NOW IS THE TIME FOR PHILOSOPHERS
TO COME TO THE AID OF THEIR PLANET
Presented at a conference on
Philosophy of Ecology and Bioethics,”
at Cortona, Sala Sant’Agostino, Italy, August 28, 1995.
Published in Global Ethics, Vol.
II, 1-4, 1998.
Most recent revision: September, 2013
Five appropriate roles of professional philosophers in environmental
scholarship, policy and education are explored. Philosophers can and
should function as social critics, as conceptual analysts, as
“critical spectators” of science, as ethicists, and as educators. An
example of the philosopher’s role as social critic may be found in
the analysis of the methods and presuppositions of public policy
making. The philosopher as conceptual analyst can add clarity to
environmental debates through analyses of such terms as “ecosystem,
“ ”integrity,” “responsibiity” and “nature.” “Meta-Science” is
exemplified in an examination of the role of values in scientific
investigation and in the scientist's contributions to public
policy-making. The philosopher as environmental ethicist should seek
a balanced and integrated view of both the naturalness of the human
condition, and of the unique human quality of moral agency. Finally,
all these contributions, and more, are combined in the philosopher’s
function as educator — first, of his student, and also of his
profession, his academic colleagues, public policy-makers, and the
public at large.
I - Introduction
During the Viet-Nam war, some philosophers routinely introduced resolutions
that the American Philosophical Association condemn that war. These
resolutions were just as routinely voted down. “It is not the business of a
Philosophical society,” said the members, “to involve itself in political
My question is this: is it the business of philosophers to involve
themselves in issues of environmental renewal and sustainability? I am not
asking if an APA resolution is called for. And I am not even asking if all
philosophers should become involved. The question that I raise is much more
modest: If the scientists are correct, and we are facing a global
environmental emergency, do philosophers have a useful or even an important
role in addressing this emergency?
The fact that our planetary ecosystem is in peril should be evident to any
informed individual who hasn't spent the last two decades on some other
planet. The global population continues to grow exponentially, doubling
every forty years. The global resource consumption is increasing at an even
faster rate, as the underdeveloped majority strives to emulate the opulent
minority. Exotic chemicals unknown to the biosphere are still being freely
dumped therein, with consequences still unforeseeable to the most advanced
science. And the very chemistry of our atmosphere is being changed with
likely, if not substantially proven, alterations in our climate at a rate to
which few ecosystems can adapt.
True, there are a few cheerful individuals like Julian Simon who assure us
that there are no problems that can not be dealt with by human ingenuity
spurred on by the profit motive. But even if, however improbably, they turn
out to be right, can we take the chance now to assume them to be correct,
despite our well-founded doubts? Should we, in short, wildly assume a
Meanwhile, there is abundant reason to conclude that our poor home planet is
in peril and needs all the help that we can give it. So the question again
is this: do we philosophers, by means of our training, skill and
inclination, have particularly useful contributions to make to this effort —
contributions that issue from the very fact that we are philosophers? I
believe that we can make many contributions as philosophers; in fact, the
list of such contributions is much longer than I can give in this space. So
I will focus on five primary roles that a Philosopher can perform in the
struggle for environmental renewal and sustainability. These are the roles
of Social Critic, of Conceptual Analyst, of Philosopher of Science, of
Ethicist, and of Educator.
II - The Philosopher as Social Critic
To begin, the philosopher can serve as a social critic. As a foremost
example of this role, I have in mind the tasks of examining and criticizing
one of the most widespread and popular methods of environmental policy
decision making; namely, economic cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment.
In terms of short-term practical consequences, this may be the most
significant contribution the philosopher can make in response to the
environmental crisis. To begin, let’s identify the problem.1
Motivated by the necessity of coming to some decision, environmental
policy-makers have been attracted to procedures which avoid "subjective"
disputes (i.e., about values), which reduce and combine divergent factors,
and which focus upon objective, reliable and quantifiable methods of
arriving at definitive answers. Accordingly, such policy analysis is carried
out with an envious eye on the rigor and decisiveness of the "value-free"
"hard-sciences." Unfortunately, these diligent efforts to avoid
"intractable" philosophical disputes and value claims, have often led to the
careless adoption of a highly questionable and controversial moral
philosophy, "preference utilitarianism." In short, the attempt to avoid
philosophy has resulted instead in uncritical philosophizing.
The wayward path down this road of philosophical error often begins, and
persists, in the search for a "value-free policy." The motive for this
search for a "value-free policy method" seems commendable, since it follows
from the policy-maker's troublesome question: "Who am I to involve values
(inescapably my values) in this public enterprise? Better to avoid
evaluation, and stick to the facts, the numbers, and objective scientific
Unfortunately, the phrase "value-free policy-analysis" is oxymoronic, since
planning and policy are inescapably about choices among graded options that
affect the welfare and rights of persons — which is to say, about values.
While the scientist asks "What is the case?" "What are the facts?" the
policy-maker necessarily asks "What should be the case?" "Which of the
available options should we choose?" Because the task of the policy-maker is
to choose among feasible alternatives, he must ask "Which is the optimum --
the 'best' - choice among the available options?" Listing and explicating
the "available options" is an appropriate task of the "value-free"
scientist. The problem arises with the simple word "best" But what does the
policy-maker mean by "best"? "Best" on what grounds? What reasons does he
offer us to accept his evaluation or, for that matter, for accepting his
method of justifying his claim that such-and-such a policy is "the best" of
the alternatives?" These are not scientific questions; they are unavoidably
questions of moral philosophy. Thus the philosophically informed observer
would likely conclude that an uncritical insistence by policy-analysts that
their methodology, "like scientific method, is value-neutral" will result,
not in "value- free" choices, but in choices that follow from unexamined and
unchallenged values. In short, if we think that scientific insight alone
will give us adequate guidance in our environmental policy decisions, we
will be making — even worse, continuing — a dreadful error.
Whatever has led some policy-theorists to even suspect that policy making
could be "value free?" Perhaps it was the seeming availability of
"value-free" methodologies to produce "objective" ranking of policy options.
Foremost among these devices is cost benefit analysis (CBA) — a scheme that
evokes the enthusiastic endorsement of many applied economists and
legislators, and which provokes the overwhelming condemnation of most moral
philosophers. Cost-benefit analysis is a scheme that is both intuitively
attractive on the surface, and ethically troublesome in its implications. (I
will devote my attention to this prominent issue in policy studies, mindful
that there are several other policy issues that I might have treated:
namely, "externalities," "commons problems," collective responsibility,
The definition of CBA is simplicity itself: "if a policy, P, maximizes
benefits minus costs, then P ought to be carried out". Stated thus, the rule
scarcely seems open to dispute. The troubles begin as we attempt to assign
operational definitions to the key terms "costs" and "benefits," so that
these various amounts and dimensions might be measured together to produce a
result on "the bottom line." The only available common quantity appears to
be "cash value" or "willingness to pay." Enter the economist.
The significance of CBA in public policy-making can scarcely be over
stressed, for the practice pervades public administration. Read most
environmental impact statements, and you will find them saturated with the
statistics, spreadsheets, and finally the bottom lines of CBA. And in
February, 1988. the US House of Representatives passed a bill requiring that all
federal regulations involving costs in excess of $25 million be subjected to
cost-benefit analyses. It also includes risk assessment analyses, a practice
which we shall also examine shortly.
While the apparent advantages of CBA are enticing, in most case they can be
shown to be fundamentally flawed in that they are based upon highly
questionable assumptions, and bear intuitively outlandish implications.
Briefly, the most troublesome flaws are these:
As an uncritical version of utilitarianism, by "aggregating" and summing
total "utilities" (i.e., costs and benefits), CBA gives no attention to
individual persons, and their just concerns for equity, fair play, and just
distributions of wealth.
By reducing all values to the single denominator of "cash values,"
"moral values" (such as the virtues) are "factored out."
The monetization of values
entails a discounting of the future.
