HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY AND THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT
Man and His Habitat Around Lake Baikal
International Conference, Lake Baikal
Buryat Republic, USSR -- September 4-11, 1990
Ernest Partridge, Department of Philosophy
California State University, Fullerton, USA
Уважаемые коллеги и друзья
(Honored colleagues and friends)
It is an outstanding privilege, opportunity and pleasure for me
to be here today. A privilege to meet colleagues in the global
community of environmental scholars and activists. An
opportunity to establish lasting and productive associations in
our common struggle to preserve and renew our precious planet.
And it is a pleasure to see, at last, this natural treasure,
Lake Baikal. Words and images alerted me to this splendor, but
only direct experience can convey it. As your esteemed author,
Valentin Rasputin, has so well expressed it:
"Озеро Байкал такая невообразимая красота, может
сравниться только с раем."1 ("Lake Baikal contains such beauty as to be unimaginable
this side of paradise.")
Bertrand Russell, the late British philosopher, once advised the
student of Philosophy to assume the perspective of an
intelligent person of another culture or of our distant history,
and then to try to understand what it is like for such a person
to accept ideas which we now regard as absurd. Such an exercise,
Russell suggested, might even lead one to wonder what ideas that
seem "perfectly obvious" to us, might seem absurd in the future.
No doubt such reflections, should they become widespread, would
lead to quantum leaps in humility and tolerance.
High on the list of the prevailing dogmas that future
generations might regard as patently absurd, is the belief that
our species is somehow a thing apart from the nature which
produced and sustains us, and that we are thus somehow
intellectually capable, let alone morally entitled, to use
nature for our own immediate and personal uses, with no regard
for the future, no regard for the welfare of our fellows
species, and no regard for the system of nature itself. This
conceited belief in humanity's "primacy over nature," widespread
in my youth, is becoming less "obvious" throughout the
industrialized world today. As the revered American ecologist,
Aldo Leopold, expressed this point:
We abuse land [i.e., nature] because we regard it as a
commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community
to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and
respect. There is no other way for land to survive the
impact of mechanized man..2
Another strange belief, now thankfully unfashionable among moral
philosophers, is the notion that morality is "reductive" and
"atomistic" -- that ethical beliefs are to be understood,
perhaps even validated, in terms of the emotions, or
preferences, or commendations, or "radical wills" of
By this account, societies, be they families,
"markets," legislators, or whatever, are thus mere aggregates of
their component individuals -- no more than the sum of their
parts. According to these ethical atomists, "communities" are
mythical entities, with no legitimate claims upon the
Each of these ideas -- namely, of the separability of humanity
from nature, and of the moral isolation of human beings from
each other -- are, I submit, indefensible. Even worse, they are
so thoroughly inappropriate to our perilous times as to be
threats to our very existence. Not only might future generations
find it strange that intelligent people of our age could
actually believe such things. Far worse, unless we abandon these
ideas, there may be no future generations to make that judgment.
In contrast to ethical atomism, there is an older wisdom, now
regaining prominence in moral philosophy, which holds that the
individual is more likely to serve his self-interest by serving
the interests of others, focusing his attention, not on his
perceived "needs," but outwardly toward persons, causes,
institutions, places and ideals. Thus, in the life of the wise,
egoism and altruism converge. This so-called "paradox of
morality" is eloquently expressed by philosophers from Aristotle
to the present. It is also universally affirmed in the great
religions and cultures of the world. In fact, an adherence to
this theme of "the moral paradox" -- of "finding oneself by
losing oneself in others" -- might even be a requirement for a
viable human culture, without which there can be no
"self-interest" whatever for the individual. In fact, given the
social origins and the social sustenance of the human
personality, the contention of the "moral atomists" is seen to
be completely reversed: in fact, it is the community which is
fundamental, and the isolated "individual" which is the mythical
Significantly, in addition to these religious, cultural and
historical expressions, "the moral paradox" is acquiring the
support of the empirical and formal sciences. In "The Tragedy of
the Commons," a brilliant and highly influential paper, the
American biologist, Garrett Hardin, demonstrated how the
individual, acting strictly according to his "rational self
interest," can bring ruin upon himself and his community by
destroying the common ecological resource base.4
In many cases
there is no solution to this "tragedy," apart from communal
action -- "mutual coercion, mutually agreed-upon." In short,
rule of law. Hardin's ideas have antecedents far back in the
history of political philosophy. However, the power of his essay
resides in his application of these ideas to current
environmental emergencies, and in the validation that the
concept of "the tragedy of the commons" gains through these
Further support for "the moral paradox" may be found in the
mathematics of "game theory." Of particular interest is
the "game" of "prisoner's dilemma," which formally demonstrates
the advantages of "morally constrained" cooperation. Of course,
formal investigations such as these are of practical interest
only to the degree that they can be applied in "the real world."
But this is the exciting part: "the prisoner's dilemma" is
readily applied to such varied phenomena as labor negotiations,
the arms race, and marriages. In these cases, and more, the
formal theory demonstrates the rationale for "the moral paradox"
-- for maximizing one's personal gain by forsaking one's
These two paradigms, "the tragedy of the commons" and "the
prisoners' dilemma," are but two of several productive avenues
of research in contemporary ethical theory. Suffice to say that
these investigations suggest objective and rational
justification for "the moral paradox" and for acting from "the
moral point of view," which is to say, from the point-of-view of
the community as a whole.5
But can we apply this idea of "the moral paradox" to the
"community of nature" as well? At this point, many of my
philosophical colleagues resist. There are, they complain, too
many disanalogies between "natural communities" and "human
communities." Granted that both display complex interactions
among the parts. Granted too that in both cases, the "whole"
community is more than the sum of the component parts. But human
communities consist of persons -- conscious, rational,
deliberative beings, who must thus assume duties, who are thus
accorded rights, and who therefore have dignity and deserve
respect, not due to the "non-personal" members of the "natural
I grant the distinction. Furthermore, I concede that the concept
of "personhood" is fundamental to moral philosophy, and that we
have no evidence that any non-human species are fully "persons"
(though this is logically possible). But the achievement of
"personhood" places a burden of moral responsibility upon us
that our brother species do not have. (There's no such thing as
a "guilty seal." A tree has no "responsibilities.") True, their
lack of personhood might diminish our responsibility to members
of other species. Who, after all, would, if forced, choose the
life of an animal over that of a human? (Well, maybe some
But that misses the point, I believe. Our responsibility to the
global environment is not to individual organisms, but to the
system. And the global ecosystem system is not the sum of it's
component organisms. (For the sake of the "system" we must often
"cull" surplus organisms, such as insects). It is the
more complex than we can ever know or even imagine, that invites
us to use the metaphor of "community," and it is the
nature that commands our respect and should constrain our
And why should a system put such moral demands upon us? Because
we are inextricable parts of that system. In the words of the
Zen master, "the world is my body." Or as the ecologist Paul
Shepard puts it, "[our] skin is ecologically like a pond surface
or a forest soil, not a shell so much as a delicate
interpenetration ... The beauty and complexity of nature are
continuous with ourselves."6
At the Moscow Global Forum on
Environment last January, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev
expressed the point precisely: "Человесево является частью
биосферы, а биосфера ето единое целое." ("Humanity is part
of the biosphere, and ... the biosphere is a single whole").
Accordingly, our accustomed "human-centered" language of
environmental debate may be seriously misconceived. For example,
we often hear such remarks as: "this policy raises competing
political, economic and environmental considerations ." But if
there is no clear demarcation between ourselves and our
biosphere, aren't all human considerations "environmental."
Consider a fanciful analogy: suppose our bodily organs were
conscious and deliberative. One might imagine a "selfish kidney"
saying, "look, why should I care about the heart and lungs? I've
got my own problems?" To which the heart would respond, "well,
if that's the way you feel, I'll just do my thing without your
assistance." Needless to say, you wouldn't want to be carrying a
life insurance policy on that body.
Now suppose, instead, that only the kidneys were conscious.
Would that make any difference in it's "selfish" attitude toward
the heart and lungs? Clearly, it's "selfishness" would be
equally self-defeating. The problem, in both cases, is that the
kidney would wrongly conceives it's "individuality." In the
context of the integrated whole that is the body, a
"kidney-centered" morality simply makes no sense. It is
The Zen philosopher, Alan Watts, put the matter this way: one
might think of the stomach as the brain's way of feeding the
brain. Or one might think of the brain as the stomach's way of
finding food. But, of course, once you have descended "below"
the level of the integrated organism, there is no "way" that
makes any sense. The brain and the stomach evolved together in
the integrated system that is the body. This much we all can
understand. Their "interests" can only derive from the interest
of the organism of which they are parts.
But in the industrial world, our understanding appears to have
stopped at the level of the individual human organism. Thus we
fail to appreciate that our species has evolved as a functioning
"organ" of the planetary organism. Still worse, it now appears
that this organ has mutated into malignancy, threatening the
very world which is it's body.
Native cultures, which, in our ethnocentric conceit, we have
recently called "primitive," had an ecological (if
non-scientific) understanding that we have only recently come to
appreciate. The mis-named "American Indians" generally perceived
their world as a "community" in the literal sense, inhabited by
"animal-people" and "spirit-people." A similar world-view was
held by the aboriginal Siberians, ancestors and cousins of the
Amerinds. (Let us not forget, that North American was settled by
wandering Siberian tribes, who couldn't keep their Bering
Both cultures were constrained, in their dealings with nature,
by the respect they had for the "animal-people" in their natural
community. Note the following remarkable parallels. First, the
Russian anthropologist, K. V. Vyatkina, writes:
among the Tunka Buryats a slaughtered sable was not carried
through the door, but passed through a specially made window
with the words 'ail'chin irebe," which means the visitor has
arrived, thus stressing their respect for this animal.7
The American anthropologist, A. Irving Hallowell reports that
among the Ojibwa tribe,
when bears were sought out in their dens in the spring they were
addressed, asked to come out so that they could be killed, and
an apology was offered to them.8
These days, we do no regard animals, much less trees and
mountains, as sentient and conscious persons. Given the state of
our knowledge, I daresay that we should not. But the West
European settlers of North American (my ancestors), as well as
the Russian settlers of Siberia I presume, were quick to dismiss
these "heathen superstitions." In so doing, they failed to
understand that myths about "animal-people" were half-truths. To
be sure, sables and bears do no feel and think as we do. But the
beliefs that they did, were integrated into a cultural belief
system that well-served both the Tunka Buryats and the Ojibwa --
belief systems that thus satisfied the "pragmatic test of
truth." The truthful half of these beliefs, of course, was the
affirmation of the "community of nature" -- that one cannot
disturb a part without disturbing the whole. Our casual
dismissal of that truth has put the global life community, and
ourselves with it, in grave peril.
In these remarks, I am suggesting that "the moral paradox"
applies not only to communities of human persons, but also to
"the community of nature" -- that unimaginably complex
interaction of life-forms, energy flows, and nutrient cycles. If
we accept the compelling scientific evidence that we are
inalienably part of this natural community, then the dominant
myth of the past two centuries -- that nature is an adversary to
be "subdued and conquered" -- is fundamentally false. It is a
myth that has brought us to the edge of global catastrophe. We
can draw back from that edge only at the price of abandoning the
myth of the "mastery of nature." In it's place, we must adopt
the "paradox of ecological morality" -- we serve our species
best by focusing our primary attention upon the health of the
life community of which we are a part.
Ethics is arguably the oldest branch of philosophy -- surely
among the oldest. Why should we take special interest in it now
-- on this occasion, with regard to the management of the
natural environment? We should do so precisely because the times
are extraordinary, and thus the ethical significance of these
times, and of our environmental responsibility, is without
precedence in human history.
I suggest that the moral urgency of our environmental policies
might be appreciated if we first engage in an analysis of this
concept of moral responsibility. (in Russian, ответственность).
To say that a person, or his community, is "morally responsible"
to do something (or refrain from something), implies at the very
least that: (a) He knows, or can know, the consequences of his
contemplated action. (b) He is capable of doing this act. (c) He
can choose to do otherwise. (d) The known consequences of the
act have value significance -- that is, these consequences will
affect the welfare of others and/or infringe upon their rights.
If these criteria correctly identify the concept of
responsibility -- (a) knowledge (знание), (b) capacity (способность),
(c) choice (выбор) and (d) value significance (ценностое
значение) -- it would seem that our responsibility to the
environment and to our successors is without precedent. Our
sciences have given us access to unprecedented knowledge of the
consequences of our acts and policies, and our technology gives
us unprecedented capacity to affect the future. And both science
and technology have dramatically extended our list of options.
An unwillingness to acknowledge and to fulfill the moral
responsibilities that increase with our science and technology,
does not diminish these responsibilities. Such unwillingness
would only increase our moral delinquency.
Will we enlist the moral stamina to fulfill these
responsibilities? As we Americans say, "time will tell."
However, we have no moral alternative but to make the attempt.
