in nature as an end in itself we could not justify our own survival, or for that matter the survival of other living species, since all living species survive and flourish at the expense of some members of some other species, whether it be other animal species or species of plant life. There is a very serious limit to the kind of respect we can have for the things that we eat, just as there would be a rather serious limit to the kind of respect a cannibal could have for the other human beings that he kills and eats. This does not mean that we do not have duties with regard to nature. We do. I would go so far as to say that we should adopt Taylor's five priority principles, despite the fact that they come from a deep ecologist. But, as Kant was the first to point out, we do not have duties to nature, if by 'duties' we mean the sorts of duties we have towards other human beings. If we must use the term 'respect' it should be in a suitably qualified sense, a sense qualified by our understanding of ourselves as animals who could not survive in a world of absolute conservation or absolute preservation.

We share with other animals, then, the need to eat, defecate, and do all those things which bring us into relatively destructive and relatively pollutant relationships with some parts or elements of nature. It does not follow, of course, that we have an absolute right to destroy and pollute. Human beings don't just lead an animal or natural life. They lead a kind of double life - an animal life certainly, but also a cultural life; an animal life in which they interact with nature like any other animal, but also a cultural life in which they stand back from nature the better to understand it, appreciate it and marvel at it through science, art, poetry, and other reflective practices. One of the things that makes us distinctively human is our ability to marvel at existence itself, including the existence of nature. As Emily Dickinson said, to live is so startling it leaves little room for other occupations. This is the cultural, distinctively human, reflective sense of 'live'. To live in this sense is to be the kind of person, the kind of being that is startled by the very existence of the world, and who feels diminished by anything that threatens the existence of that world, anything that makes that world a less marvellous place in which to live. What is immoral in this context is not our failure to love nature for its own sake but, rather, our failure to love nature for our own human sakes. Our tendency to over-exploit and damage nature is not so much a sign of a lack of love for nature as a sign of a lack of love for ourselves. Just as we show disrespect for ourselves as individuals when we let our own dwelling places become filthy, stinking, and obnoxious, so it shows lack of love for ourselves as a species when we let the natural world become filthy, stinking, and obnoxious. I am inclined the think, therefore, that a conscientious shallow ecology, precisely because it is human-centred, can deliver more or less the same results as a thorough-going deep ecology, and can do so without committing us to some form of anti-humanism. What we need is a shallow ecology that is deep enough to make us value the natural diversity of the world but not so deep that we undervalue our own duties to ourselves as a natural species. What we need is not so much a new environmental ethic as a new environmental ethos - i.e., an outlook which is as fully appreciative of the natural world as is consistent with our need to survive in it, and which registers horror at any activity which causes the needless destruction of non-human species.


Bastable, Jonathan & Hincker, Jean (1991). 'Leaves from the history books,' The Sunday Times Magazine, June 30.

Feinberg, Joel (1974). 'The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations,' in William T. Blackstone, ed., Philosophy and Environmental Crisis, Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Naess, Arne (1989). Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Passmore, John (1980). Man's Responsibility for Nature, 2nd ed., London: Duckworth.

Taylor, Paul (1986). Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

© Tom Duddy, 1997.

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