Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Can the Environmentalist Escape Philosophy?

(Published as: "Environmental Ethics Without Philosophy")

By Ernest Partridge

1985 -- Most recent revision: September, 2013

Over the years, I have often been asked, "just what does philosophy have to do with environmental issues anyway?"  That question was asked often enough that I felt called upon to write out an answer.  Far worse than hearing that question, however, was the experience of working amongst (non-philosophical) colleagues who (to paraphrase Mark Twain) "knew" what philosophy was, and what they "knew" was wrong!  Still more reason to explain the philosopher's role in environmental studies.  Due to strict space constraints about half of the essay was published in Human Ecology: A Gathering of Perspectives (1986) under the title "Environmental Ethics Without Philosophy."(1)  This is the entire essay, with subsequent revisions, as it has appeared in the unpublished anthology-text that I have used in numerous courses in environmental ethics.  A complementary essay, "Now is the Time for Philosophers to Come to the Aid of Their Planet," published in 1998, is available at this site.  Teachers of environmental ethics are free to use these essays if they wish and if they will notify me beforehand. (EDP).


Can the environmental scholar and activist, as they propose and seek to direct public environmental policy, escape philosophy? There are many who believe that they can escape philosophy -- at least the kind of philosophy which engages the attention of professional moral philosophers. In fact, such attempts have become so widespread that it is now past time for a professional philosopher to protest and to demonstrate that such evasions of philosophy can not succeed.(2) True, fine rhetoric will inspire, and intuition might provoke productive inquiry, but if a cogent argument is to be offered in support of environmental policy, methods of logic and argument familiar to philosophers will be employed, just as fallacies equally familiar to philosophers must be scrupulously avoided.

Environmental ethics and environmental policy-making are widely and correctly regarded as richly interdisciplinary enterprises. The first word of the term "environmental ethics" indicates that our proper attitude toward nature is a function of our awareness of the scientific facts of nature. "Environmental policy" -- the realization and application of perceived values -- utilizes the insights of such behavioral and social sciences as psychology, economics and political science. Almost all philosophers that are professionally interested in environmental issues take great pains to study the scientific aspects of environmental ethics. Indeed, some of these philosophers have published technical papers in scientific journals. Unfortunately, this disciplinary courtesy is not widely reciprocated. For while "ethics" is one of the traditional provinces of philosophy, scientist, scholars, journalists and public figures routinely write and speak on matters of environmental ethics and policy with no apparent interest in or awareness of relevant philosophical concepts, methods and theories. Such attempts to present arguments of philosophical significance without at least the implicit assistance of the discipline of philosophy should seem presumptuous. Yet it is not so regarded by many prominent environmental writers.

In this essay, I will examine four approaches by non-philosophers to issues pertaining to human responsibility toward the natural environment -- i.e., pertaining to environmental ethics. These examples are important, not for their particular sources, but for the fact that they exemplify four of the most widespread, influential and yet seriously flawed approaches to environmental ethics and policy that are to be found in public and scholarly debate. If, as I will argue, they are commonplace, persuasive and fallacious, then they are likewise mischievous, offering only the appearance and not the substance of a sound foundation for an environmental ethic. Each of these types of argument is attempted without the use, and even at times in deliberate disregard, of the philosopher's concepts and methods. In each case I ask: "is this an appropriate way to do environmental ethics or to propose environmental policy?" At the close I will attempt to explain why these attempts to justify policy- making without philosophy have failed and must fail, and why fundamental philosophical principles must, in fact, be inalienable components of sound policy-making.


The "Natural is Moral" Fallacy.(3)  Soon after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the following letter was published in the University of California - Santa Barbara student paper, "The Nexus." While this is clearly a strained and failed attempt at ridicule, a useful purpose might be served by asking: just what was the point of this commentary?  What is being attempted?  What fallacies are being employed?  We will find that this argument, far from being trivial, is an example of one of the most widespread and influential fallacies in environmental policy debates. The letter reads, in part:

I am shocked at the amount of destruction caused by Mount St. Helens. Some 28 people have died and scores of others are missing. The eruption caused mud slides, floods, destruction of an entire forest, along with all its precious lumber, among other public and private properties. . . According to Time magazine, June 2 [1980]: 'Geologists noted that Mount St. Helens is venting radioactive radon gas in greater quantities than any "hot" discharge from Pennsylvania's crippled Three Mile Island nuclear plant.'

I think we should require Mother Nature to do the following before any other volcanic 'incident' may occur:

  • Hold a public hearing for choosing the site of the volcano. Sites should be preferably off-shore, outside the 200-mile water limit. The site must be carefully inspected by a team of qualified geologists...

  • If radioactive gases and/or other deadly gases are to be vented, the releases must first be approved and monitored continuously. . .

 If radioactive gases and/or other deadly gases are to be vented, the releases must first be approved and monitored continuously. . .

I think if the above guidelines are taken, volcanoes may blow off their steam without affecting the public too much. I suggest that the above measures be adopted as soon as possible before the anti-volcano movement picks up momentum."(4)

Granted, this is a silly letter. Yet arguments of a similar sort are both commonplace and significant in public policy debates. Thus, for example, defenders of nuclear power plants and, a generation ago, of atmospheric nuclear tests, have attempted to justify the attendant risks on the grounds that the resulting radiation is comparable to that of the "natural background."(5) Finally, consider the reflections of a prominent public figure who, according to Science magazine, once claimed that "80% of nitrogen oxide pollution is caused by vegetation, and [who] blamed Mount St. Helens . . . for contributing more sulfur dioxide 'than has been released in the last 10 years of automobile driving.'"(6) While, as Science duly notes, these remarks by Ronald Reagan contain "multiple errors" of fact, it is the logical form of the implied argument that is of special interest to us. In all these cases, an analogy is drawn between two events or conditions; one natural and the other of human origin. (In the opening example, the analogy is between the eruption of a volcano, on the one hand, and an accident in a nuclear reactor, on the other). The implied argument is that since nature is "blameless" for naturally occurring phenomena and conditions, similar phenomena and conditions of human origin are of no moral significance.

How does a philosopher approach an analogy argument? One of the fundamental things to ask when dealing with an analogy argument is "what, if any, are the fundamental differences between the cases"? The differences between the volcano and nuclear plant cases are startling, important and instructive. The volcanic eruption, being a natural event, is not subject to voluntary choice or human control -- it just happens, whether we like it or not. The writer Ursula LeGuin, a resident of Portland, Oregon, eloquently portrayed this distinction as she expressed her response to the Mount St. Helens eruption:

People say, "weren't you frightened?" -- and yes, there was fear involved. But it was a kind of fear that enlarges the mind instead of shrinking it. When I think of witnessing a nuclear explosion, I feel a desolate fear -- a response to human greed and hatred. The eruption was not in human terms; it included us in something larger than us. The volcano was doing what a volcano does, and any[thing] near it, elk, or fir tree or human, was included in that huge act. For some, it was death. For others, a little farther away, it was an affirmation of the terrible beauty of the world.(7)

Some natural events and phenomena (such as volcanoes and background radiation) have unfortunate and regrettable effects that are unavoidable. Voluntary events, effected by persons who can deliberate and choose, are of a very different kind. The results of voluntary acts may be good or bad, but these "goods" and "bads" are additionally called "moral" goods and bads (or "virtues" and "iniquities") in that persons can be said to be "responsible" for them. We might say that the destruction caused by Mount St. Helens was "bad," but not that it was "wicked." Carelessness on the part of technologists and policy-makers, due perhaps to a lack of concern for the consequences of technology and policy on human life, health, property and welfare, might be regarded, not only as "bad," but also as morally irresponsible, that is, "wicked." They are "wicked" in the sense that persons are responsible for these acts and their consequences.