CBA treats the public as an aggregate of consumers, rather than as a
community of citizens. Thus "consumer preferences" count more than "civic
principles," since, if principles are to count at all, they must be
"redefined" as market preferences.
Finally, the claim that cost-benefit analysis identifies and applies
socially accepted values, as determined by the market, (i.e., "willingness
to pay"), simply reverses the relevant normative order of evaluation. How
"valuable" is a clean environment to our society? The economist replies,
"well, just find out how much the public is willing to pay. Let's look at
the budgets for the EPA, etc." But how does such information assist the
citizen or the legislator who asks: "knowing full well what we pay to
preserve and restore the environment, I want to know what we should pay —
that is to say, is our investment in our environment ethically right?" How
is the citizen or legislator to answer this question, if not through serious
and reflective evaluation? Surely not by looking again at the existing costs
of environmental renewal, which raised the question in the first place.
In several noteworthy cases (such as the Grand Canyon dams in the sixties),
wise government decision-makers, judges, or organized citizen groups have
insisted that their moral intuitions override the findings of carefully
quantified policy analyses. Many wild areas and ecosystems owe their
continued existence to these "value-laden, unscientific" qualms.
But what of policy based on risk assessment? Is this a matter best left to
the statisticians, as they gather in the casualty and population figures? By
no means, since such figures, however accurate, are not the end of the
policy issues, they are just the beginning. For what are we to make of these
risk-assessment statistics? Here begin the moral questions that no amount of
statistical analysis can address. Among these questions: Who is at risk?
Have those at risk consented to these risks? Is this an informed consent?
Are they even aware of their peril? Should individuals such as smokers be
coercively protected from their own risky behavior? How much risk of life
and limb is worth how much economic benefit; and conversely, how much should
we pay for risk reduction? Then there are questions of distributive justice
and equity: who gains and who loses? This, of course, raises issues of
"environmental justice," wherein we find that disproportional risks of
environmental pollution fall on the poor and the disenfranchised.
These are questions which inevitably arise as our industrial societies
continue to develop new products and technologies, and continue to discharge
wastes as a result. And they are unquestionably and irreducibly moral
issues. We all must ultimately address them as citizens, either directly or
through our representatives. Yet there is one profession which puts its
direct and concentrated attention on the ethical principles, concepts and
theories that underlie such deliberations, and that profession is moral
I do not wish to suggest in this brief critique that the economist, or even
CBA and quantitative risk assessment, do not have a legitimate role in
environmental policy making. The discipline and its methods can be valuable
as ingredients of environmental decision-making. Moreover, some economist
have made enduring contributions to environmental philosophy; among them,
Herman Daly and Kenneth Boulding on "steady-state systems" and Nicholas Goergescu-Roegen in entropy theory. Mindful of all this, the philosophical
critic should call, not for the exclusion, but for the containment of
economic factors in environmental policy analysis.
My essential point is simply this: the attempt of policy-makers to escape
philosophy results, not in an escape from philosophy, but in bad philosophy
— the unexamined acceptance of highly questionable ethical assumptions. The
remedy is obvious: call in the professionals. Yet moral philosophers are
rarely asked to testify before congressional committees deliberating public
policy. The reasons are quite clear. Foremost is the fact that policy-makers
want answers, and philosophers have a habit of asking still more questions.
III - The Philosopher as Conceptual Analyst
In the middle of this century, shortly after the great war, philosophers
turned their attention to the functioning of ordinary language, and to the
task and methodology of clarifying and analyzing concepts. Following the
lead of Wittgenstein, Austin and other noteworthy Oxford and Cambridge
philosophers, many of us came to believe that much philosophical confusion
is the result of “language going on vacation” -- which is to say, of our
loss of control of the concepts with which we speak and therefore think.
Such concepts abound in environmental debates, causing no end of confusion
and of opportunity for rhetorical mischief. Among these concepts are “Gaia,”
“sustainability,” “ecosystemic integrity,” “responsibility,” and the
distinction between “artifice” and “nature.” Just what do these terms mean?
How do they function in our environmental discourse and policy-making ? What
are the ambiguities therein that may confuse us and lead us astray?
Here are a few environmental concepts and issues that should intrigue the
(a) What are the uses and abuses of metaphor in environmental science and
policy — such as the notion of the ecosystem as a “self-regulating
organism”? Recently, James Lovelock has retreated from his enticing
suggestion that the earth’s biosphere (he calls it “Gaia”), is in some sense
“alive” -- as a self-regulating, self-preserving “organism.” He is instead
content to say that the global system has regulating mechanisms that tend to
make it favorable to life, (although, as he urgently reminds us, that
doesn’t necessarily mean human life). Is this “retreat” in fact an advance,
making the Gaia hypothesis more amenable to scientific verification or
refutation. (Bear in mind that no hypothesis is scientifically interesting
unless it’s falsehood is imaginable -- unless, as philosophers put it, it is
“refutable in principle”). In short, how much of the attractive “Gaia
Hypothesis” is metaphor, and how much empirically grounded theory? Other
metaphors and analogies deserving close analysis are Garrett Hardin’s
“lifeboat ethics” and of course, Aldo Leopold’s “life community.”
(b) Is the concept of “sustainable development” oxymoronic? For isn’t
“development,” by its nature, “unsustainable”? What is to be “sustained” as
(c) Have the so-called “new ecologists” such as Daniel Botkin, David
Ehrenfeld and Stewart Pimm, successfully overthrown such cherished notions
as “integrated community,” “system equilibrium” and “balance of nature,”
popularized by Aldo Leopold? How much of this alleged “overthrow” is clearly
grounded in scientific evidence? Is any of it rhetorical over-reaching?2
(d) In his splendid little book, Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee
describes how Floyd Dominy, former Commissioner of Reclamation, looked upon
his creation, Lake Powell, and said “Nature changes the environment every
day of our lives -- why shouldn't we change it? We're part of nature.” This
remark, commonplace among engineers, raises an intriguing question: what is
accomplished by obscuring the distinction between “nature” and “artifice.”
Who wins and who loses? And if we agree (correctly, to be sure) that all
human activity is “natural” (i.e., according to natural laws), then won’t it
be necessary to introduce a distinction between “natural process apart from
human intervention and activity” (call it “natural nature”) and natural
process of human origin (call it “nature as artifice”), thus returning us
precisely to where we were at the outset? If so, then just what is the point
of Dominy’s remark?
All such questions, you will notice, are not directly involved with hard
data; instead, they deal with the way we talk about facts or our models of
thinking. In short, all of these are conceptual issues, demanding
disciplined conceptual clarification and analysis.
All thinking humans beings engage in conceptual clarification and analysis,
as philosophers have since the dawn of philosophy. This is what Plato did
when he contemplated “the Forms,” and Aristotle, when he searched for
“essences” -- albeit, neither thought of what they were doing as “concept
analysis.” And all of us, philosophers and non-philosophers alike, are
vulnerable to the fundamental error of believing that we are dealing with
“the facts” when we are merely being confounded by our language.
Philosophers are especially sensitive to this vulnerability, and have
devised ingenious and effective modes of untangling conceptual confusions
and of releasing what Wittgenstein called “linguistic cramps.” Such
“conceptual therapy” can contribute a great deal to the improvement of
public discourse, policy deliberations and scientific inquiry. Thus these
tools of conceptual analysis could prove to be of essential importance as we
all face the environmental crises ahead of us.
IV -- The Philosopher as Meta-Scientist
Scientists never tire of telling us that “science is value-free.” That is a
half-truth, which, like so many half-truths, can be more insidious than a
total falsehood, since the truthful half lends credence to the false. To the
question, “is science value-free?”, the straightforward answer is, “well,
yes and no”. Science as content? Ideally, “yes.” Science as method? In a
sense, scientific method is steeped in a stern morality: what Jacob
Bronowski calls “the habit of truth,” a violation of which (say by “cooking”
supporting data), will cost a scientist his reputation and career.3 And most
obviously, science as a social institution is deeply and inextricably
involved with morality.
Though many scholars and scientists seem unaware of this, philosophy has
long-since ceased to be a rival of the sciences. Instead it is a critical
spectator and supplement of science. From this “second-order” perspective,
the philosopher keeps a wary eye on the content of science, lest wayward
normative values slip into this realm from which by logical fiat, they must
be ruthless excluded. But the philosopher can also remind the scientist
that, as the participant in a social institution that is productive of
consequential data, theories and concepts, the scientist is inextricably
bound to morality: in Oppenheimer’s words, “he has known sin,” which is not
to say that he is necessarily sinful, just that he has taken a bite of Eve’s
apple -- and thus has the responsibility to know of good and evil.
I can give no more vivid example of the philosopher’s role as an adjunct to
environmental science, than to relate an experience that I had earlier this
summer. In mid July, I had the privilege of presenting two lectures at the
Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratories, spectacularly located in the
mountains near Crested Butte, Colorado. Though I came prepared to lecture on
the topics of "The Philosopher's Role in Environmental Studies" and on
Environmental Policy Analysis, I found that the topic most on the minds of
the research biologists there was that of the social responsibility of
scientists, and in particular, their responsibility to get socially
important scientific information to the public and to policy-makers.
Many research scientists, I was told, believe that this responsibility is
simply not the job of the scientist. After all, they continue, such
involvement compromises their scientific objectivity, and thus their
credibility. Rather, they say, their job is to gather scientifically
verifiable data, refine theories and thus advance the science -- and then
stay out of the public arena. Many of these "pure scientists" are quite
disparaging of colleagues who involve themselves in public issues.
When asked my opinion of this, I suggested that if it is in fact essential
that this information get to the public and to policy makers, it is of less
importance who serves as messenger -- so long, that is, that the message is
in fact delivered. After all, if a scientist is temperamentally unsuited to
social activism, and his work is intrinsically important, the it may even be
better for him not to get involved. For if the message is delivered to
responsible decision-makers and the general public, then there need be no
great moral onus on the non-participating "pure scientist" -- unless, of
course, he throws nails in the road of the activist scientist who chooses to
convey vital information to the arena of public and policy debate.
But if this message is not delivered by a scientist well-qualified to do so,
then it is morally imperative for some scientist to step forward and assume
There is one situation, however, that should budge even the most reluctant
pure scientist from his lab and into the public arena. That is when his work
is willfully and grossly distorted to serve a special interest and to
obstruct social progress — or even the activity of the science itself.
The situation is analogous to that of a house on fire, next to a property
that contains a well. That well is of no use unless water is drawn from it
and then carried to the burning house. If the person who draws the water
also carries it to the fire, then well and good. And if the task is divided
so that one person draws the water and another carries it, just as well --
perhaps even better. What is not acceptable is either for no water to be
drawn, or none to be carried. This situation applies to the question of the
social responsibility of the scientist, except in this latter case, it is
both the well-owner's and water-carrier's house that is on fire.
This issue of social responsibility applies to philosophers as well as
scientists. As we have seen, philosophers have acquired tools, concepts and
insights that bear considerable relevance to the environmental crisis.
Accordingly, it is morally required that someone make this application. But
if that application is being made, it is not necessary that every
philosopher be the bearer of theory and concept into the arena of
environmental policy-making and education. After all, what the scientist
calls “pure research” is, in fact, the traditional role of the philosopher.
But again, the proviso still holds that if philosophical insight can make an
important contribution to environmental policy, then some philosopher should
step forward and offer that contribution.
V -- The Philosopher as Environmental Ethicist
As we well know, environmental ethics, as a philosophical issue, is quite
new. A glance at The Philosopher’s Index tells the story. Of the over
300,000 entries in that data base (extending back to 1940), as of this year,
five hundred are listed under "Environmental Ethics," and of these all but
seventeen were published since the first Earth Day in 1970.
It is not difficult to understand the emergence of environmental ethics.
