Environmental Ethics: III. Land Ethics

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After graduating from the Yale Forest School, Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) joined the U.S. Forest Service in 1909 and served for fifteen years. He resigned to pursue his interest in wildlife ecology and management; in 1933 he was named Professor of Game Management and inaugurated a doctoral program in the subject at the University of Wisconsin. Over the course of his multifaceted career, Leopold came to believe that human harmony with nature could be achieved only if, in addition to governmental management and regulation, private citizens (and property owners in particular) acquired a "land ethic." Such an ethic would make ecosystems and their parts direct beneficiaries of human morality: "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" (Leopold, 1949, p. 204).

Leopold is routinely called a modern American "prophet." A Sand County Almanac, his slender book of literary and philosophical essays, has become the "bible" of the contemporary environmental movement in the United States. And his land ethic is the environmental ethic of choice among most American environmentalists and conservationists, both amateur and professional. It rests upon secular scientific, not sectarian or supernatural religious, foundations. It is less rigidly doctrinaire than deep ecology's eight-point ethical "platform." Unlike ecofeminism, it focuses directly on the human-nature relationship, unrefracted by the alleged historical oppression of women by men. And, in sharp contrast to Western ethical paradigms, it has a holistic dimension that can ground environmental policy and law respecting endangered species and biodiversity.

In the foreword to A Sand County Almanac, Leopold (1949, pp. viii–ix) identifies the central eco-axiological theme: "That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten. These essays attempt to weld these three concepts." Its forty-odd essays document two decades of Leopold's reflective intimacy with the natural world; they span the North American continent from Mexico to Canada and from the Southwest to the Midwest; and they range in style from pastoral vignettes to didactic sermonettes. Part One introduces the basic ecological concept of a biotic community (or ecosystem) personally and experientially through artful seasonal sketches of Leopold's beloved 120 acres of Wisconsin River bottomland. The regional sketches of Part Two develop the community concept in ecology more intellectually, generally, and abstractly. The prescriptive essays of Part Three frankly and forcefully explore the ethical and aesthetic implications of the community concept in ecology. The final essay, "The Land Ethic," is the book's philosophical climax and consummation.

The Biological Paradigm

Though liberally educated, Leopold was primarily a student of biology, not of philosophy. Hence his thinking about ethics was influenced more by Charles Darwin than by Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham, the fountainheads of the two major modern paradigms in ethics—deontology and utilitarianism, respectively—both of which proceed somewhat as follows: I demand that others dutifully respect my rights (in the deontological tradition) or take full account of how the consequences of their actions affect my interests (in the utilitarian). To defend that demand, I identify a characteristic I possess that arguably justifies my claim to moral rights or to consideration of my interests. According to Kant, it is rationality; according to Bentham, sentience. If I am to be consistent in my moral reasoning, then I must acknowledge that those who possess the same morally enfranchising property are entitled to the same regard from me as I demand of them. In short, the prevailing modern paradigms reach the moral standing of others starting from one's claim against others of one's own moral standing.

In sharp contrast, the biological paradigm, the paradigm in which Leopold works, starts with altruism, not egoism. Human beings are bonded to their fellows through sympathetic feelings and what David Hume and Adam Smith call the moral sentiments. The prehuman ancestors of Homo sapiens, whose survival and reproductive success greatly depended upon communal living, sympathy, and the other moral sentiments, were strengthened by natural selection and ever more broadly cast through social expansion. With the evolution of the powers of speech and reflection, forms of behavior that accorded with altruistic and social sensibilities were articulated in codes of conduct. As clans merged into tribes, tribes into nations, and so on, such codes were extended to each emergent social whole and its members. Leopold (1949, p. 202) comments that "Ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution." And he alludes to natural selection when he defines an ethic from a biological point of view "as a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence." That he built directly and self-consciously upon this scenario of ethics arising out of community membership, which Darwin had fully articulated in the Descent of Man, therefore, seems certain. To the evolutionary foundation laid by Darwin, Leopold adds crucial material from ecology—the "community concept," especially—in order to erect his land ethic.