A disciplined analysis of these questions leads us to the sort of deep issues and concepts that moral philosophers deal with; in this case, the concepts of "responsibility" and "personhood." These concepts are crucial to the distinction between moral and non-moral values -- between virtue and wickedness on the one hand, and (non-moral) goodness and badness on the other. With an understanding of these concepts, we can at last understand why volcanoes and earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes can not be said to be "wicked;" while a failure to protect oneself and others through informed anticipation of these disasters may be wicked.

The underlying assumption in the letter cited at the outset, and, unfortunately, in a great deal of environmental debate, is that if nature does something "bad" to us, and if we elect to do the same sort of thing, the results of that decision are really not so bad since they are, after all, "natural." But now we see the fallacy: nature is not "personal" -- it has no biases for or against us, and passes no judgments upon us. Being impersonal, nature is not responsible; we can't sue Mount St. Helens for the damage that it caused. On the other hand, if an accident at a nuclear reactor or a bridge, or the results of widespread application of pesticides, can reasonably have been forecasted, then legislators, policy-makers, engineers and others have a moral responsibility to anticipate the consequences of these actions and to act accordingly. "Responsibility" marks the fundamental difference between human actions and natural events. Environmental impact statements (to which the writer of this letter was implicitly objecting), as informed anticipations of significant events, fulfill the basic conditions of moral responsibility. Volcanoes do not fulfill these conditions.(8)

Perhaps the writer of this letter is defending a correct conclusion with a weak argument. Perhaps, as many claim, a careful, objective and thorough risk/cost/benefit analysis will, given certain value assumptions, show nuclear power to be the "best" of all available energy options. Perhaps not. However, we should now at least be wary of any attempt to include among those value assumptions, the claim that since nature inflicts unavoidable costs and risks upon us, similar, though voluntarily accepted, costs and risks of nuclear power are therefore acceptable -- or, at least, unworthy of moral concern and reflection. Such an analogy argument is no more cogent when such natural hazards as cosmic rays, transpiring trees, earthquakes, or storms are cited to excuse the deliberate imposition of risk upon the public. While such analogy arguments may seem vaguely "fishy" to the general public, the philosopher is well-equipped to point out the fallacy, distinguish the cases, and thus to decisively refute, such an argument.



Environmental Ethics as a History of Ideas. Our next case presents a view of environmental ethics that is also rather commonplace in non-philosophical works in environmental studies -- especially works by scientists eager to apply scientific scruples and discipline to ethics and policy. My example is a chapter from a recently published textbook, The Earth as a Living Planet.(9) The book, by two scientists (a Botanist and a Geologist), is comprehensive and the scientific content and methodology appear to be quite sound. One of the chapters, titled "Putting a Value on the Environment: Environmental Ethics and Environmental Economics," rather well describes the authors' concept of "environmental ethics." Because I wish to discuss an error of omission, it will be difficult to display the authors' misconception by quoting passages in the text. Still, some citations may make the point. Note, for instance, the opening words of the chapter:

The Relations Between Human Beings and Nature: Nature as an Idea. [Section heading]. Every human society has a set of beliefs about nature, the effects of nature on human beings, and the effects of human beings on their natural surroundings. These universal and ancient concerns include an attempt to find order and harmony in nature, a design and purpose for this natural order, and the role of humanity in nature. . . Environmentalism -- a concern with the environment and activism to protect and use it wisely -- seems a relatively recent interest, but in fact its roots are deep within human history, society and psychology. . . In this section we will discuss the history of ... these [concerns] and the various answers that have been given to them.(10)

If we look critically at what is going on here, we will find that the authors are promising a treatise in the history of ideas -- that is, a description of what people in the past have felt and thought about nature and man's place in it. The text displays a fulfillment of that promise.

The treatment therein of "environmental ethics" closes with this general question: "Once we have adopted a set of beliefs or principles about the environment, how do we put them into practice? How do we plan so that our use of the biosphere is consistent with our desires?" Note that opening clause: "Once we have adopted a set of beliefs..." That clause should prompt such "philosophical" questions as: "What 'set of beliefs'?" "How are we to evaluate them -- i.e., determine whether they are a 'good' or 'bad' set of beliefs?" "How might we 'adopt' them?" "How are we to evaluate the logical soundness of our mode of 'adoption'?" These questions, and thus deliberative discussions thereof, are totally missing from this chapter on "Environmental Ethics."

Next, the authors ask: "Once we have decided that something is an environmental good" (again, no suggestion as to how this is to be "decided"!), "how do we put a value on it to compare it with other factors? How do we turn our choices into decisions, that is, how do we insure that individuals and society will act in a way to accomplish environmental goals? What are the options open to a society?"(11) To address these questions, the authors leave "Ethics" and turn to an eleven page discussion of "Environmental Economics."

From a philosophical point of view, this chapter is most remarkable, not for its contents, but for its omissions. It is scrupulously descriptive -- a description of what people have valued in the past, and a description of how we determine and systematically deal with the willingness to pay to have environmental "goods" or to avoid environmental "bads". We find here a discussion of how the discipline and theory of economics may be used to assist the management of the environment (e.g., by "internalizing" costs, heretofore "externalized," assessing and balancing "risks," "costs" and "benefits," assigning "time discounts," enacting tax policies, etc.). There is also occasional mention of "non-economic" considerations such as "psychological factors of individuals and of society."(12) What we will not find are the ideas of contemporary philosophers.(13)

Why should "Environmental Ethics" be regarded as a "history of ideas" concerning the natural environment? In other parts of this text, Botany and Geology are not treated as "the history of Botany and Geology," nor should they be. Why the exception with Environmental Ethics and thus, by implication, Moral Philosophy? Elsewhere in the book, contemporary data theories, hypotheses and laws of the life and natural sciences are tested against their empirical laboratory evidence and confirmation. Why, then, aren't relevant, "live" contemporary ethical theories assessed according to the results of their "laboratory tests" (i.e., peer criticism in scholarly journals), and the strength of their appropriate evidence (i.e., philosophical standards of clarity, consistency, coherence and comprehensiveness).(14)

Granted, "history of ideas" is an important ingredient of environmental studies in general, and environmental ethics in particular. It offers us a repertory of suggestions as to how we might ethically regard nature, by acquainting us with how this question has been approached in the past. Great and important thinkers may have significant ideas to offer us as we ponder our environmental problems. Moreover, economics is an important ingredient of the study of environmental policy-making -- that is, to the practical implementation of environmental values. We must, of course, know what the public is willing and capable of doing ("what they can afford"), and we must acquaint ourselves with "tradeoffs" and "cost/benefit ratios." Nonetheless, history of ideas and economics do not constitute environmental ethics. Together they present a so-called "ethics" that is not philosophy -- that lacks even a primary concern with values, and thus offers no moral guidance whatever.

