Three approaches to environmental ethics - 2

Holism, or non-extensionist ethical theories, take an entirely different approach from the above two ethical systems: in fact holism was founded in opposition to them. Holism tries to look at ethics from as much of a non-anthropocentric point of view as possible. As mentioned above, Anthropocentrism and Extensionism take a quality found in humans and apply moral standing to all of the other creatures who have those qualities (all who meet those criteria). Holistic theories attempt to conceptualize the Earth as a single whole made up of all that exists on it. The interconnectedness of everything is one of the primary tenets of this approach and this is where adjudication is dealt with. Being a relatively new field of ethics, Holism is very ill-defined and ill-formed as of yet. Perhaps this is why moral standing and adjudication are not easily determined on the basis of many holistic theories.

One notable exception among holistic theories is Aldo Leopold's land ethic. The land ethic confers moral standing upon all parts of the Earth's ecosystem, depending on their relation to the whole. Adjudication, according to Leopold's theory, is achieved by deciding who has greater importance within the ecosystem as a whole. If one of the competing entities has no apparent value to the whole, while the other is of fundamental importance to the whole, then the latter entity would win (would remain in the lifeboat). Leopold explains:
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of
the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise (Leopold p82).
Unfortunately the actual method of adjudication is vague, and as for who decides what is more important to the whole, this is a very complex and debatable issue. The other holistic theories are as of yet too new to deal with the two questions of this course.

One of the more important strengths of holism is its rejection of hierarchy. Hierarchy, no matter on what it is based, is unjustifiable in some sense or another and therefore theories which avoid hierarchies are that much more justifiable. Holism's major weakness seems to be its exclusion of individuals from the ethical arena. This exclusion can be noted especially in the land ethic and deep ecology. It is debatable whether or not individual moral standing is relevant within holistic theories, but individual standing is a fundamental tenet of Western society and is not just going to disappear.

Yes, the fundamental goals of animal liberation and the land ethic are in conflict
-- if one accepts the belief system of dualism. The goal of the animal liberation movement, if one can generalize about such a broad movement, is to bring animals as individuals into our moral community (as characterized by Regan, Singer, and Vandeveer). While this movement focuses on individuals, it claims that the environment as a whole will be protected when its goals are accomplished.

The goal of the land ethic appears to be to provide an ethical framework on which to base our treatment of the Earth. This ethic approaches the environment holistically, recognizing the interconnectedness of all beings, and claims that all individuals are taken care of when the interests of the whole are addressed.

The land ethic attempts its goal by applying what can be called natural criteria. Using these criteria, that which is natural (e.g. the food chain) is good; that which tends away from the natural process is wrong (see the land ethic, p82). The animal liberation movement would have us interfere to a large degree with natural processes. For example, it would have us become vegetarians (see both Singer and Regan). Humans are omnivores and this is our place within the food web: to alter this would be to do wrong according to the land ethic.
These two approaches are also fundamentally opposed from a Western traditional standpoint. Dualism (dealt with more thoroughly below) is a basic belief system that western society as a whole seems to hold. It involves dualist patterns such as good-bad, black-white, male-female, and individual-whole. In its approach to the individual-whole debate, the land ethic is on the 'whole' end of the spectrum, while animal liberationists are on the 'individual' end of the spectrum. Now in reality these two approaches are not necessarily in conflict, but dualisms are a very large part of western culture and are probably not possible to overcome (in the foreseeable future).

In looking after the needs of individuals does this also take care of the needs of the whole? Conversely, does taking care of the needs of the whole deal adequately with the needs of the individual? If the individual and the whole are truly on opposite ends of a single spectrum, then perhaps the land ethic and the animal liberation movement are in fundamental conflict. In reality we cannot claim that the dualist way of seeing the world is accurate; so we must accept that perhaps these two movements are not in fundamental conflict. Realistically, one is compelled to recognize the general adoption of dualisms within our society. Perhaps these dualisms, and nothing else, are the source of conflict between animal liberationists and holists like proponents of the land ethic.

Species' do not matter. 'Species' are basically a grouping of individuals into an
arbitrary taxonomy system that humans have designed for scientific purposes. The term 'species' is basically unquestioned by Myers in his article, "The Sinking Ark." His article consists of a large listing of facts and figures that outline the past, present, and future extinction rate of 'species.' Unfortunately our taxonomical system for defining 'species' is anything but exact and precise, rendering most of Myers' facts useless. Russow, on the other hand, questions the usefulness of the term 'species' in describing groups of animals. Russow also questions the acceptability of applying moral standing or value to an entity (or complex entity) like a 'species.'

Russow begins her argument by showing that our obligations to individuals are not sufficient to account for a treatment of individuals within endangered species which is different from our treatment of individuals that are members of a plentiful species (Russow p119). She further shows that granting individual (animals) rights (such as in Regan's ethical system) can have a paradoxical result, such as the extinction of all members of a species (Russow p120). The example Russow raises is the practice of capturing all individuals of an endangered species and confining them to a zoo in order to preserve that species. Regan's individualistic approach might condemn a species of animals to extinction because he places greater moral value on the individual. Regan states in his article that at almost no time should the rights of an individual be infringed upon:

Individual rights are not to be outweighed by such considerations [as the biotic community] (which is not to say that they are never to be outweighed) {Regan p204-5} As to who decides when individual rights should be outweighed, Regan remains silent.

Regan does, however, claim that there is a "possibility" that groups or "systems" can have an "inherent value" that is distinct from both the individuals' interests and the sum of any number of individuals that comprise this group (Regan p205). In the next sentence of his article, Regan questions the viability of attributing moral rights to such a super entity like a group, because only individuals can have rights. Russow also believes that our "obligations toward species" is in no real way similar to our obligation not to cause animals pain (Russow p120).

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