"Nature changes the environment every day of our lives - why shouldn't we
change it? We're part of nature." This remark of Floyd Dominy
(ex-Commissioner of Reclamation), recorded by John McPhee in his book, Encounters
with the Archdruid,(1) typifies an
evasion familiar to most environmental activists and scholars. Human beings
are natural, therefore everything they do is "natural."
human projects cannot "harm nature," and thus the qualms of the
environmentalists are without meaningful foundation.
No less an environmental philosopher than Baird Callicott has been enticed by
this ploy, as he writes: "we are part of nature, so our recent habit of
recycling sequestered carbon [i.e., through the consumption of fossil fuels] is
not unnatural." (2) (In fairness to
Callicott, we must also note that he acknowledges that some human interventions
in "nature" are clearly immoral).
In an identifiable sense of the word "natural,", both Dominy and
Callicott are entirely and indisputably correct. But this is not the only, or
even the most relevant sense of "natural" found in environmental
debates. And this equivocation is at the root of a great deal of rhetorical
mischief in environmental debates and policy.
The sense of "natural" apparently intended by Dominy and Callicott
in the above citations is this: "a condition in accordance with natural
law." By implication, "unnatural" can only mean "contrary to
natural law," which is to say physically impossible. (When a
scientist encounters a validated "exception" to an assumed
"natural law" he has in fact proven that the putative "law"
was no such thing).
It follows, as Dominy suggests, that everything that human beings create and
do is "natural," including transuranic elements, DDT and chloro-fluorocarbons,
atomic reactors, genetically modified organisms, exponential population growth,
etc. The "unnatural" includes perpetual-motion machines, time travel,
faster-than-light velocities - unless and until, that is, these sci-fi notions
are found to be possible, whereupon they are acknowledged to be
"Artificiality" is thus abolished by semantic fiat, and with it all
cause for concern about the warnings of the environmentalists. "If it can
be done, go ahead and do it - don't worry, be happy, after all it's natural."
To repeat Dominy's cheerful reassurance, "nature changes the environment
every day of our lives - why shouldn't we change it? We're part of nature."
This argument, which I have heard from numerous students throughout my
twenty-five years of teaching Environmental Ethics, has a superficial
plausibility, accompanied by a suspicion that there is some sort of logical
hocus-pocus at work at a deeper level.
There is indeed, as I hope to demonstrate below.
The "all-is-natural" argument is reminiscent of another, familiar
to most students who have taken an introductory course in ethics: psychological
egoism. This theory is simplicity itself: All human action is selfishly
motivated. The immediate rejoinder is obvious: what about saints and
heroes? - what about the soldier who falls on a live grenade to save his
buddies, or of a Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi who willingly accept
imprisonment? Surely their voluntary acts were not selfish!
"Oh yes they were," replies the psychological egoist. "King
and Gandhi and all the rest, did what they did because they wanted to -
these were their preferences."
The dissolution of this nasty bit of sophomore ideology is simple: the maxim,
"all voluntary human acts are selfishly motivated " is
"true" because it is a plain tautology - i.e., it is "true by
definition," and thus devoid of any empirical content. "Selfish
motivation" is defined by the egoist as equivalent to "preferred by
the agent" which is equivalent to "voluntary." Ergo: by
substituting equals with equals, we find that psychological egoists simply state
that "all voluntary acts are voluntary." (3)
The capper then is straightforward: Ask the psychological egoist, "if
what you say about human motivation is true - 'all acts are selfish' -
then what would it be like, contrafactually, to encounter an unselfish
act?" If, as we contend, psychological egoism is a tautology, there is no
answer to that challenge because the theory is empty of empirical content.
(4) In other words, because all imaginable behavior is so
indicated, no particular behavior is designated. In the jargon of
the Philosophy of Science, Psychological Egoism is empirically
meaningless because it fails "the falsifiability test."
The crucial challenge to the egoist is this: "what is to be gained, and
what is to be lost, by abolishing the distinction between "selfish
behavior" and "unselfish behavior" Do we gain or lose moral
insight by examining and contrasting, for example, the motives and behavior of a
self-serving scoundrel on the one hand, with lives and ideals of saints and
heroes on the other hand? We suggest that if the lives of Buddha, Jesus of
Nazareth, Galileo, Jefferson, Gandhi, King, Mandella, Sakharov and endlessly
more, have nothing to teach us (since, allegedly, their lives were entirely
"selfishly motivated"), then we are in a sorry moral state indeed.
(Incidentally, "psychological egoism" is not a mere ideological
curiously, of interest only to Philo. 1 students and their professors. It has,
in fact, infected and captivated much of an major academic discipline,
"neo-classical economics," and through it much of public policy
theory.) (See our "Twentieth Century
Alchemy," and the links therein).
Time now to "cash in" our comparison between
egoism ("all human motives are selfish") with the naturalism
evasion ("all human activities and products are natural").
In a similar mode, we should ask such technocrats as Floyd Dominy, "what
is to be gained by abolishing the distinction between "artificial"
(conditions and substances of human origin) and "natural" (conditions
and substances not of human origin)?" Granted, all human acts and products
are "natural" in the sense of being constrained by natural law (call
it "natural/1"). But within this category of
"all-things-possible" there is a distinction, essential to science,
technology and public policy, not to mention common sense - a distinction
between conditions and substances of human origin (e.g., anti-biotics,
genetically modified organisms, nuclear waste, CFCs, etc.) and conditions and
substances not of human origin (e.g., old-growth forests, plate tectonics, solar
flux, DNA, thermodynamic laws, etc. - call it "natural/2").
"All human acts and products are natural" is true - but trivially
true, if it is understood to mean "constrained by natural law" (i.e.,
possible).. But it is a mischievous truth if it leads us to overlook
another sense of "natural," namely "not of human origin."
It is true that Dominy's triumph, Lake Powell of the Colorado, along with
genetically modified organisms and atomic power, is "natural/1"). So
too was the Black Plague which consumed one third of the European population, as
well as any and every ecological devastation that we might bring upon ourselves
and our planet. If, like the dinosaurs, we are annihilated by a collision with a
comet or asteroid, this too will be a "natural" event.
"Natural/1" makes no moral or value distinctions.
It is within the semantic domain of this second sense that the environmental
scientists and activists make their warnings - the sense that utilizes the
familiar distinction between the artificial ('of human origin") and
"natural/2" (not of human origin). With this essential distinction as
part of our conceptual arsenal, we can meaningfully raise questions about the
practical and moral implications of our "artificial" interventions in
"nature/2," and thus make informed choices among the alternative
futures before us.
Environmental scientists tell us that global population growth, atmospheric
carbon loading, loss of biodiversity and tropical forests, are all proceeding at
unsustainable rates. All this activity is "natural/1" - namely,
according to natural law. But are these anthropogenic alterations any less
worrisome, if we choose to ignore the common-sense
These interventions are no less worrisome to informed and morally concerned
earth-citizens, well-aware that "artificial" interventions into, and
alteration of, the natural order that created and sustained us, are qua
"artificial" our moral responsibility.
And just what do we mean by "moral responsibility," and how
does such responsibility relate to our awareness of the consequences of our
actions and policies? We have explored this question at length in several
publications. For a start, see "Posterity an the
Strains of Commitment," this site.