We might find what is missing from this approach to "environmental ethics" by identifying and analyzing three levels of response which one might take to an observed act of value significance. To illustrate this point, consider the following drawing (reading from the bottom cell to the top):


(Drawing by Frances Wightman)

At the bottom we see a maiden being thrown into a volcano. This act is part of a religious ceremony -- a sacrifice to the Volcano God. Next we find an anthropologist, observing the sacrifice. Through various observations and conversations, he is able to report that this tribe approves of human sacrifice -- that is, they believe that it is "good" to sacrifice maidens to the Volcano God. His statement, "they approve of human sacrifice" expresses a datum of social science, a fact about the tribe. Such statements constitute what philosophers call "descriptive ethics." In effect, this is as far as we get in Botkin and Keller's chapter on "environmental ethics." Like many scrupulous scientists, the authors apparently feel that it is not "scholarly" to evaluate. By regarding science is the paradigm of scholarship, they insist that the only scholarship of value (!) is the kind that confines itself to facts, and is "value free."

Back to the illustration. On the second "level" (right), we find a "normative philosopher" remarking "How dreadful!..." -- obviously an evaluation of the culture. Now if you disagree with this fellow, what are you to do? You might say, "that's not a sacrifice, it's a punishment for murder," and this might change the philosopher's evaluation of that particular act. But it will not change his opinion of human sacrifice. Given his moral evaluation of sacrifices in general, and assuming that he correctly perceives this to be a sacrifice, no simple collection of observational facts will bear upon his opinion that this act is "dreadful."

But that is not the end of it. For there is yet another "level" of ethical analysis, illustrated by the "critical philosopher" at the top who asks "What does he mean by 'dreadful'? Is his moral outrage rational? On what grounds?" This level is what philosophers call "metaethics;" a critical philosophical enterprise which has, as its subject-matter, (normative) ethics -- an enterprise thus concerned with the meaning of ethical terms, and the justification of ethical claims. Put simply, metaethics is to normative ethics, as literary criticism is to literature, as a music appreciation is to music, and as an "instant replay" with commentary is to football. Environmental ethics, if it is to claim clarity, content and validation, must pass metaethical evaluation and scrutiny.

Yet metaethics, like normative ethics, is also missing from Botkin and Keller's chapter on "environmental ethics?" Why? Perhaps because writers with a strong scientific training and orientation are as disinclined, as scientists, to critically evaluate normative values as they are propose and defend normative claims. Now, when it comes to the actual task of recording data and formulating hypothesis, these are a valid concerns on the part of the scientist. His values must not color his observations or his predictions. Physical laws are not affected by ideology or belief: the same laws of trajectory apply to both communist and capitalist missiles. But what are we to do when faced, not with the question of the composition and structure of an ecosystem, but with the policy question of what are we to do with it -- leave it wild, manage it, or pave it over? Because these latter questions deal with the choices of action with value significance, they are unavoidably ethical questions. And yet, in this scientists' account of environmental ethics, we have encountered a deliberate attempt to confine a discussion of values to a description of values -- as they have been held in the past, and as they are reflected by economic prices and costs. Strange!

Well, why not simply let the history of ideas tell us how we should regard nature, and what we should do with our environment? Suppose someone reads this chapter carefully, and carries on with a study of the citations listed at the end concerning the history of ideas? Will this help him with his decisions regarding environmental policy? Not very much. For the question remains, "but what should we do with this natural region now?" Or, further, "what should we do about air and water pollution, toxic wastes, or wilderness areas?" "Do future generations have a right to clean air and water, and unspoiled wilderness?" Is a chronicle of past ideas a guide to what we should do now? Such an account presents a variety of conflicting ideas. On what grounds do we choose one over another -- or, perchance, reject them all in favor of a contemporary idea? Such a decision can only be made from premises not supplied by the history of ideas. Suppose a radical insists that our environmental problems are unprecedented -- that, in Lincoln's words, "the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present." How is he to justify this claim? Surely not by an appeal to the history of ideas, for this is a claim about the value of that record. Suppose, instead, we encounter a traditionalist who maintains that "the old ways are the best." (Which ways? -- but let that pass). Why should we believe him? Why should we consent to have the past dictate our future? Because the "old ways" say so? But that justification is circular.

In this presentation of "Environmental Ethics and Economics" oppressive scientific scruples and a profound misconception of moral philosophy have effectively shut out philosophical significance -- an outcome that is widespread in scientific attempts to "contribute" to environmental ethics and policy. Those scruples and misconceptions are significantly manifest by this attempt to confine an account of "environmental ethics" to description, and thus excluding normative and critical evaluation. Such a confinement, which may characterize good science, yields little ethical insight.

Few if any philosophers will deny that scientific data and theory are indispensable ingredients of sound environmental ethics and policy-making. None will admit that facts alone will yield ethical conclusions. Many scientists and policy makers fail to acknowledge this elementary metaethical rule -- a circumstance made evident by the abundance of scientists and economists in public policy deliberations, at which philosophers are seldom seen.

"History of ideas," by itself, can be of little use in the search for an environmental ethic. This, the authors might have learned from virtually any working philosopher -- had they bothered to inquire. Might "environmental economics" succeed where "history of ideas" has failed? To this question we now turn.



Environmental Economics and Environmental Ethics: In February, 1981, President Reagan published an Executive Order requiring all agencies and departments of his administration to justify their regulations and proposals with positive cost- benefit analyses. By so doing, he formalized and generalized a procedure which has dominated domestic policy-making over the past fifty years. "Cost-Benefit analysis" is a central feature of public-works proposals and of environmental impact statements. "Costs" and "benefits" are understood by administrative and legislative officials to mean, "dollars and cents." Thus, economists hold a privileged place as consultants in public policy-making, and while scientists, engineers, urban-planners, and other specialists play important roles in these debates, their common currency and vocabulary is that of the economists. This approach to public policy is reaching into the courts. One prominent and influential jurist, Richard Posner, holds that economic efficiency and the maximization of wealth should figure prominently in the formulation and interpretation of law.(15)

The attractions of the economic approach to policy-making are immediately apparent. First of all, this approach offers a means of reducing the myriad of value-parameters to a single dimension: $$$. Secondly, vague and ambiguous issues are given the appearance of precision, with "values" calculated to the penny. And even if projections are admitted to be imprecise, that imprecision is itself articulated in numbers (as "plus or minus X percent"). The policy-maker's enchantment with the economists' approach seems little diminished by the fact that the economists' projections have often proven to be little better than those of soothsayers, and that any expert's economic theory and projection can be countered by that of another expert. (Partridge's second law of expertise: "For every Ph.D, there is an equal and opposite Ph.D").

