Moral pluralism acknowledges the existence of opposing ideas and practices. Moral judgments are determined by using more than one criterion. The views of several moral ethicists are examined and considered. Topical examples are provided supporting both sides of moral pluralism as applied to environmental issues. Concerns for and affects on future generations are postulated. The view toward protecting the natural world by the public is visited. Do non-living elements of ecological systems have rights? A “prime directive” is suggested. This directive could be incorporated by the human species when interacting with the natural environment.
Fournier (2005) defines moral pluralism as using more than one criterion to make moral judgments. Pluralism acknowledges the existence of opposing ideas and practices. This concept does not suggest they are equally valid. Pluralism reigns in the real-world. Humans think of the natural environment as something that exists for their benefit. Protection of the ecosystems frequently results only by regulation.
Beatley (1994) embraces moral pluralism by suggesting that “no single paradigm is applicable in all circumstances”. He suggests the moral approach to be applied is determined by the specific land-use situation. Moral pluralism in Beatley’s sense is unworkable. Ultimately, one must have a stand which rejects some approaches and gives a rationale for those which are applied. For example, Beatley believes living things have inherent moral worth, while rivers and rocks do not. Do animals, like humans, have the right to simply be left alone? “Let The River Run” is a pertinent song title (Simon 1995). Sometimes the correct moral position is to simply leave a rock, river, or plant alone.
Leopold (1970) suggests: “…a land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.” As part of the environmental community a responsibility exists to make good moral choices. Good for whom? Or what? Humans tend to change the environment to enhance progress of the human condition. Humans have a long history of causing alterations to the environment. Much of this change has been destructive. The role of “conqueror” was chosen rather than “citizen” of the environment.
Humans have no inherent authority to arbitrarily decide what other species lives or dies. In the name of “progress” the rate of species extinction has accelerated. There have been notable successes. Puma County, Arizona is growing rapidly. Land development projects are transforming the desert near Tucson. The Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl was threatened with extinction (McCarthy 2005). The owl population was reduced to just 23 individuals. These owls live in holes in Saguaro cactus. They weigh only 2.2 ounces. The new housing developments would mean the end of their species. Puma County worked with the land developers to create a “preservation zone” to protect the owls while allowing new construction. The result is the owl population has increased. The result of this morally correct choice is a win-win situation.
“The business of living decently involves many kinds of principles and various sorts of responsibilities” Brennan (1992). Various theories in environmental ethics can be reconciled via moral pluralism. Brennan goes on to state:
Cost-benefit analysis makes the assumption that everything from consumer goods to endangered species may in principle be given a value by which its worth can be compared with that of anything else, even though the actual measurement of such value may be difficult in practice.
What is the value of the existence of the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl? Would the lives of future generations be enhanced by the existence of these creatures? If allowed to become extinct, what value would future generations place on them? At what point is the value of preservation of a species considered “not worth the cost”? Who gets to decide?
Concern for future generations need not be the sole basis for preserving the natural environment. Apart from material concerns, human beings may see a diverse nature as valuable for its own sake (Booth 2004). Most American live comfortably. They would not want to jeopardize their prosperity for insignificant reasons. If the global economy grows by just 2 % per year, in a century it will have grown to 7 times its current size. This means prosperity is increasing worldwide. It is powered by its own momentum. Yet despite being materially better off, future generations may feel worse off due to the loss of a diverse natural environment.
The cost of petroleum has risen dramatically. Yet demand for oil continues to rise. Global warming is increasing. Human population is spreading over greater areas of the planet. Pollution continues unabated in many geographic areas. Substantial ecological disruption will result. Numerous plant and animal species will be endangered. According to Leopold (1970) no ethic yet exists for dealing with the relationship between humans and the “land”. By “land” Leopold means plants, animals, and ecological systems in general. The human species has a moral obligation to future generations to protect and cherish natural environments. This obligation extends to animals and plants. As the dominant species on Earth humans must assume this responsibility.
Yet humans are selective in their moral choices. A report from the Associated Press describes how 4 injured pelicans were discovered in Huntington Beach, California. This incident occurred in early April, 2005. These were endangered brown pelicans. They had their pouches slashed deliberately. A human appears to have made the moral decision that it would be fun to injure these magnificent birds. Without use of their pouches pelicans will die of dehydration and/or starvation. Fortunately, a veterinarian was able to suture the pouches of 3 of the 4 pelicans. One bird died before it could be treated. Every year about 20 pelicans are found dead near Los Angeles Harbor. Many have been shot.
