The use and abuse of ecological concepts in environmental ethics

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<ul><li><p>Biodiversity and Conservation 4, 812-826 (1995) </p><p>The use and abuse of ecological concepts in environmental ethics ALAN HOLLAND Department of Philosophy. Furness College. Lancaster University, Lancaster LA 1 4YG. UK </p><p>Received 28 October 1994; revised and accepted 7 April 1995 </p><p>This paper looks at some of the ways in which environmental philosophers have sought to press ecological concepts into the service of environmental ethics. It seeks to show that although ecology plays a major role in opening our eyes to sources of value in the natural world, we should not necessarily attempt to build our account of nature's value upon the concepts which ecology supplies. No description is going to capture nature's essence; no formula is going to demonstrate its value. We should recognise the natural world as a particular historic individual and relate to it accordingly. This means acknowledging its value in a contingent, conditional and provisional way, and recognizing its value as a precondition of the value of our own lives. </p><p>Keywords: ecology: ethical judgement; moral standing; value </p><p>Introduction </p><p>The aim of this paper is to offer a brief critical sketch of some current entanglements of ethics with ecology. A few remarks on ethics and ecology are followed by a discussion. illustrating this entanglement, of the idea of respect for the "order' of nature. We then look at examples of 'order' which feature in ecological discourse and which, at the same time, are thought by some environmental ethicists to represent the natural world in ethically significant ways. After a review of some typical grounds of ethical significance to be found within value theory, there follows a critical discussion of the extent to which it is appropriate to ascribe them to ecological subjects. The paper concludes with some suggestions as to the ways in which it is, and is not, legitimate to use ecology to ground the enterprise of environmental ethics. </p><p>Ethics </p><p>Although there may have been a religious basis in earlier times for respecting nature as the creation, or even the embodiment, of a supernatural being, the idea of there being a distinctively ethical basis for respecting nature is somewhat new, and has only recently begun to surface in mainstream ethical theory. The central question of ethics, in a formulation which goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers is: 'How should one live one's life?'. But, despite the general nature of this formulation, the question has usually been construed rather narrowly, as the question of how human beings should relate to one another. </p><p>For some people, even among those who now work on the formulation of an environmental ethic, this remains true. For them, humans remain at the centre of ethical </p><p>0960-3115 ~ 1995 Chapman &amp; Hall </p></li><li><p>Use and abuse of ecological concepts 813 </p><p>concern, not simply as uniquely capable of expressing such concern, but also as uniquely entitled to receive it. What has changed is not the basis of their ethic, but the realisation of how fundamentally we affect one another's lives through our relationship with our environment. This realisation, to which ecology has made no small contribution, is expressed both in relation to our contemporaries - hence the increase in 'third world' concern - and in relation to our descendants - hence current preoccupations with sustainability, which on one favoured interpretation is held to reflect our concern for future generations (Brundtland, 1987). </p><p>For others, however, the new environmental challenges have provoked a more radical response. Drawing inspiration from a number of sources, including ecology, some environmental philosophers claim to have discovered, or rediscovered, a domain of ethical consideration existing alongside, or even outside and independently of, the sphere of human-to-human relations. The more modest claim is that the domain of ethical consideration should be extended to include sentient animals, or living things generally. The more ambitious claim is that it should be extended to include non-living items such as soil, water, sand and rock, or even aggregates of living and/or non-living items such as species, communities, ecosystems, and the planet itself. The ethic embodying such claims is sometimes spoken of as an 'ecological' ethic, and constitutes the chief subject of this paper. </p><p>Ecological ethics - some preliminary problems </p><p>Of the many problems facing the construction of such an ethic, there are three of a quite general kind which should be signalled right away. (In calling them 'problems' I do not mean to suggest that they are insoluble, but only that their solution may be difficult.) </p><p>The first is that once we leave the domain of human affairs, it becomes increasingly unclear what 'showing ethical consideration (or respect)' might consist in. It is not immediately obvious, e.g., what counts as