Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Environmental Ethics — A Statement of Position

Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside

January 28, 1993


This "position statement" was submitted to the Northland College Hulings Chair Search Committee prior to my selection to that Chair in 1993.



In choosing a candidate for its first endowed chair, Northland College is making a momentous decision. Thus it is entitled to a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the candidates. Much of this may be inferred from the customary materials found in the applicant's packet — i.e., Curriculum Vitae, publications, student evaluations, peer references, etc. However, such material is retrospective, telling more of where the candidate "has been," than of his present state of mind and prospects. With this statement I offer a remedy.

This statement has a personal side to it as well. In our previous meeting, I suspect that my eagerness to present my position during the brief duration of my visit, caused me to appear excessively willing to express my opinions, and insufficiently alert to the other side of our conversations. With this statement, I wish to set down my ideas for your quiet consideration so that, should I have the privilege of meeting you again, I might less inclined to repeat that error.

The following is a "position paper," in which I simply state my views, without elaborate and structured defense.. A paper as brief as this can only offer a superficial sketch of ideas developed over three decades, articulated and defended in hundreds of published pages, and presented in dozens of public meetings and professional conferences.

I offer this sketch, mindful of the fact that the particulars and the precepts of my own environmental philosophy may be of less importance than my conception of the discipline of Environmental Ethics and its place in the curriculum of an environmentally oriented college. As an educator, I try to offer a menu of alternative views to my students; sympathetically presenting and then criticizing all views, including those I disagree with and those with which I concur. There are no "doctrinal requirements" in my classes. The field of Environmental Ethics is alive and growing — as, I trust, are the views that I have come to endorse and defend.

While environmental ethics is my professional specialty, it is much more than this: it is my way of life, motivated by my deep and long-standing devotion to nature and wilderness, my concern about the human prospect, and my conviction that human institutions in general, and received theories of moral philosophy in particular, are ill-equipped to deal with the unprecedented environmental emergency which has come upon humanity, during my own lifetime.





A land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

Aldo Leopold

My environmental philosophy takes very seriously two essential facts of human nature: (a) homo sapiens is (to the best of our knowledge) the only species capable of moral agency, and (b) homo sapiens is a natural species, which evolved from and is sustained by a complex, integrated and functioning ecosystem. Both precepts are scarcely controversial. Yet almost all environmental philosophies that fall short, do so by failing to give adequate attention to both of these two precepts. The first precept is centered on the concept of "moral agency" (or "personhood") which is indispensable to Western Moral Philosophy. This is the "humanistic" component of environmental ethics. The second precept is based upon the life sciences, and most particularly, the science of ecology. In my adherence to both precepts, my environmental ethic follows a narrow path between excessive humanism ("anthropocentrism") and excessive "naturalism" (e.g., "animal rights" and "deep ecology"). The essential humanistic/scientific duality of environmental ethics will be a recurrent theme in this essay.1

My "moral epistemology" is based upon a third precept, gained in part from the "ecological point of view:" (c) human responsibility to nature and to the future must be viewed and articulated holistically and systemically. A defensible environmental ethic can not be derived from a mere aggregation and summation of individual human (or animal) "preferences," "sensations," or even rights. Instead, "the whole informs the parts." Accordingly, just as moral virtue and responsibility can not be assessed apart from the community of which the agent is a part, mankind's responsibility to nature must be viewed from "the ecological point of view." In the longest and fullest view of things, there is no sustainable "human interest" apart from ecosystemic health. Not only does nature sustain us physically, but for the sake of our emotional health (as well as our physical survival), we need the natural environment which "selected" our genes. As Paul Shepard put it, "the destruction of nature is an amputation of man."

In an amplification of Shepard's point, I have thus characterized nature as "a moral resource:"

... 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.

Despoiling and developing a wild ecosystem diminishes the human outlook. It reduces our sense of natural "place," of perspective, of context. Lose this and we have a diminished capacity to deal with each other. Losing our sense of "self transcendence" beyond our time, place, and species, we "turn in" to our species, then to our human community, then to our own generation, then to ourselves. We become narcissistic and alienated, and the advantages of the moral perspective and the moral life are lost. Our moral universe shrinks. We lose this moral vision by diminishing our capacity to see natural contexts -- to see ourselves, our species, and our era in what Spinoza termed "the aspect of eternity" -- to see ourselves as players in a drama of infinite duration and space, and of an infinitude of roles and their inter-relationships. We forget that we are actors in a drama and participants in an adventure too complex for us ever to comprehend, and yet despite that, even because of that, of ultimate value to us.

. . . . .

On the other hand, with scientific understanding, supplemented with a human sensitivity to the value implications of our knowledge and circumstances, we encounter wild creatures in their habitat marvelously engaged in their own business and indifferent to us, and we see beyond. We love and cherish the nature that commonly made them and us. We value its integrity and gain a commitment to ensure its continuation for the enjoyment of future generations, despite the manifold artificial threats and pressures that our generation is placing upon it. We are all the more capable of containing our selfishness and arrogance and thus refraining from thoughtless assaults upon the integrity of both our natural and social communities. With this enhanced sense of perspective and this strengthened resolution to cherish and protect the nature that we love and admire, we become at once better stewards of the wild species, habitats and ecosystems, and better neighbors to each other.

For these reasons of moral psychology and paradox, and apart from reasons of self-interest and prudence, a world unsafe for wilderness is a world less safe for human beings and for human moral ideals.2



From traditional Western moral philosophy we have acquired a bundle of both assets and liabilities as we attempt to construct an environmental ethic appropriate to our current conditions and knowledge. One of the most daunting tasks of the contemporary philosopher is that of identifying and separating the assets from the liabilities.3

As noted above, I reject simple anthropocentrism ("nature for mankind's sake") as being ultimately self-defeating. However, I also distance myself from many critics of anthropocentrism (such as some "deep ecologists") who have stated their positions at the unacceptable price of devaluing the "humanity" of our species. Instead, I insist that no defensible moral philosophy can discount the significance of the culture, the language, and the moral capacities of our species — capacities which make homo sapiens the only known species to be meaningfully "responsible" for its behavior toward its fellows, other species, the life community, and the future. (This is why animals are not subjected to judicial trials and punishment). Thus I associate myself with the "personalism" of such philosophers as Immanuel Kant, and, among our contemporaries, John Rawls. Accordingly, I see an important part of my function as a scholar and a teacher of environmental ethics to be that of reaffirming the significance of our humanity and thus of reiterating and emphasizing the importance of "moral agency" in our dealings with nature and the future.

