Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
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Environmental Ethics: Obstacles and Opportunities


Ernest Partridge

From Ecological Consciousness
Robert C. Schultz and J. Donald Hughes, eds.,
University Press of America, 1981


I. Obstacles.

Is it too late to play the "historical roots game?" If it is not, then anyone proposing to enter the contest at this late date should be properly forewarned by what has gone on since Lynn White, Jr. published his celebrated paper, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," in 1967. In the first place, as John Passmore, Lewis Moncrief and others have correctly pointed out, the task which White attempted is simply too large for anyone to rationally expect to resolve in a brief space. Perhaps, as White suggests, Western Christianity bears a portion of the blame for our ruinous attitudes and practices with regard to nature. But what portion of blame and to what degree? And what other "roots" are there? Once we turn to these questions, the task quickly expands beyond manageable size. White would thus have better titled his essay "Some Historical-Theological Ingredients of the Ecological Crisis."

Thus forewarned, I will attempt a much humbler task; namely, a search not for "historical roots" to prevailing Western attitudes toward nature but rather for some factors in the history of philosophy that might serve to explain a remarkable lack of contemporary interest among philosophers in the question of environmental ethics -- of "man's responsibility for nature," to borrow John Passmore's apt phrase.

It seems clear that contemporary philosophers, and in particular moral philosophers, are grossly under represented in current discussions concerning environmental ethics and policy. A glance at the listings in The Philosopher's Index will indicate this. This condition of neglect is readily noticed by those who, like myself, have assembled or are assembling anthologies in the field of environmental ethics. From these and other indications, I would roughly guess that no more than two dozen American philosophers are presently devoting a major portion of their professional attention to the question of man's moral responsibility and constraints regarding the natural world. Quite possibly half of them are seated in this room today.

Why is this so? The question is of more than idle interest in view of the disproportionate influence of historically prominent philosophers on public thought and policy. This influence is not direct, of course. To my knowledge, no social or political revolutions were instigated by a public that was spontaneously moved to direct action by a widespread reading of a philosophical treatise. Nonetheless, philosophers do significantly influence history and society through the acts and policies of those who read their works. Consider, for instance, the historical significance of Locke by way of Jefferson, of Hume by way of Adam Smith, of Hegel by way of Marx.

The philosophical indifference to ecological concepts and issues is noteworthy for still another reason: it reflects a similar disinclination in both intellectual and practical communities of Western civilization to deal reflectively and consistently with the question of moral responsibility toward nature. In short, the lack of involvement by the philosophical profession in environmental issues is of considerable interest to us, since that neglect indicates that there is something deeply woven in the fabric of Western philosophy, and of the civilization that it reflects, that resists a rational clarification, articulation and assessment of man's place in, and responsibility toward, the natural environment. Thus it is crucially important for us to locate these conceptual, methodological and theoretical obstacles so that we might either remove them or circumnavigate them.

A final preliminary point: Unlike White, Moncrief, Passmore and others, I will not here examine the content of professional and public philosophy as I search for obstacles to an environmental ethic. Instead, I am looking for methodological presuppositions; that is to say, for the epistemological perspectives that lead to these doctrines. This interest follows from a concern that the philosophical profession is to be faulted less for its erroneous assessment of environmental responsibility than for its indifference to the question. I wish to examine the "roots" of that indifference the uncritical, perhaps even pre-critical, conditions of philosophical method that have deterred active involvement of the profession in the current environmental debate. There are, I think, three such fundamental methodological assumptions: (a) methodological egocentrism (subjectivism), (b) reductive analysis, and (c) metaethical non-cognitivism.

Methodological Egocentrism is the assumption that secure moral and descriptive knowledge begins with simple data of immediate experience or contemplation and "moves out" by inference to comprehend "external" objects of knowledge. One person in particular (the "subject"), and then "mankind in general," thus becomes "the measure" of knowledge and moral commitment.

Reductive Analysis reflects the belief that knowledge must be assembled, not only from "the inside out," but also from the simple parts, and the external relationships of the parts, to the systemic and complex whole. The primary task of philosophy, then, is to identify the parts of knowledge (and of moral obligation) and their rules and contingencies of combination. Only after this task of analysis is accomplished are we prepared to deal with wholes--i.e., to have warrant to claim knowledge of these wholes.

