When I arrived in
Saratov, Russia, the afternoon before I was to address a
plenary session of the conference, the organizer urged me to
give a paper that would be "general" and would be accessible to
"a non-technical audience." This was not the paper that
I had prepared, nor the topic that was announced in the program
-- "disequilibrium ecology." What to do? That evening I
searched my laptop computer for an unpublished work that I
might adapt for occasion. I found what I was looking for in my
address, two years earlier, to the St. Petersburg Society of
Naturalists. The following, while a recognizable "descendant"
to the St. Petersburg address with the same title, appears to
be an improvement and thus will replace the earlier
No one is against "progress," it would seem. Of course not! The
very word "progress" connotes "improvement" -- a positive value
It is all too easy, however, to forget that the "gain" of progress
is usually a net gain: "gained," that is, at a price.
Moreover, if we fail to pay that price, the gains may well be
forfeited. Franklin Roosevelt put it well, when he quoted the
Biblical text: "To whom much is given, much is expected." And he
spoke for our generation too, when he added, "This generation ... has
a rendezvous with destiny!"
We are, without question, in the midst of unprecedented progress,
as the scope of knowledge and the power of technology expand at an
ever-accelerating pace. This is too obvious to us all to require
justification or elaboration. What is not so obvious, albeit possibly
more significant, is the fact that the burden of moral responsibility
inexorably grows with the expansion of science and technology. And
few will assert that our moral progress has kept pace with our
knowledge and capacities. Moreover, there is an influential body of
theory and practice, growing out of policy studies, economics, and
the social sciences, that is attempting to evade the burden of
responsibility. Instead, such efforts threaten to objectify -- and
thus, in effect, to dehumanize -- humanity and its projects.
The expansion of science and technology has paradoxically, both
put the life-support system of our planet in peril, and has offered
us intimations of how we might avoid the emergencies brought about by
our own cleverness. The recently emerging realization that our very
biotic sustenance may be vulnerable to the careless applications of
our knowledge and craft has given rise to the new field of
Environmental Ethics, and this in turn bears radical
implications for environmental education and policies.
My preferred definition of "Environmental Ethics" comes to this:
"humanity's responsibility to nature and the future."
Interestingly, while ethics is old (arguably older than
Philosophy itself), environmental ethics is very new. (I
would guess that over ninety-five percent of all English-language
scholarly works in the field have been published within the past
fifteen years, and almost none before the first Earth Day in 1970).
Why is this so? Because only within the past quarter century has the
professional and general public come to appreciate that nature
itself is vulnerable to human technology and numbers. A mere
fifty years ago, the very idea that the common oceans and atmosphere
could be seriously affected by human impacts, would have seemed
preposterous -- they were simply too vast to be affected by us. Now
we know better, as such terms as "ozone depletion," "global warming,"
and "biodiversity" enter into our common vocabulary. And so, along
with our capacity to affect the common biosphere, and with our
growing knowledge of these consequences, has necessarily emerged
This is ironic, for this enormous moral burden upon our generation
has come about through the success of the sciences, described by
their practitioners as "value free," and by the capacities of
technology, regarded by working engineers as supremely "practical"
and "results oriented." Neither are they prepared, by training and
too often by inclination, to deal with moral implications of their
"successes." As the popular American satirist, Tom Lehrer, puts it so
well: "Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's
not my department..."
So the "benefits" of our progress exacts costs? Very well, what
benefits (and to whom) are worth what costs (to whom)? How are we to
weigh costs and benefits in the present, to benefits and costs in the
remote future? As we attempt to preserve, and perchance even restore,
the natural environment, in whose behalf should we be working?
Ourselves? Our nation? Mankind at large? Sentient animals? All life?
Gaia -- the planetary ecosystem itself? What moral concepts
apply to environmental issues? Rights and Duties? Justice? Moral
Agency? The are the questions raised by Philosophers.
In just the past five years or so, "environmental ethics" in a
shallow sense, has received considerable attention in the American
philosophical profession, as several new textbooks have been
published, reflecting the appearance of numerous courses in the field
throughout the land. By and large, the profession treats
"environmental ethics" as just another type of "applied ethics" --
along with medical ethics, legal ethics, teaching ethics,
business ethics, and so on. All of the above deal with questions
of the implications of medicine, the law, teaching, business, etc.
for the rights, dignity and welfare of persons. In all these
cases, the subjects of moral concern (i.e., "moral patients") are,
quite correctly and uncontroversially, seen to be human beings.
Similarly, environmental ethics, in the "shallow sense," is seen as a
study of the moral implications, for persons, of various
policies and practices regarding the natural environment. Thus
interpreted, environmental ethics is an "applied" outgrowth of
conventional ethical theory and environmental science, and by no
means on the "leading edge" of philosophical development.
However, environmental ethics in a deeper sense bears
revolutionary implications for moral philosophy and public policy --
implications that have generally been ignored by the mainstream of
the philosophical profession. For the first time since the
Renaissance and the rise of secular philosophy, there is now a
significant alternative to the human-centered ethics of our Western
tradition. Now it is being seriously proposed that mankind (and by
possible extension, sentient animals) may not be the only entities to
demand our moral attention. We may, to put it bluntly, not only have
duties to people and higher animals, but also to trees, to species,
and to ecosystems -- and not only with regard to their effects upon
people, but simply "in their own right." If such claims can be
robustly argued and sustained, then moral philosophy may be due for a
CRITERIA OF MORAL RESPONSIBILITY
I have suggested somewhat informally that the growth of science
and technology have increased the burden of moral responsibility upon
our generation. It is time now to offer a more detailed argument.
Over the years, I have developed a conceptual analysis of "moral
responsibility" which, I believe, reflects the essence of its
application in law and ethics. It is as follows: To say that a
person is "responsible" for an act entails:
(a) That person has knowledge of the
consequences of the act.
(b) That person has the capacity to do the act.
(c) The person has the choice not to do it -- i.e., to
(c) The act has value significance -- i.e., it affects
the rights and welfare of others.
Some elaborations: (a) includes a "second-order knowledge
condition" -- i.e., even if one doesn't know the consequences of an
act, one might "know how to find out." This qualification is added to
exclude "plausible deniability" excuses, so attractive to
If, as I believe, these four conditions are together both
necessary and sufficient for moral responsibility, then I submit that
the progress of science (the knowledge condition) and technology (the
capacity/choice conditions) have together made nature vulnerable to
us in ways that affect the rights and welfare of others. It thus
follows that the growth of science and technology have together
increased the burden of moral responsibility to nature and the
This burden of responsibility rests upon us, whether or not we
acknowledge it, just as the saint and the criminal are equally
responsible to respect others' lives and property, notwithstanding
the fact that the former does so, and the latter does not. We cannot
"opt out" of our moral responsibilities: "no decision is a
This is no new insight. We have, in a sense, renewed the biblical
myth of Eden: We have nourished ourselves from the Tree of Knowledge,
and by so doing have "learned of good and evil," and have become
responsible for our disposition of that knowledge. In the words of
Abraham Lincoln, "We cannot escape history; we ... will be remembered
in spite of ourselves."
PRINCIPLES OF ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
There are, I believe, at least two and possibly three fundamental
principles which all environmental philosophers must hold, if they
are to attract serious attention from their peers. They are:
-- THE PRINCIPLE OF NATURALISM.
Homo Sapiens is
a natural species, evolving from and sustained by a complex
and functioning ecosystem.
-- THE PRINCIPLE OF AGENCY: Homo Sapiens has the ability
(not always realized) to use language, acquire knowledge, imagine
alternative futures, use abstract reasoning, act according to rules,
recognize the personhood of others, and to realize other capacities.
All these, together and in integration, constitute moral
agency and responsibility.
It follows from these two principles, that a successful
environmental ethic must combine the insights of both the sciences
and the humanities: the sciences to teach us about "human
nature" and the "non-human nature" with which we must deal, and the
humanities to instruct us as to the nature and implications
of our moral agency and responsibility.
-- THE PRINCIPLE OF HOLISM. The ecosystem is a systemic whole,
of which human beings are a part. Accordingly, "the whole informs the
parts:" the ecosystem, and mankind's place and responsibility within,
is best understood "contextually," from the perspective of the
This is the insight of Aldo Leopold, the esteemed American
naturalist who wrote that: "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
Given the secure status of the scientific enterprise in commerce
and higher education, one might suppose that the Principle of
Naturalism should not require extraordinary defense. And in fact, the
environmental educator and ethicist might well take care that this
principle not overwhelm the other two principles: Agency and
Even so, there are voices among the neo-classical economists and
technologists that are quite unimpressed by scientific qualms and
warnings about "the limits to growth" and "natural constraints" such
as the laws of thermodynamics. According to these hardy optimists,
human ingenuity, motivated by economic forces, will solve all
imaginable problems. There are, they say, no limits to human growth
and resource consumption.
Time constraints forbid further examination of the promises of
such "cornucopians" as Herman Kahn and Julian Simon - an exercise
that I have conducted at length elsewhere.
PRINCIPLE OF AGENCY
When it comes to "moral agency," the sciences face considerable (I
would suggest, insurmountable) difficulties. "Moral agency" is our
capacity to make autonomous and free decisions in accordance with
normative principles and rules of reasoning, and thus to be held
responsible for these decisions. It is a precondition of morality
itself., for in a world without moral agents, however sentient the
beings therein, there is no justice, no rights, no duties, no
responsibilities, no virtues or vices. And yet, the logic of science
dictates that the body of science be restricted to
description organized into a non-evaluative structure of
concepts, laws and theories.
Moral agency is nothing less than the essence of our humanity. It
is that which gives our lives and projects their intrinsic value --
in a word, that which makes our lives most interesting and
worthwhile. And yet, according to the fundamental rules of science,
"values" are excluded from the content (though not from the
activity) of science. This exclusion, I daresay, is
justifiable, once we understand the foundations of science. What is
not justifiable, is the further suggestion that values and moral
conduct are without rational foundation, (a suggestion, I regret to
say, which is defended by many prominent philosophers of this
Century). Quite the contrary, we should hesitate to commit an act or
to embark upon a project, unless we are prepared to offer a
reasonable justification for our choice.
The standing of "the Agency Principle" in environmental ethics and
policy is in constant peril, as our humanity is assaulted by
commerce, the media, and by over-reaching practitioners of such "soft
sciences" as classical (formal) economics, sociology, and behavioral
psychology. I turn next to an account of how such "over-reaching" can
threaten to exclude humane values in the formulation of public
POLICY AND THE FLIGHT FROM EVALUATION
"Public policy-making" is the deliberate attempt by governments
and civic organizations, to choose among alternative courses of
action which will variably affect the rights and welfare of persons,
now and into the future. All relevant knowledge and technology bears
upon policy decisions-making. Accordingly, policy-making is by
definition, involved in evaluation -- which is to say,
ethics. And policy-makers are likewise unavoidably burdened
with moral responsibility. (Recall the criteria of
responsibility: knowledge, capacity, choice and value
And yet, strange to say, much the public policy-making of the past
generation has been characterized by a flight from evaluation. When I
was an undergraduate, Daniel Bell, a Harvard sociologist, published
his very influential book, The End of Ideology. That title
tells the gist of it: with the coming maturation of the sciences of
behavior and society, notably his own field of sociology and of
economics, public policy making was to become an enterprise of
"social engineering" -- objective, quantitative, descriptive, and
above all, "value free," just like the physical sciences which
"policy science" was to emulate.
"Value-free policy science" suffered a cruel fate:
Success. It was allowed a few decades of unfettered trial,
which vividly displayed its errors. Thus we saw how the economic
component "objectively" reduces all values to the common denominator
of money. The next step is obvious: public policy is thus
determined on the basis of "Cost-Benefit analysis, which means that
the only values deemed relevant for policy considerations are the
values of the individual consumer. Systematically excluded are the
values of the citizen, the patriot, the artist, the scholar, the
lover, and the parent -- except, of course, to the degree that these
can be "cashed in." Also excluded from policy considerations are all
interested parties incapable of participating in markets: namely, the
very poor, children, other species, future generations, and the
natural environment in and for itself.
Moral virtue and vice, individual dignity, distributive justice:
all these are set aside as our humanity is first objectified and then
ignored. As Philosopher Mark Sagoff so astutely puts it: "the
cost-benefit approach 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."
But "willingness to pay" at best reports a value, it does
not validate it. Says the classical economist, "How much is
a wilderness worth? I'll tell you, once I find out what the public is
willing to pay to preserve it.!" To which the moral philosopher
replies, "you have the issue exactly reversed! What we need to know
is what the public should be willing to pay. And before the
thoughtful citizen answers your question of what he is willing to
pay, he must first ask himself 'What is this wilderness worth? Once I
decide that, then I can tell you what I am willing to pay.' And that
prior question, 'What is this wilderness worth?' is an ethical, not
an economic, question."
My quarrel here, I hope you will notice, is with so-called
"neo-classical" economists who, sadly, have come to dominate the
discipline in the United States, and who have a dominating influence
upon governmental decision-making. In that same profession of
economics, my heros are the dissenting "ecological economist" - such
as Robert Costanza, Herman Daly, Kenneth Boulding and Nicolas
The neo-classical economic-descriptive, cost-benefit assessment of
society culminates in that grand statistic, "the Gross National
Product" (now called the "Gross Domestic Product"). To the humane
observer, the GNP also testifies to the moral absurdity of the
economic-descriptive approach to policy. In the inaugural speech of
his ill-fated presidential campaign of 1968, Robert Kennedy gave us
this eloquent indictment of "value-free policy assessment:"
The Gross National Product ... counts air
pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear
our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors
and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the
destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonders
in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and
armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.
It counts [the killer's] rifle and [the
rapist's] knife and the television programs which glorify
violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross
National Product does not [include] the health of our
children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their
play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the
strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public
debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures
neither our wit nor our courage, our wisdom nor our learning,
neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It
measures everything, in short, except that which makes life
worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America, except
why we are proud that we are Americans.
In sum, so-called "value-free policy science" is a
self-contradiction -- incoherent at its core. Because "policy"
involves informed choices among graded options, affecting the welfare
and rights of others, it is inalienably evaluative -- an exercise in
applied ethics. The humanistic-evaluative element in policy-making is
not only desirable, as it surely is, it is also
unavoidable. If we must evaluate in our public
policy, then let us do it well. And if we are to be true to our
democratic traditions, then we must involve an informed and educated
Environmental policy cannot be turned over completely to the
scientists, the technologists, and their journalistic and political
promoters. For if we do, then humane and moral values will be
factored out -- "subjective, relativistic, unquantifiable," and thus
irrelevant. But neither will uninformed moral enthusiasm suffice.
Environmental responsibility, let us recall, implies
knowledge and capacity. Accordingly, if we are to
be truly responsible for our collective decisions, we must be
scientifically and technologically informed. Environmental policy
must stand on the two legs of science and the
humanities. Otherwise, it will fall. To paraphrase Immanuel
Kant, "The humanities without the sciences is empty; the sciences
without the humanities is blind."
Copyright 1999 by Ernest Partridge