Essential to that attempt must be public awareness and political
motivation. From these requirements follow our diverse
professional responsibilities. Namely:
environmental scientists must continue to inform us of the
intricacies of the global ecosystem -- and perhaps more
significantly, they must remind us of what we do not know about
this system. It is the task and responsibility of these
scientists to expand and enrich the criteria of knowledge,
capacity and choice.
environmental philosophers must continually review and
analyze the concepts and methodology of environmental
investigators, and they must search out the unexamined yet
crucial assumptions of public policy and public opinion.
resource managers and local communities blessed with such
splendid habitats as Lake Baikal, must steadfastly defend the
integrity of their legacy. To cite Franklin Roosevelt's favorite
scripture: "to whom much is given, much is required."
above all, the educators must nurture in their students the
"natural" sense of wonder and love for our planetary home -- a
wonder and love which, I devoutly believe, is coded in our
common genes -- and which is the legacy of countless generations
shaped and attuned to the physics, chemistry, biology, and thus
the pallet, sculpture and the music of our common planet. Let us
teach our students the arts and the sciences, history and
literature. But throughout, let us keep their feet to the
natural soil. Let us lead our students to their primeval home --
to taste the fragrance if birch and bracken, to share the lake
with the seals and omul. Yes, we must teach. But perhaps, in a
deeper sense, we must "remind" our students by stirring the
genetic "memory" in all of us.
In the final analysis, the success or failure of all of us to
preserve the natural estate, lies with our educators. For they
will receive from the scientists, the philosophers, the writers,
the managers, the political leaders, and pass that product on to
the next generation, and then the next. And therein, lies our
ultimate success or failure.
Throughout the long history of our species, the natural
environment has nurtured and sustained us, bringing us to this
historical moment at which our new and careless power threatens
the life community from which we arose. But ours is the
generation which has seen, for the first time, our whole planet
"from the outside." Now that we can see our planet as a whole,
we must act globally to restore it whole. The awesome challenge
before us is to enlist our unprecedented knowledge and power to
restore and protect our planetary home, and with it ourselves.
Those images of our whole, beautiful and boundaryless planet,
unique in the infinite void of space, should evoke and enhance
our wonder, our love, and our resolve to preserve it. Still, the
view from the surface should suffice -- the Andes Mountains, the
Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the Norwegian Fjords, the Victoria
Falls, and this matchless ancient lake of Baikal.
To our hosts: you have won our hearts and our admiration for
this Lake and for the habitat which surrounds it. You have
gained new allies in your determined effort to preserve this
treasure. Surely, when we return to our various homes, we will
extend this alliance, and bring new friends of Baikal to its
shores. Due to your dedication and your hospitality, this week
will end with the future of Lake Baikal more secure than it was
when this week began. We thank you for this opportunity to join
you in your admirable work.
за прекрасную базможность приехать сюда и незабываемый обыт.
My thanks to my tutor, friend, and our exchange student,
Andrey Mikhailov, for these translations and for his assistance
with my pronounciation. All errors are my responsibility, and if
you can understand me at all, it is surely to Andrey's credit.
2. Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1968, p. viii.
3. This notion is defended by "Logical Positivists" such as A.
J. Ayer, and Existentialists such as J. P. Sartre. The most
vigorous form of "ethical atomism" in contemporary
anglo-american philosophy is "libertarianism," associated with
such writers as Ayn Rand, and philosophers John Hospers and
Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons,"
162, pp. 1243-1248, 13 Dec. 1968.
In this celebration of "community," I do not wish to ignore
the essential moral significance of the rights and dignity of
the individual person -- particularly, of that supreme right of
the individual to conceive and implement his personal life plan.
The just society acknowledges both the rights of the individual,
and the citizen's responsibility to his community. Finding and
maintaining the ideal balance between these often contrary moral
ideals is surely one of the most daunting tasks of political
philosophy and practice. Total preoccupation with the community
on the one hand, or with the individual on the other, has the
seductive advantage of simplicity. But this simplicity can lead
to pernicious results. I daresay that in this century, American
and Soviet societies have both erred toward opposite extremes,
as Soviet society has devalued the individual and American
society has devalued the community. That imbalance in Soviet
society is now being remedied in a reformation in human rights
that thrills and astonishes an admiring world. Perhaps it is
appropriate that, as an American guest in the Soviet Union, I
should focus my critical attention on the pitfalls of excessive
individualism. In any case, the moral theme of "community" is
more instructive, as we attempt to expand our concerns from
social ethics to environmental ethics.
"Ecology and Man," in Shepard and McKinley, eds.,
Subversive Science... (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969, p. 4).
7. "The Buryats," The Peoples of Siberia, ed. M. G. Levin and L.
P. Potapov, University of Chicago Press, 1964, p. 213).
(Originally, Народыи Сибири, Russian Academy of Science, 1956.)
"Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View," Culture in
History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. S. Diamond (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 26.