Heretofore I have presented Metaphysics by
Default as an abstract, theoretical philosophy. This mode of presentation
has fixed our attention on the properties intrinsic to the metaphysics; it's a presentation appropriate for our first, halting steps into a new idea.
Now I'd like us
to take a big step forward, out into the living world.
Metaphysics by Default has practical application to philosophies of
environmental ethics. Its benefits derive from the distinctive properties
we've come to understand through the theoretical presentation of previous
chapters. In this chapter prominent
philosophers will set the tone by defining environmental ethics in their own
words. Once they've spoken I'll re-introduce some beneficial properties of
Metaphysics by Default.
We lead off with a quotation from the
philosopher Peter Singer.
Singer has worked to raise awareness of animal suffering. His goal (sometimes obscured by his provocative manner) is to
lift environmental ethics above the ancient "contract model," which
applies justice only to those humans capable of reciprocating our actions.
Singer believes that this model is insufficient for a humane society because
some members of society are incapable of reciprocating our actions.
Awareness of this deficiency prods humane societies to move beyond the contract
model, extending ethics to non-reciprocating persons. Singer notes that
this ethical advancement, while an improvement over the contract model, does not
yet meet the legitimate ethical demands of other species and future
generations. Those communities are still excluded by our outdated
Most striking of all is the impact of the
contract model on our attitude to future generations. "Why should
I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?"
would be the view we ought to take if only those who can reciprocate are
within the bounds of ethics. There is no way in which those who will
be alive in the year 2100 can do anything to make our lives better or
worse. Hence if obligations only exist where there can be reciprocity,
we need have no worries about problems like the disposal of nuclear
waste. True, some nuclear wastes will still be deadly for a quarter of
a million years; but as long as we put it in containers that will keep it
away from us for 100 years, we have done all that ethics demands of us.
Metaphysics by Default argues against the contract model. It
passage to a future generation, without exception. This rule was
established back in Chapter 9. The existential
passage is thought to take effect straightaway, as soon as a recipient emerges to break the
stasis of mortal amnesia. As about five human children are born every
second, the stasis would appear to be very brief only a small fraction
of a second on average. This temporal fact places our afterlife concern
in the generation which follows hard upon our departure, rather than in some
generation of the distant, hazy future. Arguably a focused concern for
the immediate future generation is a better ethical
motivator than an indistinct concern for all future
generations. At the very least it is an improvement over the ethical concern of
contract ethics, which makes no provision for future generations.
Singer's reciprocating ethicist asks, "Why
should I do anything for posterity?" To this question Metaphysics by
Default can reply, "Because I join posterity in the consequent of my
Noetic reduction also comes into play
here. We recall from Chapter 15 that Metaphysics by Default posits a
rate of noetic
reduction for any group's given starting population. For example, noetic
reduction would coalesce a group with a starting population of 300,000,000 down
to a population of 3,000 in about 510 years. (This, while the overall
population remained unchanged.)
a few hundred years more, the process would reduce a population
group of several billion down to the minimum psychological atomic a single individual.
Now, "common destiny"
is a phrase with some panache among ethicists and ecological
advocates. But the literal truth of the phrase remains unclear so long as
we lack a metaphysics which can state that truth with some rigor. An
audience indisposed to accept common destiny as gospel can ask, "Why ever
should destinies be 'common,' and not individual?" Metaphysics by
Default replies, "Because of noetic reduction."
lends "common destiny" a very clear meaning.
In sum, these properties of Metaphysics
by Default enhance Singer's ethical appeal towards future generations. The
appeal holds true even if Homo sapiens
should prove to be the
only species whose future generations are deserving of ethical concern.
But is that
actually the case? Or are some other species also deserving? If some
are, how should we distinguish those deserving from those which are not?
For the moment,
we'll ignore the arguments of Chapter 17 and let other philosophers speak to
these points. Many philosophers of environmental ethics have
composed answers to these questions. One of the first and most famous is
Leopold was an
early advocate of "ecocentrism," the belief that moral value is resident
in nature. This philosophical forester turned a
naturalist's eye towards the creatures of his farm. In A Sand County Almanac Leopold sketched what he could imagine of their
inner lives. It's a pleasure to read his field notes from a winter
excursion, which I reproduce below. I encourage the reader to dawdle over
this Almanac passage, giving freedom and ample
time to the imagination as Leopold unpacks each animal's inner life:
Each year, after the midwinter
blizzards, there comes a night of thaw when the tinkle of dripping water is
heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures
abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter.
The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and
ventures forth to prowl the wet world, dragging his belly across the
snow. His track marks one of the earliest datable events in that cycle
of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year.
The track is
likely to display an indifference to mundane affairs uncommon at other
seasons; it leads straight across-country, as if its maker had hitched his
wagon to a star and dropped the reins. I follow, curious to deduce his
state of mind and appetite, and destination if any.
= = =
The months of the year, from January up
to June, are a geometric progression in the abundance of distractions.
In January one may follow a skunk track, or search for bands on the
chickadees, or see what young pines the deer have browsed, or what muskrat
houses the mink have dug, with only an occasional and mild digression into
other doings. January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful
as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to
see who has done what, but to speculate why.
= = =
A meadow mouse, startled by my
approach, darts damply across the skunk track. Why is he abroad in
daylight? Probably because he feels grieved about the thaw.
Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted
grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public
view and ridicule. Indeed the thawing sun has mocked the basic
premises of the microtine economic system!
The mouse is
a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it
as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build
subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly
organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.
= = =
A rough-legged hawk comes sailing over
the meadow ahead. Now he stops, hovers like a kingfisher, and then
drops like a feathered bomb into the marsh. He does not rise again, so
I am sure he has caught, and is now eating, some worried mouse-engineer who
could not wait until night to inspect the damage to his well-ordered
rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow
melts in order that hawks may catch mice. He came down out of the
Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and
= = =
The skunk track enters the woods, and
crosses a glade where the rabbits have packed down the snow with their
tracks, and mottled it pink with urinations. Newly exposed oak
seedlings have paid for the thaw with their newly barked stems. Tufts
of rabbit-hair bespeak the year's first battles among the amorous
bucks. Further on I find a bloody spot, encircled by a wide-sweeping
arc of owl's wings. To this rabbit the thaw brought freedom from want,
but also a reckless abandonment of fear. The owl has reminded him that
thoughts of spring are no substitute for caution.
= = =
The skunk track leads on, showing no
interest in possible food, and no concern over the rompings or retributions
of his neighbors. I wonder what he has on his mind; what got him out
of bed? Can one impute romantic motives to this corpulent fellow,
dragging his ample beltline through the slush? Finally the track
enters a pile of driftwood, and does not emerge. I hear the tinkle of
dripping water among the logs, and I fancy the skunk hears it too. I
turn homeward, still wondering.
Leopold's narrative places us in the minds
of his farmland denizens. It is tempting to grant these creatures ethical
consideration solely on the strength of Leopold's imagination. But as a
precaution against hidden anthropomorphism, we should check Leopold's empathy
against what other ethicists have to say about animals' inner lives.
nineteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham attempted to "trace the
insuperable line" dividing those creatures deserving of natural rights from
those undeserving. He succeeded in narrowing the problem down to a single
[T]he question is not, Can they reason
? nor, Can they talk
Can they suffer
Singer has taken Bentham's question to
heart and proposed an argument which equates animal suffering (Bentham's
) with one particular
How Do We Know
That Animals Can Feel Pain?
We can never
directly experience the pain of another being, whether that being is human
or not. When I see my daughter fall and scrape her knee, I know that
she feels pain because of the way she behaves she cries, she tells
me her knee hurts, she rubs the sore spot, and so on. I know that I
myself behave in a somewhat similar if more inhibited way
when I feel pain, and so I accept that my daughter feels something like what
I feel when I scrape my knee.
The basis of
my belief that animals can feel pain is similar to the basis of my belief
that my daughter can feel pain. Animals in pain behave in much the
same way as humans do, and their behaviour is sufficient justification for
the belief that they feel pain. It is true that, with the exception of
those apes who have been taught to communicate by sign language, they cannot
actually say that they are feeling pain but then when my daughter
was a little younger she could not talk either. She found other ways
to make her inner states apparent, however, so demonstrating that we can be
sure that a being is feeling pain even if the being cannot use language.
To back up
our inference from animal behaviour, we can point to the fact that the
nervous systems of all vertebrates, and especially of birds and mammals, are
fundamentally similar. Those parts of the human nervous system that
are concerned with feeling pain are relatively old, in evolutionary
terms. Unlike the cerebral cortex, which developed only after our
ancestors diverged from other mammals, the basic nervous system evolved in
more distant ancestors common to ourselves and the other "higher"
animals. This anatomical parallel makes it likely that the capacity of
animals to feel is similar to our own.
significant that none of the grounds we have for believing that animals feel
pain hold for plants. We cannot observe behaviour suggesting pain
sensational claims to the contrary have not been substantiated
and plants do not have a centrally organized
[emphasis added] like ours.
For Singer, the critical anatomic structure
is just the central nervous system (CNS) itself. The CNS makes possible
the sensation of pleasure and pain. Consequently the CNS makes a creature
deserving of natural rights and ethical treatment.
conclusion dovetails with the metaphysical conclusion of Chapter 17. In
that chapter we found that Metaphysics by Default would seem to apply not
to Homo sapiens alone, but to CNS species generally.
CNS species have been shown to meet the criteria of personal identity: it
follows that creatures of all CNS species may be thought to participate in the
web of existential passages described by Metaphysics by Default.
The CNS has now become a common
criterion, both for participation in Metaphysics by Default, and also for
justification of ethical treatment. This common criterion formally
conjoins the metaphysical and ethical conclusions in a harmonious whole.
With this joint
conclusion established we can aim towards a more appropriate ethical model, one
which serves us better than the "contract model" which Singer has
lamented. Holmes Rolston, III (quoted at the end of the previous chapter)
joins Singer in rejecting anthropocentric ethics outright:
There is something overspecialized about an
ethic, held by the dominant class of Homo
sapiens, that regards the welfare of only one of several million species
as an object and beneficiary of duty. If the remedy requires a
paradigm change about the sorts of things to which duty can attach, so much
the worse for those humanistic ethics no longer functioning in, or suited
to, their changing environment. The anthropocentrism associated with
them was a fiction anyway....
It seems we're called upon to overturn the
anthropocentrism that Rolston counts as a fiction. How we should summon
the will to do this, Rolston does not
prescribe. Perhaps willpower is triggered by what Paul Taylor calls
Moral concern is the ability and
disposition to take the standpoint of animals or plants and look at the
world from the perspective of their good. Unless this ability and
disposition are well developed in a moral agent there will be a question of
whether and to what extent the agent genuinely has the attitude of respect
for nature. For we have seen that willingness
to take the standpoint of an organism [emphasis added] is part of what
it means to regard it as an entity possessing inherent worth. And
unless and until we so regard it we have not taken an attitude of respect
toward it. Here we must have the moral capacity to overcome the
all-pervasive tendency to be dominated by our anthropocentricity, just as in
human ethics we must have the power to overcome the ever present tendency
toward egocentricity. In particular, for a life-centered system of
environmental ethics it is necessary to develop a certain kind of
magnanimity. We must achieve a breadth of concern that enables us to
transcend the anthropocentric bias implicit in the assumption that the final
ground of all value is what furthers the good of humans.
Can Metaphysics by Default help us develop
the "moral concern" of which Taylor speaks? Well, Taylor
emphasizes the "willingness to take the standpoint of an
organism." Aldo Leopold has demonstrated something similar in the
passage quoted from A Sand County Almanac.
Leopold has imagined the inner lives, the subjective experiences, of CNS
creatures inhabiting his farmland; and we may say he was within reason in doing
those subjective experiences in the third person, by designating each animal as a "he" or a
"she." But subjective experience, integrated within personal
identity, is a first-person datum. Each creature capable of personal
itself only in the first person, as
an ontologic "I."
This is not to
imply that language is a requirement of personal identity: the ability
to say the word "I" is irrelevant.
As we've seen in Chapter 8, the three Great Criteria of personal identity
continuity, subjectivity and memory would seem to constitute by
themselves the ontologic "I."
When we imagine
a creature in the third person, as Leopold has done, we are placing an ontologic
barrier before the subject of our imagination. It is as if we have
committed to a conceit, saying to ourselves, "I will imagine this animal's
subjective experience, but only from a safe distance." By this conceit we
attempt to eject that animal from the human metaphysical realm.
But this conceit
is not tenable.
Nothing in the
criteria of personal identity justifies it. Consequently Metaphysics by
Default grants the same ontologic weight to all CNS creatures. The
ontologic "I" is seen to subtend all CNS creatures equally, so that all participate
in existential passage as equals. For this
reason the subjective experience of each animal is best imagined in the first
person. We empathize with an animal when we imagine
"what it would be like" to experience the animal's condition
This result relates back to Taylor's plea
for "moral concern." As Taylor has defined it, moral concern is
"the ability and disposition to take the standpoint of animals or plants
and look at the world from the perspective of their good."
Certainly, Metaphysics by Default
does give us reason to take the standpoint of CNS creatures, very much from a
first-person perspective. Existential passage from man to beast is an
event which the imagination can only conceive from the point of view of the
passage participant. A vivid conception of the event bridges the gap
between first- and third-person concern. Non-CNS life remains outside the
charmed circle, but our moral concern for CNS creatures draws naturally
This shift of
moral concern is a force we can use to dislodge lethargic willpower. In
analogy, we can think of a drill sergeant's rifle instruction:
sergeant wants to impress upon a recruit the importance of rifle
maintenance. How can he do this? He might
appeal to the recruit's disinterested commitment
towards his platoon. We imagine the drill sergeant's speech:
This is your
platoon will be victorious.
That speech conveys a simple truth — but no drill sergeant worth his salt would use it. Instead he would
appeal to the recruit's
self-interest, as with this
This is your
and you will
Metaphysics by Default marries
environmental ethics to an enlightened self-interest. As we bear
self-interested duties more willingly than disinterested duties, this metaphysics
eases the burden of duty concomitant with environmental ethics.
Now, concerning that burden: Paul
Taylor has elaborated four duties appropriate to environmental ethics.
These duties equate to four "rules of conduct." They are: the
Rule of Nonmaleficence, the Rule of Noninterference, the Rule of Fidelity, and
the Rule of Restitutive Justice.
explicitly extends moral consideration to all organisms, including those
below CNS life; whereas Singer judges the CNS to be the minimum standard.
Both views hail from noble philosophy, and Taylor's may earn the prize
for audacity. But I think we can follow Singer's more conservative tack
here. As we've seen, the CNS appears to be a common criterion: both for
participation in Metaphysics by Default, and also for justification of ethical
treatment. So Taylor's four rules of conduct can serve as a reasonable
guide for actions which affect CNS creatures.
Taylor also sets
down five "priority principles"
for the fair
resolution of conflicting claims. When our
actions cause harm to CNS creatures, those priority principles can become
principles of applied justice.
Even if we should restrict the application of justice to
CNS creatures alone, the priority principles might yet benefit non-CNS life
— by indirectly
aiding species which lack a CNS. A
hypothetical example can illustrate:
imagine that a strip mining company has destroyed the grazing lands vital to a
species of elk. The elk go hungry, and some die. The fifth priority
principle, restitutive justice, compels the company to restore grazing lands for
the elk. In restoring those lands the company will plant native grasses
suitable for elk consumption.
Once the grasses
have been planted, they thrive; as do the elk. The end result is that
Taylor's priority principles, here applied to a CNS species (the elk), have
indirectly aided non-CNS species (the native grasses).
Plants and animals cannot flourish in
isolation. They require natural surroundings. For non-CNS species
the barest patch can sometimes suffice. A stem of grass prospers indifferently
in a plastic test tube if provided with nutrients, moisture, air and light. But CNS
creatures need more. An elk needs acres of grazing land; an eagle needs
miles of river; an octopus needs ocean harbor.
of this kind readily extend our ethical concern, drawing it out beyond CNS creatures, into the
ecosystems which sustain those creatures or rather, sustain
us, I should say.
As in the
previous chapter, Dr. Rolston once again gets a final word:
A species is what it is where it is.
No environmental ethics has found its way on Earth until it finds an ethic
for the biotic communities in which all destinies are entwined....
next Chapter 19: A Dedication
Chapter 18 Endnotes
Peter Singer, Practical Ethics
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 80-81.
Specifically, the population curve follows this formula, derived
in Chapter 15:
y = x(0.5)
x is the
starting population, and y is the population
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
(Madison: Tamarack Press, 1977) 4-7.
Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the
Principles of Morals and Legislation
(London: The Athlone Press, 1970) XVII,
Section 1, footnote to paragraph 4. From
Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham
, gen. ed. J. H. Burns.
Bentham's "insuperable line" hails from his footnote
referenced previously: Bentham XVII, Section 1, footnote to paragraph 4. See note 4, above.
Holmes Rolston, III, "Environmental Ethics: Values in and
Duties to the Natural World,"
Divergence and Convergence
eds. Richard G. Botzler and Susan J. Armstrong (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998) 85.
Paul W. Taylor,
Respect for Nature
printing (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1989) 203.
Taylor, Respect for Nature
Paul W. Taylor, "Respect for Nature," Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence
printing of Taylor's definitions is abstracted from Taylor,
Respect for Nature
The priority principles are: the principle of self-defense, the
principle of proportionality, the principle of minimum wrong, the principle of
distributive justice, and the principle of restitutive justice. The
principles are applied according to the hierarchical scheme of Taylor,
Respect for Nature
Developed in Taylor,
, Chapters 4-6.
Holmes Rolston, III, "Environmental Ethics: Values in and
Duties to the Natural World,"
Divergence and Convergence