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Descartes' Legacy and Deep Ecology

  • Peter Miller (a1)


When the history of philosophy is painted in broad strokes, the philosophy of Descartes is generally regarded as the major watershed between classical and modern outlooks. Although Descartes himself was more concerned with epistemology and metaphysics than with axiology, his successors have generally drawn as an axiological corollary of his metaphysical bifurcation of reality the thesis that all final or intrinsic values, if they exist at all, exist only in the domain of conscious subjects, or at the very least as relata dependent upon such subjects. These subjects may indeed extend beyond humankind to include gods or beasts or even, according to the speculative flights of some, the “occasions of experience” of Whiteheadian panpsychists or the universal mind of the idealists. The common denominator of all these accounts, however, is that values essentially depend upon human or quasi-human entities, i.e., conscious, experiencing subjects. This post-Cartesian thesis is in marked contrast to the axiological realism of the classical world of Plato and Aristotle, which concurs with large segments of common sense in finding objects to exist with their axiological properties independently of human and similar subjects. The Cartesian legacy in axiology has been to encourage the exploration of human values and experiences of value while creating a moratorium on the investigation of subject-independent values.



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1 Kant, I., Critique of Judgment, trans. Bernard, J. H. (New York: Hafner, 1972).

2 Lewis, C. I., An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (LaSalle, IL: Parrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981).

3 Husserl, E., Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. Gibson, W. R. B. (New York: Macmillan, 1931, 1958).

4 Perry, R. B., Realms of Value (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968).

5 Routley, Richard, “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?”, Proceedings of the XVth World Congress of Philosophy, vol. 1 (Sofia, 1973), 205–10; Naess, Arne, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary”, Inquiry 16 (1973), 95100; and Rolston, Holmes IIIIs There an Ecological Ethic?”, Ethics 85 (1975), 93109. (Rolston's article is reprinted in his Philosophy Gone Wild: Essays in Environmental Ethics [Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1986], 1229.)

6 One way of describing the enterprise of this paper, for those who find the categories useful, is to say that Sections 2 and 4 focus primarily on normative theory in critiquing anthropocentric values and advancing a naturalistic alternative while Sections 3 and 5 argue against a projectionist and for a realist metatheory as most compatible with the normative stance taken.

7 Aristotle explicitly breaks from Platonism on this point. See Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, chap. 4.

8 White, Lynn, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologie Crisis”, Science (March, 1967). Passmore, John, Man's Responsibility for Nature (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974). (Hereafter MRFN.)

9 We shall see, however, that the value projectionists, to be discussed in section 3 below, take issue with this construal and wish to preserve a non-anthropocentric moral environmentalism while nevertheless accepting the Cartesian elimination of intrinsic values from nature. They thus illustrate, in a reverse direction, the distinction and relative independence of moral and value anthropocentrisms.

10 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Cook, Thomas I. (New York and London: Hafner Press, 1947), Second Treatise, sec. 42–43, cited in Hargrove, Eugene, “Anglo-American Land Use Attitudes”, in Scherer, Donald and Attig, Thomas, eds., Ethics and the Environment (Englewoood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983), 109.

11 Writes Passmore, “Nowhere … is ecological destruction more apparent than in today's Japan, for all its tradition of nature-worship” (MRFN, 176). We may observe that a moral regard for nature appears to require a number of factors: that nature harbours values; that these values are fragile and subject to harm; that the values are partially contingent in their realization and destruction on factors we can affect; and that the values lie within the scope of human responsibility to preserve, protect, or promote.

12 Passmore hints at a mild revision of traditional values when he proposes that they be coupled with a reweighting of certain elements, such as a longer-range stewardship and a higher weighting of sensuousness that would discover new non-consumptive sources of enjoyment and not tolerate the worst ravages of nature (MRFN, chap. 7).

13 Amongst the enriched anthropocentric value theories, I would count Norton, Bryan G.'s, “Ennvironmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism”, Environmental Ethics 6 (1984), 131148; and Sagoff, Mark's, “On Preserving the Natural Environment”, The Yale Law Journal 84 (1974), 245267. (Sagoff's article is reprinted in Scherer and Attig, eds., Ethics and the Environment, 2130)

Holmes Rolston III's position is closer to the extended naturalism that I shall treat in the next section, but there is no more powerful portrait of the human emotional, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual potential to be found in nature than his writings. See his Philosophy Gone Wild.

14 Callicott, J. B., “Intrinsic Value, Quantum Theory, and Environmental Ethics”, Environmental Ethics 7 (1985), 262. (Hereafter IV, QT, & EE.)

15 A modern conceptualistic version of an ideal-referenced theory is Nicholas Rescher's account of the components of an evaluation, in which he distinguishes the value object and locus of value from the abstract underlying values. See An Introduction to Value Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 8.

16 See Chapter 1 of Mackie, J. L.'s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1977). Another example of a valuational axiology interpreted metaethically is the proposal of a referee for this paper, who writes: “I can affirm that a possible world containing no minds nevertheless contains intrinsic value, but interpret my affirmation, not as describing some fact about that world, but just as expressing my attitude towards it.” In one common usage, the concept of intrinsic value is intended precisely to preclude such an interpretation, which is the point expressed by Mackie's error theory. However if we interpret “intrinsic value” here to be equivalent to Callicott's concept of inherent value, i.e., something valued for itself rather than for its instrumental contributions, then the referee is proposing what I call a projectionist position extended to possible worlds. It is thus subject to my critique in this section.