Metaethical Non-Cognitivism contends that value assertions are, at their root, based upon subjective matters of will, preference, or sentiment; that these assertions are, in a word, fundamentally detached and detachable from matters of objective, descriptive fact. "Subjective," of course, means "human," and thus anthropocentrism reappears.

In the survey of Western philosophical thought which follows, I will give special attention to two philosophers: Rene Descartes and David Hume. Time will permit only a superficial glance at a few others. Descartes and Hume are especially interesting to us for three reasons: First of all, both are very influential figures in the history of Western philosophy and intellectual history. Secondly, they present a striking case of "identity in difference." Though their assumptions and conclusions concerning the grounds and even the possibility of knowledge are radically different (Descartes was a confident rationalist, and Hume a skeptical empiricist), there are nonetheless significant formal similarities in their philosophical methods. And these areas of methodological concurrence have dominated subsequent thought especially among subsequent French and English philosophers. Finally, though it would be wrong to identify these two philosophers as the "source" of egocentrism, reductionism and (in the case of Hume) non-cognitivism, they surely are in the mainstream of the traditions of philosophy that have exemplified these assumptions. Thus Descartes and Hume reinforced and strengthened an analytic and egocentric approach that was well established in their own day, as it is in ours.

Consider, then, Rene Descartes perhaps the first significant post-Renaissance philosopher in Europe and the founder of Continental Rationalism. Two features of his thought are conspicuous: First, his quest for certainty (and, conversely, his determination not to be deceived), and second his conviction that the certainty which he seeks resides, first and foremost, within himself--in his "clear and distinct ideas." Thus, in setting up what he believes to be an infallible and universal philosophical method, he writes:

In the subjects we propose to investigate, our inquiries should be directed, not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce; for knowledge is not won in any other way Method consists entirely in the order and disposition of the objects towards which our mental vision must be directed if we would find out any truth. We shall comply with it exactly if we reduce involved and obscure propositions step by step to those that are simple, and then starting with the intuitive apprehension of all those that are absolutely simple, attempt to ascend to the knowledge of all others by precisely similar steps.1

Clearly, then, Descartes is proposing to ground human knowledge in bits and pieces of cognitive data. That his point of departure toward knowledge is within becomes explicit in his famous "cogito ergo sum." Suppose the worst case, he says. Suppose

. . . there is some deceiver or other, very powerful and very cunning, who ever employs his ingenuity in deceiving me. Then without doubt I exist also if he deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something. So that after having reflected will and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.2

To Descartes, then, the ground of knowledge is subjective and particular (analytically simple).

As most beginning students of philosophy have learned, Descartes moves from this analytic and subjective beginning to the postulation of two substances: "thinking substance" (mind) and "extended substance" (matter). In the world of our experience, mind is confined to human beings. Animals, says Descartes, are mere automata. Man (better, man's soul and mind--res cogitans) is independent from, and morally sovereign over, nature (res extensa). Add to this the premise, just noted, that knowledge begins with "clear and distinct ideas" from within the self and proceeds outward, and the clear and distinct result is egocentrism and anthropocentrism.

We now cross the Channel to set the stage for David Hume. There we encounter the English Empiricists, notably Locke and Berkeley and eventually (and most radically) Hume himself. Qua empiricists, these philosophers did not share Descartes' distrust of information conveyed by the senses. Furthermore, they denied Descartes' contention that the mind can apprehend truths that are not, in the final analysis, derived from experience. And yet, for all these differences, the similarities are striking. For while an empiricist might concede that the order of nature conveys data from the object to the subject (from the known to the knower), both the rationalist and the empiricist assume that the order of inferred knowledge proceeds from the self outward, and from "hard" bits of data (either of experience or of intuition) to "soft" inferences of general and abstract knowledge. So, once again, man is perceived as standing fundamentally apart from nature. What man believes about the natural world is imperfectly constructed from what is directly and discretely before his awareness. And to a radical empiricist such as Hume, what is before the awareness is just impressions. Thus, writes Hume,

. . .though our thought seems to possess . . .unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, and it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience.3

Hume is noteworthy for taking reductive empirical analysis to the bitter end, after which he despairs of any hope of building certain knowledge from the resulting bits of experience. Thus induction, the external material world, substance, continuing objects, even the self--all these are fictions that are "feigned" for our convenience, but ultimately without substantial warrant for belief. As philosopher John Herman Randall liked to quip in his classes, for David Hume, "Life is just one damned thing after another," i.e., one discrete bit of experience after another. Beyond that, all is uncertainty.

Hume's radical skepticism not only pulverized experience, it also detached reason from experience, and both from morality. Anticipating the Logical Positivists in our century, Hume argued that reason is appropriately applied to "relations of ideas" (e.g., definitions and logic) and "matters of fact" (concerning "external" objects and events). Concerning basic moral judgments, reason ultimately has no place. The foundation of morality is to be found in "the moral sense" which in turn is based upon pre-rational subjective feelings, sentiments, desires, etc. Consequently, while reason and empirical knowledge can serve to help us choose the best means to secure our desired ends, reason can not help us to decide what is ultimately desirable. Thus our fundamental moral imperatives are radically severed from our knowledge of facts, and, writes Hume, "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions" (values).
4 The split between "is statements" (of fact) and "ought statements" (of value), which has bedeviled philosophers since Socrates, has been especially acute since Hume published his Treatise on Human Nature and Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. "The is-ought problem" is a key issue (perhaps the key issue) in contemporary moral theory. And yet, as I shall presently argue, no significant progress can be made in the justification of an ecologically sound ethics unless certain identifiable facts are brought to bear upon, and in support of, the moral imperatives of earth-citizenship unless, that is, the gulf between facts and values is effectively bridged.

Descartes and Hume typify and exemplify the philosophical methodology that has separated the philosophical profession from the ecological debate. And little has followed in the 200 years of philosophical speculation since Hume's death which offers significant opportunity for remedy not, that is, until very recently. A brief sketch of recent philosophical history may serve to illustrate this point.

To Immanuel Kant, nature in itself (i.e., as it exists unperceived by the human mind) is utterly unknowable and inconceivable. All our knowledge is pervaded throughout by the categories of understanding resident in our minds. Furthermore, Kant's ethical theory is totally divorced from natural knowledge. Right conduct is, without exception, action motivated by a dutiful obedience to the moral law, and the moral law is ascertained by pure formal reason, unsullied by acquired empirical ("natural") knowledge or by calculations of practical consequences of the act. "Do your duty, though the Earth be consumed:" To Kant, moral law is apprehended a priori, and while moral knowledge is, to be sure, cognitive, its validation is not to be found in nature.

The Utilitarians totally reject Kant's formalism. To them, consequences are of ultimate importance. But consequences for what? Virtually without exception, utilitarians answer that the right action or rule is that which maximizes the good for the greatest number of persons--or perhaps, additionally, sentient beings. And so we are back again (or very close) to anthropocentrism: "Man is the measure" and nature's justification is its utility to mankind.

While the insights of Darwinism might have encouraged moral philosophers to reassess nature's place in the scheme of human duties, goals and values, the prevailing anthropocentrism could not be overcome. Thus such thinkers as Spencer and Sumner focused their attention upon the competitive aspects of organic evolution ("the struggle with nature") rather than the cooperative requirements of ecosystem maintenance. Somehow, of all the moral exemplars available in nature, they preferred to take their lessons from the predators rather than (say) the social insects or the cetaceans. Man, therefore, was perceived to be the dominant species, that prevailed through its "successful struggle against nature."

In the twentieth century we come upon the Logical Atomists (Bertrand Russell and the young Ludwig Wittgenstein). Here we find a reiteration, refinement and elaboration of Hume's claim that our knowledge consists of discrete bits of data "glued together" by external rules of association. But the atomists went further: the structure of our knowledge reflects the basic metaphysical structure of the world--i.e., a collection of "atomic facts" joined only by external relations among them. Herein was a thoroughgoing rejection of the basic ecological maxim: "everything is connected to everything else."

Logical Atomism led to Logical Positivism and the emotive theory of ethics. The positivists contended that meaningful discourse consists solely of formal truths (e.g., definitions, logic and mathematics), and factual truths (truth-claims that could, in principle, be confirmed by sense experience). Accordingly, there is no place in meaningful discourse for moral truths. Moral claims reduce to expressions of feeling, of commendation or disapproval nothing else. (The parallel to Hume is obvious and historically significant). Thus when David Brower tells Floyd Dominy that Glen Canyon is "an abomination," and when Dominy replies that it is a "masterpiece," their entire disputation reduces to "goddam!" and "hurrah:" respectively. There are no conceivable objective grounds for settling their differences (unlike, say, the dispute of two physicists). Can nature be treated as a moral entity? Absurd: says the emotivist. Not even persons can meaningfully be so regarded in any objective sense. There are no "moral facts."

Finally (for our purposes) there are the Radical Existentialists (e.g., Camus and Sartre). They might look more favorably upon the environmental concern and enthusiasm of a David Brower. Preservation of the wilderness, they would say, is his "life project." It gives him zest, meaning and commitment. It is his hedge against mortality, alienation and anomie. Is the integrity of nature an intrinsic good? Certainly, say the existentialists for David Brower. But all the same could be said for Floyd Dominy who has chosen "reclamation" as his "life project." And if these projects conflict, to whom shall we appeal for adjudication? To no one Morals follow from the "radical choice" of free human beings. The natural, blindly contingent, mindless natural universe is totally indifferent to such disputes. Like the emotivist, these existentialists are non-cognitivists; they ultimately concede that there are no moral facts.

Admittedly I have, in this brief sketch, somewhat stacked the deck. Missing from my list are Spinoza, the New England Transcendentalists, and other Western thinkers who affirm the intrinsic worth of nature or the experience of nature. But then I have not attempted to sustain the notion that nature has no moral advocates in our Western philosophical tradition. If I have indicated anything, it is a point that scarcely needs an argument, namely, that there are more ideological "roots" to the ecological crisis than Lynn White even hinted at. Moreover, unlike White's "roots," many of these draw their nourishment from secular soil.

But there is a further, and I hope a more significant, lesson that might be drawn from this recitation. It is this: the indifference of the contemporary philosophical profession to urgent issues of environmental ethics is not wholly arbitrary or mysterious. Even to approach these issues requires radical departure from traditional methodologies and frames of reference within philosophy. While I have foresworn any careful attempt to find historical antecedents or patterns in the estrangement of Western philosophy from ecological ethics, I believe that I might suggest some epistemological predispositions.

Why, then, has the prevailing mood of post-Renaissance philosophy in the West been indifferent to questions of the intrinsic worth of nature or of man's responsibility to nature? My hunch is that such questions were too far "down the road" of philosophical investigation, and thus that philosophers, being occupied with "closer" issues (closer, that is, to immediate impressions or intuitions), carelessly concluded that since the question of "the worth of nature" was "out of reach," it was, ipso facto, unimportant. And why has the question of man's moral involvement with nature been "out of reach?" To answer this, we must go back to the Continental Rationalists (e.g., Descartes) and the English Empiricists (e.g., Hume) who, between them, have pretty well defined the predominant tone, scope and methodology of subsequent epistemology and moral philosophy.

Despite profound disagreements, the Rationalists and the Empiricists generally agree that sound knowledge must proceed (a) from the direct knowledge given to the subject to inferred knowledge of the object (i.e., "from the inside out"), and (b) from discrete "bits" of data to inferred wholes (e.g., generalizations, abstractions, theories, etc.). The measure of epistemological success is how "far out" one can get from "given knowledge bits" and still maintain an appreciable degree of the "hard certainty" of the original "immediate knowledge." Most philosophers of knowledge have conceded that we can't get very far "outside" immediate and discrete data before our beliefs become very "soft" indeed. It is not difficult to perceive in this approach a built-in bias against holism and against claims of knowledge of "things in themselves" and "things for themselves" (i.e., apart from human involvement). Man remains "the measure" throughout. Yet the science of ecology insists that nature is a seamless whole, and environmental ethics requires that man be treated, not as "the measure," but as an ingredient in the planetary system--a system with normative imperatives of its own.

When we review the prevailing traditions of moral reasoning in Western philosophy, we find that the implications for environmental ethics are even worse. Traditionally, moral philosophy (a) begins with human experience and sentiments, personal and social, and then "moves out" (cf. "Leopold's ladder"); (b) moral inference (unlike scientific inference) tends to be subjective and private and has, at best, but tenuous connections with objective data and validations. (To Hume and the positivists, there are no "basic connections" whatever). This suggests, therefore, that, as traditionally conceived, human subjectivity and community are much "closer" to the inferential "reach" of moral philosophy than is the natural world. In other words, the "nature" and subject-matter of traditional moral philosophy, and the resulting methodology, is ill-equipped to encompass an ecological ethics.

The reductive-analytic approach that is so characteristic of recent Western philosophy has produced a curious result in moral philosophy. This is "axiological realism" or "definism" the contention that goodness is a property "of" or "in" particular acts, motives, and even objects. Such properties might be identified as natural (as with R. B. Perry or the hedonic utilitarians), or "non-natural" (as with G. E. Moore). The emotivist and existentialists, though they reject the definist claim that values are somehow "in" objects, acts, etc., share with the definists a belief that the source of values lies in particulars--in particular feelings (the emotivist) or particular acts of will (the existentialists). These latter "non-cognitivists" further claim that values are "nothing but" these particular feelings or volitions and thus that assertions of normative ethics are without objective, "cognitive" meaning. But what if values reside not in particulars, but in systems in organic wholes? The suggestion is inadmissible to the reductive analyst for whom "wholes" are nothing but parts joined by their external relations. To a reductionist, if values are not to be found in the parts, they are not to be found at all. To a systems-oriented observer, such as an ecologist, this analytic bias is absurd. The analyst's failure to find value, he might reply, does not prove that values are meaningless or non-existent; rather, this failure demonstrates the limitations of the methods and assumptions of reductive analysis. Values, the critic continues, are properties of systems, and thus it is only through an understanding of systems that values will be found, comprehended, appreciated and justified.

If the systems approach to values is the correct one, as I believe it is, we see at once why traditional philosophical (e.g., Cartesian and Humean) analysis has been incompatible with normative ethics. Add to this a subjective, egocentric and even anthropocentric approach, and in such a philosophical climate, the prospect for a viable and informative environmental ethics is much worse.

I have suggested some possible causes of the current indifference of the philosophical profession to questions of the moral significance of nature and of man's place and role within nature. But this is not the whole story. On the contrary, there are several trends and developments in recent and contemporary philosophy that could lead to serious and productive investigations of environmental ethics investigations founded upon sound and well-articulated philosophical positions and procedures. Many of these new trends and developments challenge or undermine some of the traditions that have inhibited interest in and investigation of the question of the moral significance of the natural order and of man's responsibility thereto.

First, as most contemporary philosophers will acknowledge, logical atomism is virtually without adherents today, and logical positivism is in eclipse. Although the existentialist doctrine of "radical choice" persists, it does so through the deliberate and dogged determination of its adherents to ignore widely-known and generally accepted findings of the behavioral and social sciences. Furthermore, despite the philosopher's traditional epistemological dispositions, the holistic systems approach and perspective is alive, well and flourishing in game and systems theory, cybernetics, and, of course, in the compelling facts of the science of ecology. For that matter, the holistic approach has never been entirely cast out from philosophy. As examples, consider the "logic" of Hegel and the metaphysics of Spinoza and of Whitehead.

Moreover, there are some exciting opportunities and implications for environmental ethics stemming from Ludwig Wittgenstein's later work in philosophical analysis implications which strengthen and enrich the systems approach to meaning, understanding and evaluation. Since Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, philosophers have been more inclined to evaluate philosophical and moral questions in the contexts, and according to the rules and rationale, of the "language games" in which they are stated and examined. Accordingly, in a reversal of traditional analysis, it is now acknowledged by many that "the whole informs the part" and that, by reducing complex wholes to component parts and their relationships, one may carelessly, as Wordsworth put it, "murder to dissect." In short, though philosophers even today are little affected by much of the content of environmental science, there appears to be a significant and hopeful congruence of rationale and methodology between the ecological point of view, on the one hand, and the new contextualist analytical philosophy on the other. And so the analytical tools may be available within philosophy to apply the empirical insights of ecology to ethics and, conversely, to bring nature within the realm of moral responsibility.


II. Opportunities.

Among recent developments in moral philosophy that bode well for the development of ecological ethics is the revival of ethical cognitivism. The claim by positivists and existentialists that there are no objective moral facts and no valid objective grounds and procedures of moral justification is not tenable. That moral data and verification are not to be found in bits of empirical data (as positivists contend) or in episodes of unqualified, phenomenologically radical decisions (as existentialists claim) may well be conceded without the further concession (urged by these non-cognitivists) that moral claims have neither objective foundation nor justification. The grounds of morality, cognitivists affirm, lie elsewhere. And where might that be? Well, that, in part, depends upon the cognitivist.

This cognitivist finds some basic ingredients of morality in a few unanalyzable bits of data an a priori bedrock of moral affirmation, if you wish. Aside from this foundation, I would avoid reductionism and would, following Wittgenstein, adopt a contextual, systems-oriented approach to ethics. In this moral theory, hard scientific data and demonstrable formal theories have an honored place. Facts and logic matter. Thus, what moral persons should do is a function of what sorts of beings these persons are. It follows then that moral theory should be sensitive and adaptive to established and developing knowledge in the behavioral and social sciences. In addition, interpersonal interaction (the arena of most moral decisions) is governed by identifiable rules of cooperation and conflict resolution. There is, in other words, a "logic" of group behavior of rights, duties, privileges, and power--that both constrains and articulates our moral options. (Thomas Hobbes, and later Garrett Hardin, vividly portrayed the problem raised by competing claims of personal freedom and community welfare. A related example, taken from game theory, is "the prisoner's dilemma").

Finally, moral discourse itself contains a rationale, a "point," a purpose, which is discovered, not "invented," by the moral agent. One's skill at "doing morality" and making astute moral choices is no more a matter of simple emotion (cf. the positivists) or arbitrary choice (cf. the existentialists) than is one's facility at using correct speech. (John Rawls, among others, has made much of the analogy between the moral sense and linguistic facility, and I find the analogy instructive). A moral sense, like a "grammatical sense" is something that one learns through experience and practice. Indeed, if Lawrence Kohlberg is to be believed, we acquire our moral sense through well-defined and rationally structured stages of development, with each stage accomplishing a higher degree of practical and explanatory adequacy.

And so, we have identified three objective components of moral reasoning and justification: (a) knowledge of human nature, (b) a logic of inter-personal cooperation and conflict resolution, and (c) a facile use of moral discourse and a "moral sense," acquired through practical experience in moral decision-making. None of these components is, by itself, complete or incorruptible, but together they are congruent and well-integrated, and they may serve as a fund of data that bear appropriately upon questions of moral adjudication and justification. And together these three components serve to narrow significantly the inferential gap between factual ("is") premises and normative ("ought") conclusions.

"Ah yes," replies the non-cognitivist, "this hard data may narrow the gap between the 'is' and the 'ought,' but it cannot, in principle, close that gap. Hume was right," he continues, "all your facts may serve to indicate the most prudent means to accomplish desired ends, and all your logic and linguistic facility may help to organize and articulate your ends. But the ends themselves--those things ultimately desired and ultimately judged worthwhile in and for themselves--can never be demonstrated through 'matters of fact' or 'relations of ideas' (Hume's terms). These ultimately 'primary goods' (as Rawls calls them)--these things 'desirable no matter what else may be desired' are non-rational or, if
you prefer, pre-rational."

Quite frankly, the non-cognitivist may have us here. And yet I am not discouraged. Perhaps some "gap" may remain, but it may turn out to be of vanishingly small practical significance. For when we finally reach moral bedrock and spell out these "unanalyzable" "pre-rational" moral volitions and sentiments, what have we? Perhaps something like the following:

"It is better to be healthy than sick."

"A rationally assessed self-respect is worth striving for."

"The satisfaction of desire and aspiration, as such, is prima facie better than frustration and denial."

"Happiness is better than misery."

"Even if we cannot fully and explicitly define 'happiness' we all know when we are happy and when we are not."

"A world with viable life-forms on it is preferable to a world without them. Still better if the life-community is stable and diversified. And better yet if some of the life-forms are conscious and reflective (i.e., moral agents or 'persons')."

"If, with equal effort, we can enhance the well-being of others or harm them, we are duty-bound to choose the former."

Like John Stuart Mill or G. E. Moore, I would suggest that one who doubts these fundamental maxims and evaluations, and who consistently maintains and acts upon this doubt in his practical life is not merely a hard-nosed skeptic; rather, he is being just plain silly. We just know what "happiness" is, and that it is prima facie better to have it and to promote it in others. And if we are content simply to assume these postulates (and a few additional "self-evident" premises of this sort), then we can adopt a moral point of view and go on to the serious business of making sense of our lives, of rationally ordering the conduct thereof, and of participating in the articulation and administration of a moral order in our society through the body politic. In other words, I would contend that moral philosophy should be no more embarrassed at finding a limit to rational demonstration of values than is the philosopher of science at finding limits to scientific and rational proof. Consider, for example, the following postulates:

"Nature is uniform and will behave in the future according to the same universal laws that governed it in the past." (Upon this assumption "the principle of induction" and all empirical science is based).

"There are other minds beside my own."

"Besides minds and their ideas, there are objects and events that exist in a physical world, that persist unobserved, and which pre-existed the development of sentient and cognitive life."

As David Hume ably showed us, none of these "bedrock assumptions" can be rationally or empirically demonstrated. In fact, the principle of induction rests upon a flagrant fallacy of circular reasoning. And yet an "uncritical acceptance" of these postulates is a pre-condition of science and common sense, and a practical accommodation to the ordinary circumstances and challenges of everyday life. Doubts concerning induction, other minds, and the external world (what Bertrand Russell called "artificial stupidity") may lead to fascinating and insightful epistemological exercises. But a person who seriously and consistently denies the validity of induction and the existence of other minds and a physical world, and who conducts his life accordingly is not "philosophical" he is mad!:

Now I would agree that moral philosophy is based upon certain "undemonstrated assumptions." To this degree, then, I might concede that there is a non-cognitive "hard core" to my position. But I would further urge that when we carry our moral skepticism down to "bedrock," we find that these assumptions may be no more startling or controversial than the foundations of empirical knowledge and scientific inference. If the analogy is a sound one, then moral reasoning may, in principle, be every bit as "cognitive" as some empirical sciences; for that matter, we could turn this observation around and say that some sciences may be as "non-cognitive" as moral reasoning is supposed to be. Yet the logical positivists, who are unanimous in their affirmation of the "cognitive" soundness of the sciences, are equally convinced that normative ethics has no cognitive status. I will readily agree with the positivists' contention that normative ethics does not rest on "scientific" foundations of empirical data of physical phenomena, but I wholly reject the inference that it is therefore meaningless. The data base of ethics includes human affect, motivation and the logic of cooperation and conflict resolution. This is a different data base than that of empirical science (i.e., sense experience), but it is not, for that reason alone, incapable of objective and rational articulation and inference. Indeed much of the methodology of cognitivist ethics and metaethics is quite congruent with scientific method, and 'empirical data serve an indispensable role in well-founded moral discourse and justification.

It is time to sum up this metaethical discourse. I suggest that the most telling counter-argument against the positivist and existentialist critique of normative ethics is this: These non-cognitivists have an unwarranted bias toward reductive analysis and against a holistic and contextual approach to moral values. But it is in the context of the whole in the system of interpersonal interaction that normative concepts derive their meaning. Thus the positivists' and existentialists' complaint that they can "find" no ethical data among bits and pieces of affect and will is valid enough and quite beside the point. They are looking in the wrong place, and their failure thereby to find moral sense does not support their conclusion that there is no objective cognitive moral data to be found at all. Jacob Bronowski concurs when he observes

Positivists. . .believe that the words is and ought belong to different worlds, so that sentences which are constructed with is usually have a verifiable meaning, but sentences constructed with ought never have. This is because (their). . .unit is one man. . .And it is of course clear that if the only criterion of true and false which a man accepts is that man's, then he has no base for social agreement. The question of how a man ought to behave is a. social question, which always involved several people; and if he accepts no evidence and no judgment except his own, he has no tools with which to frame; an answer.5

When we move, then, from the point of view of the moral agent and his feelings or his "radical will" to the point of view of the moral spectator, we become observers of the systemic field from which morality derives its rationale, its cognitive meaning, and its objective justification. For one to claim that morality has no meaning in the subjective experience of the individual is analogous to the remark that one cannot hear the sound of one hand clapping. Of course not; but so what: That is not how one claps his hands; and the subjective experience of the individual is not where one looks if he is to find moral intelligibility and justification.

So far, so good! But can we go further? That question is crucial for the environmental moralist, for unless we can go further with this metaethical analysis, we will not depart from the realm of anthropocentric ethics. For notice, the benign "good reasons approach" to morality that I have just sketched is a metaethics of social morality, centered in and applicable to human communities. The task of breaking out and beyond the "extended anthropocentrism" presented above raises difficulties that must not be underestimated. There is, after all, a sharp discontinuity between human communities and natural communities between reflective persons and non-reflective sentient animals, and, further, between sentient beings and inanimate objects. Should trees have standing? Do rocks have rights? Attempts to answer such questions will not, and should not, be taken seriously unless the considerable differences between inanimate and reflective beings are acknowledged and dealt with.

Now I happen to believe that anthropocentrism can be transcended and that we can regard animals, landscapes, ecosystems and entire planets as morally considerable. We can do so by regarding these non-personal entities as part of a system which contains reflective, personal beings, either actually or potentially. And what system contains all this? Why, the system of nature, of course! And as the systemic ties bind persons to the whole and to the other parts therein, thus does moral considerability pervade the whole and the parts therein. And how do we gain a consciousness of the moral significance of nature, and with this consciousness, an ecological conscience? We do so, in part, by becoming informed of the facts of ecology and by acquiring the "ecological point of view." In short, knowledge of the facts and of their systemic inter-relationships brings, with descriptive understanding, prescriptive responsibility. But of course, this paragraph presents, in the briefest sketch, the outline of another paper even a book.

The reductive and egocentric methods and approaches that I have described as dominant in recent philosophy are not, of course, shared by ecologists. Quite the contrary. The ecologist, if he is to think and function as such, must, in Aldo Leopold's words, "think like a mountain." To the degree that he does, to that degree he is better suited to formulate an appropriate ecological ethic. On the other hand, if the ecological moralist lacks a sophisticated understanding of metaethics, he will be vulnerable to some identifiable and commonplace errors as he attempts to derive his normative "oughts" of environmental ethics from the facts of ecology.
6

An ecological morality is almost irresistibly cognitivistic and naturalistic, since an environmental ethic can scarcely avoid as a strong premise the belief that nature can instruct us morally--that the facts of nature and the appropriate, systems-oriented mode of viewing and interpreting the community of life speak eloquently in support of the ecological conscience. This metaethical stance is, I am convinced, correct and compelling. But it must nevertheless be defended in the face of a long-standing, entrenched and sophisticated non-cognitivist challenge to normative moral philosophy. If his environmental ethic is to stand up to this challenge, the defender of environmental responsibility must be familiar with the terms, concepts, methods, and discipline of metaethics.
 



Notes and References


1. Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, trans. Haldane and Ross, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Vol. I (Cambridge University Press, 1931).

2. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in Works, loc. cit., Vol. I.

3. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Human Understanding. Section II

4. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part III, Section iii.

5. Bronowski, Science and Human Values, (Harper and Row, 1965), p. 56.

6. A case in point is Aldo Leopold's commission of the naturalistic fallacy in his attempt to derive a normative conclusion from a description of a putative historical "extension" of moral consciousness. Even if Leopold's historical description were accurate (which I doubt), it would not follow that such an extension of consciousness is desirable in a moral sense. For that conclusion, additional normative, premises and arguments are required.



 


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 .