Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge


A predecessor to this paper first appeared in the anthology that I collected for my classes at UC Santa Barbara (1980).  This is the revision that I used at the University of Colorado in 1985. 



Throughout civilized history, moral philosophers have attempted to define moral virtue and to defend principles of rights, obligation and justice. Since the early days of philosophy, these principles of morality have generally been applied to those most vulnerable to our deliberate acts and motives, namely our fellow human beings and a few immediately neighboring species. In their endeavor throughout the ages to comprehend the intricacies of our personal virtues and our interpersonal duties and claims, philosophers have left a legacy of enduring wisdom. But it is a legacy of thought which tends to identify humanity as the "measure" of value and obligation. For the most part, this has been an appropriate perspective since, for virtually all of recorded history, human beings have been the primary beneficiaries and victims of human action. "Nature," on the other hand, has appeared to be too vast, inscrutable, invulnerable and indifferent to be morally relevant. However, this is no longer the case. Within the lifetime of many of us, civilized man has so increased his scientific knowledge, his technological capacity and his economic demands, that his horizons of moral responsibility have expanded to encompass geophysical phenomena, wild ecosystems and their threatened species, and unborn generations into the remote future.

Pity the poor moral philosopher! He has been thrust "outside" of his familiar man-centered abode of thought and into a larger context with unprecedented challenges; notably, the challenge of defining mankind's moral responsibility to a newly-vulnerable nature. What is he to do?

An understandable and widespread response is to pour the old wine into the new bottles -- to define and justify our dealings with nature in terms of our dealings with each other -- with mankind. Thus, in his provocatively titled book People or Penguins, William Baxter writes: "I reject the proposition that we ought to respect the "balance of nature" or to "preserve the environment" unless the reason for doing so. . . is the benefit of man."1 This approach to environmental ethics, which we'll call "anthropocentrism" (and occasionally, "human chauvinism") is intuitively appealing. We all think this way, more or less. Moreover, in some instances, I dare say we should. Anthropocentrism is the predominant and operative presupposition of legislators, government planners and policy-makers. With its long and distinguished role in the history of ideas, it is an important ingredient of intelligent environmental deliberation. For all that, those who hold the anthropocentric position uncritically and exclusively must be carefully watched, for they are the enemy. Often honorable and intelligent adversaries, to be sure, but the enemy nonetheless. If honorable and intelligent, they deserve the courtesy of rational and scholarly debate. But beware: given the weight of tradition on their side, we can easily enter into a contest for which our opponents have set the rules. This can be a damaging tactical error on the part of the defenders of wild nature. In these remarks, I would like to suggest some troublesome presuppositions of which the ecological moralist should be wary, and sketch the elements of a reply to the human chauvinist.


To begin, I invite you to eavesdrop on an imaginative encounter between a human chauvinist and an ecological moralist. And to bring these issues close to home, I must dare you to contemplate the worst: It is the year 2000 AD. The Big Sur coast has been leased to the Disney Corporation, with sport-boating and skin-diving franchises sub-let, respectively, to Evinrude and Marineland. Surveying the scene at Bonzo Beach are two protagonists: "Ben" (named for Jeremy Bentham, that quintessential anthropocentrist) and "Drew" (for "Druid," a defeated but unbowed preservationist):

Ben: Now, Drew, just look out there at all those boaters, fishermen and scuba divers. They're having the time of their lives! Couldn't do it if we'd left it as it was. Would you deprive those good people, and tens of thousands of others up and down this coast, of that experience, just so that you and a few of your friends can sit on a rock with your binoculars and watch critters?

Drew:  Scuba diving and motorboating are trivial kicks compared to the profound, even religious experiences that were to be had on these beaches, when they were wild, isolated and unspoiled. There are many places for one to go boating and scuba diving. But now there are no more Sea Otters. This time the price of yet another playground was just too much!

Ben: Well, there we have it, Drew. Plain, simple, unashamed elitism. You have the arrogance to claim that your enjoyments count more than those of hundreds of thousands of other citizens. Well, they've freely chosen their modes of recreation just has you have. So why should yours count for more? Yet that is just what you propose. A few dozen hikers, shutterbugs and wildlife-watchers are to count more than thousands of boaters, fishermen and skin-divers.