First, we have at last come to the collective realization that nature is
vulnerable -- that it can be damaged, seriously and irreparably, by human
activity and furthermore, we have come to know to a significant degree the
consequences of our activities. Second, we have the capacity to continue our
assault upon nature, and third, we have the choice instead to preserve and
renew it. And finally, the results of this choice has grave value
implications involving, at the very least, the welfare of present and future
people. These four conditions -- knowledge, capacity, choice and value
significance -- define the environmental crisis as an issue of moral
I do not wish to suggest here that only philosophers have something
important to say about environmental ethics (and only a very few
philosophers at that, since most members of the profession are not involved
with the issue). It is also the concern of journalists, scientists, activist
groups, ordinary citizens, and, we devoutly hope, of politicians and
policy-makers. In fact, one of the "founding fathers" of modern
environmental ethics was not a philosopher, but a biologist and ecologist —
Aldo Leopold. And important ingredients of the current debate come from a
wide variety of sources: from economics (Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly),
from biology (Garrett Hardin, Hugh Iltis, and Edward Wilson), and from
literature (H. D. Thoreau, J. W. Krutch, Edward Abbey, and Sigurd Olson).
All the above have important insights about our responsibility to nature and
the future — insights which are essential to a rich and comprehensive
environmental ethic. The philosopher's contribution relates to his special
professional skills and insights: namely, that of analyzing key concepts,
articulating basic principles, and constructing integrated arguments. This
contribution is of such importance to the widespread and growing discourse
about environmental issues, that one must wonder at the widespread
reluctance of the profession to get involved.
In plain language, now is the time for philosophers to come to the aid of
In a paper of this length, it is impossible even to summarize the scope and
content of environmental ethics. Instead, I will focus on just one valuable
contribution of our profession: in a word, “balance.” By this I mean a
balance between the two fundamental elements indicated by the very term,
"environmental ethics." First, the word "environmental" reminds us that we
are both in nature and of nature — that ours is a natural species, which
evolved from and is sustained by a complex, integrated and functioning
ecosystem. The word “ethics” reminds us of our uniqueness in nature as the
only known species with moral agency. Environmental ethics, I believe, goes
astray — both within philosophy and in public discourse — when one of these
two dimensions is emphasized at the expense of the other. The neglect in the
aspect of moral agency is found among many advocates of animal rights and
deep ecology. The "naturalness" of humanity is neglected by many
anthropocentrists and technological optimists.
Because the dimension of "naturalness" is well articulated by the
scientists, I will direct my attention to the aspect of "moral agency,"
which is of special concern to moral philosophers.4
No defensible moral philosophy, I insist, can discount the significance of
personhood which appears to be unique to our species, for with language and
culture, and thence personhood, life-quality is transformed. Thus the life
and experiences of persons and of non-persons are not comparable, as some
"animal rights" advocates would claim; in fact, they are different in kind.
As persons, humans beings experience unique dimensions of mental and
emotional pain; self-reproach, dread of impending loss, regret for abandoned
projects, fear of death, and such moral sentiments as guilt, shame, and
indignation. Persons also uniquely enjoy such pleasures as self-respect,
intellectual and creative accomplishment, patriotism, irony, humor and
pride. In sum the transcending and transforming fact that human beings are
persons gives them a moral considerability far beyond that of animals.
With personhood comes moral agency and the burden of moral responsibility,
which are grounded in a sense of self, a time-binding perception of events
recollected and anticipated, a concept of equality amongst our fellow
persons, and an ability to act upon abstract moral principles. — a cluster
of capacities which philosophers have come to call "moral agency" or
"personhood." With these capacities, homo sapiens is the only known species
to be meaningfully "responsible" for its behavior toward its fellows, other
species, the life community, and the future. In other words, in a world
without persons, there is neither ethics nor morality. (This is why animals
are not subjected to judicial trials and punishment). The significance of
understanding and appreciating moral agency can scarcely be overestimated,
for with this appreciation falls the burden of responsibility which requires
us to be, not mere spectators of the environmental crisis, but rather agents
in its melioration. Accordingly, I see an important part of our function as
scholars and a teachers of environmental ethics to be that of reaffirming
the significance of our humanity and thus of reiterating and emphasizing the
importance of "moral agency" in our dealings with nature and the future.
