Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge


Presented at a conference on “Environmental Ethics,
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 issues.”

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 “best-case scenario”?

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 methodology."

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, distributive justice, etc.).

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 philosophy,

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 analytic philosopher:

(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 we “develop”?

(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?

(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 the task.

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, (1995) approximately 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 responsibility.

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 their planet.

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.

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 human institutions.

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.

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 ecological reckoning.

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.



1.    For 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 "Prices 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 defined goal.

2.    My 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.

4.    See my "How is Morality Possible?"

5.    See my "Is Science Just Another Dogmas?"

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 .