Is Environmentalism Compatible with Humanism?
Building an Existential Ecology
It would not be far-fetched to claim that humanism — which argues that we are the captain of our own destiny — is part of the backbone of our modern day culture. A potential reason why environmentalism as the whole has not succeeded could be its frequent antagonization of this thought. By constructing a compatible philosophy, we’ll have a better chance to nudge our society toward ecological consciousness; rather than outright denouncing human civilization. Can we still subscribe to an empowering, humanist philosophy, while also do right to the ecological system in which we belong? I’d like share my project to resolve such a contradiction.
While their differences manifest in many places, I believe this is ultimately a conflict between environmental and humanist ethics. As pointed out by the conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold, ethics are (often unspoken) guidelines which direct our behavior and relationship with our community.²⁶ Understanding and adapting a cohesive moral perspective helps to determine the preferred course of action during conflicts. Whom should we prioritize between predators and prey? How about the jobs of the logging industry and efforts of forest conservation? To resolve this, let us dive deeper into both sides of the contradiction. First, we will elaborate what we mean by humanism. Then, we will explore a number of influential environmental ethics. Following that, we will introduce a key critique which I believe is underlying much of the contradiction between the two moral beliefs. Finally, we will consider a humanist ethic that includes an ecological consciousness.
Admittedly, humanism is a very broad umbrella that covers a lot of nuances. While many equate it with anthropocentrism, I believe they are fundamentally different. Anthropocentrism places humanity at the top of existence, making the world their playground. Philosophers including René Descartes considered people as creatures of reason and logic, standing above our animal neighbors. He went as far as claiming that animals are automatons, biological machines that do not think for themselves. This philosophy reduces the environment and its inhabitants into objects, for humanity to use and consume. It’s worth noting that Descartes was a devoted Catholic and similar anthropocentric thoughts can be found in the Judeo-Christian beliefs. Men are created in the image of God and are commanded to hold dominion over all other lives. This combination of the supernatural and reason — yes, I am aware of the oxymoron — can be also found in versions of moral rationalism, with God conceptualized as a being of perfect logic.
On the other hand, we can argue that humanism is the rejection of such objectification. Traced back as early as ancient India, humanist thinkers sought to distance humanity from the supernatural.¹² By acknowledging that — as conscious beings — we have agencies with our own lives, we need not rely on an idolized authority to command, reward, or punish us. These rejection and empowerment are the core of humanist philosophy. Every individual has their subjective experiences of the world; and with those, an intrinsic validity to their perspective — a recognition of the Self. Instead of claiming humanity’s superiority through the ability to reason, humanists leverage logic as a language to discuss and evaluate the different perspectives.²⁵ By legitimizing our subjectivity, humanism extends its objections to religions, states, and philosophies (e.g. utilitarianism) that are riddled with dogma and ignores individual freedom.
One common critique of humanist philosophy is the (perceived) inability to derive, or even discuss, ethics. Its opponents often claim that once society rejects the guidance of religion, it would collapse from anarchy. After all, how can a mass murder be judged if he simply acts according to his own moral values? Existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre would disagree. The question of morality was one of the key issues Sartre aimed to address in his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. He argued that we are not in-itself beings, such that our utility (or essence) was not defined by our shape or physicality. Instead, we are for-itself beings that came to be without an intrinsic purpose. He defined the realization of such aimless existence as abandonment — echoing Nietzsche’s sentiment when he pronounced, “God is dead”. In an optimistic turn, Sartre recognized this abandonment is, in fact, a great freedom. We, as a society, get to decide our virtues and vices. It is with this connection, that he positioned existentialism within humanism.²
Let us recall the words of a wise (though very fictional) Uncle Ben, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility”.³⁰ This is the essence of Sartre’s view on existential ethics. With our radical freedom, we are collectively responsible for the state of our world. Each member of a community, through their actions, builds toward the culture of said community. In an authentic life―one which is lived freely — there is no idolized authority to lead us. As Sartre frankly put it, “We are left alone, without excuse.” He suggested that we are often crushed under the weight of such great responsibility — a concept he identified as anguish. He attributes this anguish to people embracing bad faith, be it religion, authority, or even science. By yielding to false values, they relinquish themselves of their responsibility — and with it, their freedom.⁹
Through the duality of freedom and responsibility, Sartre refuted the earlier critique that an existentialist is free to be immoral. He argued that an authentically free person does not restrict the freedom of others, they would instead be compelled to obtain the same freedom for them. It is along this line of existential responsibility, where we see a potential compatibility with environmental ethics. Before building further from this side, however, I’d like examine some key thoughts on other side of the contradiction.
A key inspiration to modern day environmentalism is the essay The Land Ethic by the aforementioned Aldo Leopold. Published in 1949, the essay made a case for introducing a new type of ethics into our social conscious. Leopold tackled this from two angles; the role of environment and the role of ethics in our society. Highlighting the impact of the land on human history, he urged people to recognize the difficulty in predicting and controlling the ecological repercussions of human actions. The complexity is simply too great. Leopold did acknowledge the ecological community as an adaptive one. Given time, an ecosystem can establish a new equilibrium. However, environmental dangers occur when the changes happen faster than the system can compensate. From this insight, he declared the core principle of his ethic; “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.”²⁶
To execute the principle, Leopold examined the role of morality in our lives. He considered ethics as a behavioral guide between members of a community. This guideline dictates and ensures the cooperation and survival of the community. He saw ethics as an evolving code-of-conducts, from human-human to our current human-society interactions. The next necessary step, Leopold claimed, is the development of ethics for human-environment activities. He observed that we have been viewing the land primarily as an economic resource. Conservation efforts are only conducted either when they have economical value or does not disturb human comfort. He attributed this to our self-image as conquerors, rather than community members, of our environment. Instead, most of conservation efforts have been left to the government — a reliance Leopold believed is not enough. To thoroughly change our toxic habits, he believed the cultural force of ethic is required.²⁶
Believing that much of environmental challenges are resulted from human selfishness, philosopher Arnes Næss developed deep ecology in the early 1970s. He contrasted it from “shallow ecology”, which focuses on the pollution threatening humanity, through expanding the Self.⁶ Just as a patriot build their identity from their nationality, Næss advocated that we should do the same for nature. He argued that, being interdependent parts of the ecosystem, all life have their inherent worth — an idea known as biocentrism. As we are part of it, we should define ourselves as part of it, instead of an outside actor. Though often considered with Leopold’s ethic, Næss distanced his message from it, believing it encourages a totalitarian regime which values the community greater than the individual.⁷ Instead, by leveraging our “innate” selfishness, he believed we would act in favor of the environment to protect our ecological Self.
As deep ecology and other environmentalism movement grew through the 1970s, the second wave feminism also reached its heights. Many feminists of the time recognized parallels between the social exploitation of nature and women. The movement in reaction to this realization was named ecofeminism. It attributed the patriarchal values of our society to humanity’s oppression of the environment. These values can manifest in a number of ways; scientific reductionism, religious gender hierarchy, obsessive economic growth, and dualism between the Self and the Others. Dualism was especially agreed to be detrimental. This mentality creates opposites in which one is the positioned to be superior than the other. We can find examples of these in social tensions of masculinity versus femininity, civilized versus primitive, reason versus emotion, and white versus colored.¹⁰
The ecofeminists also warned against the patriarchal rhetorics of environmentalists of the time. Many movements imposed a Kantian universalism that is solely derived from logic. Such blanket moral laws are at risk to being oppressive. The Self expansion advocated by deep ecology was further criticized as an extension of the conqueror mentality. Through inflation, deep ecologists are imposing their values as universal — once we redefine nature as part of ourselves, do we not have the right to use it however we wish?¹⁸ Instead, the ecofeminists argued, conservancy must apply the feminine touch. Through emotion and sympathy, we must recognize the subjective rights to each species and consider whether human intervention is justified. Some ecofeminists further identified women uniquely qualified for such a responsibility, referencing their historical roles as nurturers.⁷
In the 1990s, a new school of environmental ethics was introduced by libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Naming his theory social ecology, Murray argued that environmental issues can be framed as social inequality that stemmed from human society and spilled into ecological society. At the core of such inequality is a hierarchy on top of which humanity stands. The balance is further tipped once we adapted the “grow or die” mentality during the 18th century. Natural resources were commoditized and human resources were exploited.²⁹ As the competitive capitalist culture is part of the problem, Murray did not believe half-way solutions such as green capitalism (e.g. carbon trading) would work. Instead, he advocated for the decentralization of society into smaller, more sustainable communes. In small societies, the people would build closer relationships with their environment. Furthermore, as direct democracy is more suitable in smaller communities, the people would be better able to protect their ecological society.⁷
Even through these examination, we can observe some common grounds between environmentalism and humanism. Leopold, ecofeminism, and social ecology all warned against the objectification and reductionism embedded within our culture. Both deep and social ecology highlighted humanity as a community member of the environment, instead of an outside actor. We can leverage these themes to resolve the contradiction. I feel there is a common fallacy exhibited across many environmental ethics, however, which we must avoid when building our own.