As I noted at the outset of this section, environmental ethics is a very new
branch of moral philosophy. It is generally regarded by our philosophical
colleagues as an interesting variety of “applied ethics.” To many in this
field, that seems like a perfectly acceptable description. But to others,
and I include myself, environmental ethics may just portend a revolution in
moral philosophy. And this is why.
Legal, medical, business, political, and military ethics all deal with
issues of responsibility of persons, toward other persons or to human
institutions. Constant throughout such varieties of applied ethics are
applications of and references to such familiar ethical concepts as rights,
duties, justice, benevolence, autonomy, etc. They differ according to their
separate references to particular institutions — the law, medicine,
commerce, etc. By analogy, Environmental Ethics might be regarded as the
"received" ethical theories applied to questions of "environmental policy."
But such a view of Environmental Ethics would implicitly endorse a
controversial position within the field, namely, anthropocentrism, since
such a view assumes that humanity is the proper focus of attention and the
locus of justification of any policy or principle. Such an assumption seems
quite uncontroversial when applied to medicine or law or education. But not
with regard to environment. The earth, with its ecosystems, its atmosphere
and oceans, its genetic pool, in short, its natural environment, is not a
human institution — it is the source, the context and the sustenance of
This radical shift of perspective from institutions within society to the
natural context of society, suggest that a transformation in moral
philosophy might be in the making. Do we regard our natural estate as just
another "resource" to be used for the benefit of our particular species,
however justly, benevolently and unselfishly we might pursue that benefit?
Or do we heed the wisdom of the Native Americans, who proclaim that "The
earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth," and thus that
humanity should be evaluated in the context of its natural origins and
sustenance? That question, which has no place in the aforementioned
varieties of "applied ethics," is one of the most fundamental issues of
environmental ethics, putting in question some of the most venerable
assumptions of our ethical tradition. It will not be answered merely by
applying or "extending" our acquired kit of familiar ethical concepts and
theories to the environment. On the contrary, environmental ethics questions
the very legitimacy of applying these familiar ethical concepts and theories
to the problem of our responsibility to the natural estate. Thus some
philosophers (myself included) suggest that "environmental ethics" might be
the next revolution in moral philosophy, just waiting for its time to come.
VI --The Philosopher as Educator
Of course, everything that I have said heretofore bears on this final role
of philosopher as educator. Everything that a philosopher can offer as a
social critic, a conceptual analyst, a meta-scientist, and an ethicist, he
offers as a teacher, first of his students, then hopefully of his
colleagues, of public decision-makers, and of the general public.
Most active environmental philosophers are professors, and therefore
teachers. And those who are not are perhaps missing an opportunity. For as
we attempt, as we must, to organize difficult concepts in words intelligible
to motivated, intelligent, but untrained undergraduates (very few of whom
will become professional philosophers), we organize and clarify these ideas
for ourselves. Furthermore, classrooms are, of course, our first contact
with the levers of social change and environmental renewal — levers which
move through our students, as they progress on to their professional lives,
and assume their functions as citizens.
As teachers of philosophy, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to
offer our students the tools with which to deal with a very dangerous world.
First of all, we should arm them with the methods of, even more the
inclination toward, critical thinking. For make no mistake, the most
masterful practitioners of the black arts of public relations and mass
persuasion are in the enemy camp. They have vested interests in personal and
social denial and in the continuation of environmental business as usual.
The methods of critical thinking which we philosophers cherish, develop and
teach are solvents to the public relations glue which binds the citizen to
acquiescence and immobility. To have these solvents and not to put them to
use, would be a primary abdication of social responsibility.
