Environmental Ethics: An Introduction


Ernest Partridge*


This is the current version of an unpublished introduction to the Gadfly’s ever-evolving environmental ethics course.


You have had enough!

Letters to Congress won’t work. Despite your letters, and thousands more, it appears that they will nonetheless issue permits for still more oil platforms off the California coast. So you and your friends have organized a demonstration in Washington in front of the Rayburn House Office building, while inside a final Congressional review of the issue is being conducted by the House Interior Committee. At that moment, testimony is being offered in support of the platforms by lobbyists for the oil companies.

Suddenly, a Sergeant-at-Arms from the committee room walks out the front door and beckons to you. He tells you that the Committee Chairman has asked him to select a random demonstrator and to invite him inside so that the Committee might hear the protesters’ point of view. By sheer chance you have been selected.

Shortly thereafter you are seated in the committee room. The Chairman asks: “Why shouldn’t we continue to extract oil from offshore California?” You reply that to do so would be morally atrocious. You are then asked: “Very well, in what sense do you believe it morally atrocious?” And, “Will you please defend your position—that is, will you give the Committee reasons why it should agree with you?”

What would you say? Would what you say be new, or would the Committee have heard it all before (apparently to no avail)? Would your case be logically cogent? Well informed? Persuasive? When asked to put your mouth where your feet were, could you do so without putting your feet where your mouth is?

No doubt, many of you have strong feelings about the future and fate of the natural environment. That is why many of you are taking this class. But are you prepared to defend these feelings?

In Utah, where I lived for many years, most citizens will tell you that Lake Powell is a marvelous “improvement” in the southern Utah landscape. Whereas only a few dozen hardy backpackers and rafters saw the now-impounded Glen Canyon, today tens of thousands of boaters, fishermen and water skiers can enjoy it. The figures seem to be correct. But does this justify the impoundment of water in Glen Canyon—“The Place Nobody Knew”? If you think not, are you prepared to say why not?

Further cases can easily be cited:

Loggers will tell you that if they are allowed to cut the last of the Northwest old-growth forests, and then move on to Alaska and Siberia, your homes will cost considerably less.
Nuclear Power proponents will say that if they build their plants, your electricity bills will be reduced.
The oil companies will claim that oil spills, though regrettable, are unavoidable but acceptable costs for our civilized condition.
Developers will tell you that new dams in the northern Sierras will benefit the economy of the entire state of California.
All will claim that if they have their way, fewer people will be out of work and that the gross national product will continue to grow.

Suppose they are right! Have you an answer to this “cost-benefit” approach to environmental policy-making? Can you propose and defend a different approach to policy analysis? After all, environmental decisions must be made. If the present decision-making rules and methods are inadequate, what alternatives might we propose?

Have you studied the developer’s arguments? Are these arguments based upon some unexamined yet highly questionable assumptions? What are these assumptions and why are they questionable? Are you prepared to refute them?

Do not underestimate the persuasive strength of the arguments of the “opposition”! Those who argue for “constant growth,” “development,” and the “subjugation of nature,” defend their positions from assumptions and from a point of view that have long dominated the beliefs and attitudes of Western culture. These established beliefs and attitudes concerning man’s place in the natural world (often seen as “nature’s place in man’s world”) are so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture that most of our neighbors, and (let’s face it!) often we ourselves, accept them uncritically and even unconsciously.

What beliefs and attitudes? Basically they are beliefs and attitudes that issue from a point of view that highly values the significance of one species, Homo sapiens, in the natural community, and which affirms the right of this species to impose its will upon the remainder of its natural estate. It is a viewpoint that not only restricts interests to members of the human species but, even more, may confine its temporal concerns to the lifetime to one’s own generation, or at most that of oneself and one’s children. The legacy from the past and on to the remote future is “discounted.”

