The problems with taking an ethical approach to the ecological crisis

The field of environmental ethics is focused at the moment on an attempt to decipher whether or not pragmatic or conceptual approaches can most usefully develop, engage with or explore the issues surrounding environmental issues. Thus it is concerned both with practical and metaethical frameworks. For instance, de Groot et al in a recent paper in the journal, Environmental Ethics, concerned themselves with the pragmatic issue of actual attitudes to the environment, discoverable through empirical research. These findings, they argued, demonstrated that ‘partnership’ was a common self perception amongst the individuals they interviewed. The traditional anthropocentric (Hegelian) “slave-master” arguments that are put forward by environmental ethicists are straw men, they claim, and don’t represent real positions taken by real people on the ground. So there’s a move in the field towards a more empirically-based approach to finding out about actual attitudes, in order to better come to an understanding of the normative concerns and values behind such descriptions. The arguments suggest that theoretical practice has lost sight of actual attitudinal change, which, in turn, comes about because of current environmental concerns. This itself, in turn, influences which metaethical questions are most relevant. Since the field of environmental ethics is so influenced by contemporaneous events, this three way interchange between description of attitudes, analysis of normative values, and engagement with metaethical concerns is fluid, to say the least.

The second major current concern for environmental ethics is the metaethical reassessment of non-anthropocentric theories. While these theories flourished for a while, up until as recently as two or three years ago, more recent work suggests that there is a return, certainly amongst some of the more established environmental ethicists of the age, to a reinvestigation of the prospects for anthropocentrism. In a sense, this is no more than a reflection of the findings of the likes of de Groot: that a guardianship approach to the environment includes and involves a perception of the combination of human and non-human interests into a common cause. Thus the work of Gary Varner appears to be returning to anthropocentrism. In fact, it has been hard for anyone working in the field to ignore the persuasive arguments for anthropocentrism put forward above all by Stephen J. Gould. And those philosophers whose ethical approaches are coloured by their own belief systems – Robin Attfield and Holmes Rolston III, for instance (both Christians, although Attfield, in a personal communication, claimed, interestingly, that his philosophical stance is not influenced by his Christian beliefs) – are more inclined to see the relationship between the human and the non-human in guardianship terms. Only James Sterba and, to a degree, J. Baird Callicott, amongst the ‘heavies’, remain committed to a form of non-anthropocentrism which opens itself up the the possibility of egalitarian valuing of all life.

Thirdly, the field of environmental ethics has become far more multidisciplinary in recent times. While, in a sense, this has always been true of environmental ethics, and in a sense the field only began to be ploughed, if you’ll excuse the pun, by philosophers, long after there was an established interest amongst biologists and geographers, political scientists and psychologists, more recently there has been a particular focus on the cultural ramifications and indices which give an idea of how the nature/culture boundary is seen, and which is included in which. This focus is evident, to a degree, in the work of Slavoj Žižek (although when he says things like, ‘All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself,’ – what? You neglect yourself by flying business class? Then it becomes difficult to take him seriously). More obviously, the nature-culture boundary is explored in the work of Timothy Morton, who edits the site, Thinking Nature. In that publication Ross Wolfe wrote a seminal paper on the interplay between nature and culture which I think demonstrates the massive disconnect that exists between those who relate to the non-human world with respect or compassion and those who see it as ‘monstrous’ or ‘alien’ (both of which are also true, but this is a topic I will return to, in particular, when talking of Zen).

Fourthly, recent work by Dale Jamieson indicates the politicisation of the issues with which environmental ethics concerns itself, most prominently in the work he has undertaken to understand climate change, and attitudes and resistance found there. Although Jamieson himself is seen very much as a philosopher, many of those working in association with him on these issues are political thinkers, or specialists from other areas and the findings take as an underlying assumption the selfishness of both states and individuals, a finding that is itself open to question in the field of philosophy, and even more so if this is explored from a non-dualistic perspective.

And finally, Paul Taylor, who is the author of the book, Respect for Nature, which led to my own research into shifting perspectives, has opened the way for the development of an intersecting of biological research with philosophical implications. So many of the papers to do with the ethical implications of an increasing understanding of the microbial world, combined with a re-analysis of the work of Lynn Margulis, working in the 1970s and 1980s on symbiogenesis and microbial contributions to evolution, have opened up the possibility of a closer reinvestigation into how we perceive entities and systems, and so to the kind and extent (if any) of human responsibility. This means including a consideration of the meaning of evolutionary theory and the debates around cooperation and competition, evolution through DNA mutations or evolution through multi-level selection, and other complications that have come about as a result of ongoing research into the process of evolution.

The work I rely on to develop my own ideas comes from a number of sources. I’m interested in pragmatism as an alternative to ethics, for the simple reason that ethics relies on ideologies and ideologies create dualism between ‘there’ and ‘here’. Pragmatism, on the other hand, merely reflects on what is at hand. In this respect, amongst many others, Ernest Partridge’s work stands out. As far as the Nature/Culture interstice is concerned, I’ve been informed by Morton’s notion of matrices, and by Wolfe’s notion of the acculturation of nature. In terms of multidisciplinarianism, I’ve been informed by recent findings in microbiology and in the recent work taking place on evolutionary theory, particularly as this pertains to relationships between organisms. The notion that issues in environmental ethics have a pragmatic focus which links with political theory has led me to a reexamination of John Rawls, and to looking into the work of Robin Dillon and many others on respect as a concept. Finally, on Paul Taylor’s own recommendation, I’ve been drawn to the literature which relates concepts of respect for nature with an increasing understanding of microbial/ macrobial interrelations. It is this, then, that is the particular area I’ve chosen to use as the prism through which to investigate the prospects of a viable ‘respect for nature’ that correlates with respect for the self and respect for the human other. 

Amongst much other work, incidental but connected to the above, which also informs mine, is the work of Wendell Berry, Ronnie Hawkins and Graham Parkes (who also generously agreed to supervise my work after the untimely death of Dr Thomas Duddy, my previous supervisor). Each of these thinkers has published profound insights into an imaginative or transcendent understanding of the relationship of the (human) individual to the (natural, but also often enculturated) environment. This has led me to a deeper investigation of the varying cultural responses to this problem of ‘seeing’ nature, first through Callicott and Ames’ work, Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, and finally, most significantly, to the work of Master Dōgen Zenji’s Shōbōgenzō. This is where I am at the moment, then: attempting to compare in ways that have been unexplored so far, the potential for Zen, and in particular, the practice-enlightenment that Dōgen talks about, to inform how we understand our place and relationship to self, other and the non-human, in the light of more recent evolutionary research into our origins and the systematic processes of which we are a part. The aim of this research is, therefore, a reiteration of the idea that we have an ability to respond to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in, and that spelling this out is urgent and important. I hope that what I add to the existing calls for action will be wide-ranging, pragmatic and achievable. None of the ideas are, in themselves, new. I am simply combining ideas in a way that has not yet, I think, been envisaged. This parallels the process of evolution itself, which is simply recombination, but out of recombination emerges new forms, and so what arises from my own research is a new perspective on both a very ancient problem – how to live – in the current context – an ecological crisis.



2 thoughts on “The problems with taking an ethical approach to the ecological crisis

  1. I would dearly love it if someone would tell me how I put posts into pages… I worked it out once but I’m finding it hard to find the right buttons to press, particularly because I want to focus on content more than form… your advice (and comments on my limited abilities, if that’s the price I pay!) are welcome. Thanks.

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