And so, once again, my environmental ethic stands on two legs — and falls when one of these "legs" is neglected.  "On the one leg," I emphasize the "natural" roots and contexts of our values, and of our species' undeniable place in, and dependency upon, the ecological community. In Neil Everndon's insightful phrase, I affirm that homo sapiens is a "Natural Alien." We are natural beings — we evolved in, and thus are naturally attuned to, the natural mileu from which we evolved, and which thus selected our genes.4

"On the other leg," due to our culture and language, and thus our cumulative history, we are a species like no other: with a sense of self, a time-binding perception of events recollected and anticipated, a concept of equality amongst our fellow persons, and an ability to act upon abstract moral principles — a cluster of capacities which philosophers have come to call "moral agency" or "personhood."

The attainment of "personhood" is of inestimable significance to our condition, for with language and culture, and hence personhood, life-quality is transformed. The life and experiences of persons and of non-persons are not comparable, as some "animal rights" advocates would claim, they are different in kind. As persons, humans beings experience unique dimensions of mental and emotional pain; self-reproach, dread of impending loss, regret for abandoned projects, fear of death, and such moral sentiments as guilt, shame, and indignation. Persons also uniquely enjoy such pleasures as self-respect, intellectual and creative ­accomplishment, patriotism, irony, humor and pride. In sum the transcending and transforming fact that human beings are persons gives them a moral considerability far beyond that of animals. Thus if we regard the human condition of personhood seriously, talk of "comparability" or even "equality" of life-experiences of animals and human beings becomes insupportable.5  In a world without persons, there is neither ethics nor morality.6

As I read the literature of environmental ethicists, I find that most writers have been unable to fully appreciate and integrate into their theories, both our moral agency and our natural endowments — unable, that is, to "stand" firmly on both the humanistic and the scientific "legs" of a sound environmental ethic.

Through my acute concern about the significance of moral agency ("personhood") in environmental ethics and policy, I have devoted considerable attention to "moral psychology" — more so, I daresay, than other environmental philosophers that I am aware of. "Moral psychology" — the study of "moral sentiments," "motivation," "moral perception and cognition," and "moral educability" — is essential to the assessment of moral responsibility, since "responsibility" implies capacity.  (In the words of the old maxim, "ought implies can". Thus, in several of my papers, I have explored the question of whether human beings are psychologically capable of protecting and preserving nature, and or fulfilling their duties to posterity.7  I submit that my continuing devotion to this field testifies to my affirmative response to that question.







Anyone who has ever watched a child's eyes wander into sleep, knows what posterity is. Posterity is the world to come, the world for whom we hold our ideals, from whom we have borrowed our planet, and to whom we bear sacred responsibility.

President Bill Clinton
Inaugural Address
January 20, 1993

Because Environmental Ethics is concerned with the maintenance of the conditions which sustain human life and civilization (and life in general), it is, of all branches of moral philosophy, the most concerned with the long-term future.

The responsibility to future generations is my specialized interest within Environmental Ethics. According to the "Dissertation Abstracts" database, my dissertation, "Rawls and the Duty to Posterity" (1976) was the first dissertation among the nearly 700,000 listed at the time, devoted to that topic. (There have been about a half-dozen since). Similarly, my anthology, Responsibilities to Future Generations (Prometheus Books, 1981), was the only non-technical book in the field at the time of its publication.8

My position regarding the duty to posterity might be characterized as "hypothetical contractarian." As such, it is similar to that of John Rawls. Accordingly, I hold that environmental policy (i.e., regarding resource use and management, capital investment, preservation, population, research and development, etc.), is best determined from "the moral point of view" of a hypothetical observer, aware of human needs in general and of fundamental laws of ecology, but unaware of his own particular tastes and preferences, or of his status and role in society, or of his generation's place in history.

From such a moral perspective, our own generation receives no necessary or compelling place of preference. As I have written elsewhere, "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."9

Not only do I claim that we have duties to the remote future, I further argue that these may be "strong" duties, correlated with the present rights-claims of future persons. (I contend that the paradox is only apparent).10  In a purely formal sense, the "time-placement" of future persons, vis-à-vis ourselves, is irrelevant to the moral stringency of some of our duties toward them. (Certain classes of duties, e.g. those derived from contractual obligations, necessarily do not apply to future persons).

Several practical factors, however, mitigate the strength of our duties to the future. First of all, our contractual obligations and bonds of affection provide legitimate reasons to give priority of concern to family, friends, and neighbors over distant strangers and future persons. In addition, our responsibilities to future generations might be discounted by our ignorance of the needs and circumstances that they will face in their own time and by our diminished capacity to benefit them.

In fact, our primary duties to future generations are more of a "negative" than a "positive" sort — that is, more duties to prevent harms than to provide benefits. This implies the maintaining healthy ecosystems, preserving species diversity, avoiding long-term contamination, and conserving remaining wild areas. Our duties to the future also entail the maintenance and expansion of future options and capacities through a continuing support of educational and research institutions. Finally, these duties include the protection and transmission of just social and political institutions.

While we do not know the particular tastes and values of future persons, we do know of their fundamental organic, psychological, and biotic needs. The protection of these constitutes our basic responsibility. Fortunately, the fulfillment of these duties to remote generations is largely (though not completely) accomplished as we fulfill our duties to our contemporaries and the succeeding generation — i.e., our children.