Human beings have historically been responsible for the cruel treatment of animals. Uncounted species have become extinct due to deliberate mistreatment of the natural world. Directly or indirectly humans have caused significant damage to ecological systems. No thought process occurred regarding potential effects of their actions. No consideration was given to the inherent value of creatures that would be prized by future generations. There are many actions for which the human race can be ashamed.
Booth (2004) points out that “concern for future generations need not be the sole basis for preserving the natural world.” Human do have a moral obligation to future generations. The moral relationship between humans and the natural environment is multi-faceted. Human rights manifests from the idea of respect for the human individual. If an individual is granted a right then the obligation exists to respect the same right for everyone else. Rights are granted to members of various ecological systems. This is a respect for the natural world. The limitations are when certain animals, fish, or vegetation are harvested for food. Since humans are a significant part of the food chain individual members of other species cannot be protected. Exploitation of a certain species is limited to prevent its extinction. This ideal is sometimes not met due to over-fishing or aggressive hunting.
Leopold (1970) said it best: “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’s basic idea is to protect and preserve ecological systems. Human have a propensity to believe the environment exists just for these uses. This anthropocentric position neglects the intrinsic value of all other species. Biocentric environmental ethics recognizes all elements of the natural world. Every life form has value.
All the animals, various plants, inhabitants of seas and rivers, and even rocks provide unique intrinsic value. They all contribute to ecological systems and the overall environment. Over 96 % of participants agreed with this statement presented by Douglas Booth (2000): “The natural environment has value within itself regardless of any value humans may place on it.” Comparable statements about humans having moral obligations to elements of the natural environment drew similar results. These results tend to reflect overall public opinion. Most people support the concept that intrinsic values exist in the natural world. They truly believe in the worth of other species in their own right.
Why is this viewpoint important? Because moral pluralism exists humans do not always display a commitment to the environment. An attitude of respect for nature is required to recognize the intrinsic value of non-human organisms. Every organism has innate goodness. They are worthy of our moral concern. Frequently human endeavors cause harm to ecological systems. It is inevitable due to the surging human population. Some species will be negatively impacted. Hopefully, through studied consideration the damage can be minimal. Humans are able to live in harmony with the natural environment with negligible damage to other species.
The harm caused by those without moral values toward the environment can be mitigated. All living beings have moral standing. It could be argued that non-living elements of the environment have moral standing too. Even a rock or boulder has its place in ecological systems. Removing the rock because it is “in the way” removes a safe haven for small animals. Moving a boulder from a river so “it flows better” affects aquatic life dependent on the large rock for shelter.
The point being every action causes a reaction. Sentient beings need to consider the consequences of their actions on the natural world. Ecosystems are constantly changing and evolving. This is a natural process. Humans need to recognize their actions have significant impact locally and possibly globally. Once the damage has been inflicted it may not be undone. Humans can no longer afford the luxury of moral pluralism. A consistent and thoughtful approach to the interaction of human activity with the natural environment must be the norm. A guiding principle dating back to Hippocrates is appropriate: “First, do no harm.”
Associated Press (2005). Pelicans found with slashed pouches. Retrieved April 15, 2005 from www.cnn.com
Beatley T. (1994). Ethical Land Use Practices: Principles of Policy and Planning. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Booth, D. (2004) Hooked on growth: Economic addictions and the environment. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Brennan, A. (1992). Environmental values. White Horse Press. Isle of Harris: England
Des Jardins, J. (2001). Environmental ethics: An introduction to environmental philosophy. (3rd ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
Fournier, J.T. (2005). The good, the true, the beautiful. Retrieved from www.goodtrue.tripod.com
Leopold, A. (1970). A sand county almanac: With essays on conservation from round river. New York: Ballantine Books
McCarthy, T. (2005). Living with the desert. [Electronic version] Time Magazine. Retrieved April 15, 2005 from www.time.com
Newton L. H., & Dillingham, C. K. (2002). Watersheds 3: Ten cases in environmental ethics. (3d ed.) Belmont, CA:Wadsworth
Retrieved April 14, 2005 from www.en.wikipedia.org
Reuters (2005). Report: Earths ecosystem at risk. Retrieved April 8, 2005 from www.cnn.com
Simon, C. (1995). Let the river run. Clouds in my coffee (Record album). New York: BMG Music