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Aldo Leopold and Environmental Ethics

While browsing through a few of my old documents, I came upon this paper written for an environmental ethics course I took at Texas A&M in the spring of 2005. I believe this was the final paper of the semester, but I found it interesting and figured I would share.

Prompt: In regards to environmental ethics choose and defend one of the following viewpoints, as well as give its closest competitor: Anthropocentrism, Sentientism, Biocentric individualism, Holism.

“The Main Question

Many different belief systems exist whenever a form of ethics is concerned. These ideals are what have kept the field of ethics and philosophy expanding throughout time. The study of ethics and philosophy has been around as long as written history. While the field of environmental ethics is much younger, it has developed in its short life many different belief systems of its own. Anthropocentrism(humans ultimately matter), sentientism(sentient/conscious beings matter), biocentric individualism(all living things matter), and holism(ecosystems matter) make up the most widely acknowledged and accepted views within this scope of environmental philosophy. All are based on different value systems, each with their own set of rules and beliefs on what counts morally and ethically speaking. In this essay I plan on discussing why I believe anthropocentrism to be the most reasonable of the previously views, and why I believe holism to be its closest competitor.

The Argument for Anthropocentrism

“It is hard to know what to say to someone who would save a mosquito, just because it is rare, rather than a human being if there was a choice.”—Elliot Sober(MR153)

Anthropocentrism is defined as “an inclination to evaluate reality exclusively in terms of human values.” In the scope of environmental ethics it is defined as a view that “only humans have moral standing.”(xviii) One of the big parts of anthropocentrism is the concept of instrumental versus intrinsic value. If something has an instrumental value it is “useful as means to further ends”(xiv) and can be used as a resource or tool for human use. Intrinsic value however is non-instrumental. An object with intrinsic value might not have a direct instrumental value, however has a “value apart from any usefulness it may have as a means for further ends.”(xiv) This is the backbone of anthropocentric thinking; the valuation of the natural world in response to how it affects human life. Anthropocentrism should not be mistaken for the stereotype that if something does not have a sort of instrumental value it is completely worthless and has no value. From an anthropocentric viewpoint one can value the great Redwoods and Sequoias and even a virgin wilderness for not their instrumental but intrinsic value to the human soul.

Outlining Holistic Values

Holism in turn is defined as “the theory that living matter or reality is made up of organic or unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts.” Ecosystems and species count morally speaking, sometimes more so in practice than the individuals within them. Holism I believe to be the second most reasonable of the main belief systems of environmental ethics. It might seem odd that I pick this view over sentientism or biocentric individualism however in theory especially its argument is much stronger. “A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management and use of these “resources”[soil, water, plants, animals], but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots their continued existence in a natural state.”(TR28) Instead of focusing on individual living things, holism focuses on the bigger overall outcome. One example I can give of this is in the case of elephants in Africa where overpopulation has lead to problems with food supply, resulting in a less healthy herd. Culling individuals within the herd would result in a healthier overall population, preserving the well-being of the species. A biocentric individualist and sentientist would argue that the elephants’ individual rights were violated, despite the fact that the herd became more prosperous. It is this concept where I believe holism is more reasonable.

Between Idea and Practice: A Conclusion

As with all questions dealing with ethics, the question must be asked: Where is the line drawn between our beliefs and what is actually practiced? I mentioned above that I believe anthropocentrism to be the most reasonable belief system but I must add that I believe it’s the most reasonable system in practice not necessarily idea. There is no doubt our environment has been severely affected by human action. Is this enough however to drive society to change its ways and return to a way of life in which we use primitive rock tools and scavenge for our food? To me the answer is clear. Humans throughout time have had the attitude that we are separated from the rest of the natural world by our obvious feats of technology and uncanny intelligence. It is this attitude that continues the concept of anthropocentrism in human action; we will always ultimately do what is best for our own way of life, and in doing so the utilization of the natural world as a larger resource will continue. Do I believe this mindset to be wise? Personally I think that in a perfect utopian type of world humans would coexist with nature as one part of a community of living things, living within an ecosystem in a sort of equilibrium, however I also know that there are many things that are part of my way of life such as a car, red meat as part of my diet, and electricity that I would be very reluctant to give up to achieve this goal. Through practice resulting in ideology, the ultimate outcome always seems to concern how something will benefit our existence and way of life. This is the primary reason I believe the arguments for anthropocentrism becomes more powerful than that of holism. “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.”(BR32) Even a proclaimed holist such as Leopold had to acknowedge one of the problems with holism: the cost to human way of life.”


What do you think? Are humans ultimately this dominant and resourceful as to choose to sacrifice all available resources to maintain a certain quality of life? In a debate with a few individuals at land8lounge.com, this to me seemed to be one of the frequent most stated arguments. People use excess electricity because it is inexpensive and they can do so without sacrificing their quality of life. What happens though when we start sacrificing the quality of life of other people? Can you be the one to make that decision for others? Will you choose yourself over them? If you cannot buy into the environmental movement, at least buy into the humanity movement. Eventually those that pay the price on the bottom, will not only have their quality of lives at stake, but their survival as well.

December 10th, 2009
Topic: Walking the Walk Tags: None

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