Aren't you just telling us that you have a better quality of enjoyment than the rest of us poor, insensitive slobs? Just who the hell do you think you are to say such a thing! I won't stand for it!

Now look, Drew, we live in a democracy. Once we let people like you trample on other's enjoyments -- where will it all end? From "officially preferred enjoyments" to "officially preferred thoughts?" If we let you loose, we won't have a democracy any more!

Drew:  There are many kinds of tyranny, Ben. One of them is tyranny of the majority. Must every, or even any, magnificent wild shoreline be despoiled for water sports? These so-called "sportsmen," not to mention those oil rigs out there, have more than their share. It's a big, big, ocean! Why must they have this too?

Just as an ecosystem is richer and stronger the more diverse it is, so too a civilization is strengthened through diversity -- a diversity of ideas, tastes and enjoyments.

More people enjoy the BeeGees than Bach. Should every radio station be a rock station? Should classics be crowded off the air (as they effectively are in many places)? Is there no place for diversity? Must the majority crowd out and destroy the enjoyments and tastes of the minority?

And consider options, Ben, options. What do we do when we run out of gas and these sports become obsolete and uneconomical -- or maybe just unfashionable. We can't go back again! This once magnificent place is a ruin. The condors and the sea otters are gone, never to return. Extinction is forever. We have forever lost the chance for those earlier, gentler enjoyments, and the world, and civilization, are the poorer for it.

Very eloquent, Drew, but watch out! You may find that you are playing the other guy's game. Do that, and he's gotcha!

Consider, first, the anthropocentrist's familiar "elitism argument." It is a powerful ploy, and the preservationist will not help his case by casually dismissing it. The charge of "elitism" deserves careful reflection and response. For consider: how many thousands of happy, beer guzzling, swinish, motorized vacationers does it take to offset the loss of the refined, spiritual enjoyments of a sensitive, beautiful, high-minded communicants with nature, such as you, gentle reader? Well, let us presume, as we surely should, that it will take a great deal of gleeful divers-boaters-fishers to count more than the profound experience enjoyed by those of us who have sat alone by the surf watching the sea otters at play. But however lopsided the ratio, it still represents a finite number. What number? Ten to one? Perhaps so. But the ratio of "sportsmen" to the nature lovers they replaced may well be turn out to be in excess of one-hundred to one. So is the enjoyment of the sea otter's friend 100 times better? He still loses. A thousand times better? Well, maybe so. But let's face it, if we insist upon defending this ratio, we begin to sound more than a little bit cheeky, for we are asserting, in effect, that our enjoyments are a thousand times greater and thus a thousand times "more important." Isn't this beginning to sound just a bit implausible? If so, and if human enjoyment alone is to be the sole measure of the comparable value of the coastline before and after Disney Inc.'s "improvements," then it appears that the decision to lease the place was not such a bad idea. In sum: beware the "quality of experience" argument. While there is much to recommend it, if we place too much stock in it, we may end up playing by the other fellow's rules.

The reply by our preservationist to the "elitism" argument is quite astute. He raises, we recall, the issue of fairness and justice; in particular, he believes it unfair to allow "the majority [to] crowd out and destroy the enjoyments and tastes of the minority."

The justice argument is a strong and effective response to the utility argument ("by the numbers") proposed by "Ben." But note that both arguments are anthropocentric. A preservationist may thus need more than the sort of values that "cash in" in terms of sums of human enjoyment and benefit (utilitarianism) or, alternatively, in terms of the fair treatment of humans, respect for the dignity and integrity of humans, or the value of human diversity. But where is one to find such non-anthropocentric values? How is one to validate such values?

Consider now another conversation, this one recorded by John McPhee in his book Encounters with the Archdruid. The "archdruid" of the title is David Brower, and the "encounter" is between Brower and Charles Park, a mining engineer. Surveying the magnificence of the endangered Glacier Park wilderness, Brower remarks:

"Wilderness was originally a nice place to go to, but that is not what wilderness is for. Wilderness is the bank for the genetic variability of the earth. We're wiping out that reserve at a frightening rate. We should draw a line right now. Whatever is wild, leave it wild."

Park replies: "Taking very large areas out of the country and keeping them as they were a thousand years ago -- you can't do it. The population pressure is too great."