If we feel that a man-centered view of nature is myopic, inappropriate and fallacious, are we prepared to demonstrate how it is so? Have we a better view concerning man’s responsibility to nature? Are we prepared to explain this “better” environmental ethic and to defend it? As we endeavor to do so, I suggest that we may find that a coherent and cogent environmental ethic will have to be based upon some premises and perspectives that we are not familiar with. Still less is the public or the “establishment” familiar with radically different approaches to the issue of man’s responsibility to nature. And this seriously complicates our task.



Philosophers are those troublesome individuals who “ask the next question.” They look for, and then critically examine, concepts and assumptions that are generally “taken for granted.” Philosophers ask such annoying questions as “What do you mean by that?” “How come?” “So what?” (Short for “So what follows from your assertion?”) And, most discomforting of all, “Why should I, or you, or anyone believe that?” The philosopher’s job is primarily to ask questions, not to answer them. His task is not to comfort the afflicted but to afflict the comfortable.[1]

Often the philosophers’ attempts to rouse others “from their dogmatic slumbers” (as Kant phrased it) are icily ignored. Sometimes the philosophers’ attempts to provoke active thought succeed all too well. (Witness the case of Socrates.)

Within the general field of philosophy is ethics and moral philosophy—the philosophical study of values (“goods” and “bads”) that are, to some degree at least, under the control of some responsible, rational and deliberative person or persons. Ethics deals with such general concepts as obligation, justice, rights, duties, virtue, beneficence, etc. Moral philosophy deals, in general, with the evaluation of personal acts, conduct, motivation and policy.

Viewed descriptively, the institution of morality is social in origin and orientation and essentially systemic. Like economic systems, moral codes evolve out of competition and cooperation: the competition for scarce goods, services, satisfactions and the security of personal interests, and cooperation to gain and enhance mutual welfare and security. Thus moral philosophy describes and prescribes constraints and liberties (duties and rights) that regulate social life so that all may fairly contribute to the just maximization of benefits and satisfactions for each.

The concept of a “person” is central to moral philosophy. While the list of criteria that identify “personhood” is in some dispute, most moral philosophers would include most, it not all, of the following characteristics in that list:[2]

sentience, or the ability to feel pain
consciousness of external objects and events
reasoning, the ability to solve problems
self-motivated activity
the capacity to communicate through the use of a complete, syntactic system of significant symbols (i.e., a language)
a concept of oneself as a being continuing through time
a capacity to conceptualize and choose among alternative futures
a capacity to act on principle—to deliberately govern one’s behavior according to rules
recognition of the personhood of other persons.

The reason that this definition is crucial to moral philosophy is that only such a being as that described above can be said to be “morally responsible” or “duty-bound” (as, for example, infants and animals are not). Because the only “persons” we know of are human beings, there is a widespread temptation to treat the terms “person” and “human being” as synonymous. This careless equation of meaning leads to a great deal of confusion and befuddlement in moral arguments, most notably arguments over such issues as abortion, euthanasia, and environmental ethics. The distinction between person (a moral concept) and human being (a biological concept) can readily be grasped by citing contrary cases. In the TV series, Star Trek the android, “Data,” not to mention numerous “aliens” are depicted as non-human persons, as is the cuddly (?) alien, “E.T.” in the movie of that same name. Dolphins may be persons, although we have not determined this to be the case. On the other hand, a severely brain damaged or irreversibly comatose human being is not a person.

The question of whether a being is or is not a person has fundamental bearing upon our moral conduct toward that being. Persons are afforded dignity, deserve respect, assume duties and responsibilities, and hold rights to a degree that non-persons do not. Thus, if we were to find that dolphins were, in fact, persons, our attitudes toward them would change at once, and we would (for example) require, by law, that tuna fishermen be much more careful about the dolphins’ “personal” safety. The vocabulary and the rationale of moral philosophy has traditionally been applied to the community of human persons. Thus the attempt to extend ethical inquiry beyond human contexts to life communities (i.e., to ecosystems) introduces deep conceptual and methodological problems. The ecological moralist who ignores these problems does so at the risk of trivializing and even invalidating his moral theory.