In my work in responsibilities to the future, as with my work in environmental ethics, I have given special attention to "moral psychology:" namely, the study of the bearing of motives, moral education, and moral sentiments (e.g., guilt, shame, indignation, self-respect, etc.) upon human behavior. Thus, as I attempted to point out in my presentation at Northland College last year, one of the fundamental problems of the responsibility to the future, resides in the question of motivation; i.e., whether we are psychologically equipped to meet the demands of morality.

Though recent environmental policy has been outrageously irresponsible with regard to our responsibilities toward the future, I maintain my belief that human beings have the capacity to act responsibility toward the future. There is, after all, an abundance of evidence of such responsibility in history and among other cultures. However, this capacity for just provision for the future must be nourished with great care, devotion and reasonableness, which, in turn, implies carefully devised and executed educational policies.11

At the close of my essay, "Why Care About the Future?", I thus summarize the moral-psychological bond which might motivate just provision for future generations:

... healthy, well-functioning human beings have a basic and pervasive need to transcend themselves; that is, to identify themselves as a part of larger, ongoing, and enduring processes, projects, institutions, and ideals.... If persons are deceived into believing that they can live in and for themselves alone, they will suffer for it both individually and communally. [If so,] we may be prepared to answer the cynic's taunt, "Why should we care about posterity; what has posterity ever done for us?" Our duty to make just provision for the future, I contend, is not of the form of an obligation -- not, that is, a contractual agreement to exchange favors or services. To be sure, posterity does not actually exist now. Even so, in a strangely abstract and metaphorical sense, posterity may extend profound favors for the living. For posterity exists as an idea, a potentiality, and a valid object of transpersonal devotion, concern, purpose, and commitment. Without this idea and poten­tiality, our lives would be confining, empty, bleak, pointless, and morally impoverished. In acting for posterity's good we act for our own as well. Paradoxically, we owe it to ourselves to be duty-bound to posterity, in a manner that genuinely focuses upon future needs rather than our own. By fulfilling our just duties to posterity, we may now earn and enjoy, in our self-fulfillment, the favors of posterity.12

While the position sketched in this section might seem uncontroversial to many, nonetheless, since the completion of my dissertation, the issue of the duty to posterity has provoked considerable dispute among philosophers and others. Many scholars have presented ingenious arguments to the effect that we have few if any duties toward "merely potential" future persons, and others have raised perplexing questions as to how we might articulate this alleged responsibility to the future. In my forthcoming book, To Ourselves and Our Posterity, I will attempt to answer a few of the most noteworthy critics of the claim of responsibility to the future.13  (In this book, I argue and defend at considerable length, some of the points summarized above).



A brief history and description of environmental ethics may serve to indicate how the discipline might contribute to the environmental mission of Northland College.

Environmental ethics, as a field of serious philosophical interest, arose during the professional lives of most of us, and, in fact, during the actual physical lives of some of our students. A few minutes online with "The Philosophers' Index" computer database tells the tale: In this comprehensive listing of almost all significant philosophical publications of the last fifty years (including 150,000 items), there are 466 listings under "Environmental Ethics," of which all but seventeen bear a publication date since 1970. Also worthy of mention in the Philosopher's Index, are 98 books and papers dealing with either "Posterity" and "Future Generations," all but three of which were published in the last twenty-two years.

Twenty-two years ago saw the introduction of the first course in environmental ethics, at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, by Prof. Baird Callicott. It would be another nine years before I offered the first such course by a philosopher at one of the University of California campuses.

In the Spring of 1979, a pivotal date in the brief history of the discipline, the first issue of the journal Environmental Ethics was published. Its founding, and only, editor was and still is Eugene Hargrove, now at North Texas University.

I believe the rise of interest in the environment within the philosophical profession is roughly coincidental with a parallel rise in awareness and concern in the public media and in our political institutions. This suggests, correctly I think, that for the teaching and publication of environmental ethics to "take hold," it was not enough for a few isolated philosophers merely to recognize the importance of the environment to their discipline. In addition, they would have to persuade various and sundry department chairs, deans, editors and publishers as well. The clamor of the so-called "environmental decade" of the seventies accomplished this much and perhaps sufficed to put the topic in the university curricula and into the professional journals.

But what accounts for both the public clamor and the philosophical interest in the natural environment and its fate? And why did it all come about approximately twenty years ago? Primarily, I suggest, because advances in science and technology, and the consequent awareness of the vulnerability of our planet and thus ourselves, reached a catalytic moment. Just as a fish is unaware of the water that is all about it, so too was our natural environment so much about us and constant that it receded into the background of our awareness — until, that is, we began to make rapid and significant changes in our environment, and to face consequences thereof that we could no longer ignore. We could no longer ignore the air when first we began to see it and then to taste it. And while scientists have for decades warned us of our assaults upon nature, at last the public began to take notice of such writers as Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, and Barry Commoner.

Science gave us the means to see and to forecast the consequences of what we were doing and technology the means to destroy the natural environment or, should we so decide, the options to restore and preserve it. And we determined that this emerging knowledge, capacity and choice concerned matters of enormous value significance for ourselves, our brother species, our planet, and our posterity. These four conditions, knowledge, capacity, choice and value significance, so clearly evident in the emerging environmental crisis, essentially define moral responsibility. Yes, our thoughtless cleverness had put the planet and ourselves in peril. And, yes, we had the means to restore and preserve our natural estate and heritage. Clearly, we faced an urgent moral issue.

But even if we had all the requisite strength and goodness of will, the moral agenda demanded by this planetary responsibility was not at all clear. How were we to balance our duties to our wretchedly poor contemporaries with our duties to our posterity? Did ecosystems have "interests" apart from the interests of their component species-members? How much might the needs of our communities, human and natural, legitimately constrain the liberties of the individual citizen? What values in nature demanded our moral attention? In whose behalf should we articulate an environmental ethic, and enact environmental legislation? Humans, rational beings (persons), sentient beings, all life, "Gaia" — the global ecosystem itself? Clearly, questions such as these were not to be adequately addressed merely by adding on more scientific knowledge, by formulating more complex cost-benefit analyses, or by inventing still more ingenious technical devices. These questions concerned nothing less than human responsibility to its home planet and its posterity, the value of our planet, and our conception of our place upon it. Enter the philosopher.