"A wilderness," says Brower, "is a place where natural forces can keep working essentially uninterrupted by man. If ten per cent is still wild, we should tithe with it. Man has taken enough for himself already. We should pretend the rest doesn't exist. It's there for a different purpose."

"What purpose?" challenges Park.

"Not man's purpose. Man is a recent thing in the time scale here."2

So there we have it: "not man's purpose" -- a direct rejection of anthropocentrism.

Let's now give the devil his due -- and the best argument that we can muster in his behalf. Accordingly, the human chauvinist might then ask: "If 'not man's purpose,' then whose? and if wilderness exists for a 'purpose' other than man's, then why should mankind care about it -- care enough, that is, to protect and preserve wilderness? Why should we care about so-called 'non-human purpose' - we're humans! What moral constraint and obligation can such a "purpose" have upon us?" I think that there is an avenue out of this trap, and I will shortly suggest it to you. But first, let's recapitulate the issues that have emerged from this analysis.

When a preservationist plays by the developer's rules, thus confining his arguments to considerations of concrete benefits to human beings, the preservationist might very well lose. But when the preservationist tries to weigh "interests of nature" against human interest, his argument appears weak, or at least quite unpersuasive. We seem to be without a clear reason to lift a finger to benefit non-human reality, if that "benefit" does not benefit mankind as well. Because of this, of course, the preservationist's arguments (so far) are unlikely to convince those in his audience presumably humans) who are not already convinced.

Let's look at this dilemma very carefully: first (a) appeals to human interest will, in some important cases, be insufficient to warrant the preservation of wilderness. However, (b) appeals to "non-human purposes" have no psychological hold upon human beings, and in addition to this (perhaps even because of this) they may convey little moral obligation either. Short of conceding the argument to the anthropocentrist, what are we to do about this impasse?

Philosophy professors have long advised: "if stymied, don't ask 'what is the answer?' ask instead, 'what is the question?'" It's good advice, since an adversary's questions often covertly employ his rules for the contest. Such, I suggest, is the problem before us, and the culprit question is as follows: "Do we need "useless nature?"

It would seem, simply by definition, that we do not -- after all, we don't need what is useless -- that is, "what we do not need." A second pointed question readily follows: "Why, then, should we preserve that which we do not need (e.g., wild nature and some wild species)?"

Of course, a preservationist might quickly reply that "we just think we don't need wilderness. But how do we know, for sure, that we or our posterity do not or will not need it?" This is a splendid answer -- perhaps it is answer enough. But note that it is nonetheless an anthropocentric answer. So, for the sake of our effort to refute human chauvinism, let's assume (falsely, I believe) that we can somehow determine, beyond doubt, that certain species, ecosystems, landscapes and seascapes are now and for all time "useless" to human beings. What, then, remains by way of support for the eco-moralist?

On the face of it, it appears that the eco-moralist is trapped -- that his adversary has cleverly led him into a logical corral and locked the gate. But there may be a hole in the back fence. And here it is: the apparently contradictory statement "we need to need what we don't need" is a false caricature of the preservationist claim. A better and fuller statement of that claim is this: "Human life may be enriched by caring for things that are of no (practical) use to human beings." Not only is the claim not contradictory, it is validated in the lives of most alert, perceptive and caring individuals. And those whose lives do not validate this claim may, for that very reason, lead unenviable lives.

The human chauvinist's retort is straightforward: "Why should this be regarded as an alternative to our position? If anything whatever is found to cause an 'unenviable' human life, we reject it, and if anything is found to 'enrich' human life, we embrace it. After all, that's the very point of the anthropocentric position. It's as simple as that!"

It's too simple, perhaps; for while the direct aim of anthropocentrism may be to improve human life, there is abundant historical and psychological evidence, as well as philosophical speculation, to support the suggestion that the deliberate and exclusive pursuit of the aim of maximizing human utility may frustrate that very aim. Moral philosophers, from Aristotle of old to his present successors, in addition to contemporary psychologists, game theorists, economists, etc., have commented time and again that morality, at its root, is paradoxical (in the sense that it is productive of results contrary to aim and expectation). For example: happiness eludes the pleasure seeker; the pursuit by each individual of rational self-interest brings ruin upon all individuals (the tragedy of the commons); to seek a "love affair" for the sake of personal "payoff" with little care for the welfare of the "love object," is a self-defeating enterprise; national striving for security provokes international insecurity. Paradoxes all -- and the list can be readily extended.

