environmental ethics: is it immoral for the last human to cut the last redwood?

REDWOOD CUTTING by Vladimir Kush

I took Environmental Ethics to better understand the reasons for man’s behavior in relation to the natural environment. Yet as Hill’s question of ‘what sort of person would destroy the natural environment?’ had been brought up in class, I had agreed with the question raised of whether this was indeed the fundamental question. For to me it was not the fundamental question. What is the fundamental question? I am not entirely sure yet I’ve found that this fundamental question underlies my readings of Burke and Marx in politics, in reading research studies on schizotypal delusions in psychology, in the arguments by Hume and C.S. Lewis concerning the problem of evil in the world and as it relates to the arguments for and against the existence of God. I’ve had this fundamental question lurking in the back of my mind when taking a class titled “Morality and War” and I remember it being with me as I personally rolled out on patrol in a combat zone. Just what is this question?

When one comes to an environmental argument one must also realize that inherent in the argument are the many latent paradigms of the individual; paradigms that might sometimes be contradictory. Philosophy, then, aids us in approaching the arguments itself and discerning what the strengths and weaknesses are. Yet the very separateness of philosophers from ‘the real world’ that earns them the ridicule of the philistines is also their strength in assessing arguments. It is the inability of the philistines to separate themselves from their arguments that makes them slaves to passion, fashion, and majority mobs. As the French poet and philosophy Paul Valery once said, “Conscience reigns but it does not govern.” At times I am inclined to agree with Socrates and do away with the mob… but not yet.
The last few articles that we’ve read have dealt with rights and the extension of those rights to animals, trees, and even ecosystems. These are all very well and good, but I believe them to be flawed. When Guha writes for the inclusion of so-called ‘Third-World’ perspectives and values in environmental problems, when Bookchin writes that Deep Ecology is over-generalized and disconnected, echoing Rolston’s fear of philosophers living in ivory towers cut-off from reality, and not looking at the very real needs in affecting change in the political-socio-economic conditions that are the engines of despair, I am sympathetic. It is hard not to be. Yet at the heart of it all is a paradigm, a worldview, which permeates any system of class or economy that may be superimposed over it.

Often when discussing ancient religions it done with an air that it is primitive philosophy before the discovery of mathematics and logic. It is seen over and over again that primitive religion was our infantile attempts to understand the world around us. Primitive man was, if nothing else, incredibly naïve. However, what if it is modern humans who are the epitome of naivety? To argue this latter claim one must merely walk the streets of Hometown, USA, or turn on the television. We are a people who do not know how to feed ourselves, how to gather the food we eat or where it comes from, or how to take care of ourselves without having to go to the mall to do so. We have lost our sense of relationship with the environment around us. I do not mean this in a romantic sense, but in the very real sense that an average person goes from home to car to office to car to shopping mall to home. We are completely ignorant of the processes that are involved in every facet of our daily lives and yet every person (at least in the USA) by virtue of being alive, feels he has the right to make decisions regarding far reaching and deep impacting issues regarding the environment, warfare, poverty, nuclear weapons, medical accessibility, to name just a few. Many of us are governed by religions that are not only hostile to what we claim separates us from beasts and primitive man, namely conscious rational thought, but also are distrustful and condemning of other religions that have the same anxious and paranoid stances. And we have the ability to go the museum, raise our fingers toward the primitive man, and say with an air of superiority, that he was naïve?
Lynn Whyte, Jr. in his monumental essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” makes the claim that much of problems in or current relationship lies in the underlying notion of a telos in everything. This notion of ‘progress’, he claims, is from the Judeo-Christian traditions and that this, coupled with the belief of man as separate from Nature, we are in for problems. I agree with his assessments; however I am not inclined to blame it all on the Christians. I do not recall reading about Aristotle’s hierarchy of life, nor of Plato’s world of forms and the taint of the flesh, nor of the works of the Stoics. While I am a neo-pagan, I am not quite so ready to say that paganism had it completely correct. Rousseau wrote “life in this state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short”, a sentiment another professor has dubbed ‘The Danny Devito Thesis’. I am no scholar on Rousseau, but allow us to take what he says as a window to the truth.

Something that is missing in many contemporary portrayals of primitive man’s spirituality is the notion of a life’s purpose. It’s been argued by some that man separated himself from ‘animals’ when he pondered the notion of an afterlife. As evidence there are ancient burials where possessions of the deceased are buried as well. As I recall reading Plato’s ‘Apology’ I do not find a purpose in dying. It was natural to die and the soul was immortal, Socrates said, yet it wasn’t the purpose of life to reach the afterlife. Grounded in the very practical world of the here and now, for I cannot imagine the harsh living conditions of primitive man to allow anything but practical behavior, primitive man might have learned quite well the lesson that Nature offers no special leeway for man. Through ages of evolution man developed a brain capable of higher thought. Man was able to create and think outside of the confines of fight and flight, or conditioned response and learned behaviors, of trial and error. Man could create. This still does not impart upon the life of man a purpose, either individually or for the species, but it does give man a rather large advantage in dealing with other animals on the planet.

The question of what sort of person does harm to the natural world, taken in this context, has a different feel to it. A conscious acting animal, capable of rational thought, planning, and foresight, that negatively affects his environment is either an idiot, misinformed, or in the purely human realm… immoral. It isn’t the act of harming the environment that denotes which, but the effects of that harm in relation to the reasons of their employment. There is nothing that is alive does not change its environment in some manner. It is only humans that ask whether it is moral or not. Morality and ethics are nothing if they are not the consideration of outside interests to one’s own. I have asked the question before; can an individual alone on an asteroid with no contact with anything else be immoral? I do not believe so.

Approaching any issue from the starting point that we are lucky benefactors of a long history of genetic survivors in a universe that is indifferent to our individual or species survival radically changes our tone and language. This is, I believe, is more in line with the meanings of a biocentric viewpoint. It isn’t that there is a teleological end for one form or life (or more than one if dogs go to Heaven), but as Pal Taylor says in ‘The Ethics of Respect for Nature’ that “each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way.” It isn’t that we cannot value humans greatly, admire our many accomplishments, and even try for more. It doesn’t mean, I believe, that we must become neo-luddites and move into technology free homes. It means that the universe itself is indifferent. Theists are greatly uncomfortable with this notion. The moral argument for God says that God is the best answer for why we have a conscience. Theists will ask what will prevent a person from doing evil if there is no God to punish evil-doers? They do not like the question why does a good person do good without the potential for punishment, and does this truly constitute good? I think not. It is coercion, not saintliness.

This leads me to Sylvan’s ‘Last Man’ thought experiment. I trust that in the experiment there are no seeds of any redwoods waiting for a forest fire to aid them in germinating, nor any ecological tendencies waiting to work for the growth of another redwood. For the thought experiment to work, I believe, there must be only one redwood and no chance for any other redwood to grow after the cutting of the last one. How would I answer this question given the positions of an indifferent universe above? It would make no matter at all save in the heart and mind of the man who cuts the tree down as I’ve already written that I do not believe morality to exist save in the minds of man. I do take this as different than my asteroid man question, for in this instance the man is acting in relation with another life form. The act, I believe, could be good or bad depending on different situations of the man. If he did so out of spite, then I would concur that the act be a morally bad one. For what higher evolved being would rid the world of the last of a species for pure spite? Cutting it down for shelter, or perhaps as a nurse-log for the growth of Hemlock trees in the future, could possibly be morally good.

Now, in thinking about all of this I am reminded again of criticisms by those such as Bookchin, of this egalitarian view of life that supposedly detracts Deep Ecologists from the real problems. Is a dandelion equal to an oak? If a biocentrist answers yes, I think that the answer is misunderstood by the listener who is caught up with notions of purpose and telos. From the standpoint that each has a good in its own, each has a means of approaching that good, then yes, a dandelion is equal to an oak. In terms of impact on the soil, water usage and storage, habitat for animals, competition for shade and this influence on other plants nearby, the advantage goes to the oak. But while we say such, are we really pressured into ranking the oak as worth more? No, however we can say that from an aesthetic viewpoint, or a utilitarian one, the oak is, for us, worth more. Yet from an ecological perspective, the oak’s purpose is not to provide shade or to inhibit sunlight, or to provide shelter to animals, or to retain water.

Robert Attfield argues in ‘The Good of Trees’ that not all lives are worth living, but that it is possible that “many or even most vegetable lives are worthwhile and of value in themselves.” This is the difference between the ‘last man’ and my ‘man on an asteroid’ for it is clear that on my asteroid there is nothing there, save the man, that has a good of its own yet for the ‘last man’ there is the question of the good of the tree of its own. If we take the position that the tree does not have a good of its own then each man in each scenario is equal in the amoral quality of their action. The crutch of it all is the inherent good of the tree in and of itself.

For me this is answered by two points, both of which I’ve addressed above. The first is that every living organism affects change upon its environment. I am not merely speaking of chemical reactions of rocks releasing carbon atoms into the atmosphere, nor of other forms of non-organic chemical reactions. These are just that, reactions. I am speaking of active agents that do more than simply react, but are active in affecting their environment through primary and secondary (and sometimes even more) causalities. The second point is that the universe has no favorites, neither man nor dandelion nor oak. The second point is to realize that a biocentric viewpoint isn’t an ideal to hold only for high ethical reasons. It is also a viewpoint that, as I’ve stated is my belief, one that more closely mirrors the true nature of reality.

Given that each living organism has a good of its own because it is alive and affects change on the environment around it, and also given that we live in a world that is not human-centric in its mechanisms, acting in a manner where we approached things from a biocentric viewpoint would, it seem, be the most logical means of doing so. Again, it isn’t saying that we shouldn’t eradicate disease in humans, nor that the interest of a spotted owl should come before a logger’s. It is that we must take all of these interests into account in determining our actions as individuals and as a society. What human life is a life well lived? Thinking of human lives as we did with trees earlier, what is the flourishing of a human life? And furthermore what relationship would this flourishing life have with its environment? Looking at a human life in this viewpoint I am inclined to rethink what pop culture considers to be a good life. I fail to see how we cannot exhibit those traits we are so fond of saying are what separates us from the animals, logic, in regard to our environment and the myriad of connections within it. Primitive man, perhaps, did this much better than us and as a result was able to survive a harsher world than ours and to pass on his genetic code and he did this because he recognized the two points raised earlier. Over time he became so successful in affecting his environment he began to think it his right to do so and to think that he was separate from this world. I can think of no better example of hubris than this, and if convention holds, the gods will strike down proud man for such.

What disappears with a debasement of wild landscapes is more than genetic diversity, more than a homeland for Henry Beston’s “other nations,” more, to be perfectly selfish, than a source of future medical cures for human illness or a chance for personal revitalization on a wilderness trip. We stand to lose the focus of our ideals. We stand to lose our sense of dignity, of compassion, even our sense of what we call God. The philosophy of nature we set aside eight thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent we can, I think, locate again and greatly refine in North America. The New World is a landscape still overwhelming in the vigor of its animals and plants, resonant with mystery. It encourages, still, an enlightened response toward indigenous cultures that differ from our own, whether Aztecan, Lakotan, lupine, avian, or invertebrate. By broadening our sense of the intrinsic worth of life and by cultivating respect for other ways of moving toward perfection, we may find a sense of resolution we have been looking for, I think, for centuries.

~ Barry Lopez
“The Passing Wisdom of Birds”
From Crossing Open Ground


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