However, one must not overstress the discontinuity between science, technology and philosophy. In particular, one recent trend in environmental science has profoundly affected environmental philosophy — enough, perhaps, to have been crucial to the establishment of Environmental Ethics. This is the emergence of the science of ecology and the consequent "ecological point of view." Reversing the trend of specialization in biology from species to organism, to organ, to tissue, to cell, to DNA, the ecologist broadened his view to life communities. To the ecologist, system was the fundamental concept. Species were interacting and interdependent parts in the system and organisms the conduits of energy and nutrients within and through the biotic system. The radical shift in perspective from parts to whole, keynoted a half-century ago in Aldo Leopold's classical essay, A Sand County Almanac, could scarcely leave our traditional natural value-theory untouched.

The paradigm shift from nature as mechanism to nature as organism — from nature as an aggregate of parts, to nature as an integrated whole — suggests that environmental ethics, far from being just another variety of "applied ethics," might be the means for transforming ethics. This indeed is one of the foremost meta-ethical issues of environmental ethics today. The suggestion deserves elaboration.

Is environmental ethics just another type of "applied ethics?" Legal, medical, business, political, and military ethics all deal with issues of responsibility of persons, toward other persons or to human institutions. Constant throughout such varieties of applied ethics are applications of and references to such familiar ethical concepts as rights, duties, justice, benevolence, autonomy, etc. They differ according to their separate references to particular institutions — the law, medicine, commerce, etc. By analogy, Environmental Ethics would be "received" ethical theories applied to questions of "environmental policy." But such a view of Environmental Ethics would implicitly endorse a controversial position within the field, namely, anthropocentrism, since such a view assumes that humanity is the focus of attention and the locus of justification of any policy or principle. Such an assumption seems quite acceptable when applied to medicine or law or education. But not with regard to the environment. For the earth, its ecosystems, its atmosphere and oceans, its genetic pool, in short, its natural environment is not a human institution — it is the source, the context and the sustenance of human institutions.

This radical shift of moral venue and perspective from institutions within society to the natural context of society, suggest that a transformation might be afoot. Do we regard our natural estate as just another "resource" to be used for the benefit of our particular species, however justly, benevolently and unselfishly we might pursue that benefit? Or do we heed the wisdom of the Native Americans, who proclaim that "The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth," and thus that humanity should be evaluated in the context of its natural origins and sustenance? That question, which has no place in the aforementioned varieties of "applied ethics," is one of the most fundamental issues of environmental ethics, putting in question some of the most venerable assumptions of our ethical tradition. It will not be answered merely by applying or "extending" our acquired kit of familiar ethical concepts and theories to the environment. On the contrary, environmental ethics questions the very legitimacy of applying these familiar ethical concepts and theories to the problem of our responsibility to the natural estate. Thus some philosophers (myself included) suggest that "environmental ethics" might be the next revolution in moral philosophy, just waiting for its time to come.

I do not wish to suggest here that only philosophers have something important to say about environmental ethics (and only a very few philosophers at that, since most members of the profession are quite indifferent to the issue). In fact, the "founding father" of modern environmental ethics was not a philosopher, but a biologist and ecologist — Aldo Leopold. And important ingredients of the current debate come from a wide variety of sources: from economics (Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly), from biology (Garrett Hardin, Hugh Iltis, and Edward Wilson), and from literature (H. D. Thoreau, J. W. Krutch, Edward Abbey, and Sigurd Olson). All the above have important insights about our responsibility to nature and the future — insights which are essential to a rich and comprehensive environmental ethic. Thus I freely cite such sources in my writings, and assign them to my students. The philosopher's contribution relates to his special professional skills: namely, that of analyzing key concepts, articulating basic principles, and constructing integrated arguments.

In addition, it is important to note that personal virtue need not correlate closely with the formal study of ethics (as many philosophers since Socrates have reminded us). We are all well acquainted with both educated scoundrels and unlearned saints. Through a lifetime of social encounters and conflicts, wisely perceived, one may acquire a "sense" of morality, quite apart from philosophical instruction, just as we all acquire a "sense" of correct grammar, without taking even a single formal course in grammatical rules. "The moral sense," acquired by people in all circumstances, professions and disciplines, is an indispensable raw material of moral philosophy. Neither virtue nor moral wisdom is the privileged possession of the philosopher, and the philosopher who pretends otherwise is guilty of the first of the deadly sins: pride. The philosopher's primary function is to ask (and clarify) questions, more than to answer them. The only philosophy worth having is a philosophy that is open and growing, for which every statement of precept, principle, and conclusion is followed by an implicit, "... why not?" and "... what else?"




The cost-benefit approach [to environmental policy-making] treats people as of equal worth because it treats them as of no worth, but only as places or channels at which willingness to pay is found.

Mark Sagoff14

In terms of short-term practical consequences, perhaps the most significant contribution of the environmental philosopher is his critique of the theory and practice of environmental policy-making. Motivated by the necessity of coming to some decision, policy-makers have been attracted to procedures which avoid "subjective" disputes (i.e., about values), which reduce and combine divergent factors, and which focus upon objective, reliable and quantifiable methods of arriving at definitive answers. Accordingly, such policy analysis is carried out with an envious eye on the rigor and decisiveness of the "value-free" "hard-sciences." I endorse the claim of many environmental philosophers that these diligent efforts to avoid "intractable" philosophical disputes and value claims, have often led to the careless adoption of a highly questionable and controversial moral philosophy, "preference utilitarianism."15  In short, the attempt to avoid philosophy has resulted instead in uncritical philosophizing.

