Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Are We Ready for an Ecological Morality

Ernest Partridge

Published in Environmental Ethics, 4, (Summer, 1982).

Abstract: This essay is an inquiry into the relevance of psychology to morality -- particularly the relevance of a capacity to treat nature with respect and restraint to a responsibility to do so.  I begin with a presentation of Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" (which I also designate with the term ecological morality).  I then examine two notions of moral psychology that have recently attracted the interest of moral philosophers: first, "the moral sense," a concept that has gained prominence, in part, through the recent work of the philosopher, John Rawls; and second, Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of the development of moral cognition.  Finally, I consider how these perspectives on moral psychology might apply to ecological morality.



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 Leopold1


A call for moral reassessment and reform invariably leads one to ask: "Can we bring it off?" Putting the matter another way, even if we affirm the moral worth of a proposed policy or course of action and acknowledge that we have the physical capacity and the knowledge to bring it about, we are immediately faced with the question: "Have we the psychological resources to do what is required of us?" Can we change long-established attitudes, habits, and patterns of behavior? This question of the psychological capacity for change, which arises alongside such public issues as racial and economic justice, foreign aid, educational reform, etc., may even be crucial to the very moral significance of these issues, for if human beings are essentially incapable of carrying out their alleged duties, then, by the rule of "ought implies can," they might be blameless.

In this essay I deal with the question of the relevance of psychology to morality -- of capacity to duty.  In particular, I focus my attention on the question of the human psychological capacity to accept and implement Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" (which I also designate with the term ecological morality) -- an environmental ethic that has been popular and influential in the "environmental movement" of the past decade.  (Note that in this essay, the term environmental ethics is generic and thus neutral as to normative content.  On the other hand, the term ecological morality refers to a type of environmental ethic -- namely, the view that mankind should be regarded, and should act, not as a master, but as a member of the life community).


In his splendid essay, "The Land Ethic" -- an essay that has profoundly touched and guided a generation of environmental students, scholars, and activists -- Aldo Leopold describes an historical "extension" of ethical concern, focusing first upon the family and village, then the community, nation, and international community, and finally (though largely by anticipation) upon nature itself.  Leopold observes that during the Homeric era, slaves were regarded as mere chattel and thus outside the realm of moral solicitude.  Accordingly, as Homer records, Odysseus could, on whim, put all his slave girls to death, for "the girls were property [and] the disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expedience, not or right and wrong.2  Since then we have expanded our ethical criteria and extended their field of application.  Leopold thus describes this "extension":

The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals..  later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society.  The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society; democracy to integrate social organization to the individual.

But here, he writes, we have come to a stop, for

There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grown upon it.  Land, like Odysseus' slave girls, is still property.  The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.

The pause, however, is momentary for, Leopold continues, "the extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity."3  And what is the content of this "next step" in the ethical extension? Briefly this:

We abuse land 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, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.  That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.4

And finally, in that most quotable formula: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise."5

Anthropologists and historians will find much to criticize in this account.  Let us briefly review their complaints, if only to get past them and on to more substantive issues.  First, the anthropologist will point out that in many primitive cultures, far greater moral concern may be given to animals (especially to members of one's totem species), or even to trees, rocks, and mountains, than are given to persons in other tribes, or, for that matter, even to persons of other clans within one's own tribe.  (Such a pattern of moral solicitude may be more the rule than the exception.) Thus, we find not an "extension of ethics," but a "leapfrogging" of ethics, over and beyond persons to natural beings and objects.  Worse still for Leopold's view, a primitive culture's moral concern for nature often appears to "draw back" to a human-centered perspective as that culture evolves toward a civilized condition.

The historian might point out that there is a abundant record of "ethical shrinkage" in the span of civilized history.  Consider, for instance, the supplanting of the politically oriented ethics of Plato and Aristotle with the privatistic ethics of the Stoics and the Epicureans.6  Later, the cosmopolitan concerns and involvements of the Roman citizen contrasted radically, in the Dark Ages, to involvement within the confines of the baron's feudal manor or at most (once again) the city-state.  Finally, within the lifetimes of many of us, we have witnessed an erosion of the internationalism which immediately followed World War II to a resurgence of nationalism and, within nations, of regionalism and tribalism (as for instance in Nigeria, Uganda, Pakistan, and Canada).