In Leopold's (1949, p. 203) own words: "All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts." That is Darwin's account of the origin and development of ethics in a nutshell. Ecology "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land" (p. 204). When this novel ecological insight is added to Darwin's classic evolutionary account of ethics, Leopold believes that the land ethic follows. Therefore, he writes, "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" (pp. 224–225).

Most contemporary environmental philosophers follow another path to an environmental ethic. They work well within either deontology or utilitarianism, and proceed to extend ethical standing to nonhuman beings by lowering the qualifications for moral rights or for consideration of interests. "Animal liberation" follows from Bentham's first principles virtually without modification, if we acknowledge that most animals are sentient. And "animal rights" follows from Kant's first principles if we acknowledge that while few, if any, animals may be rational, many have sufficiently robust mental capacities to support claims of rights on their behalf. Of course, animal welfare ethics are not the same as environmental ethics. But, taking the next step along these parallel paths, other philosophers have variously argued that all things having interests, broadly construed, or goods of their own—that is, all living beings—deserve, if not rights, then either dutiful respect (according to the deontologists) or moral consideration (according to the utilitarians).

From Facts to Values

To most moral philosophers, the biological paradigm seems to be more a scientific theory about ethics than a normative theory of ethics. And Leopold's facile move from an ecological "is" (that Homo sapiens is a plain member and citizen of the biotic community) to an environmental "ought" (that therefore we ought to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community) seems to commit the naturalistic fallacy—the fallacy (named by G. E. Moore, but attributed to David Hume) of deducing prescriptive statements about our moral obligations and ethical values exclusively from descriptive statements about the way things in fact are.

The two major modern philosophical paradigms, on the other hand, seem strained to the breaking point when one attempts to extend rights or entitlements to an entire species or to whole ecosystems, let alone "soils and waters." The Leopold land ethic, grounded in feeling and community, better accords with the holistic focus of contemporary environmental concerns. Environmentalists and conservationists are not too concerned about the well-being of individual grubs, bugs, and shrubs. They are concerned, rather, about what pollution is doing to Earth's atmosphere, fresh waters, and oceans; about what fragmentation is doing to ecosystems; about endangered species and biological diversity.

Contemporary environmental philosophers thus face a theoretical dilemma. Cling to the modern paradigm and remain out of phase with the more holistic character of genuine environmental concerns, or give up the intellectual security and familiarity of the modern paradigm, follow Leopold's application of the biological paradigm to environmental concerns, and work to solve the daunting problem of deriving environmental ethical values from facts about human moral psychology, evolutionary biology, and ecology.

Ironically, Hume himself may provide the key to bridging the lacuna between "is" and "ought," fact and value, and thus clear the way for environmental philosophers to embrace the biological paradigm of ethical theory that the land ethic extends. "Reason," our tool for determining facts, according to Hume (1960, p. 469), "in a strict and philosophical sense can have influence on conduct only after two ways: either when it excites a passion [such as the love and respect that Leopold identifies with ethics] by informing us of the existence of something which is a proper object of it; or when it discovers the connexion of causes and effects, so as to afford us means of exerting any passion." Dispassionate, descriptive evolutionary biology, a product of what Hume calls "reason," has discovered that human beings and other extant forms of life are descended from common ancestors. Evolutionary biology thus discloses a previously unknown fact: that we are literally kin to "our fellow-voyagers … in the odyssey of evolution," as Leopold (1949, p. 109) characterizes them. The discovery of the fact excites the passions—love and respect—we feel for our kin. Equally dispassionate and descriptive ecological biology has discovered the existence of the biotic community, of which we are no less members than of our various human communities. And the discovery of that fact excites the passions—loyalty and patriotism in this case—that we feel for the social wholes to which we belong. Thus may we move from facts to values, from "ises" to "oughts," in the land ethic, after a manner, according to Hume, that is so strict and philosophical.

j. baird callicot (1995)

SEE ALSO: Animal Welfare and Rights; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Environmental Health; Environmental Policy and Law; Life;Virtue and Character; and other Environmental Ethics subentries


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Environmental Ethics: III. Land Ethics

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Environmental Ethics: III. Land Ethics