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Lecture 06/Prompt 08: Ecological Ethics | Environmental Ethics

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.

Holistic Ethics?

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?

Writing Prompt

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.

To Do

  1. Read: Meadows: Biodiversity: The Key to Saving Life on Earth [187-190]; Russow: Why Do Species Matter? [190-197]
  2. Read: Graff/Birkenstein: Chapter 3: ”As He Himself Puts It” The Art of Quoting [42-51]
  3. Post: Prompt 08 | Due 1:00 PM EST
  4. Comment: On at least 3 Group Member posts | 1st Due 8:00 PM EST | All Due Jan 19, 8:00 AM EST
  5. Comment: On Lecture 06 | Due Noon EST
  6. Read: Learning Path Readings

Wilderness Preservation:


  • Baxter: People or Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution [327-332]

Climate Change:

  • Gardiner: Ethics and Global Climate Change, Part II [448-458]

38 Responses to Lecture 06/Prompt 08: Ecological Ethics

  1. avatar Emily says:

    To make things clear, because I’m not entirely sure I understand, holistic ethics are not fascist because fascists take something subjective that they believe ought to be and forcibly apply it on others to coerce it into being an “is”, while those who partake in holistic ethics take objective world truths and base their ethical decisions on it? Am I close?

  2. avatar Thomas M. says:

    How long ago was the Gaia hypothesis founded? Have there been any examples as to whether or not Lovelock’s description holds true?

  3. I see from Emily’s post and your response to her how fascism and holistic ethics differ due to subjective and objective truths, but this sparked a question when reading about land ethics. I understand that holistic ethics is based on emphasizing objective descriptive facts about the world (as said in lecture)yet Land ethics are based on features such as integrity, stability and beauty? To me, these features do not seem to fit the mold of descriptive facts?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      You’ve put your finger on one of the big issues. Descriptively holistic ethics rests on objective facts, but one of the big debates is whether normative claims can be objective. However, this is okay–the fascist uses subjective facts to obscure reality, while the land ethics points to them as ways to achieve the goals of integrity. This still allows the debate about whether the land ethics is right or wrong by appeal to those descriptive facts.

  4. avatar Sbranch says:

    I have always attached the idea of Fascism to regimes like the Nazis. It is interesting to understand that fascism and that the idea that Hitler used to motivate people was a myth about this idea of an elevated people and presented this to his down-trodden people as truth, so that he could motivate them into war. Interesting to evaluate that part of history given this lens.

  5. avatar Kellyn says:

    I’m not sure I quite understand the these two questions to consider:
    • What is one reason why it might be difficult to develop a non-anthropocentric ethics?
    – One reason it may be difficult to develop non-anthropocentric ethics is because when you argue for the good of humanity, the good of the whole comes into play, since humanity is just a part of that whole.
    • What is the problem with deriving an ought from an is?
    – The problem from deriving an ought from an is is that you are hiding descriptive beliefs, and changing it so the normative beliefs of a group are what the group is feeling, rather than what they should be feeling—hiding the

    • avatar Brandon says:

      I think this might be the first time I really needed to correct your answers!

      1) It might be difficult to develop a non-anthropocentric ethics because we want to include our features as morally relevant, so we tend to look for those features in the world (thus, tying it back to us as the standard).

      2)The second question is actually very difficult. The main problems seems to be that there is nothing about how something is that implies how it should be. If I say we evolved to favor humans genetically related to us, there’s a big gap between that and claiming that we should do that. Unfortunately, I think that’s the best answer I can give you. probably a little unfair to ask it 😉

  6. avatar Andrea says:

    In regards to the features stability, ability, and beauty, you stated that all three need some kind of standard. Are these standards ultimately subjective to our interpretation, society’s, or possibly the current author?

  7. avatar Asa says:

    Leopold and Callicott developed the Land Ethic theory where “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.” The Land Ethic theory is an extremist version of the Gaia Hypothesis which argues the earth is a self-regulating system aimed at sustaining and maintaining life. How would one who believes in the Land Ethic theory explain extreme events such as the extinction of the dinosaurs? The earth clearly was not stable enough to sustain and maintain their lives.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Well, that is a catastrophic interruption of the system. I think we can count that as an exception.

      I’m not sure I would count the land ethic as an extreme version of the Gaia hypothesis–if anything, I think it is looser in that it doesn’t entail that the Earth actually maintains this wholly independently.

  8. avatar Kirsten T says:

    I’m pretty sure I understand that holistic ethics has to do with the entire ecosystem, and how the entire system is beneficial because of it’s different parts(hopefully that’s right). And fascism focuses on the importance of the creation of a national identity, and the importance of that identity of the importance of the individual. However I’m a little confused on the differences between descriptive and normative claims, and how they relate to everything else.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      A descriptive claim is how things are. A normative claim is how things should be.

      How to achieve a normative claim often rests on what the world is like (a descriptive claim). Fascism obscures the way the world is and thus undermines an attempt to point out that normative claims do not practically correspond with the world.

  9. avatar Cindy says:

    You use the example of Nazi Germany as a fascist society that used an excuse to hide their true economic and political pursuits, but in reality, aren’t all wars disguising some other agenda, therefore fascist? For instance, some argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were really a means to ensure America’s political interests and supply of resources, not (only) to bring terrorist to justice.

  10. avatar Anonymous says:

    Do most philosophers avoid the label of holistic ethics (as it seems Tom Regan does) because it has the negative connotation of fitting under the umbrella of fascism? Do holistic ethics had a bad rep in the philosophical world?

  11. So even though holistic ethics is close to the fascism ideology they cannot be associated because holistic ethics has a more objective view whereas fascism is really just subjective?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      That’s the argument. That doesn’t mean you have to buy it. Basically, the claim is that fascism and holistic ethics are importantly different, so that the flaws of fascism cannot be attributed to holism.

  12. avatar Cherieyw says:

    I think ecological ethics is not necessarily holistic. Individuals in ecosystem are cycling and interact with each other; each part of it plays an important role in the entire system, so that if one part gets sacrificed, it must have an effect on others.
    Is holistic ethics a part of communism or socialism? I grew in China and I remembered since primary school, my teacher always tell us to sacrifice individual good to the good of the entire system.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      This is where the claim that holistic ethics is fascist comes from–the idea that holism is fundamentally about the sacrifice of the individual for the whole. Communism and socialism both take a holistic view.

  13. avatar Dom says:

    After reading Russow, anthropocentric and individualistic ethics reigns supreme. Holistic ethics always become problematic because when its arguments are evaluated, they seem weak and unjustified. Just because we are a part of the biotic community does not mean that the rights of other animals should trump our self interest. Animals and other specifies do not consider us when it comes to their survival and although this is an elementary argument itself, it still presents problems for holistic ethics.

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  15. avatar N.Marshall says:

    Im a little confused as to how holistic ethics would be considered fascism. If holistic ethics sees the good of the entire system as aim of ethics and fascism forces the ideas of a select group of individuals as the aim of ethics then how is fascism seeing the good for the entire system? Referring to an earlier comment using the Nazis as an example for fascism I would argue that many German citizens did not believe in Hitler’s movement therefore how would his movement represent a true holistic view? I guess you could argue that in holistic ethics the good of the individual can be sacrificed to the good of the entire system.

  16. avatar Allie says:

    Do you think that some advertising, like what you said about fascism, also uses subjective concepts to obscure differences between people in order to make products more appealing?

  17. avatar Smalls says:

    Maybe I missed it. But in your discussion of normative claims under holistic ethics you claim that normative claims are based on what is best for humanity as a whole. What is the difference between this and a Utilitarian view where the goal is ultimately the same, the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Hm, if I said humanity as a whole, this is wrong. It is the biotic community as a whole.

      What separates it from utilitarianism is what counts as right. Holistic ethics isn’t necessarily focused on promoting the happiness of the system, but integrity and stability.

  18. […] response to Prompt 8 Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in […]

  19. avatar Leah says:

    Is there a reason why writers tend to have difficultly bridging the cap between holistic ethics and ecological ethics?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      It’s less that they have a problem bridging the gap between holistic ethics and ecological ethics (those sit comfortably together) and more that they have a problem moving away from individualistic accounts of ethics.

  20. avatar Wilma Chen says:

    I find it surprising for people to compare fascism with ecological ethics. Like you state in your lecture, I feel that the two concepts couldn’t be more different! Fascism seeks to “reorganize” a current nation on the commitment to unite its citizens under a single national entity. In contrast, ecological ethics recognize the essential value of biodiversity. These ethics emphasize that each living and non-living component of the natural world exists in a delicate web of intricate and complicated connections. The only similarity that ecological ethics has with that those of fascism is that both views the importance of something as a whole. Fascism believes that this whole should be united through one national identity. Ecological ethics, on the other hand, views this whole as a complex chain of many diverse components.

    • avatar Brandon says:

      I agree and I thinks is a rather bizarre claim overall. I think it comes from a fear of the idea of the individual being sacrificed for the whole (a fear that is understandable). On the other hand, it is something that we do ask people to do: sacrifice material wealth to taxes, sacrifice your life in war time . . . .

  21. It seems ironic that the “strictest holistic position” described is a general sentence that includes the three ambiguous words: integrity, stability and beauty, which each hold a difficult definition in and of themselves. Why is it that all philosophers seem to cause everyone in the room to start chasing their tail? Is it really not possible for someone in the field of holistic ethics to get a little more specific?

    • avatar Brandon says:

      Within the particular readings, some of the writers do get more specific, but as I point out concepts like these do need to be nailed down and are difficult to do so, so there is going to be a lot of debate about what these terms should mean. The best philosophers will actually provide a definition for those terms so that the moral standard is clear.

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