The evidence of anthropology and history against Leopold's account of "ethical extension" is, I believe, conclusive -- and quite beside the point of Leopold's essay.  To appreciate this irrelevance we need only ask: suppose that Leopold, or an ecological moralist of similar views, were to agree to all these fact-claims of the cultural anthropologist and historian.  Would he then abandon his position? He probably would not.  More to the point, would he have reason to abandon his "land ethic"? Again, no -- not, at least, if the ecological moralist had a clear idea of the logical status of his claim, for the larger significance of Leopold's land ethic is not as a description of cultural evolution or of historical trends.  Instead, it is an ethic -- a normative claim of the moral superiority of this perspective of man's place in, involvement with, and responsibility toward, nature.  Far from being derived from the facts of culture and history, the land ethic is a moral position from which the ecological moralist evaluates cultural and historical trends.  Accordingly, if we wish to evaluate the land ethic, we should no ask if this "extension of ethics" is reflected in the facts of ethnology and history (albeit Leopold comes perilously close to embracing this error).  Rather, our questions should be logical, normative, and metaethical.  The logical and conceptual issues are these: what is the content and the claim of ecological morality? Is this claim clear, consistent, and coherent?7 The normative issue is simply this: is the land ethic a good ethic -- that is, is it desirable that an individual or a society adopt an act upon it? Finally, the metaethical questions: what reasons might be offered to justify this point of view? Could an objective and rational person be persuaded to accept the land ethic? If so, then how? These are the sorts of questions that a moral philosopher would ask the ecological moralist and which that moralist must, if he is to avoid obscurity and dogmatism, be prepared to answer.


For some time I have been intrigued by the thought that some clarification and even justification of an ecological morality might be obtained through an application of recent studies in moral psychology, and particularly of moral development, to environmental ethics.  In this regard, I am especially interested in the works of the philosopher John Rawls and the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg.  Those familiar with the writings of Rawls and Kohlberg may find this to be a rather surprising suggestion in view of the fact that neither have much, if anything, to say about environmental ethics.  Indeed, their disengagement from this topic is at times quite explicit.8  While I concede all this, I still believe that Rawls and Kohlberg offer some suggestions, and even some implicit points of comfort and support, to the ecological moralist.  But if we are to find these, then clearly we have to do some digging and draw some bold implications.  I am not at all convinced that attempts to apply developmental and moral psychology to the land ethic will be a fruitful enterprise, but I believe that the idea is intriguing and promising enough to attempt some probes in this direction.

My first approach to moral psychology is through the work of John Rawls, from whom I borrow, not a theory, but a suggestion.  Rawls conceives of moral philosophy, in part and in its preliminary stages, as "the attempt to describe our moral capacity."9   Like Kohlberg, and like the linguist Noam Chomsky, Rawls is very much impressed with the capacity of the human mind to organize, structure, and coordinate experience, and to do so pre-consciously.  Thus, like a great many contemporary moral philosophers, he takes moral intuitions quite seriously -- not as finished, refined, and self-sufficient guides to action, but as important ingredients of a moral philosophy, deserving careful review and analysis.  While naive and uncritical intuitionism can unquestionably lead to atrocious moral hunches, even so one should not discount the value of the moral experiences that are reflected in our intuitions.  This experience and these intuitions may be of considerable value even if they have not been subjected to the careful reflection, criticism, and refinement that characterizes a sophisticated moral philosophy.

On reflection, this approach appears to be very suggestive.  In many cases, the moral sense can reveal to us deeper and subtler knowledge than we know that we have.  Consider, as Rawls does, an analogy from linguistics.10  Young children, and uneducated persons in general, can speak their native languages with correct grammar and do so without a remote notion of the rules that they are thereby following.  Moreover, native speakers acquire a "sense" of grammatical "correctness" without taking courses in grammar that explicate the rules they unconsciously utilize.  In a word, on can 'know how" to speak grammatically without "knowing what" the rules are that he is following.  Similarly, through the experience of functioning in a moderately just and well-ordered society and in a context of mutual trust and civility, one can acquire a sense of moral propriety, simply through the practical, day-by-day activity of satisfying one's need and acquiring security, under conditions of moderate scarcity, cooperation and competition.11  Just as one acquires a grammatical sense by speaking his language in particular circumstances, and not necessarily by reflecting upon the language as such, one can acquire a moral sense by facing, as all of us do in our daily lives, a sequence of morally significant circumstances: i.e., by balancing rights with duties, playing roles, perceiving oneself as an equal member of society with an equal allotment of rights and duties, and competing for scarce goods in a context of cooperative norms which optimize the life prospects, the productivity, and the security of each member of the community.

All this activity can be done, and done well, without deliberatively engaging in abstract philosophical contemplation and the consequent explication of moral concepts and rules.  This capacity account for what I call "naive wisdom," which is exemplified by "village sages" and "cracker-barrel philosophers." Such individuals, found in all ages and cultures, are those superannuated persons who, through a lifetime of alert, sensitive, intelligent involvement in the social life of their communities, acquire a sense of moral propriety, and who are honored and valued for this sense by members of their community -- even though such individuals are, strictly speaking, formally unlearned, and even unprepared to supply a coherent, comprehensive, and abstract theory of moral philosophy as a foundation and justification of their moral maxims and advice.

"The village sage" illustrates the fact that "we may know more than we know that we know." He illustrates the point, made earlier, that the mind subconsciously organizes, assimilates, and structures the data of experience, clarifies concepts with ever increasing degrees of comprehensiveness, clarity, and cognitive adequacy, and, interestingly, that the mind may do all this without the aid and assistance of conscious, abstract, analytical thought.12  As a self-confessed, practicing philosopher, I must hasten to add my conviction that the final cognitive product may be far superior if this native wisdom is supplemented, refined, extended, and clarified with the aid of careful, deliberate, explicit, and trained thought processes -- namely, by philosophizing.  Like Rawls, I believe that the moral sense is not the optimum product of human moral thought, but rather that it is an important ingredient of moral philosophy, and that the optimum product is achieved through a "reflective equilibrium" between our moral sense (Rawls calls it "considered moral judgment") and our critically evaluated, carefully articulated and structured, general moral principles.

Of course, we must always bear in mind that the moral sense is subject to what the computer scientists call "the GIGO rule" -- "garbage in, garbage out" We are all too aware of cases in which "conventional morality" has embraced morally atrocious principles and practices.  Essential, though not sufficient, to the development of a sound moral sense is an active involvement in a just and well-ordered community.  This is the "input" that may lead to an acute moral sense.  By extension, if we wish to judge the soundness of a conventional environmental ethic, we would be well-advised to examine the "input" -- the society's understanding and utilization of its biotic environment, and that society's perception of its function in its biotic community.

To summarize: the moral sense arises out of a motivation to optimize security and satisfaction in the context of a community.  (To oversimplify a complicated distinction: Rawls would emphasize the minimization of risk, while many utilitarians would emphasize the maximization of net satisfaction).  Through this experience we learn that in order to "get" we must "give" -- that is, in order to maximize our gains, we must regard ourselves as members of a community of like selves, and we must act accordingly.  We must in short, assume, and act from, a "moral point of view." From that perspective, we find that the sacrifice of each for the welfare of all leads, ideally and eventually, to the maximization of prospects for each.  Thus, we arrive at "the paradox of morality": namely, that in the well-ordered society, it is in one's best interest not to seek directly after one's best interest.  The prospects of each are maximized by serving the prospects of all.  This, in general, is the rationale, the "point," of the activity of social morality.  (It would not be inappropriate to call it "the game of morality").  This rationale is, I believe, a fundamental coordinating principle.  perhaps the fundamental principle, in "the naive moral wisdom," regardless of whether or not the "sage" in question is aware of this abstract rule.13  But while we have described here the "point" and function of the moral sense, we have not described the process of cognitive development that leads to mature moral judgment.  For that insight, we turn to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg.


In a continuing study of over twenty years' duration.  Lawrence Kohlberg claims to have identified six distinct stages of moral development.  The first two "pre-conventional" stages are characterized by responses to reward and punishment ("stage one") and by "instrumental" calculations of optimum means of satisfying personal (and occasionally others') needs and desires ("stage two").  The next two stages are "conventional," and are marked (in "stage three") by a conscious concern for the approval of significant others (e.g., family and friends) and (in "stage four") by an orientation toward and an obedience to the established order.  The final two stages are "post-conventional" (also called "autonomous" and "principled").  With "stage five," a "social contract orientation" becomes dominant, and "right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual human rights, and standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society." In "stage six," the highest stage of moral development (achieved by relatively few), "right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self- chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency."14  Each stage, says Kohlberg, presents a more coherent, comprehensive, universal, rational -- in a word, "a more "cognitively adequate" -- moral perspective.  Moral development, then, displays intellectual, rational, affective, and normative growth.  In short, the "facts" of psychological development parallel and embody norms of "desirable" moral growth.

