But who talks about which courses of action are morally preferable? In my experience, precious few. It’s almost as though we are embarrassed at our own naivety in thinking that moral considerations or philosophy should have any place in our economic and political calculus!
But philosophy comes in a bewildering variety of subdisciplines and schools of opinion. And the language deployed by philosophers can be as dense as hundred year-old treacle. So it’s not just a question of bringing philosophy down from the ivory tower. We have to make decisions about the sort of public philosophy we want to encourage, and then find people who can translate it into plain English.
This is where things get challenging. My limited reading and research suggests that there are hardly any public philosophers writing in ways that reasonable laypeople would understand. But there are a few.
The libertarian philosopher
One of the most interesting came from a commentator to this blog, who posted a link to “freedomainradio.com”, whose owner, Stefan Molyneux claims to oversee the “largest philosophy conversation in the world”. Molyneux is a libertarian philosopher, in the sense that libertarianism is followed in the USA, and he tends to view all issues through libertarian lenses.
To get a flavour for his philosophy, link to his introductory podcast, in which he argues for a “society free of coercive state mechanisms”. He has an interesting podcast series on environmental issues (Part I here). He starts reasonably enough, as he talks of the need to view environmental issues rationally and empirically. But the libertarian biases soon come out. For Molyneux, the central question in environmental philosophy is “To what degree do we want beneficial / aesthetically pleasing ecosystems around us?”. Here Molyneux uses the word “want” instead of “need”, apparently assuming that we can choose a given quantity of environment, regardless of the ecological side-effects.
From here, it doesn’t take long for Molyneux to bring out Garrit Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” – a favourite whipping horse for those of the private-property-as-the-solution-to-everything school of thought. We quickly learn that:
“As a rationalist, a libertarian, and a free marketer…the way to get rid of the problem is to get rid of the commons….In an anarcho capitalist (world) the private sector will take wonderful care of the commons….you want to get all the property into private hands as quickly and as powerfully as possible”.
I believe Molyneux is profoundly wrong in this opinion. First, his understanding of the commons issue is one dimensional. He fails to distinguish open access (a no-management free-for-all) from common property regimes, which are actively managed by communities for the good of communities.
Second, he commits the logical fallacy of assuming that those with the money to privatize land will automatically use that land in ways that are beneficial to the larger community. Take the case of privately owned timber lands in the USA, which were being deforested en masse to make way for subdivisions before the housing bubble burst in 2008. Or our own prime Ontario farm land, which is being lost to urban sprawl at a n unprecedented rate.
I even know of an environmental philosopher (!!) who sold off timber from his woodlot to fund some immediate financial need or other. Ownership rights are not a panacea.
By now you’ll have concluded that I am not Stefan Molyneux’s number one fan. True enough, but I am glad he is out there, and I encourage you to visit his site. His views often seem to be well argued (even if I think they are wrong), and it is all too easy to succumb to the “echo chamber effect” of the internet, where you only get exposed to views that reinforce your prior beliefs.
The angry philosopher.
The angry philosopher is a time-honoured tradition. I certainly find these angry ones appealing, because I pass a good portion of most days simmering at the latest indignities that Homo sapiens has inflicted on our long-suffering planet. So, I’m primed to be sympathetic to these folks, but are their views helpful? And will they help us resolve our ethical dilemmas?
Let’s have a look. One of my favourite (and angriest) philosophers is Jack Turner, who walked out of his faculty office in 1973 after reading Arne Naess’s “The Shallow and the Deep Long Range Ecology Movements” (about which more later), and never looked back. The focus of Turner’s anger is not, as he says, “the usual fall guys” but the technocratic abstractions that have replaced authentic personal experience of nature with simulacra – mediated experiences – that for many, are becoming preferable to the real thing.
Turner develops this thesis in angry detail in “The Abstract Wild” (Turner 1996):
“We only value what we know and love, and we no longer know or love the wild. So instead we accept substitutes, imitations, semblances, and fakes- a diminished wild. We accept abstract information in place of personal experience and communication. So instead, we accept substitutes, imitations, semblances and fakes – a diminished wild. We accept abstract information in place of personal experience and communication. This removes us from the true wild and severs our recognition of its value. Most people don’t miss it and won’t miss it in the future. Most people literally don’t know what we are talking about.” (Turner 1996, p. 25)
This is powerful stuff, and it is hard not to agree with him when the average undergraduate – even in biology – would scarcely know one end of a spruce tree from another. On the other hand, Turner’s foundational beliefs – that the wild (whatever that is) has intrinsic value, and that only direct, visceral experience of the wild counts – remain largely unexplored. Nevertheless, Turner’s slim book, is up there with Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” as essential wilderness reading.