The concept of a “person” leads directly to the distinction between moral and non-moral value. A “moral value” is a value that reflects upon the worth of a person (or, in other words, upon one’s “moral virtue”). A “morally good act” is an act that is prompted by a meritorious personal will. The term “non-moral value” applies to anything else that might be “graded” (termed good or bad). “Non-moral values” include price (of goods and services), beauty (of art objects or landscapes), function (of machines), viability (of species or organisms), stability (of societies or ecosystems), and even (if somewhat confusingly) enjoyments (of experiences)[3]—in short, any values that do not reflect upon the worth of persons. Axiology is the branch of philosophy that deals with values in general, while ethics, a subdivision of axiology, is concerned with moral values, or with non-moral values as they relate to moral values.

Environmental ethics is concerned with the issue of responsible personal conduct with respect to natural landscapes, resources, species, and non-human organisms. Conduct with respect to persons is, of course, the direct concern of moral philosophy as such. (Strictly speaking, “environmental ethics” could be interpreted more broadly to include questions of responsibility toward artificial environments; but such an interpretation is not directly our concern, and we will thus confine our attention to matters of moral significance regarding natural environments.)

“Moral responsibility” normally implies knowledge, capacity, choice, and value significance. That is to say, if a person is morally responsible to do something, then he (a) knows of this requirement, (b) is capable of performing it, (c) can freely choose whether or not to do it, and (d) the performance thereof affects the welfare and/or liberty of other beings. Because one’s response to these requirements reflects upon his value as a person, we say that this response has “moral significance.” This analysis of “moral responsibility” might help to explain why “environmental ethics” has only recently attracted the attention and concern of moral philosophers. Quite simply, until recently our effects upon the natural environment were regarded as morally neutral since nature, we assumed, was both impersonal and too vast to be injured by our interventions, or else, at the very least, we were quite unable to foresee the harm resulting from our dealings with nature. Now, of course, we know better. We know that we can cause massive and permanent damage to natural landscapes, resources and ecosystems. Not only do we know that we can cause these insults, we also know how we can cause them and how we can prevent or remedy them. Knowing all this exacts a moral obligation to act with care, foresight and, at times, with forbearance and constraint. In our dealings with the natural environment, we are, in short, called upon to reflect, act, or perhaps to refrain from acting, in a manner which testifies to our worth as persons and as a culture—in a word, to respond morally.

Environmental ethics, then, might include such issues as the following:

Why care about nature “for itself” when only people “matter”? If you deny that “only people matter,” on what grounds can you defend that denial? (After all, if no people are around to regret it, what difference does it make if a species, a canyon, or even a planet is destroyed? If people who are around prefer to destroy natural objects and landscapes, then so what? Why not?)
When species or landscapes or wilderness areas are destroyed, what, of value, is lost to mankind?
Will future generations “miss” what we have “taken from them”? (How could they if they never will know what they have “lost”?)
“Should Trees Have [Legal] Standing?” (as Christopher Stone contends). On what grounds, if not for mankind’s sake?
Does “land ownership” make moral sense, or is it a morally absurd and repugnant concept in Western culture (as the Native Americans would claim).
Do human beings have a need for nature that implies an obligation to preserve it? What is the evidence for this?
What are the ultimate grounds of an affirmation to protect the environment? Are they rational? Irrational? Non-rational? Mystical?
What, basically, is wrong with the developer’s anthropocentric and utilitarian land ethic? Why not treat land as a “commodity” rather than a “community”?
If five-hundred backpackers and river runners per year enjoyed Glen Canyon before 1962, and fifty thousand power boaters and water skiers enjoy it now, then why not have a Lake Powell there?
Do future generations (who, after all, do not exist now) have a “right” now to a clean and natural environment when their time comes?
Can man “improve” upon nature? How? What constitutes “improvement”?
Do the facts of environmental science have moral implications?
Are human beings psychologically capable of caring for nature and for future generations? If they have this capacity, are we morally obligated to nurture it?

and so forth...

One of the most serious problems with the environmental movement today is that its moral position is badly articulated and defended—it is more “felt” than thought through. This paper is intended to help us to remedy that defect.




Moral philosophers have found it useful to distinguish three “levels” of study in their discipline. The first “level,” “descriptive ethics,” consists of accounts of what people and/or their cultures do, in fact, value. Imagine, for example, a hypothetical public opinion survey reporting that 55% of Californians favor extraordinary and costly measures to protect and preserve their northern forests, that 30% oppose such measures, and that 15% are undecided. Since the survey reports the moral opinions of the sample population without offering a moral judgment of these beliefs,[4] the poll is an exercise in descriptive ethics. Similarly, an anthropological report that such and such a tribe values head hunting describes the values of that tribe. Descriptive ethics, then, can be regarded as a specialized type of social science.

The second level, “normative ethics” (also called “prescriptive ethics”) deals with moral issues in the conventional sense of that term—that is, with questions of right or wrong, duties and rights, justice and injustice, virtue and wickedness, and so forth. On this level of ethical discourse, judgments are made and defended concerning the moral value of acts, motives and policies, or of the persons or communities responsible for these acts, motives or policies. Also, in particular cases, recommendations are made as to the morally “best” course of action or conduct. Thus a normative response to the hypothetical poll on the Northland forests might be “How dreadful that our fellow citizens should care so little about their biotic legacy!” Or, on the other hand, “I am glad to see that our citizens are at last coming to their moral senses and recognizing that human beings are more important than a bunch of trees!” Similarly, one might normatively condemn the practice of head hunting accurately described by the anthropologist.


The Drawing is by Janice Wightman (1980)
An Administrative Assistant at the Environmental Studies Program
University of California, Santa Barbara

The philosopher, accustomed as he is to “ask the next question,” is not content simply to hear a normative opinion. He insists upon a clear and precise statement of the meanings of the concepts employed in the opinion. When the philosopher seeks to clarify the meaning of normative terms or to examine the structure, grounds and justification of normative arguments, he is engaging in the activity of “critical ethics,” or “meta-ethics.” He is thus, in a sense, an intellectual spectator of the normative judgment. It is the task of the critical moral philosopher to take account of the logic, language and methodology of normative discourse and argument. Thus, if a moralist condemns capital punishment as “unjust” or head hunting as “barbaric,” the meta-ethical philosopher will ask the meaning of “justice” and “barbarism” in these contexts. He will also inquire as to the nature and soundness of the arguments offered in defense of these normative (i.e., moral) claims.

A failure to discriminate among these levels of ethical inquiry can lead to considerable confusion and error. For instance, a failure to distinguish between descriptive and normative ethics can draw one into a naive cultural relativism (“Oh well, if the Wadjacallem believe in head hunting, I guess it’s good for them!”), or even a subjective relativism (“So you’re a serial killer! Well, whatever turns you on, baby!”) Failure to distinguish normative ethics from critical ethics can lead to hasty moral conclusions. For example, if we affirm (meta-ethically) that future generations can meaningfully be said to “have rights,” it does not follow that they (normatively) have a right to share the company of snail darters or to find the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in a natural state. Furthermore, if someone (normatively) argues that dumping nuclear wastes in the ocean is “inherently unjust,” we should neither accept nor reject his claim until we have (meta-ethically) determined what he means by “inherently unjust” and have examined the structure of his argument and the premises and point of view from which it is argued.


Let us now apply these three levels of ethical inquiry to environmental ethics. First, descriptive environmental ethics is not a significant problem in environmental ethics for the simple reason that, strictly speaking, “descriptive ethics” isn’t really a part of moral philosophy at all. Rather, because it is “descriptive,” it is really a type of social science. If we ask “What do ‘the American people’ think of their national parks? Do they believe the parks to be ‘valuable’? Worth the cost of their preservation?” Such questions as these can be answered through the polling techniques of a Gallup or a Roper.

If we judge the environmental values of most Americans to be “deplorable” (a normative judgment) and thus feel moved to “do something about it,” we might attempt to change these attitudes. And so we would enter the fields of environmental education and moral education. And what teaching methods most effectively produce the attitude we approve of? This too is a descriptive question; specifically, a question of educational psychology.