It is obvious, at a glance, that we are dealing here with the development of social morality.  Moreover, we are dealing with a theory that is both comprehensive and highly attractive to a cultivated moral sense, and, at the same time, very controversial and the target of severe criticism by both psychologists and philosophers.  The theory is attractive to the sophisticated reader (who presumably has achieved a "post-conventional stage" of moral development) in that such a reader finds himself devoutly hoping that the theory is true and that it offers a rational mode of moral education and growth.  But it just seems too good to be true.  Alas, a review of the critical literature, and a thoughtful examination of Kohlberg's ideas and methods, may indicate that the theory is just that -- "too good to be true." Some philosophers find Kohlberg's account of morality to be oversimplistic and his methodology and data open to subjective and ambiguous interpretation.  Most philosophers who have commented on his work readily agree that Kohlberg has "committed the naturalistic fallacy" -- that is, that he has drawn ought- conclusions from is-premises, or values from facts.  However, no philosophers, to my knowledge, will concede that Kohlberg has, in his own words, managed to "commit the naturalistic fallacy and get away with it."15  Many psychologists find that independent replications of Kohlberg's experiments often produce contrary, or at best mixed, results.  Kohlberg himself has recently found it necessary to make significant revisions in his theory of moral development.16

Fortunately, for our purposes, we can set much of this aside.  We are not immediately interested in either the content or the form of judgments of social morality.  Instead, we are concerned with the psychological "mechanisms" that allegedly move children and adults to "advance" to a "higher stage" of moral and cognitive adequacy.  If we seek lessons here for the development of ecological conscience and, at the same time, attend too closely to Kohlberg's ideas regarding the refinement and advancement of concepts such as rights and of theories of justice, we may lose more than we gain.  Ecological morality may well follow rules and stages of development that are unique to it.17  (There are, after all, fundamental differences between social ecological morality; the foremost being that social morality deals with communities of persons, while ecological morality deals with a person's interrelationships with the natural community.) Accordingly, we might be best advised to deal with the theoretical core of Kohlberg's thought -- those general psychological theories of cognitive change, development, and growth that Kohlberg has ingeniously adopted from the work of the last Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget.  Because it is more general and drawn from a variety of psychological theories and studies, this "core" may be less controversial than the "peripheral" application of social morality.  At the very least, the core of Kohlberg's thought, unlike the periphery, is clearly applicable to environmental ethics.

The essential core concepts and principles of Kohlberg's (and Piaget's) thought that might be applicable to the development of ecological conscience and morality are as follows:

(a) First, the human mind seeks order and structure.  (This, I understand, is a central principle of cognitive psychology).  Cognitive structure is sought both consciously and subconsciously, and once a pattern of cognitive structure is adopted, it tends to be maintained unless and until it is found to be clearly inadequate and inferior to a newly acquired structure.  (See item (c), below).

(b) Cognitive structures can only order and reorder, assimilate, and re-assimilate concepts that are available and intelligible to the individual at his particular developmental stage.  Alien and incomprehensible concepts cannot be components of a cognitive structure.

(c) Cognitive structures are abandoned when they are found to be inadequate for the task of dealing with unique experiences and circumstances (i.e., "inadequate" in that they lack clarity, consistency, coherence, and comprehensiveness) -- and when more adequate structures appear to be available and at hand which can be constituted of familiar and available experiences and concepts.  It is at this point that the opportunity for cognitive growth arises.

(d) Cognitive growth follows from "dissonance" to "resolution." "Dissonance" may be described as a felt or perceived incapacity of the current cognitive structure to explain, comprehend, and resolve problems that are before the individual; or, it may be a failure, in the face of such problems, to harmonize apparently divergent and inconsistent components of the structure.  "Resolution" occurs when the mind "grasps" a superior (or "a more cognitively adequate") mode of organizing cognitive elements -- i.e., a new, "higher," stage of cognitive structure -- which serves to solve the previously recalcitrant problems.  Thus, dissonance is essential to resolution and thus to cognitive growth.

(e) The "stages" of cognitive development are ordered sequentially, and completely; that is to say, cognitive growth takes place in stages that are encountered in invariable order, with no "skipping" of stages.  (But not all individuals achieve the "highest" stage of cognitive development.) This is due to the logical ordering of these stages -- i.e., earlier stages are logically prerequisite to late stages.  Because this final claim might appear unduly dogmatic, some elaboration is in order.  Consider, for example, the development of the concept of "equal rights" and "just law." In the first case, to have a sense that others have equal rights to one's own (a concept that emerges in Kohlberg's third stage), one must first have a sense of one's own rights (a notion that arises in stage two).  In the latter case, to seek, in "post-conventional morality" (stages five and six) the grounds of evaluation of convention and law, one must first have a concept of "convention" and "legal authority" (which are the grounds of the "conventional" morality of stages three and four).  In short, Kohlberg's stages of moral cognition are sequential and complete for the simple reason that each stage logically incorporates its predecessors.  This explains, of course, why stages cannot be "skipped."

