Environmental Ethics

As the human relationship with the natural world has changed over the last 1-2 million years or so, we find ourselves asking questions about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that never would have occurred to, or been needed by, our ancestors. For example:

Do animals have rights? Or trees for that matter?
Is there such a thing as intrinsic value in nature?
What is the difference between killing different living things: bacteria, an oak tree, a housecat, a species, or a human being?

Questions such as these are at the heart of environmental ethics. My questions to the forum (not necessarily those listed above) are two:

  1. What form should an an environmental ethic take (rights-based, utilitarian, care)?

  2. How will this ethic be negotiated between people with very different beliefs about the role that humans have in the natural world?

Many will say that animals don’t have rights because they have no responsibilities. This is typical of people who favor responsibilities over rights–(implying that the ones with more wealth get more rights). I say that rights determine responsibilities, and it is a primal responsibility to always secure our rights (this avoids the elitist logic that responsibilities determine rights, which are not rights in that instance, but are mere privileges if not afforded to all).

However, just because someone (such as a desert tortoise) cannot secure rights, that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve protection from someone else’s perceived right or privilege to destroy their last remaining habitat and build a strip mall. Humans obviously have to decide early on what policy to pursue, obviously the earlier the better. Should it always be a democratic decision? If yes, why?

Like most technology ethics, when humans intrude into nature, we advantage ourselves if we base these decisions on public policies, not private ones. A few people should not be allowed to fish out all the waters, or pollute them at our expense, or cut down all the trees necessary for our long-term economic survival.

Currently, wild animals and trees are barely protected under “commons” economics involving public lands and basic democratic processes. This means we will perhaps note their extinction with a modicum of resistence, but it also means that we freely allow them to come right to the edge of extinction. In theory, democratic control of natural commons areas are supposed to be difficult to exploit, but there are money ways around it as we know.

Ultimately, it is a human value, of course. Do we naturally identify with other species? What about pests and weeds? What does it mean to do so or not to do so? If animals were extended rights, by human consensus, that would also be legal and binding. But the logic to do this would not be economic, and would not necessarily be ethics based, and would have to reach back into pagan taboos to find precedent for it. Logic doesn’t legislate emotion to well. The only hope I can see for animals and forests is detailed education of nature and the appreciation it affords.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t rely on or put trust in emotion-based ethics, because it ends up contradicting itself through the selfishness it affords (monotheism is prime example). Just as human ethics are based on democracy, so are animals, but perhaps in currently unknown ways. I firmly believe that if humans were free, living in ideal democratic conditions of free education and proper population management, that by extension nature would be valued for what is really is as an extension of freedom and intellect. If we suddenly demand supply-side elitist protection of wild lands, like in the feudal days, we will not be allowed to know it or enjoy it, and animals would be no higher than most humans to them. Also, supply-side environmentalism has other problems, mainly, that it is the least sudden protection with the most fickle longevity (a band-aid) and elitism it is usually the method which created the problem.

I neglected to expand on something in my last post. Education and appreciation about nature can be best be accomplished by never learning to fear or despise nature in the first place, and allowing a healthy instinct to develop unimpeded. This learning to loathe nature is not usually done in schools, but in other social institutions.

Even in popular culture, civilization is often assumed as better than or opposed to nature, even though it relies on it to exist. In popular films, such as Jaws and ET to name two from Spielberg, nature is demonized by default, explicitly in Jaws, but implicitly in ET where the anima is an extraterrestrial, and human nature is left wanting a higher external order. ET, the movie, contradicts itself by implying that humans need to dissect anything to understand it, thematically (by implication) blaming this on our innate human nature and not on our artificial higher order self-esteem.

Hmmm… you’ve offered a lot to digest. Thanks! Sadly, I don’t have time to respond in detail now–my lovely wife rightfully objects when I spend more time with my computer than I do with her. As such, I’m off-line for the night.

