Lecture 06/Prompt 08: Ecological Ethics
Take Away Points:
- Whether ecological ethics is necessarily holistic
- Why ecological ethics might be fascist
- The meaning of biotic community
- Understand the importance of the phrase “you can’t derive an ought from an is”
- Define the Gaia Hypothesis
As I introduced the topic in the lecture on Animal Rights and Liberation, the distinction between animal rights and ecological ethics is one between individualistic ethics and holistic ethics. But this is not quite right. Individualistic ethics sees the good of the individual as the aim of ethics. Holistic ethics sees the good of the entire system as aim of ethics. For holistic ethics, this means that the good of the individual can be sacrificed to the good of the entire system. This has lead Tom Regan to characterize ecological ethics as a form of fascist ethics. Fascism operates under an assumption that there is a organic whole (in fascism proper, national identity) whose good should be the primary aim of all individuals’ actions. It is easy to see why holistic ethics would be considered fascism. As we will see, however, whether ecological ethics is actually holistic or, if holistic, fascist is open to quite a bite of debate.
As you read the texts in this unit, you will question whether ecological ethics really corresponds to a holistic ethics. In fact, most of the writers in this unit fail to divorce their ethics from an individualist position or even an anthropocentric position. One of the (potentially) great failings of environmental ethics as a whole is its inability to transcend both of these positions. Depending on you position, this may be a good thing (if ethics comes from humans, then it makes complete sense) or reveal the extreme difficulty of separating ethical thought from humanity’s own interests. Time and again in these readings, the authors end up appealing to individual good, humanity’s perspective, or both.
To be a successful holistic ethics, a position has to have a theory on the biotic community–the interrelations between all living beings. The strictest holistic ethics even take into account the role of inanimate geography. The strictest of these positions (one you will not be reading) was introduced by James Lovelock and is called the Gaia Hypothesis (or theory). This position argued that the earth was a self-regulating system aimed at sustaining and maintaining life. Under this theory, even the land changes over time to maximize the potential for life to remain in balance. In the textbook, the strictest holistic position is put forward by Aldo Leopold and developed by J. Baird Callicott. This position, called the Land Ethic, holds that “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.”
Such a position has several features that are important: Integrity–the preservation of the strength and balance of the community; Stability–the ability of the community to maintain itself; and beauty–the aesthetic appreciation of the community. All three of these features require some kind of standard: What does it mean to be balanced? What does it mean to be stable? What is beauty? And these are all difficult questions to answer. It seems that the a holistic ecological ethics will be at its strongest when the interrelationships between different parts of the biotic community are better understood.
Even though Leopold and Callicott represent the only truly holistic ethics in this unit, you can look for aspects of a holistic ethics by the way the interrelations between individuals are taken into account. Do Meadows and Russow make any appeals to these interrelations? Even though Taylor rejects the moral status of non-human beings, does he still think that their existence is important morally speaking?
Even given that most ecological ethics tends to the individualist model of ethics, when it is holistic is it fascist? One might simply say yes and argue for fascism, but this seems like a poor choice. After all, I assume all of you reject fascism as an acceptable social system . . . . Another move that defenders of holistic ethics might make (and the one I am going to make here) is to reject the analogy between the importance of national identity in fascist ideologies and the biotic community in ecological ethics. National identity and the biotic community are importantly different. Because of this, a holistic ethics is justified where fascism is not.
The major difference between fascism and a holistic ethics comes from the difference between national identity and the biotic community. A national identity is something created, while a biotic community and the interrelations that underlie it are not. Remember from lecture 02, the difference between moral realism and moral relativism–the former is built on objective facts, while the latter is built on subjective facts. When ethics concerns only humans and so can be agreed upon, a subjective standard is less problematic (and these subjective standards can still be tested against facts in the world, even if they are not based on facts in the world). When ethics expands to include beings and objects that cannot communicate or take part in a human moral community, objective facts become more important.
What makes fascism wrong is that it uses a completely subjective concept (national identity) to obscure and hide differences between people. This causes a disconnect between the normative standards of the ethic and the descriptive reality of the people and positions of people in society (think of the Nazi national identity of the Aryan supermen, which had no grounding in the reality of the world). For subjective truths to have power, they must be rooted in descriptive facts about the world. This does not mean that the normative truths becomes objective, but that to influence the world these normative truths must recognize what is as distinct from what should be. An ideology that disguises what should be as what is is actually preventing the act of doing ethics–it prevents an honest and open discussion about the foundations of one’s ethical thought because it hides the true foundations of the thought (in Nazi Germany’s case, the Aryan myth served to hide the actual economic and political motivations for war).