I believe the main contradiction between the two sides is on the sources of their ethics. Often, environmental ethics are overly utilitarian or — dare I say — supernatural, a notion which humanism rejects. Nature (with a capital “N”) is personified as having a will or design. Leopold’s The Land Ethic presumed the existence of a natural “integrity” and “beauty”, both of which are arguably subjective values. Ecofeminism called attention to these impositions. However, they also suffered from a similar flaw when they projected Nature as a nurturing entity. These arguments created an idolized authority from which their ethics are derived. This error of declaring virtues and vices from natural properties is known as naturalistic fallacy.
Coined by G. E. Moore at the start of the 20th century, the fallacy was recognized as early as the 18th by David Hume.¹⁷ In his influential work A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume argued that human behaviors are driven by passion first, including our sense of morality. He emphasized the distinction of our observation of the world apart from our ethics. The former is driven by logic and knowledge; the latter by passion, sentiments, and empathy. Through this distinction, he rejected utilitarianism and moral rationalism from the likes of Descartes. Hume highlighted the flawed deduction often used by his opponents, later known as the is-ought problem. That is, while we can describe the world by its properties and behaviors (i.e. what it is), we cannot conclude any moral preference solely by those descriptions (i.e. what it ought to be).¹⁴
A similar conclusion can be made from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many readers of his theory attempted to derive a design of Nature from the process of natural selection. However, at its core, evolution is no more than replication, competition, and environment. How can we precisely assign a will onto such a stochastic process? Darwin further explored human behavior in The Descent of Man. He suggested that our instinctive sympathy is also a product of evolution. As social animals, our community is part of our environment, thus a factor in natural selection. Altruistic instincts have been passed down because they benefited the survival of the pack.²²
We should make a distinction here between instinctive and intrinsic. While human altruism may be an inherited trait, it ultimately emerged through competition. It would be bad faith to assign a will or design to the process of natural selection. For a dramatic example, Earth’s first mass extinction was caused by blue-green algae rapidly filling the atmosphere with oxygen, killing the prehistoric bacteria (and nearly themselves).¹⁹ Can we judge these algae as unethical? The mystical “stability” for which the likes of Leopold advocated is a product of game theory and circumstances. Instead, by subscribing to humanism, we should recognize our freedom and responsibility to choose our virtues.
The dangers of the fallacy are clear from a social perspective. We need not look further than the critiques of evolutionary psychology. Similar to how Darwin claimed the emergence of sympathy through social selection, evolutionary psychologists aimed to explain all other behaviors. Their results are often used to object progressive changes. Misogynists and racists would commit naturalistic fallacy to justify their own prejudice behaviors. In A Natural History of Rape, Thornhill and Palmer claimed that rape is a selected trait as it selects for male fitness.¹⁶ Psychologist Rushton argued in Race, Evolution, and Behavior that intellectual and aggressive behaviors can be explained through race.²⁰ Regardless whether these researches can be defended scientifically (many of which are questionable), we can simply crawl through social media to find some of their most toxic interpretations to justify mistreatment of minorities.
We have an idea, now, of the traits which our reconciliation should exhibit. It needs to respect subjectivity and reject objectification of the individual. It also needs to avoid committing naturalistic fallacy. Finally, it should explain why an individual should be concerned with other members of their ecosystem. To do so, I’d like introduce the idea of intersubjectivity — a shorthand for the reciprocal influences and experiences between individuals. A popular concept in both social science and philosophy, it describes the way we are inevitably linked to our community. Existential thinker Simone de Beauvoir was a leading figure on its philosophical studies; exploring its influences on gender identity in her revolutionary book The Second Sex. Her work on existential ethics will be the platform from which we build our resolution.
