Dec 6, 2012
The Moral Circle Versus The Circle of Life
Humans’ impact on the natural world has always sparked some hot debate. The way we interact with the environment and most specifically, whether or not our interactions can be considered morally acceptable, is the big focus of Environmental Ethics. In order to sort out the dilemma of “man versus nature” philosophers use a concept called the moral circle, which attempts to define who or what to consider when asking these questions. In this essay I will be exploring this moral circle by analyzing and comparing the theories that argue for or against its extension to non-humans.
Many philosophers draw a relatively fine line between who to include in the moral circle and who to leave out. Most of the theorists and philosophers give good arguments for what grants entrance into the moral circle and a few of them give clear guidelines regarding the rights implied by that admission, but the evolution and diversity of life on our planet is too complex for a black and white, in or out, philosophy. My own conclusion is that the moral circle is equivalent to the circle of life and actions that interfere with the balance of that cycle are morally unacceptable. In order to explain my reasoning as well as other philosophers I want to summarize some theories of morality itself.
Three main theories delve into the essence of morality and what to consider when trying to make the “right “choice: Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mills, Kantian Deontology by Kant, and the Justice theory by John Rawls.
Utilitarianism is all about the consequences of our actions, and the idea that the right thing to do is the thing that results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. According to Mills “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mills144). This principle can be defined in three tenets: First the right decision should maximize happiness and minimize suffering. Second, our decision should result in the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. And third our decision should rank mental pleasures over bodily pleasures. The utilitarian theory is unique because the right choice can be found in a precise, almost mathematical procedure which makes it simple. It also makes it impractical since many of our actions have unintended or unpredictable consequences. Not to mention many scenarios involve too many aspects of suffering versus happiness and measuring these abstracts is impossible.
In contrast to the utilitarian philosophy, Kantian Deontology- meaning the study of duty- morality can be defined not by the results or consequences of our actions, but by the motives behind our actions or by our sense of duty. In Kant’s opinion the right thing to do is to follow what he calls the categorical imperative by applying two forms. The first form is the principle of consistency which states “act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will it to become a universal law.” (Kant 88). The second stresses our humanity and our ability to reason by treating everyone with respect for their own “intrinsic value” as opposed to what benefit they are to us.
A third theory about morality is John Rawls’ Justice theory which puts its emphasis on what is fair and just. Rawls believed that if we made our choices from behind a “veil of ignorance” we would make choices that were fair. This theory attempts to overcome injustices that stem from luck, prejudice, or other biases that would affect our choices. The justice theory makes morality more of a social debate rather than a question of individual happiness or sense of duty. One important factor of the justice theory is the difference principle which is the idea that unequal treatment and special rights require special justification. This special treatment could be attached to those of authority in positions that are open to everyone and that special treatment should benefit the least advantaged of society. This theory does lend strong support to many environmentalist theories and the extension of moral rights to the environment as well as animals. If we were put ourselves in the position of the plants and animals affected by our decisions concerning the environment we might feel less morally justified in our despotic utilization of the land and its resources.
Utilitarianism lends a lot of support to Anthropomorphism-extending the moral circle to Animals. Peter Singer, the philosopher credited with starting the animal rights movement uses a lot of utilitarian ideas to support his own theory. Singer’s criteria for acceptance into the moral circle are sentience – the ability to suffer or feel pain. Since animals clearly fit this criteria we are obligated to minimize their suffering. Singer argues that our maltreatment of animal is ‘specific’ which he considers to be as morally unacceptable as racism when applying utilitarian concepts. Singer’s stance on the moral circle grants animals equal rights with humans
Interestingly, Michael Pollan uses the same philosophy to argue against moral vegetarianism. Pollan’s rebuttal is that raising animals in a natural way maximizes happiness because both the animal and the humans raising it are happy. He uses the greatest happiness principle to justify raising animals for food as long as the methods used to raise them are humane and minimize suffering. Pollan uses Salatin’s farm as an example of how animals can be raised naturally and in harmony by allowing them to act the way they naturally would. The methods used on Salatin’s farm and support my views of the Circle of life being more practical than a Moral Circle. Raising animals in unhealthy, unnatural and inhumane conditions on factory farms is morally unacceptable to me. Using food animals for food is not wrong when the animal is allowed to live it’s life like it naturally would. Jeremy Bentham supported this view as well stating that moral rights belong to anything that is a subject of a life and that our moral obligation is to allow them to fulfill that life.
