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Individualistic and Holistic Biases in Environmental Ethics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2485 words Published: 24th Aug 2021

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Environmental ethics is a hybrid of both ancient and recent insights and is a discipline in the making. In addition, this is a discipline whose time has come and has come urgently. The magnitude and urgency of contemporary environmental problems known as environmental crisis form the mandate for environmental ethics. In other words, environmental ethics is a re-examination of the human attitudes and values that influence individual behaviour and government policies towards nature. The principle approaches to environmental ethics are biocentrism, egocentrism. Other topics which are related are ecofeminism and deep ecology. Moral pluralism in environmental ethics insists that we endorse all of these approaches, and employ any one of them according to circumstances.

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Another long-standing controversy in the philosophy is the debate between methodological individualists and methodological holists. The former hold that social facts and phenomena are reducible without remainder to facts about individuals. The latter, advocates of methodological holism argue that there are some social facts that are not reducible to facts about individuals, and that social phenomena can sometimes be adequately explained without reference to individuals. One should take into consideration that there is no necessary connection between support for methodological individualism or holism and one’s position vis-à-vis the naturalism debate. Nonetheless there is a tendency that naturalist people embrace methodological individualism. Still, the naturalists are also found in the holist camp.

There are several philosophers who argue about individualistic environmental ethics. Two of them are Peter Singer and Tom Regan. The work of Singer and Regan generated a significant and critical response among philosophers. Many of these criticisms followed the same idea. Peter Singer is the one leading thinker who raised the profile of ethical reflection in relation to animals in our world. Some philosophers including Regan, challenge the utilitarian basis of Singer’s programme. Singer does not form any principle against causing animals to suffer. Singer argues that ‘humans are different from animals, so equal consideration does not entail equal or identical treatment. Further interest and suffering are not alike. Not all interests deserve to be treated equally, and not all suffering is created equal’ (Desjardins 2006, p.115).

According to Regan and Singer, we need to be very selective in our decisions regarding our everyday life, and we have to choose properly our type of lifestyle. We need to limit ourselves to eat meat so that we can conserve animals from the ecosystem. Moreover, both of them argue that we need to be vegetarian, and Singer continues that the boundary of considerability should be drawn somewhere ‘between shrimp and oyster’ (Desjardins 2006, p.116). On the other hand, Regan most often speaks in general terms about animals but he argues that the subject of a life criterion applies to ‘mentally normal mammals of a year or a more’ (Regan 1983, p.78). In my opinion, this is a very unrealistic view of the world because an ecosystem is made up of both humans and animals. If we all choose to be vegetarian than the ecosystem will be unbalanced, leading to an overpopulation of animals because animals will continue to produce without being reduced by humans. Moreover, I think that other species will take over the habitat of others because of the overpopulation and this may lead to many disasters. I believe that, people are part of an ecosystem in order that the world can be balanced accordingly. However, in certain cases we find several abuses-one of them being illegal hunting which causes many endemic species to become extinct. There should always be a balance.

Moreover, Regan argues that his right-based ethics, like most traditional ethical theories is individualistic. This means that ethics is concerned with protecting and promoting the well-being of individuals, not communities or societies or someone’s “common good”. This puts him at odds with many environmental and ecological thinking which is holistic where many environmentalists emphasise “biotic” communities or “ecosystems” rather than individual members which include humans of those communities. Regan warns us of environmental fascism in which individual rights are willingly sacrificed to the greater good of the whole. ‘Environmental fascism and the rights’ view are like oil and water: they don’t mix’ (Regan 1983, p.362, cited in Desjardins 2006, p.116).

In addition, Regan argues that only individual animals can be said to have moral standing or, more specifically, to have rights. In Regan’s view, an animal that is of an endangered species has no special moral status. Singer’s view recognizes that it is conceivable that human interference could improve the conditions of wild animals. Moreover, he recommends a policy of leaving wild animals alone as much as possible. In fact he states that ‘we do enough if we eliminate our own unnecessary killing and cruelty towards other animals’ (Singer 1990, p.227 as cited in Donaldson and Kymlicka 2011, p.159). Singer argues that we have the greater responsibility of reducing suffering than that to increase happiness. In addition, Regan endorsed the similar idea proposed by Singer that is, as long as we protect the rights of animals, other ecological concerns will take care of themselves. In my opinion, it is not a selective choice to let extinct species become endemic because they are part of the ecosystem for quite a good reason. I think that if those endangered species become endemic than other species cannot benefit from their benefits that contribute to the ecosystem. This is because specie in every community serves to be a prey and also, in itself, it is a predator. If this specie becomes endemic than the prey cannot eat it anymore, and the specie itself cannot kill other animals. The ecosystem is always like a chain in which one factor contributes to the other factor and in which every single step is important for the ecosystem.

I believe that, we need first to reverse the long history of destruction and habitat loss before we could preserve biotic communities. In addition, the idea that some “untamed wilderness” untouched by human activities is a mirage. No place on earth, no animal on earth and no period on earth has escaped human influence for quite some time. The question is not whether we should actively influence the wilderness but how we should do so. For Singer and Regan it seems that the paradigms of holders of moral values are human beings. Thus only animals that are like us can have moral standing. Moral standing seems a benefit that is derived from human nature and that living beings receive only if they are similar to human beings.

On the other hand, there are several philosophers who have different ideas about the holistic idea of the environment such as Rolston Holmes and J. Baird Callicott. A holistic idea of the environment deals with environments that must focus their moral concern on the interdependent functioning of the entirely ecological system and not merely on the isolated individuals who make up the system. Holmes as a representative of most environmental ethics encourages us to recognize the inherent worth of nature. According to him, an emphasis on intrinsic value, would preclude the development of a holistic environmental ethic. In fact he argues that ‘the ‘for what it is in itself facet of intrinsic becomes problematic in a holistic web. It is too internal and elementary; it forget relatedness and externality’ (Holmes 1982, p.146). Holmes has argued that nature should not be treated as a mere resource to be used but rather as a source of what we value. In fact he states ‘One is not so much looking to resources as sources, seeking relationships is an elemental stream of being with transcending integrities’ (Holmes 1983, p.183). For Holmes nature as a source of value is then itself intrinsically valuable.

Holmes believed that one has to spent time with nature to be an environmentalist. Wilderness is nature which has never been locked and framed is rare. Nature is something that has been through biological processes. We do own gratitude towards biodiversity. Another thing which we value in nature is autopoeisis which means self-making. Many philosophers have argued that this defines life. Life is able to come to a certain extent. Beauty and integrity mean that it has not been whole. Holmes believed that man does not fit in nature. However, in my opinion this is not correct because we came out of wilderness. Many environmental philosophers take up the value and try to see where it comes from.

Holmes understands that one has to consider the laws of nature. Holmes argues that it can be good to follow nature but also bad to follow nature. He argues that it is bad when you follow it too much. Humans also damage and modify the environment. Holmes says that this is not natural because we move things around too much. Non-human beings do not modify their environment the way that we do. According to Holmes, anything that completely upsets the balance is not natural and therefore wrong.

Like Holmes, Callicott is suspicious of ethical preoccupations with individual nonhuman creatures. Callicott does not deny the fact that individual creatures can have a place as individuals in the sphere of ethical regard. However, he argues that, it is not their well-being as individuals that should be our concern. Rather, it is the well-being of the biotic community of which they are a part and to which they contribute. Callicott insists that ‘environmental ethics locates ultimate value in the ‘biotic community’ and assigns differential moral value to the constitutive individuals relative to the standards’ (Callicott 1980, p.337).

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The systems of individuals – ecosystems, species and communities – might be a more proper focus than those individuals themselves. One of the motivating concerns, theoretically and practically, is that we should place value on the organization of systems and communities. Following Leopold, J.Baird Callicott argues that ‘there is intrinsic value in the integrity, stability and beauty of ecological systems’ (Callicott 1989, p.83).

Balancing the apparent need to value systems as well as individuals has served to generate a different set of normative principles. Callicott considers this to be an entirely new ethic which will be considered below. Klonoski (1991) in his paper about Callicott holism also presents Callicott’s argument about environmental ethic holism. He points out Callicott’s idea that in ‘order of the biotic community and to assign value and to prescribe legitimate use of the constituents of the community in a way that contributes to the unity, harmony and balance of the eco-system’ (Callicott U.d, as cited in Klonoski 1991, p.99). But the problem of shaping a value theory such that it can accommodate both individualistic value and systemic value is daunting.

Callicott’s holism was criticised due to insufficient room for any intrinsic value apart from the value of the system. Callicott sustains that ‘human activities, such as agriculture and suburban and exurban development, provide some organisms with excellent habitat. But the habitats of many other organisms are severely degraded by the cultural modifications of landscapes that characterize contemporary industrial civilization. These organisms need places that are otherwise suitable for them where modifications of that kind are prohibited’ (Callicott 2000, p.29). Callicott’s system is monistic; there is only one value, instantiated in a principle that has moral weight.

Another philosopher who had a clear idea about environmental ethics is Arne Naess who had the “idea of self-realization”. This means that the ideal of developing one’s highest potential skews the notion of value not only towards living entities but also towards those that are analogues of human beings. In my opinion, I do agree with this idea because one has to self-realise him/herself in order to be able to live in a community. In addition, if this does not happen, one does not take care of the environment and of what happens around us. We should take care of the environment because once it is exploited it takes a longer time to revert to its original state. However, this is not an issue that all people agree with because, most often, people do exploit what they have and then this result in different consequences.

I believe that, the ecosystem should be made up of both humans and animals. In addition, I think that each specie has an important role to play in the ecosystem, and this is because each specie has its advantages and disadvantages in the ecosystem. If, over a period of time, there is any endemic specie, then there should be another specie which takes its role. However, most often this does not happen and this leads to different disasters. A clear example of what I am stating is when in Malta there was a type of insect – the red weevil – that was imported with foreign palm trees inferring. This showed that they were not being eaten by other animals, and thus they did a lot of damage to the Maltese palm trees. A specie in an ecosystem is like a link in a whole chain and if one link is broken the chain is broken too!

I do disagree with Regan’s idea that an endemic species should not be protected. In fact I argue that we should spend some time with nature like Rolston suggests in order to admire how precious our environment is. Moreover, I think that there should be more emphasis on man’s responsibility. When someone comes in contact with nature he should make sure that it should be kept as it was found because once it is exploited the effects are disastrous. It is difficult to reverse the damage and bring back nature to its original state. In my opinion the holistic view of environmental biases is more practical especially in our everyday world.

There are different views of how one can respect the environment around us. The most important thing is that we do our outmost to leave part of the environment in its natural state without construction because it is our contribution to those that come after us. Most often people do not even notice how little things can harm species, not only on the earth but also marine species which are also an important part of the ecosystem. In my opinion, although nowadays there are more environmental organisations there should be more awareness of how our modelling with the eco system can affect nature around us. God created nature in order to be used but also to be protected accordingly.


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