Kohlberg's theory of moral development has some significant implications for teaching method.  First of all, the importance of role playing to moral education becomes paramount.  Moral thinking and moral judgment beyond the pre-conventional stages requires personal abstraction -- i.e., the capacity to view oneself as one of many participants in social interaction and, furthermore, the capacity to think in terms of the good of all rather than the good of oneself merely.  Moral philosophers speak of this as "taking the moral point of view."

To encourage and develop this perspective of "the moral spectator," Kohlberg prescribes a teaching method which employs a varied menu of parables and hypothetical problems involving difficult moral decisions.  These problems not only test and expand the capacity to view problems from the point of view of others (i.e., to play roles), but they also test and strain one's current state of moral cognition -- put it in a state of cognitive dissonance.  If moral teaching is well executed, the method creates a condition of "creative dissonance." Finding that familiar cognitive structures are failing to resolve the problems before him, the student grasps at, and occasionally finds and assimilates, new and more adequate stage of moral cognition.

Kohlberg's teaching methodology is Socratic rather than discursive.  The student can not be "given" a new stage of moral cognition; instead, he must discover it for himself.  Higher stages of moral cognition develop "from within" and are created out of pre-existing concepts and experiences.  The teacher is not a "conveyer"; he is a "facilitator." The student grows only when he "sees" the greater cognitive adequacy of a newer and "higher" structure.  But he must do the "seeing" for himself.  If the teacher attempts too much, too soon, the student is not able to reassemble and restructure his thought and thus "make the jump" to a higher stage.  Indeed, when faced with the anxiety of apparent moral chaos, he might even regress to an earlier, more "comfortable," stage.  It is apparent that Kohlberg has great confidence in the efficacy of "pre-conscious cognition" -- that is, of "naive wisdom."18  Thus, he relies upon the capacity of the student to evaluate, classify, process, structure, and restructure experience and concepts, even when the student is not explicitly aware that these cognitive processes are taking place.

Kohlberg offers a profoundly optimistic view of moral development.  Thus, one of the first critical responses must be: "If all this is true about human moral development, then why is the world in such moral disorder?"  Clearly there is something missing in Kohlberg's theory, for while it may, at best, account for moral growth and development, it offers little explanation of moral fixation, moral failure, and moral regression.19

Given Kohlberg's cheerful account of moral development, how are we to explain moral atavism? One explanation might be that the individual may find himself amidst circumstances that do not encourage role playing.20  Another possibility is that excessive dissonance, rather than encouraging greater cognitive scope, may lead to anxiety, rejection, and regression to an earlier stage.  thus, finding oneself in a stage of acute moral anxiety, one may seek, not a more "adequate" cognitive structure among unfamiliar and untried models of thought, but rather one may regress to the comfort of familiar, earlier, modes of thought -- regardless of their cognitive inadequacy.  (This account, of course, parallels Freud's explanation of regressive behavior.  It may also serve to explain reactionary political movements.) Finally, a "higher stage" individual may find himself immersed in a social milieu that exemplifies a lower stage of moral cognition.  (Some practical folks might characterize this as "the real world of dog-eat- dog competition.) "Cognitive adequacy" might thus lose out to pressures to "conform" to prevailing moral perceptions and precepts.  This last condition might, in fact, explain some of the apparent regression from "post-conventional" to "conventional" stages that some of Kohlberg's subjects have recently displayed.  These individuals, now into their thirties, have completed their formal education an have moved into the so- called "real world."



We are prepared, at last, to consider how these considerations of moral psychology might apply to ecological morality.  We may do so by posing these questions: first, is there a "naive wisdom" in the ecological morality expounded by Aldo Leopold in his "Land Ethic" and also advocated by poets, artists, naturalists, adventurers, and environmental activists? What facts, experiences, and insights function preconsciously and prediscursively to bring forth a sense of solicitude, care, and responsibility toward nature? Second, does "The Land Ethic" describe a "higher state" of morality -- "higher" in Kohlberg's sense, in that it provides a greater "cognitive adequacy" for resolving the problems that we face both generally, as natural creatures in a natural environment, and condition in history? In this brief space I cannot offer a detailed answer to these questions.  I might suggest, however, a sketch of a response to them.