In contrast, a holistic ethics based in the biotic community is emphasizing objective descriptive facts about the world (albeit ones that are not fully understood). This means that when Lovelock claims that the geography of the earth changes to maintain biotic stability, we can examine whether this represents an objective truth about the world. If it doesn’t we can reject at least some reasoning in his ethical argument, while if it does we have at least some reasons to consider his ethical position. Because holistic ethics emphasizes descriptive objective facts about the world it is actually placed in sharp contrast to fascist ideologies that seek to obscure descriptive objective facts about the world.
Descriptive vs Normative
Of course, even the truth of a descriptive claim does not translate to the truth of a normative claim (this is the old chestnut that you can’t derive an ought from an is) because the whole point of a normative claim is changing what is. A norm derived entirely from an is would merely be focused on maintaining a stable state (and even this still begs the question: why maintain the current state). Thus, even if a holistic ethics is based on true descriptive facts, this does not tell us anything about the validity of the attached normative claims–we have to look at the further justifications for those normative claims.
To briefly give one example: Callicott gives the land ethics as founded on evolutionary, ecological, and astronomical sciences; but the actual normative claims are based on the extension of a human moral community to the non-human. This is because we are actually within the biotic community and the good of humanity is interlocked with the good of the whole. This is most certainly a holistic ethics. Whether this merely makes nature once again an instrumental good (and thus maintains an anthropocentric ethics) is another question entirely.
Pause to Consider:
- What makes an ideology fascist?
- What is one reason for thinking that ecological ethics is not fascist?
- What is one reason why it might be difficult to develop a non-anthropocentric ethics?
- What is the problem with deriving an ought from an is?
- What is the Gaia Hypothesis?
Purpose: Sometimes an author will raise an objection or point that you need to respond to directly, to the point where it is important that you answer the specific words that the author uses. In Why Do Species Matter?, Lilly-Marlene Russow argues against there possible justifications for saying that species matter. In this assignment, you will choose one Russow’s arguments, raw a quote from the text, and respond to that argument–either affirmatively or negatively.
Word Count: The best posts will be 500-600 words.
Before You Write
Graff and Birkenstein point out (pp 42-51) that the two major problems seen in quoting an author are the amount of quoting (too little or too much) and framing the quotes. We’ll deal with each problem in turn.
When choosing what to quote, you should keep in mind that you want to draw your readers attention to the most crucial information in the text. There’s no use quoting if all you are going to do is replicate an entire passage–those are the instances where it is better to succinctly paraphrase. Instead, you want to quote only what brings up the main point you will be speaking to. Often this means paraphrasing the majority of the argument to contextualize the quote–keeping in mind that paraphrasing should always be focused towards bringing out the most essential information and should definitely be shorter than if you were quoting the whole passage!
An easy and effective way of succinctly paraphrasing and quoting another author’s work is by always keeping in mind the reason you are paraphrasing and quoting in the first place: to support your own position. When choosing to quote, paraphrase, or both, ask yourself these simple questions:
- What am I arguing?
- What information in the passage is essential to my argument?
- How does the quote support what I am saying?
Quoting and paraphrasing should always be directed at your point. So, when you frame the quote, motivate the quote towards your point: contextualize it so that you can easily transition into the point you want to make.
Go to the text and look under section IV. Some Traditional Answers. Russow lays out the three answers she will argues against and then careful lays out the reasons she rejects them. As you read this section consider:
- Which of these answers do I most agree with?
- Do I agree for the reasons she gives? If not, what are you reasons? Can you support them as not falling to Russow’s criticisms?
- What are her criticisms?
- Are her criticisms convincing? Why or why not?
When you’ve thought carefully about these questions, write the prompt below.
Introduce Russow’s criticism of one of the “Traditional Answers” to the importance of species by framing a quote. Don’t let the quote standalone. Instead, introduce it, put it context, and frame it in such a way that it leads into your own points.
In the process:
- Explain your own position on the importance of species in relation to Russow’s.
- If you disagree with Russow, explain why and support your answer.
- If you agree with Russow, explain why and build on her answer.
- Read: Meadows: Biodiversity: The Key to Saving Life on Earth [187-190]; Russow: Why Do Species Matter? [190-197]
- Read: Graff/Birkenstein: Chapter 3: ”As He Himself Puts It” The Art of Quoting [42-51]
- Post: Prompt 08 | Due 1:00 PM EST
- Comment: On at least 3 Group Member posts | 1st Due 8:00 PM EST | All Due Jan 19, 8:00 AM EST
- Comment: On Lecture 06 | Due Noon EST
- Read: Learning Path Readings
- Baxter: People or Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution [327-332]
- Gardiner: Ethics and Global Climate Change, Part II [448-458]