Sunday, March 8, 2015

Living in the Garden, Part II

This is a continuation of an earlier post, in which I argued that the theist should reject an anthropocentric environmental ethic— one in which human interests alone dictate our interaction with the environment. I turn my attention now to the possibility that theistic ethics is committed to deep ecology, which asks us to consider all of the elements of the natural environment as having intrinsic value.

I began to take deep ecology seriously on a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the park there is a cinder cone—a small mountain of volcanic ash. The park service constructed a spiral path up to its summit which nicely complemented the shape of the cone. Sadly, some hiker, reaching the top of the cinder cone, took the short way down, and left deep scars in its side.

It seemed to me that the errant hiker had done something wrong. This is easy to explain in anthropocentric terms: He had diminished the enjoyment that future visitors would have in viewing the cone. But my sense was that the wrong he did went beyond that. I found it hard to account for this intuition, however. It makes little sense to say that he harmed the mountain. One can argue that animals are entitled to moral consideration because they are sentient, or because they have interests. But mountains do not feel pain, nor do they have goals. Can a mountain have rights? Surely not.

Perhaps what we need is a broader conception than that of a right, and we find that in the notion of deference. To defer to someone ordinarily means to submit to their wishes, but the term can take a broader significance, as it does in the Daoist (Taoist) tradition in China. To defer to someone, or something, is to refrain from asserting oneself over it. It is to allow it to do what it is already tending to do. One might defer to the flow of a river by refusing to intervene with its course, e.g. by diverting it. The possession by someone of a right— of a negative right, at least— seems to imply that some form of deference is due to them. If I have a right to walk down the street, your obligation not to impede me is a form of deference. But deference is a broader category; there may be instances of appropriate deference that do not involve rights.

Deep ecology seems to imply an imperative to defer to natural processes as much as possible.

Two questions now arise. First: Why ought we to defer to natural processes? And second: How do we determine the degree to which deference is appropriate? The imperative of deference hopefully doesn’t mean that I must allow myself to be eaten by a hungry bear.

A deep-ecologist might answer the first question by saying that the natural environment has intrinsic value. So the cinder-cone, prior to being defaced by the errant hiker, had a value that he failed to acknowledge, and this is what makes his action wrong. Those who spend much time outdoors may describe natural features as having a numinous quality. This kind of experience may be responsible for certain places taking on a sacred character in the eyes of indigenous people. So we might suppose that the value of the environment lies in the possibility of its exhibiting such a numinous quality.

I find a different approach more satisfying, however— and again I appeal to Daoist sensibilities. Rather than focusing on the value of some particular element in nature, like a mountain, we might say that it is the processes of nature generally that require our deference. But this still leaves open the question of what argument might be made for such a deep-ecological principle.

We might observe in response that fundamental moral values are difficult to argue for, and that we encounter the same difficulty with every attempt to enlarge the sphere of moral concern. It is difficult to persuade an egoist that she ought to care for others; we might also have trouble explaining to a speciesist why the welfare of animals matters. But I hope we are not stuck with this kind of impasse.

I wish now to re-introduce the possibility of a theistic approach. Theism holds that nature is an expression of divine activity, and this ought to cause the theist to show the same sort of deference to the natural environment that a Daoist would show to it. If I come upon Rembrandt in the act of painting, I will be very cautious about doing anything that might interfere with his work. In addition, understanding God as being active in nature will account for the possibility of seeing nature as the domain of the numinous.

Given its commitment to divine creation, the environmental ethic that is most consistent with theism is not anthropocentrism but deep ecology.

But what of the second problem we noticed above; hopefully the theist is not committed to complete non-interference in the workings of nature. Is there a principle which will allow us to balance our deference to nature with some degree of self-assertion? I believe there is— and it comes with the understanding that we ourselves are part of nature. Given this fact, deference to nature, as it is embodied in us, requires us to intervene in non-human processes. We must balance our deference to non-human nature with some degree of self-assertion.

What principle governs this balance? Here I can give only a brief answer: The deep ecologist, theistic or otherwise, must give careful thought to what constitutes real human welfare, and what is necessary for human beings to realize their own distinctive good. On this subject, I’m inclined to agree with Aristotle, who identified the human good with the life of reason. If Aristotle is right about this, we might shudder in horror at the difference between the degree to which we currently exploit nature, and what is truly required for the genuine well-being of humanity.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy 
Sacramento State


  1. David, thanks for developing this topic further. You make an interesting case for a view that I've never been attracted to.

    I wonder, though, if there is a more consilient perspective available. I bet you have the same reaction to someone who damages a work of art. I certainly do. (Of course, you could claim that a work of art, like anything, is the outcome of natural processes, and our default attitude should be one of deference on Deep Ecology principles. But it seems a bit of a stretch, and it seems to risk diluting the perspective of DE to the point where respect for nature is just respect for anything that exists.) It seems to me that what your hiker and, say, ISIS have in common is that they are depriving the world of beauty.

    I'm also inclined to suggest that we be open to the possibility that we can harm beautiful objects, despite the fact that they are not necessarily sentient of goal-directed. Ordinary language proves little, but that is the way we talk about and, I think, experience the destruction of beautiful objects. We damage, defile, and destroy them. And while there is, of course, an anthropocentric interpretation to all this, I think we are equally open to follow the intuition that leads you to DE.

    What if we just took it as axiomatic that any beautiful object can be harmed, and that our default position should be to avoid doing so?

  2. Randy,

    You correctly sense my inclination to develop my DE account teleologically. Ultimately this will be an important step in connecting it with a virtue theory- a connection I could only hint at here.

    But it is intriguing to note the similarity of my DE intuitions here with the revulsion we share at someone wantonly damaging a work of art. And certain we do say that such-and-such might harm a painting. The concept of harm that is at work here deserves closer examination. Does it mean the same thing it means when we speak of harming a human? Paintings and humans are harmed in different ways, of course, but that doesn't mean the term is being employed equivocally.

    Is harm nothing more than damage?

    As I continue to work out my DE position I will have to think more carefully about the non-teleological option you suggest. Thanks for a great comment.

  3. It seems to me that to harm the world or some aspect of it is to subtract value from it. So as long as we are pluralists about value, there should be a lot of different ways of harming the world, which only have to have that in common. Perhaps to harm a goal-directed entity just is to subtract value from its future, whereas to harm something like a piece of art just is to deprive it of beauty.

  4. Another cool post, David! I have a couple of thoughts. What is driving our DE intuitions (if we have them)? Following the art analogy, destroying the beauty of any object might be bad, not because humans are deprived of the aesthetic experience they might have gained from the object's beauty, but because there is less beauty in the world. This reasoning relies on an idea of some values bring good period, as opposed to bring good FOR humans or FOR some other thing. I don't find such reasoning very plausible.
    But you also mention the idea of messing with God's creations. Consider a work of art that nearly everyone finds aesthetically unappealing. (Perhaps only the artist and her parents find it beautiful? ) 50 years after the death of the artist and her parents, the main reason to regain from destroying the artwork might be because someone put a lot of effort into creating something with the intention that it be appreciated in the form that it is currently in. This is not a prefect analogy with God creating nature, since saying God put in a lot of effort seems to diminish his mightiness. Nevertheless, I like your argument that some religious folk should be deferential to nature because to do otherwise messes with God's plan. I doubt the hiker thought that God made a pristine ash cone just for his footprints.
    Still, drawing the line in a principled way could be tricky. You mention natural processes as a potential starting point. Putting aside Randy's worries about whether any product of human agency is also part of a natural process, what counts as insufficiently deferential interference. Let's say that I hand built a large log cabin with water-wheel powered mill to grind my organic wheat. I built all this so as to take advantage of the river's flow without disrupting the ecosystem of the river. (I guess I use various nets and things). Then, there is a big storm and the river moves. I could spend hundreds of hours dismantling and rebuild my cabin plus mill, or I could roll a few large boulders into the river and set it back to its previous course. Did nature fail to be sufficiently deferential to me? That seems a bit unfair to nature, but I might be annoyed at God. I'd be even more annoyed if I also believed that I morally ought not mess with God's plan/the natural process of the river by rolling the bolder into the stream. I don't see beauty as an issue here, rather messing with a natural process. Perhaps we can say that as long as the river gets to take water to the sea, we haven't "harmed" it because we haven't disrupted its central teleology.