Might it not, then, be possible that, in their "goal-oriented activity," many "practical" businessmen, legislators and policy-makers lack a sense of the paradox at work in our moral deliberations and actions? -- a sense of paradox intuitively appreciated by most of us in the course of our personal lives and devotions? Many moral philosophers (including this one) would contend that crucial environmental decisions are made by individuals without such a sense of paradox. Furthermore, we would contend that morality, though paradoxical, is not incomprehensible. In fact, once we acknowledge the fact of paradox in moral behavior and judgment, study its psychological grounds and its rationale in game theory, and finally view our responsibilities to others and to nature from the perspective of the social and biotic communities, these paradoxes are resolved and our morality responsibility appears quite intelligible and rational.

If, as moral philosophers, we can embrace paradox, then the ecological moralist need not be embarrassed by his assertion that "we need 'useless things'." For naturalists, from Thoreau and Muir to Jeffers and Brower, have all pointed out that an awareness of the very indifference of nature to humanity is a tonic, and that, on the other hand, a projection of human ends and interests into the contemplation of wilderness diminishes the values of the wilderness experience to the observer. Thus a "developer" who assesses the wild in terms of its "payoffs" for mankind, may, paradoxically, deprive us of the enrichment offered us by wilderness, just as the so-called "lover" who plots to "get the most out of this relationship " will end up with much less than one whose love is manifested in selfless giving.


Earlier, I promised a sketch of a non-anthropocentric defense of nature. I now propose to fulfill that promise. But first recall, please, that I identified the proponent of "uncritical and exclusive anthropocentrism" as "the enemy." This need does not, however, mean that "human benefit" might not be appealed to in defense of the natural environment. If compelling evidence of "human benefit" can be offered in defense of the natural environment, that's just more bread on the eco-moralist's plate. But unlike the uncompromising anthropocentrist, the eco-moralist need not live by bread alone. So what else is there to support the argument of eco-moralist?

First of all, an ecological perspective in morality reflects sound scientific concepts, principles and facts. Homo sapiens is, in fact, a functioning member of the life community. Life forms in natural communities do, in fact, interact, and they are best understood as functioning components in integrated systems rather than as discrete aggregates that happen to share physical space. Mankind, in fact, evolved in this life community, and virtually all of his taxonomic history took place in direct encounter with wild nature. Biotic "insularity" and artificiality is a late development in the career of homo sapiens. Quite possibly, then, human beings retain a neurological and even a psychological need for the natural environments in which they evolved.

From moral psychology we find that for our personal fulfillment we need to have things which "matter" to us that are not ourselves; indeed, we need things that are valued for their very independence and externality from us. Thus our personal and moral life is enriched to the degree that it is "extended out" in self-transcending enjoyment, cherishing and contemplating things, places and ideals that are remote in space and time -- even, in a sense, timeless. As we assume the ecosystemic point of view, our personal egos fade in the contemplation of the vastness of natural time, space and complexity, and our lives are enriched with a sense of exuberance, variety, wonder and reverence. Wanton, thoughtless destruction of the natural order strikes the ecological moralist as supremely arrogant. When we place ourselves in the center of our evaluative universe and thereby regard nature as a mere storehouse of commodities, these expansive sentiments vanish and we are temperamentally, intellectually and spiritually reduced to the tiny circle of our personal lives and circumstances.

So here, once again, we encounter the paradox in ecological morality: for mankind's sake it is wiser to love nature for nature's sake. And why? Because, as the ecologist will insist, human good and biotic good are confluent. For just as our personalities have their origin and sustenance in our social communities, nature is likewise the source and sustenance of our physical, neurological, even psychological selves. Thus, as we expand our ethical perspective to encompass the life community, we find that human and ecosystemic interests shift toward congruence. "That alteration," writes Holmes Rolston, "centers in the dissolution of any firm boundary between man and the world. Ecology does not know an encapsulated ego over against his environment. . . The self, metabolically, if metaphorically, interpenetrates the ecosystem. The world is my body."3

"Nonetheless," the critic might argue, "a paradox is a paradox. If we seek human fulfillment, we should go after it directly. It is flatly incoherent," the critic might say, "to claim that 'for mankind's sake, we should love nature for nature's sake.'" In reply, we must wonder if our critic has ever been in love. For this paradox of ecological morality is no more incoherent than the rule of fulfillment in a love relationship; namely, that one who genuinely loves one's beloved for the sake of the beloved gains most from being in love, and that unconditional gifts of love (among worthy, reciprocating lovers) bring the greatest mutual rewards. Conversely, one who asks of his love relationships, "what's in this for me?" is likely to discover, that the very attitude which prompts the question produces a negative answer to that question. While this is a paradox, far from being incoherent and contradictory, it has been verified countless times in the lives of those who both gain and lose in matters of love.