Consider first a few items of fact, conjecture, and belief that are widespread, or if not widespread, nonetheless well- founded or strongly supported by scientific evidence -- cognitive factors that might well encourage, through preconscious assimilation and explicit reflection, a strong sense of ecological conscience.  First, consider some hard facts, largely drawn from the sciences of biology and ecology.  It is a fact that man is a natural creature, both in his origin and in his sustenance.  During virtually all of his biotic history, Homo Sapiens has lived in and evolved out of natural environments.  It is also a fact that our species is sustained by an integrated and interdependent life community.21 When Leopold writes of mankind as part of a community, he is writing not of a mere ideal; he is describing a hard fact.  Leopold also appears to be on objectively and factually solid grounds when he writes, "in human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating." And why is this so? Because "it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless in community life.  It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves." the scientist, Leopold observes, "knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood."22  Leopold is correct, in the first place, because practically speaking, we cannot understand all there is to know about that which we purport to "conquer" -- namely, nature.  But this omniscience is not only practically impossible, it is also logically impossible, for we are, in fact, members of the very system of which some of us would pretend to be masters.  But we cannot know that system, for the simple but interesting reason that, as a part of that system, our very attempts to know the system alters the system.  An attempt to "get ahead of" that process is as futile as an attempt to catch one's shadow or a rainbow.

If all this is so, then the "Abrahamic," "land-as-commodity" ethic will not work under the evolved conditions of modern civilization.  Such an exploitative ethic will not work simply because it cannot accomplish what it pretends to accomplish, namely, a maximization of security and enjoyment for mankind, the intended beneficiary of this exploitation.  Such a policy clearly fails even the test of utilitarian morality, not to mention other traditional theories of morality.

A moment ago, I made note of the biological fact that our species has, "for all of its biotic history, ..  lived in and evolved out of natural environments." We have scarcely touched upon the enormous implications of hat stark fact.  One implication of possibly profound significance is that we might have a genetically coded "need" for natural environments.  As the botanist, Hugh Iltis, writes:

..  Every basic adaptation of the human body, be it the ear, the eye, the brain, yes, even our psyche, demands for proper functioning access to an environment similar, at least, to the one in which these structures evolved through natural selection over the past 100 million years..

..  like the need for love, the need for nature, the need for its diversity an beauty, has a genetic basis.  We cannot reject nature from our lives because we cannot change our genes.

If Iltis and other biologists are correct, then, in a deep sense (pervading both conscious and preconscious awareness and response) we feel "at home" in natural surroundings.  Conversely, a destruction of natural environmental and systems, even the mere contemplation of such destruction, might thus strike a deeply dissonant "note" in our biotic-neural-psychological sensitivities.  Surely these psychological consequences of our genetic "need" for natural stimuli and environments must play a part in the development and exercise of "naive wisdom" and favorably dispose those "in tune" with their natural surroundings and origins to an ethic of environmental restraint and responsibility.24

As both moral philosophers and moral psychologists suggest quite forcefully, healthy human beings need to direct their concern toward and invest their loyalties in enduring projects and ideals.  Surely the most pervasive and enduring object of loyalty is the natural environment itself, which preceded mankind, nurtured it as a species, and which sustains us now.  To contemplate even the possibility of the destruction of nature and or our species by our own hand and through our own greed and folly -- to merely contemplate such calamity -- must devastate our collective morale.

To summarize: there appears to be good and compelling reason and evidence for the general public to accept and acknowledge these fundamental facts: that our species has its origin and sustenance in natural environments; that we have evolved a genetic need to encounter and to live "in tune with" natural surroundings; and that we have a basic psychological need for concerns and loyalties that transcend our immediate selves and the immediate places and moments of our lives.  All these facts, consciously known and acknowledged, or preconsciously apprehended, might incline even a nonreflective mind to assent to a "land ethic."25

We move next to our second summary question: "Does an ecological morality offer greater cognitive adequacy and a resolution of cognitive dissonance?" Well, what "dissonance" do we face, with a man-centered and a "now-centered" orientation? Is the prospect of the destruction of nature, just noted, pleasant to contemplate? Can we contemplate the vastness of time and biotic variety and complexity, and casually consent to the destruction thereof in our brief lifetimes? Can we, without moral anguish, hold the future of civilization in our careless hands -- and crush it? When we acknowledge the presence of DDT in mothers' milk, strontium 90 and mercury in our seafood, acid rain falling on our lakes, forests, and farmlands, a daily net increase of a quarter million persons on the face of the Earth, the weekly extinctions of dozens and perhaps hundreds of species -- must we not conclude that we have not qualified ourselves to fulfill the role of "Abrahamic conquerors"and managers of nature? Might we not entertain the possibility that we cannot fulfill this role, and that, as a consequence, sizable portions of natural regions and ecosystems should be left to exist in magnificent independence and autonomy" In short, is it not all too apparent that the anthropocentric viewpoint has simply not done the cognitive and practical work that we have hoped and expected that it might do? -- that it leaves us with too many puzzles and paradoxes? Do we not need, and need desperately, to find and grasp a new orientation? Do we not urgently need to acknowledge that "the moral paradox" obtains also in the natural community -- that there is "a paradox of ecological morality" which tells us that mankind's best interests will be obtained by not directly seeking mankind's best interest, but rather by acknowledging and regarding ourselves to be what we are in fact -- "plain citizens" and members of the community of life that created us and which sustains us? If all this is true, and we are aware of these truths, then it is fundamentally inconsistent, which is to say "cognitively dissonant," for us to regard ourselves as community members in fact (as the life sciences demonstrate), and yet to pretend to be masters and the ultimate justification of that community in the moral sense.  It is time to resolve that dissonance into a new stage of moral awareness -- into an ecological morality.  But the time to do so may be brief, for conditions of our very making, which are not being brought so forcefully to our anguished attention, may soon overwhelm us and leave us with no capacity to respond intelligently and effectively.  A resolution to act forcefully and appropriately to the biotic emergency before us may best be grounded in an acknowledgment of the fact of our interdependence with the life community, and in responding morally with a revised and reconstructed ethical theory.

According to Kohlberg's scheme, it appears that a historically pivotal moral prophet and teacher, such as a Socrates, a Jesus, a Gandhi, a King, preaches new moral ideas with lasting effect, when they are ideas "whose time has come." The moral prophet has lasting impact and effect when he finds his community in a state of creative cognitive dissonance, and offers a higher stage of resolution which might be enthusiastically and effectively accepted.  Our closing question is this: is Aldo Leopold such a prophet? Is the land ethic an idea whose time has come? If so, then the answer to the title of this essay may be affirmative.  Perhaps we are ready for an ecological morality.

Rawls and Kohlberg might suggest to us that we may have a capacity for an ecological morality, but such a capacity, though necessary for a moral transformation, is not sufficient.  We may resolve our dissonance by ascending to this new stage, but we cannot be certain that we will.  Mankind's readiness for an ecological morality may be determined within the course of our lives, according to the content and conduct of our lives.  Quite possibly the fate of our civilization, our posterity, our species, even of the biotic community itself, rests portentously upon the answer to that question: "Are we ready for an ecological morality?"


1.  Aldo Leopold, "The Land Ethic," A Sand County Almanac.  (New York: Ballantine Books, 1970).  p.  240.

2.  Ibid., p. 237.

3.  Ibid., p. 238.

4.  Ibid., p  238.

5.  Ibid., p. 262.  Moral philosophers will find much to quibble with here, but as a slogan, this statement has merit.  Of course, an uncompromising determination to preserve ecological diversity and stability can exact enormous human costs, but as a statement of prima facie value, this may not be far off the mark.

6.  Several historians of philosophy attribute this "shrinkage" to the shift of political power from the autonomous Greek city- states to the distant political center of Imperial Rome.  See, for instance, W.  T.  Jones, History of Western Philosophy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1969), vol.  1, pp.  315-7.

7.  These "logical and conceptual issues" are, strictly speaking, metaethical.  However, the clarity of this presentation is better served by this order: conceptual clarification (metaethics), prescription (normative ethics), and justification (metaethics again).

8.  Lawrence Kohlberg, "From Is to Ought: How to Commit the Naturalistic Fallacy and Get Away with it in the Study of Moral Development," in T.  Mischel, ed., Cognitive Development and Epistemology, (New York: Academic Press, 1971), pp.  190-93.  See also John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p.  512.

9.  In all fairness to Rawls, the omitted center portion of that passage should be cited here to indicate Rawls's tentativeness and reservations: "Now one may think of moral philosophy at first (and I stress the provisional nature of this view) as the attempt to describe our moral capacity; or in the present case, one may regard a theory of justice as describing our sense of justice" (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p.  46).