We also have the difficult tasks, as philosophers, of educating that most
reluctant category of students, our faculty colleagues and, still worse, the
educated elites beyond our campuses. A few of these individuals know what
philosophers are and what they do. The larger portion, however, either do
not know or care what we do, or much worse, they know full well what
philosophers do, and what they know is flatly wrong. More often then not,
we are thought of as curators of old ideas, as irrelevant to contemporary
problems as art historians or musicologists. When scholars and others in
this last category gravitate up to administrative positions, they can
seriously complicate our attempts to make significant contributions to the
melioration of our environmental problems.
Finally, philosophers as educators have the responsibility to teach an
understanding of, a respect for, and an active support of scientific
scholarship and research. As critical spectators of science, philosophers
are well-aware that foremost among human institutions, science has the
capacity to overcome personal ambition and bias, to transcend cultural
barriers, and thus to allow our common species to have “cognitive commerce”
with physical and biotic reality. The biological sciences, through the
enduring contributions of Darwin, Mendel, the Odum brothers, Rachel Carson,
Edward Wilson and many others, have alerted us to our peril. Moreover,
science is now the only known human institution to offer mankind as a whole
the “reality check” without which it will be impossible to escape from the
trap which we have built through our thoughtless cleverness.5
Despite its essential role in the establishment of planetary responsibility,
the institution of science is now suffering a widespread, massive and
unrelenting assault — an assault nourished by public ignorance and denial.
Consider the evidence: Carl Sagan notes that enrollment in Astrology courses
exceeds enrollment in Astronomy course by a factor of ten. Public opinion
surveys show that about half of the American public does not accept the
theory evolution — the cornerstone of contemporary bio-science. Meanwhile, a
conservative Congress is massively cutting federal research budgets, and
proposing the abolition of the Department of Education. This assault upon
science also proceeds as Congress and the media routinely disregard informed
scientific testimony, secure in the belief that somewhere, somehow, they can
find some “expert” to oppose scientific consensus — that “for every PhD,
there is an equal and opposite PhD.” Thus scientific evidence is overwhelmed
by public ignorance and special-interest public relations.
This public attitude and political policy portends disaster. The late
physicist, Richard Feynman’s, comment on the Challenger disaster has clear
application here: “... reality must take precedence over public relations,
for Nature cannot be fooled.” If what the atmospheric scientists and the
ecologists tell us is true, then no amount of bias and distortion born of
political ideology and ambition, and no amount of skillful public relations
in defense of economic interest, will “fool” nature and forestall the day of
Philosophers, who appreciate the value and significance of the methodology,
content and institution of science as much, and perhaps more, than most
scientists, have a clear responsibility, as scholars and teachers, to come
to the defense of science. For the assault upon science is, by implication,
an assault upon our planetary life-support system and thus our future.
In conclusion, I submit that it is indeed time, in fact past time, for
philosophers to come to the aid of their planet. As generally educated
individuals, we are aware of the environmental perils facing our species and
our civilization. And as we review the inventory of our professional methods
and skills -- as social critics, as conceptual analysts, as critical
spectators of science and as ethicists -- we must acknowledge our capacity
to make significant contributions toward planetary renewal and
sustainability. With this knowledge, this capacity, and this awareness of
the moral stakes, it follows that we are necessarily burdened with a
responsibility to act. Knowing all this, I submit that we should be soberly
concerned that the response of our profession has been, and continues to be,
so little and so late.
an outstanding critique of "cost-benefit analysis" see Mark Sagoff''s The
Economy of the Earth, Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5. (Cambridge, 1988).
Also Lawrence Tribe's "Policy Science: Analysis or Ideology?" (Philosophy
and Public Affairs, 2:1, Fall 1972). My examination of cost
benefit analysis may be found at this site at
"Policy-Making by the Numbers." See also my
and Values" at this site. Incidentally, "cost-benefit analysis"
should not be confused with "cost-effective analysis," which quite
legitimately seeks the least costly means to accomplished an independently
conclusion: "balance of nature" vs. "disequilibrium ecology" is a
non-issue -- "much ado about nothing."
See also my
"Nature for Better or Worse," this site.
3. Jacob Bronowski,
Science and Human Values, Harper, 1965. pp 58-60.
is Morality Possible?"
Science Just Another Dogmas?"