Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- July, 2000

Is Everything "Natural"?

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

Revised as Section Three of "Nature, for Better or Worse"

"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." Ergo, 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 "natural."

"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) Big Deal!

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 psychological 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., physically 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 "natural/artificial" distinction?

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.

1. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1971.

2. J. Baird Callicott, "Do Deconstructive Ecology and Sociobiology Undermine Leopold's Land Ethics?" Environmental Ethics 18 (1996), p. 371. In the Summer, 1999 issue of the same journal, Max Oelschlaeger replies with an argument similar to mine ("On the Conflations Humans and Nature"). However, the ideas that I express in this piece, and have routinely presented to students over the past twenty years, extend back at least to the publication of McPhee's book in 1971.

3. Psychological Egoism ("all acts are selfishly motivated") should not be confused with Ethical Egoism ("one's primary moral obligation is to oneself"), notoriously championed by Ayn Rand. The arguments against Ethical Egoism are subtle and complicated, and far beyond the scope of this piece. While I have not published lengthy arguments against this ethical theory, my dissent is evident in "Why Care About the Future?," and Sections V - VII of "Nature as a Moral Resource." This site.

4. A similar argument may be made against George Berkeley's subjective idealism, also familiar to most students of Intro. Philosophy: "to be is to be perceived," i.e. all that exists are mind and their ideas - matter is illusory. But that too is beyond the scope of this brief essay.

 Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .