From Facts to Values

To most moral philosophers, the biological paradigm seems to be more a scientific theory about ethics than a normative theory of ethics. And Leopold's facile move from an ecological "is" (that Homo sapiens is a plain member and citizen of the biotic community) to an environmental "ought" (that therefore we ought to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community) seems to commit the naturalistic fallacy—the fallacy (named by G. E. Moore, but attributed to David Hume) of deducing prescriptive statements about our moral obligations and ethical values exclusively from descriptive statements about the way things in fact are.

The two major modern philosophical paradigms, on the other hand, seem strained to the breaking point when one attempts to extend rights or entitlements to an entire species or to whole ecosystems, let alone "soils and waters." The Leopold land ethic, grounded in feeling and community, better accords with the holistic focus of contemporary environmental concerns. Environmentalists and conservationists are not too concerned about the well-being of individual grubs, bugs, and shrubs. They are concerned, rather, about what pollution is doing to Earth's atmosphere, fresh waters, and oceans; about what fragmentation is doing to ecosystems; about endangered species and biological diversity.

Contemporary environmental philosophers thus face a theoretical dilemma. Cling to the modern paradigm and remain out of phase with the more holistic character of genuine environmental concerns, or give up the intellectual security and familiarity of the modern paradigm, follow Leopold's application of the biological paradigm to environmental concerns, and work to solve the daunting problem of deriving environmental ethical values from facts about human moral psychology, evolutionary biology, and ecology.

Ironically, Hume himself may provide the key to bridging the lacuna between "is" and "ought," fact and value, and thus clear the way for environmental philosophers to embrace the biological paradigm of ethical theory that the land ethic extends. "Reason," our tool for determining facts, according to Hume (1960, p. 469), "in a strict and philosophical sense can have influence on conduct only after two ways: either when it excites a passion [such as the love and respect that Leopold identifies with ethics] by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper object of it; or when it discovers the connexion of causes and effects, so as to afford us means of exerting any passion." Dispassionate, descriptive evolutionary biology, a product of what Hume calls "reason," has discovered that human beings and other extant forms of life are descended from common ancestors. Evolutionary biology thus discloses a previously unknown fact: that we are literally kin to "our fellow-voyagers ... in the odyssey of evolution," as Leopold (1949, p. 109) characterizes them. The discovery of the fact excites the passions— love and respect—we feel for our kin. Equally dispassionate and descriptive ecological biology has discovered the existence of the biotic community, of which we are no less members than of our various human communities. And the discovery of that fact excites the passions—loyalty and patriotism in this case—that we feel for the social wholes to which we belong. Thus may we move from facts to values, from "ises" to "oughts," in the land ethic, after a manner, according to Hume, that is so strict and philosophical.


SEE ALSO: Animal Welfare and Rights; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Environmental Health; Environmental Policy and Law; Life; Virtue and Character; and other Environmental Ethics subentries

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