The wayward path down this road of philosophical error often begins, and persists, in the search for a "value-free policy." The motive for this search for a "value-free policy method" seems commendable, since it follows from the policy-maker's troublesome question: "Who am I to involve values (inescapably my values) in this public enterprise? Better to avoid evaluation, and stick to the facts, the numbers, and objective scientific methodology."

Unfortunately, the phrase "value-free policy-analysis" is oxymoronic, since planning and policy are inescapably about choices among graded options that affect the welfare and rights of persons — which is to say, about values. While the scientist asks "What is the case?" What are the facts?" the policy-maker necessarily asks "What should be the case?" "Which of the available options should we choose?" Because the task of the policy-maker is to choose among feasible alternatives, he must ask "Which is the optimum -- the 'best' - choice among the available options?" Listing and explicating the "available ­options" is an appropriate task of the "value-free" scientist. The problem arises with the four-letter word "best"  But what does the policy-maker mean by "best"? "Best" on what grounds? What reasons does he offer us to accept his evaluation or, for that matter, for accepting his method of justifying his claim that such-and-such a policy is "the best" of the alternatives?" These are not scientific questions; they are unavoidably questions of moral philosophy. Thus the philosophically informed observer would likely conclude that an uncritical insistence by policy-analysts that their methodology, "like scientific method, is value-neutral" will result, not in "value- free" choices, but in choices that follow from unexamined and unchallenged values. In short, if we think that scientific in­sight alone will give us adequate guidance in our environmental policy decisions, we will be making — even worse, continuing — a dreadful error.

Whatever has led some policy-theorists to even suspect that policy making could be "value free?" Perhaps it was the seeming availability of "value-free" methodologies to produce "objective" ranking of policy options. Foremost among these devices is cost benefit analysis (CBA) -- a scheme that evokes the enthusiastic endorsement of many ­applied economists and legislators, and which provokes the overwhelming condemnation of most moral philosophers. Cost-benefit analysis is a scheme that is both intuitively attractive on the surface, and ethically troublesome in its implications. (I will devote my attention to this prominent issue in policy studies, mindful that there are several other policy issues that I might have treated: namely, risk assessment, "externalities," "commons problems," collective responsibility, etc.).

The definition of CBA is simplicity itself: "if a policy, P, maxi­mizes benefits minus costs, then P ought to be carried out".16  Stated thus, the rule scarcely seems open to dispute. The troubles begin as we attempt to assign operational definitions to the key terms "costs" and "benefits," so that these various amounts and dimensions might be measured together to produce a result on "the ­bottom line." The only available common quantity appears to be "cash value" or "willingness to pay." Enter the economist.

The significance of CBA in public policy-making can scarcely be overestimated. About a month after taking office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan signed an Executive Order requiring that all agencies and departments in his Administration justify their regulations with positive cost-benefit assessments. The practice pervades public administration. Read most environmental impact statements, and you will find them saturated with the statistics, spreadsheets, and finally the bottom lines of CBA.

While the apparent advantages of CBA are enticing, in most case they can be shown to be fundamentally flawed in that they are based upon highly questionable assumptions, and bear intuitively outlandish implications. While I have elaborated and defended these claims at some length elsewhere, I regrettably haven't the space to explore them here.17 Briefly, the most troublesome flaws are these:

  • As an uncritical version of utilitarianism, by "aggregating" and summing total "utilities" (i.e., costs and benefits), CBA gives no attention to individual persons, and their just concerns for equity, fair play, and just distributions of wealth.

  •  By reducing all values to the single denominator of "cash values," "moral values" (such as the virtues) are "factored out."18

  •  The monetization of values entails a discounting of the future.

  • CBA treats the public as an aggregate of consumers, rather than as a community of citizens. Thus "consumer preferences" count more than "civic principles," since, if principles are to count at all, they must be "redefined" as market preferences.

Finally, the claim that cost-benefit analysis applies socially accepted values, as determined by the market, (i.e., "willingness to pay"), simply reverses the relevant normative order of evaluation. How "valuable" is a clean environment to our society? The economist replies, "well, just find out how much the public is willing to pay? Let's look at the budgets for the EPA, etc." But how does such information assist the citizen or the legislature who asks: "knowing full well what we pay to preserve and restore the environment, I want to know what we should pay — that is to say, is our investment in our environment ethically right?" How is the citizen or legislator to answer this question, if not through serious and reflective evaluation? Surely not by looking again at the existing costs of environmental renewal, which raised the question in the first place.

In several noteworthy cases (such as the Grand Canyon dams in the sixties), wise government decision-makers, judges, or organized citizen groups have insisted that their moral intuitions override the findings of carefully quantified policy analyses. Many wild areas and ecosystems owe their continued existence to these "value-laden, unscientific" qualms.

In closing this sketch of a critique of CBA, I do not wish to suggest that the economist, or even CBA, do not have a legitimate role in environmental policy making. The discipline and its methods can be valuable as ingredients of environmental decision-making. Moreover, some economist have made enduring contributions to environmental philosophy; among them, Herman Daly and Kenneth Boulding in "steady-state systems" and Nicholas Goergescu-Roegen in entropy theory. Mindful of all this, philosophical critics such as myself call, not for the exclusion, but for the containment of economic factors in environmental policy analysis.



What is the environmental philosopher's role in the Northland College community? Concerning this topic I should be least of all inclined to offer an answer, and most eager to listen to those who are already members of this community. Accordingly, much of what follows will be quite tentative. Also, I must of necessity, albeit cautiously, write of that which I know best: my own experiences and expectations, and thus in the first person. To integrate this perspective into the Northland College community, I would, of course, have to learn much more of its traditions, and become personally acquainted with the students, faculty, administration, alumni and friends of the College. To begin, I would like to recapitulate some basic themes of this report.