Normative ethics deals directly with the “nerve” of morality; namely, the question “What should we do?” Thus normative environmental ethics is apparent in Congressional debates over policy and funding. For example, such issues as: What is the optimum use of this canyon, or forest, or desert? How should we treat this natural area? Use it up? Protect it? Preserve it intact? What “good” is a “useless” endangered species? How much effort and cost should we devote to protecting it? What damage to the environment and what risk to future generations is acceptable in return for the development of synfuels and nuclear power?

Critical ethics (“meta-ethics”) is concerned with the meanings of ethical concepts and with the justification of normative claims. Thus environmental meta-ethics brings to policy and legislative debate such questions as these: Upon what unstated moral assumptions are these contending positions based (e.g., the positions of the “developer” and the “preservationist”)? What are the meanings of the key concepts in the debates—concepts such as “wise use,” “preservation,” “ecological integrity and stability,” “human enrichment,” “rights and duties,” etc.

What sorts of arguments are offered in defense of the competing value claims? Are these cogent moral arguments that warrant their conclusions? Can any conclusions be drawn in such arguments, or do disputes about the “optimum use” of nature or the “duty to preserve and cherish wilderness” merely reduce to differences of feeling, taste or cultural bias? And if they do, are they not, in principle, be basically subjective and beyond resolution? (This is the “non-cognitivist” position in meta-ethics.) On the other hand, can such disputes be settled by appeals to facts and logic, so that two well-informed, unbiased and rational disputants in an environmental policy issue might, in principle at least, arrive at an agreement in their normative views regarding policy? (As, for example, disputes in science are “settled” by appeals to evidence through scientific method.) The meta-ethical view that moral disputes can, in principle, be settled by objective, rational analysis is called “moral cognitivism.”

We are now prepared to clarify a crucial distinction: “Environmental Ethics” is to be identified in this Introduction, and in this writer’s contributions to this collection, as a meta-ethical term designating any ethical position that expresses a viewpoint concerning man’s responsibility to nature. “Ecological morality,” on the other hand, identifies the particular normative environmental ethics of such writers as Aldo Leopold, who view man as a part of the natural community, with duties of respect and forbearance toward that community.

Possibly the most crucial and fundamental problem faced by the ecological moralist is contained in this meta-ethical question: “Do the facts of ecology bear value implications?” In other words, “Does the study of the integrated life community of nature, persisting and evolving through time, inform us morally?” Most ecological moralists seem to affirm this claim. Yet by doing so, they are embracing the highly controversial meta-ethical position of moral cognitivism. It may be no exaggeration to suggest that unless and until environmental ethics can present a persuasive solution to the meta-ethical problem of moral cognitivism (that is, the problem of justifying normative claims with both objective facts and rational arguments), environmental ethics will receive, and, even worse, will deserve no serious attention from moral philosophers.

Because of deep and persistent problems such as this, many environmental philosophers (including myself) believe that the most urgent attention in environmental ethics should be devoted to meta-ethical issues; not because normative environmental questions (“What shall we do?”) are not important, but because these normative issues are ill-defined and because we are ill-equipped to go about the task of settling them. Thus, for the sake of finding solutions to the normative questions, we must first solve some prerequisite problems of ethical meaning and justification; that is to say, problems of meta-ethics.

And so, even splendid and enduring statements of normative environmental ethics, such as Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, leave us short of final resolution. We read, for instance, such inspiring normative sentiments as this from Aldo Leopold: “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.” (Land Ethic) But while many of might read this with enthusiastic approval and warm affirmation, do we grasp the full meaning of this claim? And are we prepared, after reading Leopold’s essay, to offer a careful, structured, and informed defense of this maxim? Do we even know what would constitute such a cogent defense of the “land ethic”? I submit that, for the most part, the defenders of Leopold’s position are not well-prepared to answer these challenges, not because these defenders are careless, irrational, biased romantics and partisans, but because the meta-ethical issues of meaning and justification emerge from and deal with some of the most profound, obscure and stubborn problems of moral philosophy. Yet some sort of informed, thoughtful and critical response to the meta-ethical issues of environmental ethics is essential if this new field of ethics is to receive the scholarly attention that its normative urgency demands.



