My lecturer asked us to think about the possibility of an environmental ethic. What follows is a post meant for my study benefit. I add it here because I think it is an interesting topic that many do not think enough on.
In order to adequately answer the question, I wish to make a few parts of it clear. What is an environmental ethic and what could be meant by the word possible. If ethics is an evolutionary phenomenon that develops as our society develops then it is definitely possible for larger and larger ethics to take place. For the moral circle to extend beyond humans.
As there are many environmental ethics I shall focus on the second question first. If ethics is an evolutionary phenomenon that develops as our society develops then it is definitely possible for larger and larger ethics to take place. Environmental ethics is simply a theory of morality that extends moral accountability to from individual humans to animals, plants, the land and the whole system. I stress the ordering of these as one may follow Peter Singer and decide that sentience is the requirement for moral countability and therefore only higher animals are included. One may take the view of Schweitzer or Taylor and say that it is all living things that matter simply because they are living and have interests (biologically) of their own. Or we could say that it is the energy that all living things consume and convert that is what matters. Therefore life and the land matter. Or, we could take a holistic approach and say that it is not just the individual that matters but also the whole. This view, held by Leopold, Calcalliot, Hettinger and Throop, emphasise that the value of a whole cannot be broken down into its individual parts.
I am going to argue that it is possible to adopt any of these views and that the view we should adopt is a holistic one that runs parallel to the individualistic one that we currently have.
The word possible is a very weak one. It only requires for event A to have some statistical probability in order for it to happen. In that regard, all of these views are possible for us to take on as a new ethic as all of them are feasible options that extend the circle of moral concern to more than just humans. What we should be concerned with is whether they are plausible and whether they are practical. If an ethic is plausible it means that it is likely to be taken. The question of whether an ethic is practical is actually a pseudo-question. It’s a question that is not really one you can ask. Ethics are not practical.
It would be convenient if I could rob someone of the groceries that I wanted to buy instead of having to work a job to earn a living to be able to pay for those same items at the store. Ethics are not practical in the sense that they forbid many of the easiest and most self-beneficial routes. And any ethic that argues for individualism over holism has to take this into account. The only reason ethics could be practical is if they helped us all get along as one functioning whole. Even at present, our universal system of ethics (human rights) is designed to benefit the whole, despite its individualistic emphasis. An ethic is only practical in regards to the stability of the whole. On that point, all ethics, apart from a holistic ethic, fail miserably.
The only practical ethic is one that emphasises the whole. Anthropocentric ethics only take into account human society and fail to account for animals. Sentience extends the moral sphere to those who can feel pain. Typically a utilitarian view but one that fails to account for the difference between living and non-living things. A will-to-live approach encompasses all life but leads to chaos if the whole is not given equal or greater moral status. An ethic that emphasises the whole but does not account for the value of its individuals will collapse in on itself precisely because it gives no value to the individuals. I know that I am of no importance to the universe as a whole, to the earth as a biotic unit, or to society as a working member because I can easily be replaced. The value of the systems that we are part of is far greater than the sum value of all of us (humans and non-humans alike). Take apart an engine and what are you left with? Isolated individual parts. Even if you try to put them together there is only one way in which you will succeed. Every part needs to be in the right place and next to pieces that are able to fit alongside each other. All the parts of an engine work together towards a common goal. They all work as a whole. Individual parts can be replaced in order for the whole to function. Just like in our society, we constantly change governments like the engine replaces parts.
I advocate a holistic position because it means the survival of our biotic community. I would say that all life matters. I would not say that all life is equal. Those who can feel pain (those who are sentient) deserve not to be inflicted any pain (and by pain I mean both physical and psychological pain). Multicellular organisms like plants and animals are equatable to whole systems. You have a mass of individual cells each performing different functions in order to achieve a common goal. The lives of a chicken and a bacteria are not equal. One of the main issues with a life-centred approach is the emphasis on egalitarianism. Effectively equalising moral accountability between germs and humans. And this is merely the logical extension of their view, most ethicists that argue for a life centred approach stop at plants. They are right to respect the life of a germ but no more than they would of walking. Arguably the greatest necessity of life is the taking of other lives. Some animals depend on plants for survival. Some animals depend on the killing of other animals for their own continued survival. Life needs other life in order to sustain life. Taking of life should only be done when necessary, provided it does not harm the existence of the whole. If there were an exotic breed of antelope that the lions loved to feed on, that was going extinct due to human actions but played a key role in sustaining the ecosystem, then we are justified in moving away the lions and preventing them from eating those buck. We, as enlightened members of the whole, should only be permitted to interfere with wild parts of the whole, if we have previously had some impact in that area. If we introduce an alien plant into the forest, we are obligated to removing all instances of that plant if it threatens the whole. But if we are to stick to this view then if a bird were to drop the exact same seed into the exact same forest and it caused an identical consequence but without any influence from mankind, we are not allowed to interfere.
This view could be called stratified or hierarchical holism due to its structure. The whole is what is most important and its continued survival is what every individual organism is aiming for. Note, the ‘whole’ of which I speak, does include the land but does not allocate any direct obligations to the land. After decreases in the size of the whole, from a planetary view, to a continental view, and eventually to an ecospheric view, we get living organisms. Up first, comes sentient creatures. Those that can feel pain deserve not to have that pain inflicted upon them. If no harm is inflicted then there is nothing done wrong to them. In the case of humans, we already have human rights, this view just extends the moral sphere to include all life and the greater whole which it is a part of. It does not replace human rights, but expands on them and extends them – animal rights. Second, comes non-sentient life forms. This group is split into two. The upper part, multicellular, the lower part unicellular. The reason for this is that each cell wills to live and forms a collective unit which also wills to live. Below this is the land. The land we do not owe any direct duty towards but is still due respect for it is the medium through which all life arose and is sustained from.
What would taking this view necessarily impose? What would it result in? How would it change the way we (as humans) act, interact, judge? Are there any serious objections or concerns with this view? Is it still a plausible view?
By saying that all life matters morally, we demand consideration for all forms of life. The hierarchical view implies that the most important moral aspect is the whole while the least important are single-celled organisms. We owe a direct duty to the system first and all its parts second. One objection to this view is that it implies that if a species is causing damage to the whole, then it should be eliminated. Humans are one such example of this. They cause massive destruction to the planet. If we only had moral countability of the whole then we would be forced to quell the species until it reached a point when it was no longer able to threaten the whole but still be able to pursue their own will-to-live. We owe greater duty to the whole than we do to the individuals but that is not to say that the individuals must suffer at the cost of the whole. The example of humans points out one necessary implication of this theory. Seeing as humans amass far too many in number, for the planet and for their own sake, the systems first approach demands that we lessen their number. The law of minimal force and not to harm, demand that we do not kill off any humans but control the population better.
This view is set out as such as to allow for human and societal development. We may interfere with an ecosystem in order to build a school, or a hospital, provided the following two criteria have been met. First that there is no other space in already existing areas that could be used for the school. We must not think of developing the wild unless there is no other option. Second, we must restabilise the balance. If we chop down thirty trees in order to build the school, then we must not just replant those trees but also all the small systems that are dependent on that area.
A global acceptance of this view would result in a harmonious relationship between man and nature. It would set equal boundaries between humans and all animals that show a reaction when hurt. It would cause our actions to consider not just the other human, but also the environment and all the systems contained within. The only difference this view would make in terms of how we judge, would be what we include as carrying moral value. It supposes that all beings able to understand morality and act upon what we term moral, are the beings that can be held morally accountable for their actions.
The main obstruction to this view is humanity; our present human mentality of enlightened self-interest. But the best way to get past that is in the accepting of this very view and the understanding that the greater whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts.
Is it still a possible viewpoint? Yes, I think that once the main obstruction of this view has cleared it is not just a possible view, but one that is likely to be accepted.