First of all, as the above indicates, the philosopher's general task is a difficult one: "not to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable." Accordingly, surrounded by individuals hungry for answers, philosophers have the discomforting habit of asking still more questions. Thus we run the professional risk of annoying those we deal with, while the fate of Socrates is forever on our minds. Still, as philosophers, we feel that our work is indispensable, and that the state and society that chooses to ignore the philosophers, and critical scholars in general, soon thereafter falls into dogmatic slumber. The fate of Athens following the demise of Socrates should also be instructive.

Next, I have reiterated the theme that environmental ethics must be grounded upon both sound science and upon humanistic insight. No environmental philosophy worth reading will be written by an ecological ignoramus. Conversely, no amount of scientific ecological genius will produce an environmental ethic worthy of our attention, unless it is cognizant of the significance of "personhood" or "moral agency" — i.e., the capacities of reasonableness, self-awareness, empathy, time-perception, and allegiance to principle that characterizes the moral conscience and consciousness. Environmental ethics thus requires an acknowledgement and integration of these separate scientific and humanistic streams. It may require more than this, but surely no less than this. My work as both a scholar and a teacher has been devoted to this integration.

The Philosopher as Teacher: Of all the items in my application packet, I gain the most satisfaction in my students' evaluations of my teaching performance. As those evaluations suggest, the most exciting and rewarding moments of my professional life take place with my classes (indoors or, whenever possible, outside). Teaching is the "mother's milk" of my professional morale and sense of purpose.

When asked last year, during my visit to Northland, to explain my teaching methods, I confess that I stumbled a bit. At this cooler moment, I would like to try again. First of all, I resist prepared, "stand and deliver," lectures. The rationale for this preference is straightforward. Imagine the perfect "non-stop" lecturer. The fullest account of his lecture would be a complete transcript, which would be identical in form to a published paper or textbook chapter. These we have already; they are the classroom reading assignments. And unlike lectures, printed assignments can be annotated, reviewed, read at the student's own speed and convenience, and temporarily set aside to favor a saturated attention span. Printed texts, however, have decided disadvantages. One cannot engage in a conversation with a text. One cannot ask a text for a clarification or a defense of an assertion, nor can the reader ask the author to explore, on the spot, the implications of what he has written. These activities belong in the classroom, and hopefully, in discussions beyond, prompted by the work inside the class.

My class discussions take place within a well-articulated structure. The sequence of topics is set down in detail in the course syllabus. Attached to each reading assignment is a set of "Discussion Questions" which I have prepared for the class. To further focus the discussions, I will occasionally distribute an "agenda." Well in advance of the Mid-Term and Final examinations, the students receive "previews" which also serve the purpose of focusing attention to the essential topics and issues. Despite all this preparation, each class meeting presents some surprises, as I attempt to engage each student personally with the issues and in the discussions. My reluctance to curb enthusiasm and spontaneity has led to complaints that the discussions tend to be chaotic. Mea culpa! It is a vice of excessive virtue, and quite amenable to remedy. One student has captured my objective well as s/he writes that "he did not seem to consider his job finished until we understood the material."

My courses in environmental ethics are not directed to Philosophy Majors. (I doubt that I have ever taught such a course that contained more than 20% Philosophy majors). Because few if any of my students are expected to follow my career choice, I deal with concepts and issues that will be important to them as educated citizens and, perchance, environmental professionals.

The Philosopher as Colleague: Again, I am not prepared to expound at length on this topic without first becoming acquainted with the traditions and objectives of the College, and meeting each of my colleagues personally. (That possibility is one of the more delightful advantages of a small College). The foregoing account should suggest that Philosophy functions well as a "service discipline," touching upon all parts of the College curriculum, with environmental ethics particularly attuned to the issues and objectives of the Environmental Studies Program.

While it would be premature to suggest particular modes of collaboration with my colleagues, I can say that I am attracted by the suggestion of developing some team-teaching course. Also, I would be pleased to participate in a series of interdisciplinary "Issues Forums" for the benefit of both the College and the Ashland Community. (I organized and directed such a series at Weber State College in the mid-1970s). Also, through my long association with environmental philosophers and scientists, I would be in a position to attract significant speakers to the Northland Campus. (In March, 1990, I raised over $20,000 in grant support for a Conference at Cal State Fullerton, "Environmental Ethics: Now and Into the 21st Century." The conference attracted noteworthy scholars from throughout the country and, in one case, from Russia).

As I review the "Position Description" and the Northland College Academic Catalog, I find several areas in which I might make a contribution to the College.

  • Conflict and Peacemaking. Alarmed by the belligerent rhetoric of the early 1980s, and recognizing a close association between global environmental protection and world peace, I became an active member of the "Concerned Philosophers for Peace." This resulted in the publication and conference presentation of several papers, both in the United States and in Russia.19  In 1988, I taught a course in "Nuclear War as a Philosophical Issue."

  • Outdoor Education. During my second year of college teaching (1962), I was appointed the "Coordinator of Outdoor Education" for Paterson State College, where I directed a residential program for all the Sophomores at the College. (Incidentally, the program took place at the "New Jersey School of Conservation," which my father, then the President of Montclair State College, established in 1950).20 My earliest publications were in the field of Outdoor Education,21 and my interest and involvement in Environmental Education continues today, as I serve as an International Coordinator for the Environmental Education Program of the Buryat Republic of the Russian Federation (Lake Baikal region). 

  • Environmental Policy Studies. My academic work in policy studies includes research and publications resulting from my two-year National Science Foundation grant in "The Ethics of Earthquake Prediction" at the University of Colorado (1984-6), and my association there with the Natural Hazards Information and Research Center.22  If the Environmental Studies Program were to find this experience to be useful, I would be pleased to work with them.   

My Curriculum Vitae suggests numerous other areas of possible collaborative work with the Northland College faculty. However, as I noted at the outset, at this stage anything other than vague speculations would be premature.