Mill’s utilitarian view also lends support to Varner’s take on holistic land ethics which extend moral obligation to the preservation of the environment as a whole. Holistic thinkers like Varner support practices like therapeutic hunting. Causing a little bit of harm to one species or a few animals in order to preserve the balance of the ecosystem is justified by the utilitarian greater happiness principle. I must disagree with Varner’s justification of human intervention. The balance of nature is delicate but ecosystems are designed so that no one species dominates the others. When one species over grazes or over hunts, those that are best adapted to the environment will survive. This is nature’s way of progress.
Kant’s definition of what is right could be applied to Descartes humanistic view. Renee Descartes argues against including animals in the moral circle based on her belief that animals have no intrinsic value and that they are purely instrumental. Therefore she feels no sense of duty to offer them any moral consideration. Rather, she feels people are well within their rights to use animals for the benefit of humans. Descartes view of animals as mechanical beings lends support for many uses of animals (such as animal experimentation) deemed immoral by other philosophers.
Carolyn Merchant and Richard Sylvan both include animals and mother nature into their moral circles on the grounds that our ability to think and reason makes us morally obligated to protect the natural world. Carolyn Merchant argues in her book The Death of Nature, that this mechanical view of nature would lead to the destruction of the natural world. Richard Sylvan uses the last man example to support this extension of the moral circle to the environment and others living in it or affected by it. I agree that we need to realize and protect the diversity of the natural world.
The Justice theory supports Varner’s Holistic theory of new land Ethic- which extends moral consideration to the environment based on the idea that our actions affect the entire community-if the entire community (including plants and animals and the land) is given equal moral consideration. The Justice theory emphasizes that individual happiness should not be considered when distributing primary goods which justifies Varner’s conclusion that “the new Land ethic is not ecofacist…it is a supplement not a replacement for venerable community based social ethics…Holistic environment duties take priority over individual human interest.
Callicotts’s second order principles help us to define who has rights when moral consideration is given to the environment. The first second order principle states that obligations to intimate communities trump impersonal communities. The second second order principle states that stronger interests precede duties to weaker interests. Extending moral consideration to the land does not seem impossible when both of these theories-self-determination, and the second order principles are applied together.
Depending on the way you look at it and the angle you take you could support or derail many extension theories with any of the moral theories. This is more support for my own theory of scratching the “moral Circle” altogether. Rachael Carson had it right when she said “we need to become masters of ourselves, not the land”. I believe that a being has to have the ability to use moral agency accountably in order to receive moral considerations and rights. This would exclude the land, plants, and most animals (the question of whether or not some animals can have morals is another debate entirely) from the moral circle since they do not have the ability to make decisions based on morals. However that exclusion is not justification to use or rather abuse those plants and animals that we share the environment with. Singer wrote, “There are important differences between people and animals, these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each has…” (singer 104) I agree that animals have some rights but I would not take it as far as moral vegetarianism.
I feel that humans are endowed with moral agency and so have a responsibility to treat all things with respect. To me this means that people are morally obligated to raise animals humanely and use resources of the land sustainably. This ideal is not impossible as Pollan demonstrates in his discussion of Salatin’s farm.
I strongly agree with the new land ethic which grants moral consideration to the environment based on the fact that all things within a biotic community are connected. The land is the foundation of energy that flows through all other members of the ecosystem. Leopold points out that our impact on the land will inevitably affect other members of that community so our moral obligations to other people and animals are tied to our treatment of the land. He argued that the right thing to do was that “which preserves the integrity, stability, and beauty of the environment”(Leopold 224). I think this idea reflects my own preference for protecting the Balance of nature rather than focusing on a Moral Circle which question’s the concept of morality itself because morals cannot be universalized. They are personal beliefs and not rules that are set in stone.
Paul Taylor would agree with this view as well. In his article he wrote “ humans are claiming superiority from a strictly human point of view”(Taylor79). Why should entrance into the moral circle be judged from a human stand point unless only humans are to be admitted. Taylor continues to explain that animals are superior to humans in many abilities, though they may seem less valuable to humans than some of our own attributes, we cannot justify admission into the Moral Circle based on human animal comparisons. Another matter of personal perception which makes the concept of the moral circle irrelevant.
William Frankena says in his book Social Justice “all men are treated equal not because they are equal but because they are human”. Acknowledging this simple fact that no two people are equal helps to summarize to summarize my own theory: Every person is an individual with their own ideas about morality, their own sense of duty, and therefore their own personal take on the Moral Circle. For myself when making decisions concerning the environment the right thing to do is the thing that protects the balance of nature and supports the natural circle of life.
Kant , Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 88. Print.
Leopold, Aldo, Charles Walsh Schwartz, and Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Print.
Mill, John Stuart, and Oskar Piest. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957. Print.
Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York, NY: New York Review of, 1990. 104. Print.