10.  In this regard, Rawls explicitly cites the work of the linguist Noam Chomsky (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p.  47).

11.  See Rawls's discussion of "the circumstances of justice," A Theory of Justice, pp 126-30.

12.  Interestingly, Aldo Leopold, who, a generation ago, anticipated so much of our generation's moral philosophy.  anticipated the significance of "naive wisdom" to moral insight in general and to ecological ethics in particular.  He wrote: "An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social expediency is not discernable to the average individual.  Animal instincts are modes of guidance for the individual in meeting such situations.  Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct in-the-making." (A Sand County Almanac, p.  239.)

13.  I am, of course, summarizing in this paragraph the findings of writings in philosophy and psychology.  Just as a start, consider Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons," Science, 162 (1968): 1243-48, Ullmann-Margalit's The Emergence of Norms (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), Rawls's A Theory of Justice.  See also the writings of Michael Scriven, Stephen Toulmin, Marcus Singer, and Kai Nielsen.  And again, for more indications of Aldo Leopold's astonishing anticipation of the "Good Reasons Approach" to moral philosophy, see pages 238-41 of "The Land Ethic."

14.  Lawrence Kohlberg, "The Claim of Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment," Journal of Philosophy 70 (1973): 632.

15.  Note the title (cited earlier) of one of Kohlberg's important papers: "From Is to Ought: How to Commit the Naturalistic Fallacy and Get away with It.." Important criticisms of Kohlberg's theory have been published by the following philosophers: R.  S.  Peters and W.  P.  Alston (following Kohlberg's "From Is to Ought"), and also by R.  G.  Hensen and K.  Baier.  I am particularly disturbed by the problem of the ambiguity of Kohlberg's data, and the consequent opportunity for ad hoc interpretation and justification of the theory.  (In this respect, Kohlberg's theory may share a weakness with that of Freud).

16.  Critiques of Kohlberg by several psychologists are reviewed in Howard Muson's "Moral Thinking: Can It Be Taught?" Psychology Today 12, no.  9 (February, 1979): 48-68, 92.

17.  Quite possibly the student of ecological morality might learn more from the cognitive development of nonmoral values, such as aesthetic values.  After all, an important ingredient of an ecological morality is an appreciation of the experience of natural landscapes and environments.  In this regard, see "The Environment and the Aesthetic Quality of Life," Journal of Aesthetic Education, 4, no.  4 (October 1970): 5-140; also, Michael J.  Parsons, "A Suggestion Concerning the Development of Aesthetic Experience in Children." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1976): 305-14.

18.  This is a conjecture on my part.  In his earlier work, Kohlberg denied that "regression" could take place.  Recently he has apparently had second thoughts about this.  See Muson, "Moral Thinking," op.  cit.

19.  Again, Kohlberg has recently acknowledged that some of his longitudinal study subjects may have "regressed" to earlier stages.  See Muson, "Moral Thinking," p.  54.

20.  Herein may be found an unanticipated and troublesome consequence of the evolving preference of children for TV viewing and their involvement in supervised "Little League" team play in place of the informal, unsupervised playground activity that was the norm of previous generations.  Implicit moral lessons may be "forced" upon a group of youngsters that meet, on their own, to play softball or tough football without coaches or referees.  For instance, they learn that competition must take place in a context of tacit cooperation and role playing.

21.  Usually this interdependence is described macro-ecologically -- in terms of our "external" involvements with other species.  For a startling account of micro-ecology ("internal involvements"), see Lewis Thomas' superb book, Lives of a Cell.  (New York: Viking Press, 1974).

22.  Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, pp.  240-1.

23.  Hugh Iltis, "To the Taxonomist and the Ecologist, Whose fight is the Preservation of Nature," BioScience 17 (1967): 887.

24.   I have examined and defended this idea at some length in my paper, "Why Care about the Future," in Partridge, ed., Responsibilities to Future Generations (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981), pp.  203-20.

25.  An anonymous editorial writer in the New Yorker observes: "[How presumptuous] for a single generation, such as our own, to imagine that its wants and its political causes might conceivably justify our jeopardizing; not just our inheritance, political and otherwise, but our inheritors as well -- our sons and grandsons and the myriad unborn generations whose hopes and achievement we cannot know.  It takes truly colossal arrogance, Is it possible that our generation thinks its own transient conflicts more weighty than the infinity of the human future?" New Yorker, 13 May 1972, reprinted in Partridge, ed., Responsibilities to Future Generations, pp.  21-2.


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 .