The Philosopher and the Community: My Curriculum Vitae contains a record of the sort of community activity that I would be pleased to perform in behalf of the College in the northern Wisconsin and Great Lakes region. Over the past two decades I have served my community as the founding Director and President of the Environmental Education Council of Greater Milwaukee (1973-5), through several appearances on radio, television and film, as a participant in the Utah Governor's Conference, "Humanities and Energy," (1980), at numerous "Natural Hazards Workshops" in Boulder, Colorado, and other such events, too numerous to mention in this space. (See the CV under "Professional and Community Service" and "Conference and Colloquium Papers"). I would expect that a continuation of such activities would be an important function of the Hulings Professor of Humanities.

The Philosopher as a Scholar: Since most of the foregoing account has summarized by scholarly work, and my conception of my fields of interest and specialization, little more need be added here. The scholarly tasks immediately before me include the completion of the two original books offered to Oxford University Press, To Ourselves and Our Posterity, and What Good is a Planet? Since these books are largely integrations of previously published and presented papers, work on them is well advanced. In fact, with luck, I should be able to complete the first by next fall. Also in progress is my text-anthology, Environmental Ethics: Approaches and Issues, which is being prepared for Prentice-Hall. Since I have used an unpublished version for several years, the major work on this project is behind me. The remaining work consists of a reading and review of recent publications for possible inclusion, then a rewriting of the introductory and commentary material. Unfortunately, work on an anthology, From Both Sides of One Earth: Russian and American Essays in Environmental Ethics, has been suspended, pending funding (primarily to pay for translations).

Once I have "paid my dues" to the scholarly audience by publishing the books for Oxford, I would like to begin work on an original book on environmental ethics and policy, directed to a general educated audience. As I have indicated throughout this narrative, I am one philosopher who believes that his professional work should make a practical difference in the "real world."

The Philosopher and the Global Environment: Finally, the Hulings Professor of Humanities should serve as Northland College's "ambassador" to the global environmental community. I believe that my recent collaborative work with colleagues in Russia opens some opportunities in this regard. (See attached "Work in Progress," Appendix I). First of all, the environmental program at Northland College is oriented to the northern environment, a climate and ecosystem common to Russia and to North America along the US-Canadian border. More specifically, I am in close contact with environmental scientists and educators in the Buryat Republic (south-central Siberia), which borders most of Lake Baikal. The similarities between Lake Baikal and Lake Superior are remarkable: both are the world's largest fresh-water lakes — Baikal in terms of volume, and Superior in terms of area. The Lake Superior Center in Duluth has been attempting to establish a "sister lake" relationship with Baikal and the Buryat people (some of whom, I understand, have visited the Sigurd Olson Institute). I am sure that I could facilitate and expand this relationship. (See the attached letter from the Prime Minister of the Buryat Republic, V. B. Saganov, Appendix II). Finally, my work with the Russians has international implications beyond the former Soviet Union. In my three visits to Russia, I have met scholars from numerous foreign countries (Canada, England, Germany, Poland, France, Sweden, Mongolia, India, and China come immediately to mind).

My Russian enterprises include a newsletter, On the Other Hand: News from the Russian Environment, which is published in collaboration with friends and colleagues at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Socio-Ecological Union (a confederation of about 200 citizen-based ecological organizations throughout the former Soviet Union), and which has subscribers in several foreign countries. I have recently received some promising indications that this project might receive substantial funding, notably from the MacArthur Foundation (see Appendix III), and the National Science Foundation. Accordingly, I am now at work on a funding proposal which I will soon send to the MacArthur Foundation, and other foundations and agencies.

Because there is considerable interest in the former Soviet Union among funding agencies and foundation, I believe that the prospects for substantial support of these projects is quite good. My largest obstacle so far has been the lack of a strong institutional affiliation — a problem which would be solved by an appointment to the Hulings Chair.

If such funding is secured, the prospects for the College are quite attractive. This might include scientific exchanges between Russian and Northland students to study the "sister lakes." In my proposal to MacArthur and other foundations, I am including a budget item for a "Russian speaking editorial assistant." This raises the intriguing possibility that a grant to "On the Other Hand" might support a scholarship or fellowship for a visiting Russian student or teacher, who would work part time with the Newsletter, and the remaining time with the College. Once again, all this is premature speculation. We must first await the fate of my grant applications, and, of course, the fate of this application for the Hulings Chair in the Humanities.



As I read the Position Description, review the Northland College Academic Catalog, and reflect upon my visit to the Campus last year, I find a close congruence between the Northland mission and my career record and objectives. I believe that we all agree that our species is in serious trouble — the victim, ironically, of its own success. Homo Sapiens has tried from pre-history on to "subdue nature." Now, at last we have succeeded, only to find that we've about sawed through the branch we're sitting on. Now we don't know how to survive our "success." The old rules for evaluating nature and directing our conduct just don't seem to apply now that nature and our future have become vulnerable to the careless exuberance of our technology. A new ethic of human responsibility to nature must be conceived of, written, taught, and promulgated — an ethic which rejects the failed doctrines of the past, yet retains the conceptual clarity, the analytical rigor and the synoptic vision which is the glory of the discipline of philosophy and the humanistic tradition. It must also be an ethic that is biotically and scientifically informed, yet sensitive to the full capacities and potentialities of our humanity — those accomplishments of art, culture and intellect unique to our species.

I fully and enthusiastically endorse the mission of Northland College, and am attracted to the location, the atmosphere, and the attitudes of the Northland Community, as I have been since I first visited the campus some twenty years ago. I am convinced that I can contribute to that community, for if I felt otherwise I would not be making this application. For more than a quarter century, I have studied, developed, and taught environmental ethics. It would be a privilege to continue, and perchance complete, that journey in your company.




1. For my criticism of environmental attitudes and policies that are scientifically uninformed, see "The Ideology of Folly," Counseling and Values, 18:4 (Summer, 1974), pp. 238-43. My critique of the opposite error may be found in a paper with the self-explanatory title, "Environmental Ethics Without Philosophy", Human Ecology: A Gather­ing of Perspectives, ed. Richard J. Borden, Society for Human Ecology, 1986.