However–a closing salvo, I will comment that I think you’re right on about the Humans versus “The other” in terms of how this plays out in discourse about obligations or (softer) responsibilities towards nature. I made a similar comment in another posting where Us/Them distinctions allowed for essentially different applications of ethics to those within (Us) and to those outside (Them) the group. So, if nature is presently conceived of as some other, and I do believe that it is, then this, perhaps, explains why we need not be pressed into some environmental ethics. Unfortunately this conception of nature as some other is itself a relatively recent perspective–a remenant of Cartesian dualisms (mind/body, male/female, reason/emotion, and culture/nature). Yet, despite its newness, “nature as other” has had far reaching and deeply harmful results–witness deforestation in the tropics, loss of biodiversity, land fills, etc.

The rights aspect of environmental ethics is indeed troubling and I’m not quite sure how to operationalize something like rights. It’s easy to talk about animal rights, but we don’t consider those rights with the same force as human rights or civil rights. So what are they?

Well, that’s enough for now. I look forward to more perspectives tomorrow.

Yes, I also think the mind-body problem is world-self oriented. I think these basic distinctions manifested themselves even before Descartes, in Greek philosophy as essence versus existence, stasis versus change, theory versus practice, (“what-it-is” versus “how-it-is”). Perhaps theory/essence affords the most lucrative view under a currency system. Anyway, what if we avoid all contra-distinctions and see it as a religious problem of having an invisible “humanoid” creator?

I support what your saying generally Brian B, however before you get too deep into the “a religious problem of having an invisible “humanoid” creator?” you should bare in mind that most ‘primitive’ peoples believe in humanoid creators yet many have a very deep connection with the land and no concept of nature and mankind.
It seems to be more agriculturalist gods that encourage this dualism.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical
concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by
complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures
through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather
magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for
their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so
far below ourselves. And therein we err, we greatly err. For the
animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more
complete, gifted with extension of the senses we have lost or never
attained, living by voices we shall never hear, they are not
brethren, they are not underlings. They are other nations, caught
with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the
splendor and travail of the earth.” -Henry Beston

And that pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject.


I hate to be such a fickle participant in my own thread, but I think I’m going to be occupied by different sorts of meetings today.

A number of Native perspectives have been discussed among environmental ethicists/philosophers as an area to mine for a more ecocentric or holistic approach to environmental ethics. Keith Basso’s book, Wisdom Sits In Places illustrates a land ethic employed by the Apache in Arizona where their own (human-human ethics) are inextricably tied to the land scape. Their practice of “place naming” evokes at once a visual image of some place on the landscape as well as a story with a moral to be learned. An interesting take indeed.

Vine DeLoria has written extensively on differences between Native American religions in general as they contrast with traditional western religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. His take is that Native Americans religions (again, in general) are typically spatially oriented where the land and specific places on the land mean something, while Christianity (and to a certain extent Judaism and Islam) are typically temporally oriented. This focusing on time rather than space leads adherents to these religions to disregard the importance of the land in favor of some future event.

The Navajo talk of an ethics of harmony where what is ‘good’ in the ethical sense is that which promotes harmony on the land. (I’ll try to find a citation for this later).

A short summary is that Native traditions seem to encourage a clearer environmental ethic. However, a number of other factors quickly come into play. For instance, why are ethics created in the first place? Perhaps the Native Americans didn’t truly need an environmental ethics in the way that we, arguably, need one now. Ethics arise from value. Value accrues when we are faced with scarcity. In most of what we know about Native American history, they didn’t have to deal with scarcity in any large sense.

Off to meetings…

Brian, I’ve got a few moments to respond to something you wrote in your first post.

I wonder if you could expand upon your thoughts about rights and responsibilities. You say that many people believe that animals don’t have rights because they have no responsibilities. What about human infants or the severely mentally disabled? I think most would agree that those two classes of people possess rights without responsibilities. So, I’m not sure that responsibilities or lack thereof would preclude someone or something from having rights. My feeling is that it is simply much more difficult to assign rights to animals (at this point I’ll confine my discussion to higher order animals, excluding oysters, insects and amoeba and other such critters). It’s more difficult because where there is a right there must likewise exist a duty. As soon as I say that you or that human infant has a right, then I must act in such a way to protect that right. We haven’t been able to assign rights to animals because we would presumably find ourselves consistently ignoring or violating those duties that go along with it. We’ve got too much experience treating animals as means to some other end–normally food. And if they are just means to another end, then a right would prohibit us from achieving that end. Note that some vegetarians are able quite easily to uphold the rights of animals by not eating meat or using other animal products. But what path is left for the rest of us. Is there a way to act more responsibly without going the route of rights?