In her essay Ethics of Ambiguity, she reconnected the Self and the Others that were separated by subjective experiences. De Beauvoir claimed that we define ourselves both through internal meditation and as reflection from others — a form of the titular “ambiguity”. This behavior is evident as we behave differently when alone and while with others. The awareness of being observed changes our actions. The social responsibility derived from this connection, along with our intrinsic freedom to acknowledge or ignore it, form the basis for moral freedom.²³
De Beauvoir further demonstrated moral freedom through defining different types of (seemingly) authentic people. She identified a nihilist as someone who recognizes their freedom but, finding no value in the Others, and detaches themselves from society. An adventurer, while actively participates in their community, attaches no concerns to the outcome of their actions. They emphasizes the experiences provided by their freedom and is indifferent to larger world. On the other hand, a passionate man exercises their freedom to choose their own meaning. However, they possesses a tunnel vision to their goal, seeing the Others merely as resources to expense. All of them, de Beauvoir argued, are not authentically free. By refusing to recognize how they affect and are affected by the Others, they deny their social responsibilities and hide behind their misunderstanding of freedom.²⁴
A person with “genuine freedom” embraces the intersubjectivity between the Self and their community, de Beauvoir declared. The authentic person acknowledges the Others as free by recognizing how their own essence are recursively influenced. Through that awareness, they takes responsibility of their actions and the consequences. To de Beauvoir, this responsibility is the center of existential ethics. While we are intrinsically free, as existentialism claims, not everyone succeeds to be morally free. Through this definition, we can apply moral judgement upon those who act in recognition or rejection of the Others’ freedom.³
Intersubjectivity can also be applied to environmentalism. By acknowledging the subjectivity of those outside of humanity, the same moral freedom can be exercised. Unlike the Self expansion of deep ecology, our ethic does not encapsulate the Others into our Self — that is, we do not think for them. Instead, we accept how our actions impact the freedom of the Others. By purchasing farmed salmon, am I rejecting their freedom by promoting their enslavement? By recycling paper products, have I respected the freedom of those living in habitats in danger of deforestation? Similar to ecofeminism, intersubjectivity leverages our inherent sympathy to understand whether we are acknowledging or ignoring their intrinsic freedom. (Ecofeminists were likely also influenced by de Beauvoir’s work.) We might also find ourselves echoing Bookchin’s recommendations of small communes. By reducing the overarching and chaotic impacts of our actions, we might find consuming locally produced food and energy preferable.
Let us be critical for a moment to anticipate some rebuttals. Our (hypothetical) opponents would first argue that only humanity are for-itself beings — that other life forms have no signs of subjectivity. While it is difficult to suggest that plants, fungi, and bacteria have consciousness, we can observe various levels of intelligence in many animals. Corvids, primates, dolphins, and even pigs have exhibited children-level intelligence.²⁷ Seemingly human emotions are also found in highly social animals; sympathy within wolf packs; or envy from Capuchin monkeys. Given our evolving understanding of the brain, it is reasonable to suggest that they experience various levels of consciousness.⁴ Having conceded to that possibility, our opponents would then demand proof of intersubjectivity — that the animals exert and receive influences when in the presence of other for-itself beings. Fortunately, cross-species influences are even more evident; simply ask any pet owners. We behave differently in presents of our pets and other animals, even when they are not directly interacting with us. Animals too behave differently in the presence of people. Cats, for example, do not meow at each other, but only to their owners.¹⁵
By accepting the intersubjectivity between us and our animal neighbors, we can establish a moral freedom to include the entire ecosystem. This moral freedom extends to other biological kingdoms through how our actions affect the habitats of the Other animals. While we acknowledge different levels of consciousness among the different animals, we cannot ignore them outright. If we reject their claim to intrinsic freedom, we would be rejecting our own. As humanists, cursed with radical freedom and bound through intersubjectivity, we must choose our virtues and vices, without guidance nor excuse. To close this project, I’d like to quote another aspiring (though very fictional) character;
“Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. […] That’s what defines an age, that’s what defines a species.”―The Doctor, Doctor Who, Thin Ice¹¹
Resources and Further Reading
- A Treatise of Human Nature
- A student’s guide to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism and Humanism
- Bad Faith, the Appeal, the Artist
- Consciousness: Confessions of Romantic Reductionist — I found myself referencing this book very often
- Do Animals Have Free Will?
- Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, Deep Ecology
- Environmental Ethics
- Essays in Existentialism
- Existentialism is a Humanism
- Feminist Environmental Philosophy
- Here’s the Doctor’s amazing speech from this week’s Doctor Who — Peter Capaldi is my Doctor
- History of Humanism
- Is Environmentalism a Humanism? — Another paper addressing a similar issue; though I took a very different approach
- Is-ought problem
- Meowing and Yowling
- A Natural History of Rape— I’m aware this is not alphabetical; the original source got pulled down
- Naturalistic fallacy
- Nature, Self, and Gender
- Poisoned Planet
- Racism in science
- Simone de Beauvoir
- The Descent of Men
- The Ethics of Ambiguity (commentary)
- The Ethics of Ambiguity, Personal Freedom and Others
- The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective
- The Land Ethic
- The Unexpected Genius of Corvids
- Three Challenges For Environmental Philosophy
- What is Social Ecology
- “With great power comes great responsibility” — Yes, it’s often misquoted