Analogously, the human chauvinist who sees nature in terms of its uses -- in terms of direct human benefits -- cheats himself. By drawing all value into himself and his species, he eventually finds himself inhabiting an alien world. In contrast, the ecological moralist regards his "world partner" with dignity and respect. Rolston reflects:

How starkly this gainsays the alienation that characterizes modern literature, seeing nature as basically rudderless, antipathetical, in need of monitoring and repair. More typically, modern man, for all his technological prowess, has found himself distanced from nature, increasingly competent and decreasingly confident, at once distinguished and aggrandized, yet afloat on and adrift in an indifferent, if not a hostile universe. His world is at best a huge filling station; at worst a prison, or "nothingness." Not so for ecological man; confronting his world with deference to a community of value in which he shares, he is at home again.4

So, once again, we gain by losing ourselves in wonder and admiration of our natural estate. Once again, the paradox of ecological morality is confirmed.

Finally, we should take warning from the possible psychological and cultural consequences of unconstrained anthropocentrism. For our own moral good, and even for our own personal and communal advantages, we constantly need to be reminded that we of this generation are not nature's favorites, not the end-product of evolution, not history's culmination. Nature, evolution and history have not all converged, through trackless time, simply to benefit us. For the sake of our good mental and moral health, we need to remind ourselves that we are but a step in the long road behind and beyond us. While thinking otherwise might thrill us with some brief, ill-gotten moments of false pride, such a species-centered, "now-centered" perspective is as futile as it is false, and thus barren as a source of secure, long-standing, broad-based satisfaction. Arrogance is a habit of character that cannot be well-contained. Arrogance toward nature and toward history spills over into arrogance toward our contemporary human neighbors. Arrogance does not lend itself to prudent provision for the future or to safe and congenial communities. One must therefore wonder if this generation can at one time be exploiters and destroyers of the natural community and at the same time good neighbors in the social community; whether amoral or even worse immoral policies toward nature and toward the future can securely co-exist with a sound, secure and operative social morality. Callousness and solicitude are deeply incompatible moral stances, even if the callousness characterizes an attitude toward non-human nature, and the solicitude is an admired attitude toward human beings.

If this argument has been successful, then I think that we have found reason to conclude, first of all, that we need nature, in fact. We need viable, independent, flourishing natural ecosystems. We need them as scientific resources, to expand our understanding of what we are biotically and what made us what we are. We need wild ecosystems as economic and technical resources, to provide rare biochemical substances for our future use. We need nature as an aesthetic resource, to enrich our sense of delight and wonder. We need natural landscapes and seascapes as psychological resources, so that we can put ourselves at ease by returning home again to the environment that made us the natural organisms that we are. And we need nature as a moral resource -- as a source of wonder, amazement, admiration, humility, perspective and solicitude -- as a reminder that we are actors in a drama and participants in an adventure too complex for us ever to comprehend. Nature, the stage of that drama and the wellspring that adventure, may be the ground of ultimate value to us -- if we have the good sense to remove ourselves from the center of our moral universe. The time may be urgently at hand for a Copernican revolution in ethics.

For reasons of moral psychology and moral paradox, and apart from reasons of self-interest and prudence, a world unsafe for "useless" wilderness is a world less safe for human beings and for human moral ideals.5


1.    William Baxter: People or Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution, New York, 1974, Columbia University Press, p. 7.

2.    John McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid, New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971, pp. 61-2.

3.    Holmes Rolston, III, "Is There an Ecological Ethic?", Ethics, 85:2, Jan, 1985, p. 104.

4.    Ibid, pp. 107-8.

5.    These final three paragraphs are "autoplagiarized" from the close of "Nature as a Moral Resource."


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 .