While I wish that I could report that my profession of philosophy offers clear guidance to the task of finding and justifying a code of conduct toward the natural environment, I must sadly report that many honored and entrenched traditions, assumptions and methodologies of philosophy, and even more of scientific and humane scholarship in general, may be more a part of the problem than a part of the solution. Accordingly, we may find that if we attempt to derive a truly cogent, coherent and far-seeing environmental ethic, grounded in the theory and the perspective of the ecological point of view, such an ethic may have to be defended in terms that most educated persons, and even many philosophers, are unfamiliar with; in terms, that is, that are out of step with current scholarly fashions or traditions. In particular, a new environmental ethic may have to challenge four basic traditions:

a) Anthropocentrism. We are used to defining values and ethics with human beings in the center of our conceptual scheme of things. Thus acts or policies are viewed as “good” if they benefit human individuals or communities. (A more generous view would place non-human but sentient creatures in the suburbs of our moral concern.) Alternatively, other moral theories identify as “good” those acts and policies that are motivated by a respect for the “dignity of personhood” of human beings. “Lesser beings” and nature itself does not, in this view, share such “dignity.” The ecological moralist, on the contrary, is more inclined to view humanity not at the center of the moral universe but as an ingredient (though presumably a necessary ingredient) in the realm of morality, particularly as morality pertains to responsibility to nature.

b) Reductive Analysis. We are accustomed, through our scholarly traditions, to move from secure knowledge to insecure conjecture. We do so by acquiring our knowledge in bite-sized pieces and accumulating this knowledge piece-by-piece, until a whole emerges out of the parts. From such a tradition, it is easy to conclude that, in order to understand something or to solve a problem, we must first identify the parts and then their rules of combination. The approach of identifying the parts in order to comprehend the whole is called “reductive analysis.” The ecological point of view reverses this approach. The ecologist suggests: “Grasp the whole—think like a mountain—and then the whole will explain the parts.” (Holism) (But beware! An incautious insistence upon holism and an aversion to analysis can also limit our understanding. An astute historian or philosopher of science will acknowledge a need for a dynamic balance between the apprehension and application of parts and whole in scientific theory and practice.)

c) The Egocentric Perspective. The philosophical method of “reductive analysis” leads, almost irresistibly, to the “egocentric point of view.” Thus, following a philosophical tradition endorsed and exemplified by Hume and Descartes, philosophers have insisted that philosophical inquiry “start” with the “hard” and “secure” data of immediate experience and awareness, and then “move out,” cautiously and deliberately, to conjectures about the “external world,” “other minds,” and so forth. It is not difficult to understand why, in such a tradition of inquiry, there is a general neglect of the question of man’s moral responsibility of nature. The ecologist, as we well know, conceives of “nature” as a complicated system of interacting parts. Such a concept is hopelessly out of reach of a methodology which “begins” with “immediate” subjective experience and awareness. Thus the very method of many philosophers—their preferred manner of doing their work—has kept them uninvolved with questions of environmental ethics. Moreover, by placing mankind in the center of their theory of knowledge, many philosophers have been drawn toward the unwarranted conclusion that humanity is also in the center of nature. (Philosophers have all-too-often been thus “bewitched” by their preferred methodological points of view.) The ecological moralist, of course, adopts a different perspective by regarding man as a member, rather than the master or the justification of the natural community.

d) The “Fact/Value Gap.” (We return here to the question of moral cognitivism.) For centuries, many philosophers have contended that no amount of factual information can logically entail an evaluative conclusion. The maxim “no ‘ought’ from ‘is’” (or “no values from facts”) is virtually axiomatic among philosophers today. The most troublesome thing about this maxim is that it is probably correct—strictly speaking.[6]