Also note that concerns over the welfare of individual animals is but one aspect of environmental ethics–what about ethics towards rivers or species or ecosystems? What principles, if any, should we rely on with respect to these types of things?

I agree that Navajo’s have a totally foreign conception of language-time. It was even explained to me twice by an Anglo Navajo speaker and I still don’t remember all the details, it was that different. For me, rather than believe that Navajo’s have a concerted ethics (being shepherds no less) I would accept that Navajo speakers see the world very differently regardless, not discouting that this would effect their ethics, but perhaps voiding the desire for detailed ethics. IMO, most Native American religion and ethics has been heavily influenced by Europeans, including the concept of the “Great Spirit” (but not their language directly).


As for this “humanoid” creator, I admit this was too brief. Here is a more detailed explanation from the beginning: Let’s assume a primitive conception of pantheism. Many Gods that featured animal powers, for instance. Let’s also assume that the concept of transcendental spirit had not yet reached their shores (Plato invented it). Where do these many gods exist? In nature, I presume. I assume that “Animists” were thus named by Europeans not because trees, places and animals were necessarily believed to have spirits, but rather, to have identity, but seen by a European to contain spirit. (I don’t pretend to understand the primitive mind, just the European conception of it). Anyway, I assume that the earliest gods, as they took on human forms, were assumed to live in nature–in hard to find places however, such as waterfalls, tops of mountains, clouds, etc. The Europeans explored the entire world, and commonly claim that God, a perfect humanoid, is and was always off-planet.
. . .

Anyway, I assume that myths such as Noah’s ark are key to changing the early conceptions of animals. Just as Adam and Eve represent the colonial change from hunting-gathering to ranching-farming (sin, nakedness, shame, “garden-paradise,” work, etc), Noah’s Ark represents the saving of all useful animals, thereby introducing patriarchy, monogamy, and seed concepts, and thereby having husbandry rights to animals, women, seeds, (The Sumerian version had only farm animals, but the Genesis version uses measurement suspiciously, as if introducing fencing/farming concepts).

And, yes, even the tower of Babel comments on the natural strife of civilization, the tower representing the star-gazing observatories of Babylon, astronomer/priests discovering order in heaven, and by default, chaos on earth, related to an unexplained curse against possible order of owner/labor hierarchy. (these myths have all been spin-santized and can all be read two ways, primitively/symbolically or monotheistically/literally). Bottom line: Order/chaos, light/dark, good/evil, all became the “primitive” bifurcation that allowed for humans to freshly see the world as cvilized monotheistic man versus savage sinful nature. The fact that Adam and Eve cleared their paradise to make a farm, by sin, has everything to do with yearning to get back to paradise.

Perhaps a new (although original) environmental ethics has to be built by first tearing down the former one first.

C’mon, if there was really supposed to be connect the dot drawings in the sky then there’d be little numbers next to the stars. :stuck_out_tongue:


I am likewise curious about the mentally handicapped. The responsibilities rests on the parents as some kind of curse even though the state prevents them from being terminated, or even unplugged from life support (I’m talking brain-dead people here). Also, people are not allowed to end their own life officially. That is a right reserved by the state, even in America.

Assuming public and private bodies, and political rights and responsibilities, each has implications about the other. What are those reserved group rights, powers and controls as opposed to group obligations or deferences or responsibilities to individuals and their rights, even those that could threaten the group? For instance, the much harped about “personal responsibility” in any given situation, disassumes public responsibility. But what about personal and public rights?

Note: personal responsibility does not automatically imply personal rights, perhaps to the contrary (it may even allow their denial in via the alternatives). When a person is responsible to their behavior or for their own provision or education or whatever, it implies a public right to force that person to be responsible (prison?) and to disclaim any appeal due to their lack of self-provision or self-education.

Additionally, a personal right would preclude or eliminate an identical public right. So, to posit personal rights AND personal responsibilities as a totality eliminates the public entirely (a libertarian view). Likewise, to posit public rights AND public responsibilities eliminates the personal involvement (communism) and both entail self-canceling contradictions (that is another post, but suffice to say that if a communist government has the right to eliminate personal voting, who then can make them be responsible to the public? Also, in libertarianism, if the public has no collective rights, what compact then can protect personal rights?).

As such, within a democratic republic of majority rule, there are two ways viewing this politic without canceling majority rule either way:

A. Public rights and personal responsibilities,


B. Public responsibilities and personal rights.

The latter (B) is how I believe Jefferson saw it as opposed to the Tory view, which presented political tyranny as making gift-payments to wealthy kings. To him, people were naturally free as a social contract, and governments were the political compacts that enabled it, not competed with it. The modern neo-conservative view (A) is non-egalitarian and often boldly elitist against the majority, where wealth and power is conserved by public rights (without extending it’s responsibilities), and where personal rights are afforded by other means (money) which is conserved by not affording public responsibilities (anti-taxation). The conservative view is not self-defeating per se, but is often illogical or deceptive by necessity to promote itself and leads to a third-world situation in my view.

None of the above DOES NOT EXCLUDE the possibility of a valid so-called “communistic” or “libertarian” interpretation of an existing scenario acknowledging majority rule, such as animal rights, welfare, drugs, guns, or abortion. For instance, in a libertarian view of abortion it is valid to say that there should be no law against it (personal right), and no provision for the baby (personal responsibility). Also, a valid communistic view would be to prevent abortions (public right to outlaw), and therefore provide for the baby (public responsibility). These are logical in the scenario provided. What is illogical is the scenario where a law prevents abortion, and no provision is allowed for the baby (conservative, which also applies to mentally handicapped). The world-standard liberal scenario to allow abortion and allow provision for the baby is consistent with dissuasion of abortion and promotion of responsible breeding at the same time.

What about the main environment? These are public and personal domains. There needs to be public responsibility to support wild habitats, public right to ban exploitation, personal responsibility to understand nature, and personal rights to cohabit and enjoy nature (this last one is very controversial). Why? Because anything less leads to waste and suffering. We cannot use abundance as an excuse to enlarge humanity–that abundance is long-term storage. There is no logical reason to exploit habitat for short-term capital gain. It cannot be said to provide jobs, because they are temporary (and it is not even a capitalistic reason, hence disingenuous). Also, if the use of the habitat negates the habitat, then it is an elimination of resources, not merely a waste of them.

Cutting down a tree to make a house is a conservation of energy (the house lasts the life of the tree) but to cut a tree for making disposable paper simply means that the newspapers will logically not be engaged in conservation issues. Water and air issues are even easier to debate since they entail public health issues which trump all personal rights. Fisheries have a long-term optimal output to consider through conservation management, which we are well below optimum output within US jurisdictions. Also, it is invalid to suggest that the public cannot prove ozone depletion and global warming, and therefore cannot limit it. The burden of proof for ozone depletion and global warming does not fall squarely on the public, but on the industries that create the problem. They must be responsible to prove what they do does not harm the ozone and cause global warming since it is their action to pollute.

Notice that personal responsibility is nicely confused with corporations, since a corporation does not attempt to assume personal liability but is shielded from such under corporate laws. Also, notice that public responsibility is corporately asserted in many corporate failures, cleanups, and burden of toxic proof. (How convenient for them). There is an ethical dilemma in cheerleading the success of our potential overlords, which leads me to conclude that equality solves and prevents more UNKNOWN problems than known, simply by democratizing technology, which would be used against us by default. Thus I think that enviro-ethics needn’t be learned as a solution, but as a preventive. There have been civilizations that did not oppose nature (ancient Greece for one) and these are generally viewed as barbaric by supply-side religious civilizations.


You got me thinking of exactly how a lunar zodiac ended up with animal motifs in space.