Though liberally educated, Leopold was primarily a student of biology, not of philosophy. Hence his thinking about ethics was influenced more by Charles Darwin than by Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, the fountainheads of the two major modern paradigms in ethics—deontology and utilitarianism, respectively—both of which proceed somewhat as follows: I demand that others dutifully respect my rights (in the deontological tradition) or take full account of how the consequences of their actions affect my interests (in the utilitarian). To defend that demand, I identify a characteristic I possess that arguably justifies my claim to moral rights or to consideration of my interests. According to Kant, it is rationality; according to Bentham, sentience. If I am to be consistent in my moral reasoning, then I must acknowledge that those who possess the same morally enfranchising property are entitled to the same regard from me as I demand of them. In short, the prevailing modern paradigms reach the moral standing of others starting from one's claim against others of one's own moral standing.
In sharp contrast, the biological paradigm, the paradigm in which Leopold works, starts with altruism, not egoism. Human beings are bonded to their fellows through sympathetic feelings and what David Hume and Adam Smith call the moral sentiments. The prehuman ancestors of Homo sapiens, whose survival and reproductive success greatly depended upon communal living, sympathy, and the other moral sentiments, were strengthened by natural selection and ever more broadly cast through social expansion. With the evolution of the powers of speech and reflection, forms of behavior that accorded with altruistic and social sensibilities were articulated in codes of conduct. As clans merged into tribes, tribes into nations, and so on, such codes were extended to each emergent social whole and its members. Leopold (1949, p. 202) comments that "Ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution." And he alludes to natural selection when he defines an ethic from a biological point of view "as a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence." That he built directly and self-consciously upon this scenario of ethics arising out of community membership, which Darwin had fully articulated in the Descent of Man, therefore, seems certain. To the evolutionary foundation laid by Darwin, Leopold adds crucial material from ecology— the "community concept," especially—in order to erect his land ethic.
In Leopold's (1949, p. 203) own words: "All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts." That is Darwin's account of the origin and development of ethics in a nutshell. Ecology "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land" (p. 204). When this novel ecological insight is added to Darwin's classic evolutionary account of ethics, Leopold believes that the land ethic follows. Therefore, he writes, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (pp. 224-225).
Most contemporary environmental philosophers follow another path to an environmental ethic. They work well within either deontology or utilitarianism, and proceed to extend ethical standing to nonhuman beings by lowering the qualifications for moral rights or for consideration of interests. "Animal liberation" follows from Bentham's first principles virtually without modification, if we acknowledge that most animals are sentient. And "animal rights" follows from Kant's first principles if we acknowledge that while few, if any, animals may be rational, many have sufficiently robust mental capacities to support claims of rights on their behalf. Of course, animal welfare ethics are not the same as environmental ethics. But, taking the next step along these parallel paths, other philosophers have variously argued that all things having interests, broadly construed, or goods of their own—that is, all living beings—deserve, if not rights, then either dutiful respect (according to the deontologists) or moral consideration (according to the utilitarians).
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