showing respect for a periwinkle. As Wittgenstein says of lions, who are after all comparatively close evolutionary cousins: 'if a lion could talk, we could not understand him' (1967, p. 223). He is pointing out that lions partake of a 'form of life' (habits, practices, ways of interacting, communicating, and so forth) not obviously commensurable with that of humans. If this holds true for humans in their attempt to understand the 'form of life' of lions, how much more problematic is the case of the periwinkle. (At the same time, it should be mentioned that we are beginning to see studies, of animal species at any rate, which are precisely aimed at gaining insights into these different forms of life; see e.g. Dawkins, 1980. As a result, we are at least beginning to see what might count as showing consideration for hens, pigs and some of the other domesticated animals.) </p><p>A second problem is that once we leave the realm of particular individuals, and raise the question of respect or consideration for larger aggregates such as species, ecosystems or even planets, we enter a realm where ethical thinking becomes uncomfortable, precisely because we begin to lose sight of the claims of individuals. The problems are both moral and logical. Morally, we face the unpalatable prospect of seeing the claims of individuals - those of humans and perhaps also of other living creatures - losing out to those of some larger whole which is judged to be of superior moral significance. If this moral difficulty is solved by retaining equality of value between the individual and the larger whole then, logically, problems arise from the fact that these larger units are themselves composed of individuals. So if a wood comprising, say, a thousand trees, is assigned one unit of value, but </p></li><li><p>814 Holland </p><p>so also is each tree which makes up the wood, then we have the anomaly that 1000 units = 1 unit (Sylvan, 1985). </p><p>The third problem is that ethicists sometimes step too easily from the claim that an item deserves respect to the claim that we should therefore preserve (or conserve) it, without acknowledging that extra considerations enter into claims of the second kind. There are two aspects to this problem. The first is that it is one thing to demonstrate the value of a thing, but quite another to show that respect for its value has to consist in preserving it. Trivially, the value of disposable cups and plates consists precisely in their disposability. More generally, the value of many things is inherently ephemeral - a smile, a sunset, life itself- and the attempt to prolong them may be ridiculous, inappropriate or even tragic. At the very least, what this point suggests is that, sometimes, it is continuing the possibility of recurrence which matters, rather than continuing something in existence. The more important point is that even if respecting a thing does prima facie require that we attempt to preserve it (or refrain from doing it damage or harm), it is quite another question whether, in this particular instance, it actually merits preservation (or protection). The point is that any act of protection or preservation is likely to involve sacrificing or forgoing something else, perhaps something of value. Hence, the justification of such an act involves not simply a judgement of value but a judgement of comparative value. Among the most important issues faced by those charged with enacting environmental policy are those which involve enforced choices between alternatives which may all be seen as embodying values of various kinds. For this purpose what is needed is not simply an environmental ethic, dealing with judgments of value, but a conservation ethic, dealing with judgments of comparative value. A number of philosophers have developed evaluative systems for making comparisons between environmental "goods' (Taylor, 1986; Callicott, 1989: Attfield, 1991). But so far there has been little work on evaluative systems for comparing environmental with non-environmental goods; and the gap has tended to be filled by cost-benefit analysis - for want of anything better! </p><p>Ecology The scientific study of nature, and ecology in particular, has helped to stimulate and sustain environmentalism in a number of ways. Chiefly, it has drawn attention to some of the adverse impacts upon the environment which come about in the wake of human economic activity, and to the processes by which these impacts have made themselves felt. It has made people aware, as never before, of the close links that exist between economic and ecological systems. In this way, it has fuelled far-ranging environmental concerns even among those for whom humans remain the centre of ethical attention. But the discipline of ecology has also, through its approach and its ways of conceptualizing the natural world, focused attention upon natural structures and processes which some see as having potential ethical significance in their own right. It has helped to rekindle perceptions of nature akin to those of the 19th-century romantics (Worster, 1977). Whether rightly or