As might be expected, most environmental philosophers regard the reputation and credence afforded economists to be among the most inflated commodities in public policy decision-making.(16)  For while the economist, like the historian of ideas, might offer significant insights and data to the ethicist, these philosophical critics charge that his contributions will similarly prove quite inadequate to the task of providing moral guidance with regard to our dealings with the natural environment, and with the fate of future generations.

A properly humble economist (of which there are many) will readily admit that while he might define and assess such things as "efficiency of distribution," "cost effectiveness," and "income maximization," he must remain silent regarding such ethical matters as justice, equity, charity, virtue, desert, rights and duties. If humble, he would further concede that the failure of economic thinking to solve these important questions displays the limitation of the discipline. Such economists often display a willingness, even an eagerness, to hear what philosophers have to say about such things.(17)

A less humble and less cautious economist might, as he assesses environmental issues and policies, be inclined to ignore questions of justice, equity and desert, and instead focus his attention upon efficiency, optimality and gross product. Such an approach leads to an uncritical utilitarianism ("net-good- maximization"), and thence to policies that seek the maximization of aggregate "output" and "product," with little regard to the identity, circumstances and claims of individuals who gain or lose "utilities" in the process, or of the moral propriety (i.e., the justice, equity, desert, etc.) of these gains and losses. This sort of result is all too common in public policy-making.(18)  Philosophers are well-equipped to remind policy-makers that there are other important factors to consider in policy decisions besides the bottom-line in monetary "cost-benefit" balance sheets -- and that "utility aggregation," so defined and calculated, may be so designed that it fails to catch significant social and moral values, and thus may exclude these values from policy deliberations.

Surely, one of the attractions of monetary-utility aggregation, is that it deals with factors that are much more readily quantified and measured (e.g., "cash values") than such factors as "equity," or "dessert." "Cash values," being more quantifiable, are thus regarded as, in some sense, "more real." This temptation to prefer exact data to relevant information and insight, which I call "the reliable-is-valid fallacy," is illustrated by the old tale of the fool searching under a street lamp for a lost coin, not because he dropped it there, but because "the light is so much better!" Granted, the data is more quantified in the economists' charts, graphs and tables. But does that give us warrant to believe that the economist is better prepared to find the coins?

The most unyielding type of economist might say, in effect, "we can find the coins" -- "justice and equity, etc., can be expressed in terms of economic values; namely, in terms of the cash amounts that individuals are willing to pay to secure these conditions. For that matter, the same can be said for 'a clean environment,' 'just savings for the future,' 'ecological diversity and integrity' and 'natural beauty.' How much is justice worth to Jones? It is worth the cash amount that Jones is willing to pay in taxes to support just political institutions. To assess how much Smith values charity, look at his tax return under 'charitable contributions.' How much does Brown value clean energy? Find out how much he will pay (e.g.) to put a solar collector on his roof? This is how you find out what is '"valuable' to someone, and still more, just how 'valuable' it is in comparison with his other values.(19)

Well, what's wrong with this approach? To begin (and only that), this approach utterly fails to address Jones', Smith's and Brown's question: "but how much should I pay or be willing to pay for justice, charity and environmental restoration? True, we pay, respectively, $X, $Y and $Z for these 'ethical goods' through our taxes and contributions; but are these the morally correct amounts?" In other words, while the dollar payments may reflect assessments of moral worth, they do not guide the judgment that lead to these assessments. Putting it another way, while the economist might describe the dollar "payoff" of an individual or an aggregate "conscience," he can not prescribe what these payoffs "should" be. (Note how we are conducting this inquiry within the economist's "ballpark." Obviously, there are much deeper philosophical questions regarding the moral adequacy of the "ground rules" in that park). But on what grounds does one arrive at the decision of what to pay for charity or justice? On the grounds of what one is able to pay (an economic consideration) and, within that constraint, of what one should pay (not an economic, but a moral consideration). Considerations of aesthetic or "natural" values are similar. While the economist might describe the most "efficient" means to pay for the maintenance of national parks, the safety of endangered species, the protection of the gene pool of future generations, or the restoration of clean air and water, his concepts and analyses are not sufficient to lead to morally sound policy decisions. Yet it is surprising how many legislators and policy-makers seem to think so. (When did you last hear of a philosopher being invited to testify before a committee of congress, or to serve as a policy adviser for the President or his cabinet? Yet how many economists receive such calls?)

As individuals and as citizens, we are constantly faced with the issue of the personal or public costs of preserving the environment and assuring an abundant quality of life for the future. We are thus prompted to ask, "how much should we pay for these things?" Our search for an answer is not aided by the responsive question, "Well how much are you willing to pay?" This can only lead to the further response, "whatever is right, proper, just and appropriate to pay." But that, in effect, is the original question -- a question to which the economist (as policy-maker) has no answer. As we have seen, this very attempt to approach personal and public questions of environmental policy in terms of "what's it worth?" begs enormously difficult, troublesome and controversial questions of the kind that philosophers ask, intelligent citizens can recognize, and economists are incapable of posing, much less pursuing, within the conceptual and logical the structure of their discipline. The morally sensitive and philosophically astute individual will steadfastly resist the reduction of (moral) principles to (psychological) preferences.

This "resistance" is vividly illustrated by philosopher Mark Sagoff's experience while teaching a class in environmental ethics. Following a reading of the Supreme Court case, Sierra Club vs. Morton, concerning the proposed ski resort at Mineral King Valley, Sagoff reports:

I asked the students what they thought about the Disney proposal. They hated it. But then I asked how many had visited or would visit the resort were it built. Almost everybody. The enthusiasm was boisterous. Curious. The students were deeply opposed to the Disney project yet they would not visit the area unless there were a bed, alcohol, a ski tow, and a discotheque. How do you explain that? The students saw no inconsistency. They opposed the resort on principle: they thought it was wrong. But as a matter of personal taste or preference they would enjoy a ski resort much more than a wilderness. The same might be said of adultery -- you would enjoy it, but you know it is wrong.(20)

Thus we can imagine a hypothetical future skier, thoroughly enjoying himself at the Mikki Maus Alpenhaus, yet regretting that it was ever built. Is this regret irrational? Or is there, perhaps, alongside his "enjoyments" a place for an adherence and loyalty to the principle that magnificent natural areas have a presumptive claim to be left undisturbed? If so, then essential to this sentiment may be a regard for the wilderness itself, apart from any consideration of the "payoff" in human satisfaction for "having" the wilderness, or even in the self-respect for being "high minded" about it all. From a moral point of view, such calculation of the "utility payoff" to oneself of principled sentiments, motives, policies and acts, cheapens the perceived values thereof, since much of the moral quality of caring for another person, place or principle resides in the focusing of attention upon the other, or in the devotion to the principle itself.(21) It was apparently much more important to Sagoff's students (and thus, perhaps, more satisfying) to care about and preserve the wilderness of Mineral King Valley than it was, paradoxically, for them to enjoy it. Perhaps they sensed that a world of diminished intrinsic natural value is a world less worth living in.