Accordingly, however spectacular may be the coming advances in environmental science and ecology, a conclusive environmental ethic will not emerge directly therefrom. Discouraging? Not necessarily. For even now the facts of ecology (as well as psychology, systems theory and still other disciplines) may have significant bearing upon the search for an environmental ethic. Formal logic admits of only two outcomes: valid and invalid. Practical and scientific knowledge accepts degrees of warrant. And thus, even if the facts do not validly imply values, they may nonetheless offer strong warrant for moral claims. In moral inquiry, as in empirical science, “almost” may be quite good enough. After all, as David Hume capably demonstrated, the methodology of empirical science itself is formally invalid. But that doesn’t refute the value and warrant of scientific investigation, nor should it.

Moral cognitivists insist that too much has been made of the “gap” between factual assertions and moral claims. While it is true that formally speaking some value assumptions must be made if a value conclusion is to be drawn, it may also be the case that these value premises can be seen to be so basic and “self-evident” as to command virtually universal assent. Once again, empirical science offers an instructive analogy. Science, it seems, rests upon such “unproven” assumptions as these:

Nature is uniform and will behave in the future according to the same universal laws that governed it in the past. (Upon this assumption the “principle of induction” and thus all empirical science is based. Unfortunately, as David Hume pointed out, this “principle of the uniformity of nature” is itself based upon induction—a clear instance of the fallacy of circularity.)
There are other minds besides my own. (But my mind is obviously the only one that I can know directly. All else is conjecture.)
Besides minds and their ideas, there are objects and events that exist in a physical world, that persist unobserved, and which pre-existed the development of sentient and cognitive life. (All such conjecture is based upon induction, which, in turn, is based on a fallacy, as noted above.)

Analogously, the axiomatic core of ethics may include such “obvious,” yet unproven (and probably un-provable), assumptions as these:

It is better to be healthy than sick.
A rationally assessed self-respect is worth striving for.
The satisfaction of desire and aspiration, as such, is prima facie better than frustration and denial.
Happiness is to be preferred to misery.
Even if we cannot fully and explicitly define “happiness,” we all know when we are happy and when we are not.
If, with equal effort, we can enhance the well-being of others or harm them, we are duty-bound to choose the former.
A world with viable life-forms on it is preferable to a world without them. Still better if the life community is stable and diversified, and better yet if some of the life-forms are conscious and reflective (i.e., are moral agents or “persons”).

If that is the sort of “axiomatic core” that the moral philosopher must “accept as given,” then most practical individuals should be content. Such an evaluative core seems to be quite strong enough to serve as a basis for a moral theory. Add to this the facts of ecology, of human nature, of moral psychology and the logic of systems theory, and we might have more than enough warrant to articulate and adopt a reasonable and secure set of guidelines for action (i.e., moral imperatives) and codes of responsibility (i.e., moral duties) regarding mankind’s dealings with nature and future generations.

As for those “unproven moral assumptions,” they may, for the most part, be the sort of curiosities that trouble and entertain academic philosophers (at times suggestively so) in their journals and seminars. The rest of us, including philosophers off the job, can, like David Hume himself, safely leave these puzzles behind as we attempt, as we must, to deal practically and to behave responsibly in the natural world around us.

In this section I have listed four prominent traditions in Western philosophy and, to some degree, in other scholarly disciplines, which tend to discourage and complicate attempts to articulate and defend an ecological perspective and an affirmative code of responsibility toward nature. Do these “established” methods and viewpoints of analytic and moral philosophy constitute grounds for rejecting the assistance of philosophers or ignoring their traditions entirely? Not at all. In the first place, we should not overlook the fact that many philosophers (notably Spinoza and Whitehead) were very much “in tune” with the ecological point of view. As for the rest, the answer is not to abandon moral philosophy, but to reform it. This tradition of disciplined, rational, critical thought should not be hastily set aside. The ecological moralist has much to learn from the philosophers and needs the philosophers’ persistent and disciplined criticism. And if, in general, philosophers have failed to be favorably affected by the ecologists, then the best response to inappropriate and confining philosophy is better philosophizing.