wrongly, it has also encouraged some to hope that new models of nature may be emerging to replace the mathematizing and mechanizing paradigms which have prevailed since the times of Galileo and Newton. These latter, in marked contrast to the Aristotelian world view, which presents both organic and inorganic nature as teleological through and through, have proved stony ground on which to attempt to nurture thoughts of value residing in nature itself - except as the expression of some supernatural agency. </p></li><li><p>Use and abuse of ecological concepts 815 </p><p>Respect for order in nature A good illustration of the bringing together of scientific description and ethical judgement is provided by a remark of Donald Worster's from his book Nature's Economy, where he says that 'One of the most important ethical issues raised anywhere in the past few decades has been whether nature has an order, a pattern that we humans are bound to understand and respect and preserve' (1977, p. ix). Notice in particular the suggestion that there may be certain kinds of order which simply 'command' our respect. </p><p>In general, the question whether we are bound to understand and respect nature's 'order' is hardly a recent preoccupation. For many centuries prior to the 'past few decades' it was part of a prevailing western world view to regard nature as providentially ordered. In pre-Christian times, the Greek historian Herodotus thought that lions were limited to having only one offspring as a way of tempering their ferocity. And similarly in the Christian era, the 17th-century Englishman Sir Thomas Browne thought that it was providentially arranged for big fierce animals to hibernate so that they would do tess mischief, and be less productive (Egerton, 1973). Nor has such an outlook been confined to the western world; many non-western world views saw and still see nature in the same way. </p><p>Besides the obligation to understand and respect nature's order, however, Worster also mentions preservation. This is indeed a recent preoccupation whose emergence may be explained in two ways: first, because we can no longer rely on supernatural processes; second, because we can no longer rely on natural ones. In the first place, for as long as a belief in providence prevailed, then although human sin might affect the natural world in ways that people did not want, there would never arise any question of the natural world failing to continue in the way that it should. A call to preserve what was in any case God's to preserve would have been otiose. In the second place, as we have remarked, the present century has seen a growing realisation of the human capacity to destroy the natural world, and this has given rise to an answering call for measures to be taken for its preservation or protection. </p><p>But what, exactly, should we be aiming to preserve? And how convincing is it, after all, to connect respect for the natural world with the perception of it as ordered? These are some preliminary considerations: </p><p>(i) The presence of order alone is clearly nowhere near sufficient to provide grounds for respect. For example, the regime of a concentration camp might be exceedingly well ordered but would be unlikely to command respect. The order has to be of a certain kind and, perhaps, to come about in a certain way. For example, there might well be grounds to respect the providential order of the natural world out of respect for a providential orderer; but once belief in such an orderer had been abandoned, then the grounds for respect would seem to fall away. </p><p>(ii) However, what would remain true, even after belief in such an orderer had been abandoned, is that the natural world would be such as a providential being might have created. But would there remain the same grounds for respect - e.g., the same proscription against certain sorts of human meddling with the natural order, once belief in a providential being had been abandoned? This in turn raises the question of whether it is entirely plausible to suppose in the first place that belief in a creator precedes admiration for the creation. For, both logically and historically, the direction of conviction has often gone the other way: the character of the creation has been presented as a reason for believing in a benevolent creator. This suggests </p></li><li><p>816 Holland </p><p>(iii) </p><p>(iv) </p><p>that there may be reasons for respecting the order of the natural world independently of the belief that it is the work of a creator. But perhaps certain explanations of how natural order has come about may at least be sufficient to inhibit an attitude of respect? We have already noted how an evilly ordered regime would be unlikely to command respect. But the reason for this may lie in the fact that our respect for its order is simply outweighed by our abhorrence at the ends to which it is put. The question is how things stand if we suppose that the order of the natural world has come about purely through natural forces - which may be described as 'blind" at least in the sense that they...</p></li></ul>