Is it wrong (morally) to cut down a tree?

The intention of this post is slightly different to what I had intended when I first created this site, but I am glad that it has developed into a place where I can post on topics that relate to all of my interests. 

A discussion to assist me in my studies.

Is it wrong (morally) to cut down a tree?

What would Schweitzer say on this matter?
What would Taylor say?


Schweitzer speaks of revering nature and illustrates it as a holy, spiritual attitude. He affirms that one must do what one can to perpetuate all life. He says that that is good. He says that to hinder, and destroy life is evil. However, he fails to assert the notion of why all that has a will-to-live is intrinsically valuable, but for the purpose of answering this question, I shall not delve into a critique on his theory only on its application. He does recognise that all life is interdependent and that no life can survive without the killing of another. We all need to eat to sustain our own will-to-live. Here he makes the claim that one should only kill if it is necessary but he makes no distinction between what counts as necessary killing and what does not.

Schweitzer would argue that it is ‘evil’ to cut down a tree if it was not necessary. For the most part, I cannot see why it would be necessary. Taylor (whom I will get to shortly) advocates that all basic interests are equal but that it is okay for we (humans) to build schools and hospitals provided we restore the balance somewhere else. Taylor seems to have a contradictory belief here and I am, as of this moment, still unsure of precisely what he means by this. Why does the non-essential, but still basic, interest that humans have in education trump the accumulative interests of a section of a biotic community? I want it to be clear that every living thing that is alive, has a will-to-live. We can infer this merely by watching plant and animals endeavouring to pursue what they need to sustain themselves. Interests, in this sense, are biological.

Taylor speaks of a very similar story. He speaks of respect for nature as an ethic and not as a spiritual ideal. Hi four essential elements of the Biocentric Outlook on Nature are; Membership – recognising that we are all parts of the biotic community that depend on one another; which takes us to the second essential factor, Interdependence – we depend on each other for our own survival. Third where a strong tie to Schweitzer’s will-to-live comes in, Taylor makes the claim that we are all teleological centres of life (to pursue one’s telos is to pursue one’s purpose). And all of this means that we must deny the arbitrary idea of human superiority that has been passed down through generations and no matter which way you cut it, it does not stand up as a valid claim. Taylor also goes further and develops his theory into a much more practical and much more complex system. He gives us good reason to accept a biocentric outlook on life. . . if we can accept those four principles. Many people struggle to deny their superiority. The issue I am concerned with though is if there is actually any species in wild nature, like what Taylor is focussing on, that depends on us. I fail to see the niche role that humans fill in the biotic pyramid of life. Humans are not niche creatures that fit only one role either. And excluding all those which we have forced to be dependent on us, there is no creature, to my knowledge, that needs humans to live. So how far does that interdependency go?

Taylor also gives us a good theory of Rules and Standards as well as Standards of Character that work not only with his view, but can mostly be applied to our current everyday lives. But I digress. . .

In Taylor’s view, the tree has a clear well fare interest. Being not to be chopped down as it would prevent it from fulfilling its telos. However, if it were that we had to chop down the tree and we replanted it elsewhere, or uprooted it and moved it to a more convenient place (for both us and the tree) then it would be okay. We may be breaking the rules of non-interference and nonmaleficence but we would be respecting the rule of reconstitutive justice – therefore, it would be okay.

In my opinion, it is a matter of why the tree has  to be chopped down. If it is because the tree is harbouring a deadly parasite or some source of great potential harm, then yeah kill it kill it with fire. But even then, only if the fire would, in fact, reduce the quantity of (potential) harm caused, then one must still replant the tree and allow for all that which is dependent on the tree to relocate into a suitable environment where they can pursue their own interests. I am presently of the opinion that if it is to avoid a greater amount of harm being caused, then it is justified. However, if it is because someone wants a ‘better’ view, then shame. Be it for a school or any piece of architecture, I say that it is possible to incorporate, at the bare minimum, the tree into the design so that the tree itself if not interfered with and again, I urge that all that which is dependent on the tree be reallocated their due.


Works referred to are by:

Taylor – “The Ethics of Respect for Nature”
Cicovacki – “Reverence for Life: A Moral Value of the Moral Value (in which he speaks of Albert Schweitzer’s reverence for Life)


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