Also on the anger front, we have the University of Guelph’s John McMurtry, author of “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism” (McMurtry 1999). Do not read this book unless you are feeling either very angry indeed or preternaturally calm, because McMurtry is so incandescently angry at so many things that it can get exhausting. Here is a sample:
“Can we see in any media or even university press a paragraph of clear unmasking of a global regime (global capitalism) that condemns a third of all children to malnutrition with more food than enough available, or that strips the biosphere of species at 1000 times the average rate?
In such a social order, thought becomes indistinguishable from propaganda. Only one doctrine is speakable, and a priest caste of its experts prescribes the necessities and obligations to all, with loss of livelihood or life the punishment for disobedience.” (page 6)
He goes on – and on – in this vein for another 252 pages. The cancer metaphor grows, well, like a cancer, metastasizing and ultimately destroying the author’s ability to write a coherent sentence: In his final chapter, where he polishes his credentials as a Marxist philosopher, McMurtry gives us this beginning:
“The meta-problem confronting global society is that dominant and expanding money sequences have come into ever sharper and more destructive contradiction with social and environmental life-organization.” (p. 190)
McMutry may have a point here, but his locutions are so awkward that the point itself is lost. And at the end of all this anger, there is a distinct lack of solutions to the problems he describes and no Canadian context.
The Rational Philosopher
Anger is great, but it is not going to get us to a persuasive ethical analysis of our environmental problems. What we need are philosophers who are steeped in the history and mechanics of their craft, but who are grounded in the realities and choices of the 21st Century.
Such a philosopher will generate arguments that acknowledge empirical facts. One of the few advantages we have over enlightenment philosophers like Hume, Locke, or Descartes is that our moral musings can have a factual grounding compared to the fact-poor world of the 17th and 18th Centuries.
Facts? We are drowning in ‘em, and inconveniently or not, facts place boundaries on what actions are possible, and on the moral viewpoints we can practically hold. What would be the point of a philosophy that demanded actions of us that are plainly impossible? Equally, why would anyone base a philosophical conclusion on blatantly counter-factual premises?
But, as Hume realized in the 18th Century, we can not derive moral conclusions from purely factual premises (Van de Veer and Pierce 1998, p.6). Moral conclusions require premises that are themselves moral in nature.
Consider, for example, the first two articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (or DRIPs):
Article 1. “Indigenous peoples have the right to the full enjoyment, as a collective or as individuals, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law.”
Article 2. “Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.”
These are powerful articles. They are unambiguous moral statements about rights that indigenous people should enjoy (but all too often do not). Article 2 could be thought of as a supporting premise of Article 1, since its premise (freedom and equality between indigenous and other peoples) is stated as a sort of “moral fact”. Thanks to genetic analysis, we can bolster this “moral fact” with the empirical finding that races of the human family are tightly related through a very limited number of common ancestors.
But the mere fact of relatedness does not tell us how to treat other peoples. For that, moral judgments and valuations are needed, and a set of tightly reasoned premises to support the injunctions of the UN Declaration are needed.
To any rational person, the articles of the DRIPs are beyond reproach. However, things get disputaceous when philosophers consider the rest of Nature. Disputes rage around the issue of whether non-human animals are sentient, whether there is a hierarchy of sentience, and what rights (if any) should be accorded to organisms that can not be said to have sentience or even feelings (Jamieson 2008, Ch. 5). Can such organisms be said to have “interests” or “well-being”?
Competing schools of thought about these issues include utilitarians, realists, consequentialists, anthropocentrists, biocentrists, speciesists, animal liberationists, ecocentrists, and eco-feminists. The schools have different sets of core assumptions. The moral universes of many schools are therefore mutually exclusive, or nearly so.
Needless to say, this mutual exclusivity can lead to protracted disputes over philosophical details that may appear trivial to outsiders. As Jamieson (2008, p.75) has said about the seemingly endless debates about the meaning of ‘intrinsic value’: “some philosophers have wanted to move beyond discussions of intrinsic value and get on with saving the world. However, deep questions about the nature of value do not disappear on command”.
He might have added “however much many people might want them to”. For politicians and industry, discussions of morals and values would inhibit their attempts to distract the populace with economic arguments and talk of techno-fixes. Environmentalists and conservation biologists may argue that we’re running out of time to debate ethics.
My view is that the apparent ethical vacuum in which decisions are currently made is partly responsible for the environmental crisis around us. And we need some rational non-angry, open-minded philosophers to help us restore ethics to their rightful place in environmental decision making.
Jamieson, D. 2008. Ethics and the Environment: An introduction. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
McMurtry, J. 1999. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism. Pluto Press, London, UK.
Turner, J. 1996. The Abstract Wild. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.
Van de Veer, D., and C. Pierce. 1998. The environmental ethics and policy book. 2nd edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA.