Ecocentrism

Though the term "ecocentrism" is a contradiction of the phrase "ecosystem-centered," ecocentrism would provide moral considerability for a spectrum of nonindividual environmental entities, including the biosphere as a totality, species, land, water, and air, as well as ecosystems. The various ecologically informed holistic environmental ethics that may appropriately be called ecocentric are less closely related, theoretically, than either the anthropocentric or biocentric families of environmental ethics.

Lawrence E. Johnson has attempted to generate an environmental ethic that reaches species and ecosystems by a further extension of the biocentric approach. He does this not by making the criterion for moral considerability more inclusive but by attributing interests to species and ecosystems. Extensively developing the line of thought that Feinberg (1974) tentatively and ambiguously initiated, Johnson concludes that we should "give due respect to all the interests of all beings that have interests, in proportion to their interests" (p. 118). As this, his summary moral principle, suggests, Johnson follows Goodpaster in allowing that all interests are not equal and thus that all interested beings, though morally considerable, are not of equal moral significance. Johnson, however, provides no principle or method for hierarchically ordering interests and the beings who possess them; nor does he provide an ethical procedure for adjudicating conflicts of interest between people, animals, and plants, and, more difficult still, between all such individuals and environmental wholes.

In arguing that species have interests, Johnson exploits the fact that some biologists and philosophers of biology regard species not as classes of organisms but as spatially and temporally protracted individuals. To plausibly assign them interests, in other words, Johnson assimilates species to individual organisms. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, ecosystems (though then they were not so denominated) were represented in ecology as supraorganisms. Johnson adopts this characterization of ecosystems, as doing so allows him to attribute interests to ecosystems by assimilating them to individual organisms, just as in the case of species. Finally, Johnson points out that James Lovelock (1979) has suggested that the Earth as a whole is an integrated living being (named Gaia); if so, it (she) too may have interests and thus may be morally considerable. Adopting nonstandard, obsolete, or highly controversial scientific models of species, ecosystems, and the biosphere is the price Johnson pays to purchase moral considerability for these natural wholes. His attempt to add an ecocentric dimension to his essentially biocentric approach to environmental ethics is thus seriously compromised.

Holmes Rolston's ecocentric environmental ethic, like Johnson's, is launched from a biocentric platform. Rolston (1988) endorses the central tenet of biocentrism that each living being has a good of its own and that having a good of its own is the ground of a being's intrinsic value. And upon the existence of intrinsic value in nature he founds our duties to the natural world in all its aspects.

Rolston's biocentrism, in sharp contrast to Taylor's, is inegalitarian. Rolston finds more intrinsic value in beings that sense their own good, that feel hurt when harmed, than in those that lack consciousness. And Rolston finds the most intrinsic value of all in normal adult human beings because we are rational and fully self-conscious as well as conative and sentient.

Rolston avoids the scientifically suspect route that Johnson takes to enfranchise ethically such environmental wholes as species and ecosystems. Rolston argues instead that since the most basic telos of a teleological center of life is to be "good of its kind" and to reproduce its species, then its kind or species is its primary good. Species per se do not have a good of their own, but as the most basic good of beings that do have a good of their own, they too can be said to possess intrinsic value. The myriad natural kinds or species, however, evolved not in isolation but in a complex matrix of relationships—that is, in ecosystems. Thus, though not themselves teleological centers of life, either, some intrinsic value rubs off on ecosystems in Rolston's theory of environmental ethics. Rolston coins a special term, "systemic value," to characterize the value of ecosystems.

Systemic value does not seem to be entirely parallel, logically or conceptually speaking, to intrinsic value in Rolston's theory of environmental ethics. Rather, it seems that a necessary condition for the existence of the things that he believes do have intrinsic value—beings with a good of their own and the goods (their kinds or species) that such beings strive to actualize and perpetuate—is the existence of their natural contexts or matrices. Like the moon that shines by a borrowed light, systemic value seems to be a kind of reflected intrinsic value. Rolston finds a similar sort of derivative intrinsic value, "projective value," in elemental and organic evolutionary processes going all the way back to the Big Bang, since such processes eventually produced (or "projected") living beings with goods of their own.

Rolston's theory of environmental ethics hierarchically orders intrinsically valuable individuals in a familiar and conventional way. Human beings are at the pinnacle of the value hierarchy, followed by the higher animals, and so on, pretty much as in the Great Chain of Being envisioned by many Western philosophers of yore. Rolston is prepared to invoke his hierarchical arrangement of intrinsically valuable kinds of beings to resolve biocentric moral conundrums. For example, he expressly argues that it is morally permissible for people to kill and eat animals and for animals to kill and eat plants. Though such a hierarchical ordering of intrinsically valuable beings jibes with tradition and uncultivated common sense, it may not always jibe with, and hence may not adequately justify, our considered environmental priorities. Most environmentalists, faced with the hard choice of saving a sensitive, subjective dog or an unconscious, merely conative thousand-year-old redwood tree, would probably opt for the tree—and not only because redwoods are becoming rare. Pressed for good reasons for making this choice, Rolston might answer that an environmentally ethical agent is perfectly free, in reaching a decision to give priority to the redwood over the dog, to add to their intrinsic value the way standing redwoods are valued anthropocentrically and the way they serve the systemic value of ecosystems. The ethical agent can legitimately add the redwood's economic value to its systematic value, intrinsic value, aesthetic value, or religious value. How the intrinsic value of species and the systemic value of ecosystems fits into Rolston's value hierarchy is not entirely clear. Is a plant species more or less intrinsically valuable than a specimen of Homo sapiens, or than a specimen of Ovis aries (domestic sheep)?

According to Regan (1981) the very possibility of an environmental ethic turns on constructing a plausible theory of intrinsic (or "inherent") value in nature. He argues that anthropocentric environmental ethics are "management ethics," ethics for the "use" of the environment, not environmental ethics proper. Regan sets clear and stringent conditions for such value: first, it must be strictly objective, independent of any valuing consciousness; second, it must attend some property or set of properties that natural entities possess; and third, it must be normative, it must command ethical respect or moral considerability.

Rolston's basing a being's intrinsic value on its having a good of its own seems to meet the first two of these conditions, but possibly not the third. Before consciousness evolved, living beings had goods of their own; they could be harmed if not hurt; they had interests, whether they cared or not. The move, however, from the hardly disputable fact that living beings objectively possess goods of their own to the assertion that they have objective intrinsic value may turn on an ambiguity in the meaning of "good."

The word "good" has a teleological as well as a normative sense. All living beings have goods of their own in the teleological sense. They have, in other words, ends that were not imposed upon them—as the goods or ends of machines and other artifacts are—by beings other than themselves. But it is still possible to ask if such teleological goods generate normative goods. At this point in the argument, the smallpox and AIDS viruses are usually invoked as examples of organisms that have goods of their own in the teleological sense of the term, but organisms that one would be loath to say are good in the normative sense of the term.

However this particular conceptual issue may be resolved, another, moral general one casts a very large and dark shadow on Rolston's claim of finding objective intrinsic value in nature. While Rolston is very careful not to buck prevailing scientific opinion on the sort of reality possessed by species, ecosystems, and evolutionary processes, his argument that intrinsic value exists objectively in nature does buck more general assumption of modern science. From the modern scientific point of view, nature is value-free. Goodness and badness, like beauty and ugliness, are in the eye of the beholder. According to this entrenched dogma of modern science, there can be no valuees without valuers. Nothing under the sun—no rational self-conscious person, no sentient animal, no vegetable, no mineral—has value of any kind, either as a means or an end, unless it is valued by some valuing subject.

The crisp objective/subjective distinction in modern science, however, has been undermined by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics, as the observation of subatomic entities unavoidably affects their state of being. Therefore, the modern scientific worldview has become problematic. Seizing upon this circumstance, J. Baird Callicott (1989), among others, has broached a value theory for environmental ethics that is neither subjective nor objective. Just as experimental physicists actualize the potential of an electron to be at a particular place by observing it, so, Callicott suggests, the potential value of an entity, both instrumental and intrinsic, is actualized by a valuer appreciating it.

Although it may eventually give way to a postmodern scientific worldview, the modern scientific worldview continues to reign supreme. The "land ethic" sketched by Aldo Leopold (1949) has been the moral inspiration of the non-anthropocentric wing of the contemporary popular environmental movement, in part because Leopold respects the subjectivity of value required by the modern scientific world view without at the same time reducing nature to natural resources.

Callicott (1987) claims that Leopold's ecocentric environmental ethic may be traced to the eighteenth-century moral philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith, who think that feelings lie at the foundations of value judgments. While feelings fall on the subjective side of the great subject/object divide, Hume and Smith also point out that our feelings may be altruistic or other-oriented as well as selfish. Hence we may value others for their own sakes, as ends-in-themselves. Further, Hume and Smith note that in addition to sympathy for others, respectively, we also experience a "public affection" and, accordingly, value the "interests of society even on their own account."

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin (1874) adopted the moral psychology of Hume and Smith and argued that the "moral sentiments" evolved among human beings in conjunction with the evolution of society, growing in compass and refinement along with the growth and refinement of human communities. He also developed the incipient holism of Hume and Smith, flatly stating that primeval ethical affections centered on the tribe not its individual members.

Leopold, building directly on Darwin's theory of the origin and evolution of ethics, points out that ecology represents human beings to be members not only of multiple human communities but also of the "biotic community." Hence, "the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land____ It implies respect for ... fellow members and also respect for the community as such" (Leopold, p. 204).

Animal welfare ethicists and biocentrists claim that Leopold's ecocentrism is tantamount to "environmental fascism." Leopold wrote—and his exponents affirm—that "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community [and] wrong when it tends otherwise" (pp. 224—225). If this is true, then not only would it be right deliberately to kill deer and burn bushes for the good of the biotic community, it would also be right to undertake draconian measures to reduce human overpopulation—the underlying cause, according to conventional environmental wisdom, of all environmental ills.

Providing for the possibility of moral consideration of wholes, however, does not necessarily disenfranchise individuals. The land ethic is holistic as well as (not instead of) individualistic, although in the case of the biotic community and its nonhuman members holistic concerns may eclipse individualistic ones. Nor does the land ethic replace or cancel previous socially generated human-oriented duties— to family and family members, to neighbors and neighborhood, to all human beings and humanity. Human social evolution consists of a series of additions rather than replacements. The moral sphere, growing in circumference with each stage of social development, does not expand like a balloon—leaving no trace of its previous boundaries. It adds, rather, new rings, new "accretions," as Leopold called each emergent social-ethical community. The discovery of the biotic community simply adds several new outer orbits of membership and attendant obligation. Our more intimate social bonds and their attendant obligations remain intact. Thus we may weigh and balance our more recently discovered duties to the biotic community and its members with our more venerable and insistent social obligations in ways that are entirely familiar, reasonable, and humane.

Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

Conquering Fear In The 21th Century

The Ultimate Guide To Overcoming Fear And Getting Breakthroughs. Fear is without doubt among the strongest and most influential emotional responses we have, and it may act as both a protective and destructive force depending upon the situation.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment