This post is a response to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Environmental Ethics entry and an assignment for my Ethics and Social Responsibility class.
I am deeply disturbed by the ten0 dency of environmental ethics discussion to center around anti-humanism and narrow stereotypes of Christianity. In rational arguments these tenets do not hold up to a realistic view of the relationship between man and nature and the influence of theology in that relationship. We must first understand that environmental ethics is the study and discussion of man’s proper behavior in relation to nature. Therefore, by definition, environmental ethics must be anthropocentric. Then we must recognize that from both anti-theistic evolution and theistic-religious perspectives that man is a part of nature. Man has a responsibility as a conscientious, highly-evolved being, and/or as God’s designated stewards to improve and preserve nature for nature and for self. There is no need to devalue humanity to save the wild. Nor is it necessary to assign human significance to plants and animals.
Anthropocentric by Definition
Environmental ethics is the study of man’s proper behavior in relation to nature. The ultimate conclusions that must be reached by decentralizing human responsibility in ethics are that either 1. Man is insignificant and has no moral environmental responsibility (hardly an ethical philosophy) or 2. Nature is more important than man and his only responsibility is to limit human experience for the good of nature.
However, the reality is that humans are a significant part of the whole ecology with a level of agency which empowers environmental change which is not possessed by other species. To quote Peter Parker’s uncle, “with great power comes great responsibility.” However, because we are not an all-knowing part of the whole, we are as likely to harm nature in our attempt to preserve or improve it as we are to help it. Therefore, any drastic measures by the extremely powerful, but highly ignorant humans (yes, even the intellectuals and researchers) is risky and unadvisable.
Nonetheless it is our obligation to be responsible stewards of earth and its resources for utilitarian reasons (our own survival and that of our descendants) and because it is our duty as the sole conscientious actors in our global eco-system and because the value of prudence is morally imperative for every human regardless of individual status, global population, or economic benefit. As Douglas Woodhams (2009) noted, species conservation is “important not only from for utilitarian and human-centered benefits, but also for innate and theocentric values that integrate biological understanding with conviction in the moral virtue of biodiversity conservation."
Stewards by Divine Design
According to Judeo-Christian theology, when God created Adam and Eve he gave them the commandment to “Dress this garden. Take good care of it” (oral tradition). Eve was the “mother of all living” in the command to “multiply and replenish the earth,” meaning to make use of its resources and renew them. There is no scriptural example where God condones extortion and overuse of earth’s resources. However, there have been scriptural instances where people who did not honor their stewardship were condemned (see the parable of the talents: Luke 19:11-27). As God’s creation, we have the responsibility to the rest of his creation to honor his work and serve his purposes, which includes the preservation and care of those creations, from our human neighbors to our city water supply according to the demands of our divine conscience.
Stewards by Natural Selection
According to evolutionary theory, humans have generally evolved from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian economies because nature does not readily provide for growing populations. (I discuss population control alternatives later.) Humans are capable of producing the food they need instead of relying wholly on nature, according to evolutionary theory, by the natural process of selection based on survival of the fittest. If the evolutionary process created such ordered thinking as humans possess, then it has generated the capacity to make controlled changes with no specific purpose other than survival in the context of the global ecology. Natural selection does not support stasis but change over time. Therefore, it is human responsibility to guide that change over time to the benefit of the whole.
Negative Consequences of Anti-Anthropocentrism
Any attempt to minimize human importance in the environment leads to very unethical philosophy which minimizes the importance of man and justifies genocide to save the planet. Follow with me some critical flaws of non-anthropocentric environmentalism. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb” gave popular rise to the idea that limiting human population was necessary to sustaining a healthy planet. Is it a coincidence or consequence that four years later Rowe v. Wade established abortion as a legal method of population control?
The hypocrisy of the liberal platform is that all living humans are entitled to life-saving health care to extend their time on earth and continue to “deplete” its resources and/or exploit nature for remedies to their ailments instead of being allowed to die. Further, war is seen as an ultimate evil, when it has the potential to successfully reduce human population. War on the unborn is concluded to be the most ethical method of population control.
Is it any wonder that homosexual union, which has no power of procreation is avidly supported in this group. Homosexuality, if the philosophy is thought through thoroughly is a moral imperative second to the higher good of committing suicide. We cannot ethically call for the extermination of populations, but we can take personal responsibility for our own actions. The best way to reduce our own carbon footprint is to rot in a box. The misanthropy and self-loathing that the philosophy engenders certainly does not promote ethical behavior which promotes the well-being of self or mankind.
Orrin Judd reviewed Ehrlich’s book (2000) and concluded that “Ehrlich’s thesis, like creationism, is impervious to scientific evidence because it is based, not on science, but on faith. He and many on the Left simply prefer the environment to man and want there to be less people.” Judd notes that, though population growth spurts and slows, human ingenuity manages to develop methods and technologies which promote human sustainability. He also points out that 40 years after the publication of his book Ehrlich is still alive and depleting resources suggesting that he believes he deserves to be one of his proposed one-billion people who should be on earth, or he does not take his own thesis seriously.
Note on Exploitation
Christianity is often blamed for exploitative philosophy which damages the environment and promotes sexism and racism (Stanford 2008). However, if we examine more thoroughly, we will see that regardless of the philosophical origin, man has a tendency to exploit nature and humanity for personal gain. According to Ben Stein (2008) Hitler’s views were rooted in secular Marxism and evolutionary elitism. He thought he had an obligation to eliminate from the world the “weaker” human elements to advance the evolution of mankind. Also it is interesting that Christianity is blamed for the oppression of women. Yet since the rise of the “feminist movement,” society has become increasingly tolerant of the sexual exploitation of women. Although often flawed in practice, Christian doctrine regarding women is one of interdependent stewardship. The man cares for the woman who gives birth to the man whom she nourishes and cares for. The way traditional Christian values are misrepresented and over-generalized is irresponsible in intellectual discussion. Because they have been used by men to exploit does not mean that the foundational premise is bad, only that, as was also true in the case of Hitler, a partially valid philosophy can be distorted for power and gain when the general public is less than thorough in their ethical evaluations. Again from Woodhams, “Rather than disregard faith-based values, the science community would be wise to embrace an integrated discussion and contribute to healing an epistemological rift.” Stewardship is the key to that integration.
Humans, as a powerful element of nature, have the responsibility to exert their natural mental capacity and conscience to utilize their power with restraint and prudence for the benefit of self, society, and the living organisms with which we co-exist. Ethics without man in the center is not ethics at all. The delicate balance of human ethics avoids exploitation and extremism while increasing human and environmental well-being. This is not exceptionally challenging from a moral perspective, as we are all part of an interdependent eco-system. The great challenge is for the individual. Each human must learn to act as a vital and independent part of a coherent whole. That is easy when we truly understand our responsibility, dignity, and purpose as human beings.
Judd, Orrin (17 May 2000) Worst 50 Books of the Century. Intercollegiate Studies.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (rev. Jan 3, 2008) Feminism and the Environment
Stein, Ben (2008) Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Premise Media Corporation.
Woodhams, D.C. (Jun 2009)Converting the religious: putting amphibian conservation in context. Bioscience 59, 463-465.