Why? Because we can’t sit this one out! “Not to decide” about issues of environmental ethics is “to decide”—in favor of the status quo, and in favor of “business as usual.” But our poor, battered, plundered and polluted planet can not long endure a continuation of “business as usual.” We have, in the past couple of centuries, achieved a cleverness that has far overshot our wisdom. The explosive growth of scientific knowledge, followed shortly by a parallel growth in technical ingenuity, has created an “explosive growth” in moral problems—some unprecedented in human history.

Ethics is a very ancient human preoccupation (older, perhaps, than philosophy itself). And yet, environmental ethics is very new. In view of the recent dramatic growth in knowledge and technology, it is not difficult to see why this is so. Ethics deals with the realm of imaginable human conduct that falls between the impossible and the inevitable—that is, within the area of human capacity and choice. And now, even within our own lifetime (and ever more so with each year), we have acquired capabilities and thus face choices that have never been faced before in the course of human history—indeed, we now face many capabilities and choices never contemplated or even imagined before. These include choices of birth, life, and death for our species and others—choices that are rapidly changing the living landscape forever.

When the ecosystem was not understood, or even recognized or appreciated as a system; when the earth and its wilderness were believed to be too vast to be damaged by voluntary human choice—at such a time, there was no environmental ethics. But in our own time, we have revalidated the myth of Genesis; for in our own time, with knowledge has come power, and with both knowledge and power, we have lost our innocence.

This knowledge and this power are due, of course, to the scientific revolution. And therein resides a puzzle and a paradox: The scientists, steadfastly and correctly, claim that their content and methodology are “value neutral.” In the narrow sense, they are right. As methodology, science is properly value-free and should be value-free (an evaluative reflection, you will notice). But this “properly value-free” methodology has opened up a bewildering array of capacities and choices to us evaluating creatures. And we are not equipped with the ethical insights and the moral restraints that are necessary to deal wisely and appropriately with these choices. Yet, the choices are before us and we cannot evade them: “not to decide is to decide.”

The issues of environmental ethics are momentous, live and forced (to borrow William James’ terms); that is to say, these issues involve moral choices of enormous importance that we can make and, even more, that we must make. Our moral responsibility to nature and to the future is of unprecedented significance and urgency, and it is a responsibility that we cannot escape. In our heretofore careless and capricious hands lies the fate of our natural environment, our brother species, and the generations that will succeed us.

Therein lies our inalienable, dreadful challenge—and our awesome responsibility.

*** *** ***

Copyright 1980, by Ernest Partridge


* University of California, Riverside. Website: www.igc.org/gadfly.

[1] I believe this marvelous turn of phrase is either from Clarence Darrow or H.L. Mencken.

[2] The first five criteria are adapted from Mary Anne Warren’s paper, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” (The Monist, 57:1, Jan. 1973, p. 55); the final three criteria are my additions to Warren’s list.

[3] How so? Because a person’s experiences are not the person; they are something that the person has. One’s experiences have value apart from the value of the person. Thus a virtuous person can have a bad experience (such as a toothache), and a wicked person a good experience (such as a feeling of accomplishment). All clear now?

[4] Of course, an opinion concerning the fate of the California Condor may have non-moral value components—e.g., aesthetic or economic judgments.

[5] For a longer, more technical statement of the ideas in this section, see my “Environmental Ethics: Obstacles and Opportunities” in Environmental Consciousness, Schulz and Hughes, eds., (Washington, University Press of America, 1981).

[6] A fundamental rule of formal logic states that no term in a conclusion can be absent in the premises. Thus it is a formal fallacy to introduce “ought” in the conclusion if it is missing in the premises. In other words, we must assume some values in our premises if we are to draw evaluative conclusions, unless values can somehow be defined in terms of facts. All efforts to do so have, to date, apparently proven to be unconvincing. (Cf. Chapter 6 of William Frankena’s Ethics, Prentice-Hall, 1973.)


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