Very few of Sagoff's students would ever see the wild Mineral King Valley, and most would want to visit it as a ski resort. Yet they "hated" the Disney proposal. Why? Apparently because principle "trumped" preference. The economist making a cost-benefit analysis may be disinclined, by the rules of his discipline, to recognize this distinction -- much to the ultimate detriment of the cause of preserving wild places. To the economist, it may be sufficient for his analysis that more would prefer skiing at the resort to hiking in the wilderness. That many (most?) of the skiers themselves would have "preferred" it had the ski area not been built -- this makes no sense to the economist. His theory is thus unable to account for "actions on principle" -- actions which follow a deliberate decision not to do something that would nevertheless maximize one's enjoyments or income.

Why is the economist unable to answer the question, "what is the value of a healthy and clean natural environment and of hopeful prospects for future generations?" He fails because his answers, at best, reflect (descriptively) the actual operative values of "the economy." But such answers betray a rather primitive form of cultural, even subjective, relativism: "What we prefer is what we ought to prefer" and "the desirable is what is desired." Now it is precisely at this point that a philosopher has something important to say -- to those who will listen. For example, the philosopher might attempt to do what I have attempted here -- namely, to point out such fallacies as "the naturalistic fallacy," "reliable is valid," "natural is moral," "desired is desirable" and so forth. He might also remind policy-makers of the distinction between description and prescription, utility and justice, preference and principle. Finally, he might show how the very structure and activity of the discipline of economics are designed to describe preferences as they are or might be, rather than evaluate how they should be.



Some Problems with "The Rights of Nature." From the early days of "the environmental decade" of the seventies, environmental activists and publicists have proclaimed that the natural environment, including the inanimate entities within, have a "right" to be treated with respect and restraint. This theme was discussed at an influential interdisciplinary conference on "the rights of non-human nature," held at Pitzer College in California in 1974.(22)  At about this time, the "liberation of nature" theme was finding its way into scholarly journals, legal briefs and, eventually, through Christopher Stone's eloquent Should Trees Have Standing,(23) to a dissenting opinion of the Supreme Court.(24)

Though many philosophers have been passionately devoted to the cause of preserving the natural environment, they have generally been quite unmoved by the proposal to ascribe and extend moral rights to such inanimate objects as trees and rocks (though many, including this writer, believe that sentient animals have some rights).(25) The philosophers have been underwhelmed by the suggestion, not because they love nature less, but because they love coherent and critical understanding and intellectual integrity more.

If we are to better understand the philosopher's qualms concerning "the liberation of nature," we must first examine the proposal as it arose from outside the discipline of philosophy. Historian Roderick Nash, a prominent and prolific defender of these alleged "rights" of inanimate nature, proclaims: "If and when ... people succeed in formulating moral rules respecting non-human entities, it may be contended that these entities have rights." Then, departing radically from standard philosophical usage, he remarks, "from this standpoint, the meaning of the rights of rocks is that we should be ethical, not merely economic, in our treatment of rocks..."

He continues with what appears to be an argument:

Countless times in history concerned people have stood up for what are called the rights of an inarticulate and oppressed group. Those who are oppressed often do not or cannot speak for themselves. Sometimes they take no active role in their benefaction. The ethical issue is solely the concern of the oppressor and the liberators. . . . Rocks and slaves have something in common here.(26)

In this regard, it is often noted (by Nash, Christopher Stone, and others) that one should not be put-off by the intuitive "absurdity" of the claim that rocks and trees "have rights." After all, they point out, in our own history, it once seemed "absurd" to many to claim that blacks or women "had rights." (This, we should notice, is another analogy argument).(27)

Following a suggestion of Aldo Leopold (rather uncritically, I think), and elaborated by Stone, Nash holds that the extension of moral "rights" to rocks and trees, like the extension of rights to women and blacks, is a timely and desirable development in the "evolution of ethics," warranted by evidence of both history and ethnology. In a diagram employed in several of his writings, Nash thus portrays this "evolution:"(28


In even this brief sketch we find a potpourri of philosophical errors. Once again, there is an attempt to derive values from alleged facts -- in this case, alleged facts of history and ethnology. This attempt fails on two grounds: (a) that history and ethnology reveal no such trends and patterns, and (more fundamentally) (b) that no moral conclusions can be drawn from such historical and ethnological data, regardless of the truth of (a). Since we've already examined the difficulties in "learning values from history," and since I've argued points (a) and (b) elsewhere, I need not elaborate.(29) Instead, I have presented this approach to "environmental ethics" to display significant philosophical mistakes of a quite different sort than those encountered earlier.

What, then, might a philosopher say about this attempt to ascribe "rights" to rocks? First, he might ask: "Just why did our culture give up slavery and grant the franchise to women?" Why did we come to believe that these individuals had rights? We did so because we eventually came to believe that these political exclusions were based upon morally indefensible distinctions between blacks and women on the one hand, and free white males on the other. We were at last able to act upon the convictions that racial and gender distinctions, though visually discriminable, were not ethically relevant. We felt that, despite racial and gender differences, all individuals shared the same capacities to feel and think. Can that kind of argument be made regarding (i.e., "extended to") trees and rocks?  It can not. For though there are no morally significant differences among classes of people, there are manifestly essential differences between sentient and reflective persons on the one hand, and insentient trees and rocks on the other.

Another feature of this argument deserves our attention. Nash talks of "rights" as if this were a simple and singular concept. But because "rights" refers to a family of concepts, certain kinds of beings might have some types of rights, but not others. An animal may have the right not to be treated cruelly, due to its capacity to experience pain. But we know of no non-human animals that have the "freedom of worship," or the "right to a free press," or the "right to vote." Animals lack these "rights," not because we humans are tyrants who refuse to grant them, but because animals lack the capacities to worship, to read, or to make political choices. It makes no sense to attribute such rights to them. But rocks, unlike animals, presumably do not feel -- thus they cannot "care" how they are treated. What sense remains in attributing "rights" to them? How does one "enslave" or "liberate" a tree? How can one be "cruel" to a rock "itself"?(30) 

Can any "rights" be attached to rocks? Well, one might make the attempt by "extending" the meaning of the word "rights," to the point, in fact, of virtually re-defining it. But here, I suggest, a lesson might be learned from the science of ecology; namely (to quote Barry Commoner) that "you can't do just one thing." In nature there is a price to be paid for casually adding, altering, or eliminating components that have a significant function in the ecosystem. Similarly, with language a price is paid when we change for our rhetorical convenience, ideas, words, concepts, distinctions, that have served us well in our previous thinking. And so, when someone proposes to "extend" and thus alter the use of a crucial moral term, we are entitled to ask Garrett Hardin's ecological question: "and then what?" Here's a little story which illustrates the point:

The Reverend James Pike, late Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and long a maverick theologian, was, on several occasions, brought before ecclesiastical courts on charges of "heresy." On one such occasion, it is reported that he was thus addressed by one member of the court: "It seems to me, Rev. Pike, that the essential question before us is 'are you a Christian?' That question might effectively be settled by the answer to another question, namely, 'Do you believe that the birth of Jesus Christ was a miracle?'"

Pike answered at once: "Why of course I do!"

The relief and satisfaction at the table was pentecostal.

Never a man to let well enough alone, Pike added; "but then, Your Grace, isn't every birth a miracle?"