2. "Nature as a Moral Resource," Environmental Ethics, 6:2, (Su, 1984), pp 128-30. Please note that these paragraphs summarize ideas developed and defended in a long (30 page) essay.

3. I argue this point in my "Environmental Ethics: Obstacles and Opportunities," in Environmental Consciousness (Essays from the Earth Day X Colloquium, University of Denver, April 21-4, 198O). Ed. Robert C. Schultz and J. Donald Hughes (Washington: University Press of America, 1981). pp. 325-5O.

4. "Moral Psychology and Loyalty to the Earth," Environmental Ethics, (Forthcoming).

5. Much of this paragraph is "borrowed" from my "Three Wrong Leads in a Search for an Environmental Ethic," Ethics and Animals,V:3, Sept., 1984. But note the qualification which immediately follows the "borrowed text": "Having said all this, we must not coast off the deep end. In particular, acknowledgment of these significant differences does not entail that animal experiences do not morally "matter," and that gratuitous torture of animals is not morally reprehen­sible. However different and even unknowable animal pain may be, it is pain nonetheless."

6. Though linguistic convention tends otherwise, moral philosophers make a fundamental distinction between "humans" and "persons." "Human" is a biological concept — i.e., a member of the species homo sapiens. "Person" is a moral concept — i.e., a being with the aforementioned capacities. Thus some humans are not persons: e.g., infants, and such unfortunate individuals as the comatose, the deranged, and victims of advanced Alzheimer's disease. While we know of no non-human persons, we can easily imagine them: extra-terrestrials ("Yoda," "Spock," or "ET"), or androids (Star Trek's "Data"). And we may yet discover that there are other earthly species that are personal — e.g., dolphins. If, indeed, we were to discover that dolphins had the capacities of personhood, our attitudes and responsibilities toward them would be radically transformed.

7. A partial listing of these publications includes: "Why Care About the Future?", Responsibilities to Future Genera­tions, Ed. Ernest Partridge (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, l981), p. 2O3-219; "Are We Ready for an Ecological Morality?", Environmental Ethics, 4:1 (Summer, 1982); "Nature as a Moral Resource," op. cit.; "Should We Seek a Better Future?" (Forthcoming); and "Moral Psychology and Loyalty to the Earth," Environmental Ethics (Forthcoming).

8. A technical anthology, Obligations to Future Generations, edited by Sikora and Barry, was published by Temple University Press in 1978. This was, I believe, the only other book on the topic in publication at the time of my anthology.

9. "Nature as a Moral Resource," Environmental Ethics, Su, 1984, p. 129.

10. In my paper, "On the Rights of Future Generations," in D. Scherer (ed), Upstream/ Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, Temple University Press, 1991.

11. "Why Care About the Future?", Responsibilities to Future Generations, Ed. Ernest Partridge (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981), p. 203-219. (Briefer version published in Alternative Futures, 3:4 (Fall, 1980), pp. 77-91.)

12. Ibid., p. 2O3-219.

13. My published and forthcoming defense against such criticisms may be found in "Why Care About the Future?", Responsibilities to Future Generations, Ed. Ernest Partridge (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, l981), p. 2O3-219, "On the Rights of Future Generations," in D. Scherer (ed), Upstream/ Downstream: Issues in Environmental Ethics, Temple University Press, 1991, "Should We Seek a Better Future?" Ethics and the Environment, 3:1, 1998, and elsewhere.

14. "At the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, or, Why Political Questions are Not All Economic," Arizona Law Review, 1981, 23:4, p. 1291.

15. Prominent among these philosophers are Kristin Shrader-Frechette (University of South Florida), Mark Sagoff (University of Maryland) and Lawrence Tribe (Harvard University). Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institution) is a noteworthy case of a policy analyst who rejects cost-benefit analysis as a primary mode of decision-making. Incidentally, "cost-benefit analysis" should not be confused with "cost-effective analysis," which quite legitimately seeks the least costly means to accomplished an independently defined goal.

16. Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, People, Penguins, and Plastic Trees, 1986: Belmont, CA, Wadsworth Publishing Co., p. 238.

17. Most recently, in a conference paper, "Environmental Policy-Making: Some Philosophical Caveats," Western Social Science Association, Reno, Nevada, April, 1991. See also, "The Moral Uses of Future Generations," Ethical Questions for Resource Managers, ed Reeves, Bottom, Brookes, US. Dept. of Agriculture, General Technical Report PNW-GTR 288, January, 1992.

18. There is an old joke about an economist who complained that he had no friends. A colleague replied, "if friendship is so valuable to you, why not go out and buy a friend?" Of course, contrary to the criteria of economic analysis, the "purchase price" of a friendship is inversely proportional to its "value."

19. "If Peace Were at Hand, How Would We Know It?", Issues in War and Peace, ed. Klein and Kunkel, Longwood Press , (SU, 1989); "Pririmene c Planetoi: Nenacilie i Globalnie Ekologicheskie Problemi," ("Toward a Truce With the Earth: Non-Violence and the Global Environment," Proceedings of the International Conference on The Ethics of Non-Violence, USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1991; "Human Responsibility and the Global Environment," Proceedings of the Conference, Man at Baikal (August, 1990), Buryat Scientific Center, Russia. (Forthcoming); Several conference papers (cf. Curriculum Vitae).

20. The founding of the New Jersey School of Conservation is described in my "Wapalanne: Contrasts and Continuities: A Personal Reflec­tion," Journal of Environmental Education, (Summer, 1982).

21. "Nature and Personality," Journal of Outdoor Education, V:3 (Spr. 1973), pp. 19-22; "The Lessons of Nature," Journal of Environmental Education, V:2 (Winter, l973), pp. 35-7.

22. See my "Ethical Issues in Disaster Management Policy," in L. Comfort (ed.), Managing Disasters: Strategies and Policy Perspectives, Duke University Press, 1988.



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 .