17 See Mackie, , Ethics.

18 Callicott, for example, speaks of his own infant in this fashion (IV, QT, & EE, 261262).

19 Ernest Partridge uses the King Midas metaphor in Values in Nature: Is Anybody There?”, Philosophical Inquiry 7 (1986), 105. (Hereafter VN.)

20 Ernest Partridge quotes John Laird: “There is beauty … in sky and cloud and sea, in lilies and sunsets, in the glow of bracken in autumn and in the enticing greeness of a leafy spring. Nature indeed, is infinitely beautiful, and she seems to wear her beauty as she wears colour or sound. Why then should her beauty belong to us rather than to her?” (Partridge's emphasis, from A Study in Realism [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920], 129. Quoted by Partridge in VN, 104.) Partridge agrees with Rolston that we find the wilderness “to be valuable without our will”, but not, he insists, without our awareness, i.e., not without an evaluator (VN, 105).

21 Singer, Peter, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981).

22 See Callicott, , IV, QT, & EE, and Partridge, Ernest, “Nature as a Moral Resource”, Environmental Ethics 6 (1984), 109113. (Hereafter NMR.)

23 Such ecological difficulties and a hosl of olher problems remind us of the perils of reducing human progress to technological advance. An expansion of understanding and of moral sympathies would serve us better as marks of progress. However (as suggested by Carolyn Garlich) a further case might be made, following Aristotle (Metaphysics 982b11–28), that the leisure that technology affords enables a non-instrumentalized scientific interest in and appreciation of the natural world that is different in kind from that afforded people subsisting in near-wilderness conditions.

24 One additional problem is that kinship selection, on most evolutionary accounts, is differential—i.e., my proximate kin shall be favoured over against others—which does not ground an encompassing concern. A common criticism of sociobiological accounts is their frequent exclusionary, chauvinistic rendering of ethics against more universal and inclusive values.

25 Partridge, for example, speaks of the minimal requirement that an evaluator have feeling and awareness in order that things may matter to it (VN, 103).

26 Partridge, NMR.

27 E.g., Regan, Tom in “The Nature and Possibility of an Environmental Ethic”, Environmental Ethics 3 (1981), 1934.

28 Goodpaster, Kenneth, “On Being Morally Considerable”, The Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978), 308325. (Reprinted in Scherer and Attig, 30–40.)

29 For a further developmennt of a non-anthropocentric concept of health, see my Is Health an Anthropocentric Value?”, Nature and System 3 (1981), 193207. Health, I propose, is not exactly the same as flourishing or “complete physical, mental, and social well-being” (as the World Health Organization defines it), but is rather that condition of an organism such that it could flourish were it to be put in a satisfactory environment.

30 This criticism was raised by Richard Schacht in a comment on an earlier version of this paper.

31 From A Sand County Almanac, with other essays on conservation from Round River (cited in Scherer, and Attig, , Ethics and the Environment, 8.)

32 For a fuller treatment of the relations between individualistic and holistic values, see Donald Scherer's “Anthropocentrism, Atomism, and Environmental Ethics”, in ibid., 73–81.

33 There is, for example, Mackie's charge that values are metaphysically strange additions to the scientific world view requiring and epistemically strange faculty of intuition for their apprehension. There is the charge by G. E. Moore and others that views like this commit some sort of “naturalistic fallacy” whose error is revealed in the “open question” argument. Related to this charge is the challenge to specify which sorts of things have value and in virtue of what (kinds of) properties and to justify one's answer to this question. There is the question of how values understood as existing independently of human valuing are related to values understood as linked to human valuing; could or should the former have bearing on human motivation or ethics? I begin to touch on only some of these in this section.

34 See Olson, Robert, Ethics: A Short Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978), 5.

35 Callicott, , IV, QT, &EE, 262.

36 Partridge, VN, abstract.

37 Ibid., 8.

38 Perry, , Realms of Value, 23.

39 The analytic philosopher's slogan, “That which denotes everything connotes nothing”, is too crude as it stands. It is intended, perhaps, as a translation of Leibniz's principle of the identity of indiscernibles on the assumption that discernibility requires potential denotative discrimination between objects which do and do not possess the property in question. “Black” is a meaningful concept because it denotes some objects (the black ones) and not others. The translation, however, fails because the world is not so simple. Generic concepts, like shape and colour, are discriminable, even if coextensive in their denotations, because they embrace different kinds of variability. I can hold shape constant, say a square of a certain size, and contemplate a spectrum of colours having that shape, or conversely contemplate a range of differing shapes all of the same hue. Similarly, in classical outlooks, “being” and “good” can vary independently in their modes and degrees. A rock, a tree, a bird, and a person may all be real and valuable, but their being and goodness is discriminable because, while all are equally real, they are of unequal worth.

40 The notion of richness as acategory of value is elaborated in my Value as Richness: Toward a Value Theory for an Expanded Naturalism in Environmental Ethics”, Environmental Ethics 4 (1982), 101114.

41 I am indebted for comments on earlier versions of this paper to J. Baird Callicott, Murray Clarke, Michael Fox, Carolyn Garlich, Ernest Partridge, Richard Schacht, and an anonymous referee for this journal.

Descartes' Legacy and Deep Ecology

  • Peter Miller (a1)


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