Consider next this hypothetical scene: A student is in the office of a professor who, she feels, has treated her capriciously, arbitrarily, and generally unfairly. She says, "I know that I am just a student, but I am also a person -- I think, I feel, I reflect, I have principles and I try to act upon them. Don't I therefore have the right to be treated fairly and with respect?"

The professor replies: "Why, of course, I acknowledge that you have rights, and I acknowledge the moral dignity which follows from these rights; but then, I also believe that rocks have rights!" Clearly, this is not a concept of "rights" that would be warmly embraced by the ACLU or Amnesty International.

It is apparent that there is some conceptual legerdemain at work here. Surely the Christian believes that the birth of Christ was "miraculous" in a special way. (After all, "miraculous" means, in part, "unique" and "special"). Analogously, one might reply to the professor that the "rights" of persons are "rights" of a special kind -- of a kind that rocks, by their nature, cannot conceivably have. How are we led to suspect a different interpretation? Because both Pike and the hypothetical professor are abusing the ordinary usage of the words "miracle" and "rights." The ordinary uses of these words give account, in the first case, of the Christian's belief that the birth of Jesus Christ was supernatural, and thus a unique event in human history -- a birth unlike any other birth. In the second case, the term "rights is intended to indicate a moral significance that human beings have, which inanimate objects do not have -- a significance which follows from capacities unique to humans (more accurately, to persons). A careless extension of the application of "rights" to trees and rocks serves only to obscure the unique capacities and qualities of human beings which give humans special moral consideration. Morally sensitive individuals should be no more willing to tolerate such a loss of conceptual clarity and distinction, than a believing Christian should be willing to regard the birth of Jesus Christ as equivalent to all other births.

The error at work here is familiar to analytical philosophers. By referring to (denoting) all cases in the generic class, no specific cases have been qualified (designated). If rocks can be said to have rights, then what on earth does not? What then is the special significance of a person having rights?

The operative rule, "that which denotes everything, designates nothing," might be clarified by the following tale from "The Arabian Nights":

One night, a spy from the Caliph's palace spotted one of Ali Baba's thieves and followed him to the thieves' hideout. Then, the spy quietly took out a piece of chalk, marked an "X" over the doorpost, and reported this to the Caliph's guards. However, before the guards could leave the palace, another thief spotted the sign, took out another piece of chalk, and marked every doorpost in Baghdad. Instead, he could have erased the spy's mark. What practical difference would this have made?

Yet another story:

Two students were preparing for an examination. The first, careful not to damage the resale value of his textbook, made not a single mark in it. The second, determined to take full note of what he read, indiscriminately underlined each and every word. Each read the same pages. Each reviewed just once. Which was the better prepared?

Thus we see how, "that which denotes (refers to) everything, designates (qualifies -- 'sets aside') nothing!" Accordingly, the "extension" of the concept of "rights" to all of nature, down to each lowly rock, while accomplishing nothing for environmental ethics, exacts an exorbitant cost in terms of the value and dignity of human persons. It is a cost which few moral philosophers are willing to pay.

To summarize: When a moral concept such as "rights" is taken from the conceptual context which produced it and which sustains it, the meaning changes -- just as a species is altered when removed from the ecosystem from which it evolved. But the theoretical context (e.g., the moral theory) also changes -- as an ecosystem changes when component species are altered or removed. And so, what is the moral cost of asserting that "rocks have rights"?  It may be considerable; a cost in the meaning and the moral significance of affording rights to people -- a cost in the dignity and self respect which comes from the possession of rights.(31)

This attempt to ascribe "rights" to rocks has, I believe, issued from a commendable motive combined with a fundamental philosophical error: the motive is to bring rocks, trees, landscapes, and insentient nature in general under our moral purview (to make them, in Kenneth Goodpaster's term, "morally considerable"). The philosophical error resides in the belief that if these entities have no rights, no moral restraints remain in our dealings with them. But, as the philosopher can readily point out, "rights" is but one of many moral categories available to the ethical theorist. Even without "rights," some rather forceful considerations might remain in the moral armament. (For example, the attack upon Michelangelo's "Pieta," while dreadful, was not a violation of the "rights" of that splendid piece of marble. It was, however, a threat to a locus of great significance and beauty. A similar analysis might apply to the destruction of wilderness).

One of the earliest distinctions to be brought to the attention of the beginning student of Philosophy, is the distinction between "rhetoric" and "argument." "Rhetoric" enlists the support of any available means to bring about psychological assent of a foregone conclusion. Its methods and aims are subjective. Rational argument, on the other hand, scrupulously employs empirical data, logical procedures and rules of evidence to discover and then to support conclusions that are objectively validated by these methods. The proposal to attribute rights to inanimate nature displays a triumph of rhetoric over philosophy -- a coup that is believed, by all too many, to be philosophy. The moral cost of this gambit is a devaluation of human dignity, and that is a cost far out of proportion to the sought-for gain in "environmental consciousness." Furthermore, the proposal is also tactically bad (not a philosophical issue), since such rhetorical excess places it on the fringes of public debate and invites derision. Suggesting that rocks have rights is a mistake; a mistake to which those in engaged in rhetoric are susceptible, and a mistake is unlikely to be made by moral philosophers sensitive to the significance and implications of the concept of "rights" and to its conceptual ecology.


Conclusions.  We have encountered four failed attempts to do the work of philosophy without the tools and insights of philosophy. Common to all is the effort to establish value conclusions (prescriptions) "at the cheap"; respectively, by analogy, by historical and economic description, and by rhetoric. I have indicated the inadequacy of these attempts by methods that are routine to philosophers; notably, by drawing absurd conclusions from assumed premises and by citing unacceptable counter-examples of the rules and methods employed therein. Now I would like to explain briefly the logical and conceptual error that is common to all attempts to found an "ethic" on facts alone (i.e., primarily the arguments of the first three sections, above). It is simply a formal fallacy familiar to beginning students of logic: "No term can be introduced into a conclusion that is missing in the premises." In any attempt to derive values from facts, the term in question is "ought" (or some synonym). Why is "ought" implicitly essential to value assertions and missing from all fact ("is") statements? Because facts and values, and thus statements thereof, are fundamentally distinct: "facts" state what is the case, and "values" state what should be the case, or what we should make the case. The presumption that any collection of factual statements may formally entail a normative conclusion is called, by philosophers, "the naturalistic fallacy"? It is a "fallacy" since, as explained above, the very attempt to "derive an ought from an is" is essentially invalid. This is not to say that facts are irrelevant to moral arguments. On the contrary, they are necessary and often crucial to such arguments. But they are never sufficient. Yet we have encountered above some attempts to treat ethical issues as if they were "mere matters of fact."

The question of the relationship of "facts" to "values" is one of the deepest issues of metaethics. Some philosophers (the "non-cognitivists") believe that the foundations of values are so distinct from facts and logic, that basic value preferences and commitments are not amenable to rational justification. Other philosophers (the "cognitivists") hold that fundamental value disputes are significantly informed by rational argument. (The author belongs to this second group). Among the "cognitivists" (excluding this author) are the "definists," who contend that the "oughts" in value statements can be defined in terms of facts, and that such definitions, serving as premises in moral arguments, can combine with facts to yield valid ethical conclusions. No philosophers, however, believe that "the is-ought problem" is a simple matter, and thus no philosopher could be content with the casual manner in which this deep issue has been ignored and brushed aside in the four attempts, here examined, to "escape philosophy."

What, then, is the logical status of values, and how do they relate to facts? A library of complex and technical philosophical treatises have been written on that question.(32) We can not begin to address it here. However, I hope that the foregoing has indicated that any attempt to formulate an "environmental ethic" in disregard of "the fact-value problem" will result in an "ethic" that is unilluminating, incoherent, invalid, and thus inadequate to the task of directing personal action or public policy.

If my efforts have been successful, I have at least begun to indicate that the philosopher's skills have a crucial role in the articulation and justification of an environmental ethic, and in the formulation of environmental policy. This contention, which would seem quite obvious to most "applied philosophers," appears to be "obvious" to few outside the profession of philosophy. This lack of appreciation for the philosophers role in environmental ethics and policy-making is due, in turn, to the fact that there are few general fields of academic endeavor that are less understood by "outsiders" -- even by scholars in other disciplines -- than philosophy. Furthermore, this is an ignorance that is often unacknowledged. Thus the philosopher faces the constant annoyance of finding colleagues in other fields doing his work, doing it badly, and not bothering to consult the "expert" (i.e., himself) in the process. Such behavior might even take place in an "interdisciplinary program" with a resident philosopher on hand for such consultation.(33)

But while philosophers might be avoided by environmental policy-makers, moral philosophy cannot. It cannot be avoided for the simple reason that, like it or not, such policy-makers are unavoidably involved in value decisions. They are thus involved because they are making deliberate, informed choices that will variably affect the quality of life, the rights and the liberties of present and future human beings and sentient animals.  Science informs these choices. Technology makes them effective and gives us the capacity to carry them out. But, as choices with value significance (affecting quality of life, rights and liberties), and as choices which reflect upon the personal worth of those who make them, these practical decisions are, by definition, moral decisions as well. The inalienable role of ethics in policy-making might be demonstrated by asking: What would it be like to totally banish moral and critical philosophy from policy-making and professional practice? It would be (a) to act with no reflective interest in one's concept of "human rights and welfare" as those concepts affect one's professional work, (b) to act in disregard of the impact of one's professional work and policies upon the rights and welfare of those affected thereby, and (c) to fail to review the logical adequacy of the thought processes which guide one's professional thinking.

In short, the applied scientist, technologist and policy- maker is professionally concerned with the task of applying his specialized knowledge and skills to the service of humanity. The study and acquisition of that "specialized skill and knowledge" is properly his professional business. But what is he to do with it? How is he to adjudicate between conflicting claims of rights and duties which attend his various roles of citizen, professional, autonomous individual, family head, and so on? What concept of "human benefit" is presupposed in his professional conduct, in the motives and objectives of his work? What concepts of "benefit" and "good" are necessarily excluded by the concept which he adopts? If, as scientists like to insist, "science is value free," then such value questions as these do not, strictly speaking, belong to science as science. (Values do not, for example, affect what the nuclear physicist observes in his laboratory). But these questions do belong to their professional roles and to their citizenship roles. (Following the same example, values are inalienable to a decision whether to apply a knowledge of nuclear physics to the design of atomic weapons, to the production of electrical energy, or to a public warning of the hazards of such production). Value assumptions will thus not be evaded in policy-making or professional practice, since they are logically presupposed by these activities. An attempt to avoid value assumptions, perhaps through an exclusive attention to "the simple facts" will only result in "philosophy" of the worst kind: "philosophy" without critical reflection, which is no philosophy at all.

I've been told, in effect, that "everybody thinks, therefore everybody is a philosopher."(34) Such a remark betrays a profound misconception of the discipline. For while "everybody thinks," it is equally true that "nobody thinks perfectly well." It is the philosopher's job to think, and to assess the thinking of others, with a deliberately critical eye; to critically judge the quality of that thinking in terms of its clarity, consistency, coherence and comprehensiveness; to examine the moral presuppositions and implications of professional practice and public policy; and to assess the thought processes which lead from assumption (or worse, unexamined presupposition) to conclusion -- i.e., to policy recommendations.

Public impressions to the contrary notwithstanding, philosophy is not merely an ornament of refined life -- not empty and pointless, if stimulating, talk which is out of touch with "the real world." On the contrary, philosophy is inescapable and crucial to the applied professions and to public policy making. We all must philosophize. Beyond that necessity lies the choice to do so better or worse -- with or without critical reflection.

Socrates remarked that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Still more, in the conditions of modern life, the unexamined life can be very frustrating -- and very dangerous. The philosopher's task is to introduce critical reflection into the unavoidable value choices in our lives, and thus to make the civilized condition more endurable -- and more enduring.


1. A briefer version of this paper (drawn from sections II, IV and V) was published as "Environmental Ethics Without Philosophy," in Human Ecology: A Gathering of Perspectives, (ed.) Richard J. Borden, Society for Human Ecology, 1986.

2. While the subject-matter of the environmental scientist might be "value-free, such "pure" scientific work does not "escape philosophy" -- not, for example, the philosophy of science. But that contention deserves another paper.

3. The name for this fallacy (a variant of "the naturalistic fallacy") is suggested by Kristin Shrader-Frechette's term "normal is moral." Nuclear Power and Public Policy, (Boston: Reidel, 1983).

4. University of California, Santa Barbara, Nexus, June 8, 1980.

5. Shrader-Frechette, op. cit., 35-7, 118-20, 144-5.

6. Constance Holden, "The Reagan Years: Environmentalists Tremble," Science, Vol. 210 (28 November 1980), p. 988.

7. Recorded and transcribed from National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," May 18, 1983.

8. Elsewhere I have identified four essential conditions of moral responsibility: (a) knowledge, (b) capacity, (c) choice, and (d) value significance. The final condition, "value significance," indicates that the choice matters. A choice of one of the Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors is insignificant. But a choice to buy an ice-cream cone with stolen money, rather than return the money, is of value significance. To these four criteria, one might add a fifth: (e) acts of a person. However, that condition may be implicit in the first four. While the fine points of the concept of "person" are philosophically controversial, the term "person" essentially describes a being that is self-conscious, deliberative, uses language, can reason and abstract, and acts from principles. It is an empirical fact and not a logical necessity that in our experience only human beings (homo sapiens) are "persons." Other species, or even extra-terrestrials or robots, could conceivably be persons. See my "How is Morality Possible," Chapter 12 of my book in progress, Conscience of a Progressive (this site).

9. Daniel Botkin and Edward Keller, The Earth as a Living Planet, New York: Crowell, 1982. Botkin was primarily responsible for this chapter. Recently I examined eight standard texts in "environmental Studies" at the office of a colleague in the Biology Department. (Included were well-regarded books by Ehrlich/Ehrlich/Holdren, J. Turk, R. Revelle, R. Dasmann, and G. T. Miller). The term "Environmental Ethics" was indexed in only one (Miller), and "Ethics" was indexed only in reference to specific issues, and not as a philosophical activity. Only Miller (again) devoted a chapter to Environmental Ethics. Apparently these authors felt that Environmental Ethics was sufficiently remote from their areas of expertise that the topic might be better left alone. In view of the results of Botkin and Keller's efforts, this was perhaps a wise decision on the part of these other scientists.

10. Ibid., 390

11. Ibid., 396.

12. Ibid., 404.

13. In the entire chapter on "Environmental Ethics and Economics," only one living philosopher is mentioned (in the list of "Further Readings").

14. For more about justification of ethical theories, see William Frankena, Ethics (Second Edition), Prentice Hall, 1973, Chapter Six; John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard, 1971, pp. 46-53; Richard Brandt, Ethical Theory, Prentice-Hall, 1959, Chs. 2 & 10; Kai Nielsen, "Ethics, Problems of" Encyclopedia of Philosophy, MacMillan/Free Press, 1967, Vol. III, pp. 117-34.

15. Richard Posner, Economic Analysis of Law (Boston: Little Brown, 1972). See also Newsweek, June 10, 1985, p. 93-4).

16. Prominent among the philosophical critics of cost-benefit analysis are Alastair MacIntyre, Mark Sagoff, Kristin Shrader-Frechette, and Lawrence Tribe.

17. The Nobel Laureate economist, Amartya Sen, deserves special recognition.  His excellent book, On Ethics and Economics (Blackwell, 1987) is a powerful statement of the moral limitations of economic theory.  His recent book, The Idea of Justice, (Belknap/Harvard, 2009) is an outstanding contribution to moral philosophy, outside the bounds of conventional economic discourse.

18.   For an economist's expression of such a view, see A. Myrick Freeman, "The Ethical Basis of the Economic View of the Environment," Working Paper 1-3, Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy, University of Colorado March, 1983, p.5.

19. Botkin and Keller, it should be noted, are not of this sort. On a couple of occasions in their chapter (398, 404), they mention "ethical" consideration as if it were a thing apart from "costs" and "prices." Also evaluative terms ("necessary," "best" and "desirable") appear repeatedly (see especially the summary paragraph, p. 407). Unfortunately, these citations are totally without metaethical foundation: i.e., there is no treatment whatever of the meaning of these concepts, much less an attempt to justify the claims which contain them.

20. In "The Philosopher as Teacher: On Teaching Environmental Ethics," Metaphilosophy, Vol. II, Nos. 3 & 4, July/October, 1980, p. 318. Sagoff cites this classroom discussion to make a different point, namely that "principles are preferences we have not as individuals but a members of communities. . . Principles or social norms are not values upon which we happen to agree; they are values the logical subject of which is the community itself." (319) While I agree with Sagoff regarding the source and locus of principles and social norms, I wish to make a different, though compatible, point; namely, that loyalty to principles may motivate sufficiently to override utilitarian motivations.

21. For an elaboration of this point, see my "Why Care About the Future?", in Partridge (ed.), Responsibilities for Future Generations, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981.  At this site.

22. Several of the papers from this conference appeared in scholarly journals, notably the Winter, 1974 issue of The North American Review.

23. Christopher Stone, Should Trees Have Standing, Los Altos, CA: Wm. Kaufmann, 1974.

24. By William O. Douglas, in Sierra Club vs. Morton, April 19, 1972. Reprinted in Stone, op. cit.

25. Tom Regan is the only philosopher I know of who is willing to accord rights to inanimate nature. However Regan, unlike the non philosophers who have defended this notion, bases his claim for "rights of rocks" upon a carefully constructed theory of "inherent value" and "rights." My disagreement with Regan may be found in "Three Wrong Leads in Search for an Environmental Ethic: Tom Regan on Animal rights, Inherent Values, and Deep Ecology," Ethics and Animals, V:3 (Sept. 1984), pp. 61-74.  An excerpt, "On the Rights of Animals and Persons," is at this site.

26. Roderick Nash, "Do Rocks Have Rights," The Center Magazine, (Nov.-Dec., 1977), p. 10.

27. Stone, op. cit., pp. 6-9.

28. Nash, "Do Rocks Have Rights," loc. cit., p. 6. The figure is also employed by Nash in papers appearing in Clark and List (eds), Environmental Spectrum (van Nostrand, 1974), Not Man Apart, October, 1975, and Mooney and Stuber Small Comforts for Hard Times (Columbia University, 1977). I have seen others, though the citations are not before me).

29. Suppose and advocate of an "extension of ethics" to non-human entities were to concede that history and ethnology reveal no such "extension." Would he thus have reason to abandon his position? He would not. The "extension of ethics" is proposed, not as a generalization of history and ethnology; it is a normative ethical claim. "Far from being derived from the facts of culture and history, the land ethic is a moral position from which the ecological moralist evaluates cultural and historical trends." Ernest Partridge, "Are We Ready for an Ecological Morality?", Environmental Ethics, 4:2 (Summer, 1982), pp. 177-8.

30. For a statement of this "interest theory of rights," which I endorse virtually without reservation, see Joel Feinberg's "The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations," in Wm. Blackstone (ed.), Philosophy and Environmental Crisis, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1974.

While I at UCSB (1980-2), I heard Nash say in a public lecture, "Ernie Partridge thinks I'm crazy, but I believe that rocks are alive!"  I was not, at the time, in a position to respond.  But had I the opportunity, I might have said:  "Now to say that rocks are alive, is presumably to tell us something about rocks -- something more than 'rocks are rocks.'  If so, then perhaps you might describe to me just what it would be like to encounter a dead rock, and how we might tell the difference between a live rock and a dead one."  Of course, this is simply an application of "the falsifiability" criterion of meaning.  (2009)

31. The significance of rights in terms of "dignity and self respect" is argued by many philosophers. Among the most forceful and eloquent contemporary statements are by Ronald Dworkin in Taking Rights Seriously (Harvard, 1977), and Joel Feinberg, in Social Philosophy (Prentice-Hall, 1973).

32. The best approach to this question, I believe, might be found in Frankena, Brandt and Nielsen, op. cit. (note 14, above). My published views on the subject may be found in my  "In Search of Sustainable Values," International Journal of Sustainable Development, 6:1, 2003, in Part V of my unpublished, Religion, Education and Morality: A Dialogue, and most extensively, in my book in progress, Conscience of a Progressive.   All the above, linked to this site. 

33. I have known of treatises in "environmental ethics" being written by applied scientists, while, in adjacent offices, moral philosophers sat available and unconsulted. Recently, while on a research trip, I visited an eminent natural scientist who, upon learning that I was "moral philosopher," proceeded to give me an impromptu lecture (not a discussion) on business ethics. ("Don't you agree that..." (no pause), "moreover..."). If, instead, I had asked him to be silent while I offered him a lecture on his specialty, I would have been promptly and appropriately tossed out of his office. Yet he had no qualms whatever in treating a moral philosopher in an analogous manner. Such conduct is by no means rare.

34. Cf. the letter by Robert Fisher and my reply in Journal of Environmental Education, 14:3 (Spring, 1983), pp. 41-3.


Copyright 1986 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 .