Indiana University Bloomington

The Ethics of Environmentalism and Animal Rights

Abby Matt, Psychology and Religious Studies

Written for REL-D350: Religion, Ethics, and the Environment

Instructor: Prof. Lisa Sideris

Part I

Wild animals are not made to be taken care of by humans; humans are not made to take care of wild animals. If we are actually supposed to relieve suffering of all animals, this would be the only task of animal liberationists. Animal liberationists must turn their attention to see how ridiculous their claim is if they were to put it into action; relieving suffering would be their only job. Animal liberation and environmental ethics cannot be considered to be on the same field because one side sacrifices what the other side is trying to save. Animal liberationists must be willing to sacrifice the ecosystem for individuals. Environmentalists must be willing to sacrifice the individual animals that animal liberationists are trying to save in order to protect the ecosystem; they are separate ethical camps.

“The basic principle of equality” (Sagoff 39) should allow humans to apply our morals to non-humans. Peter Singer is an advocate of this ideal called animal liberation. Because animals can suffer pain and enjoy pleasure, they should have the same moral status as humans. However, this does not include plants; he is mainly discussing sentient animals. Sagoff argues, “interests of all animals should receive equal respect and concern” (Sagoff 39). Sagoff summarizes Singer’s ultimate thesis, “society has an obligation to prevent the killing of animals and even to relieve their suffering” (Sagoff 39). Sagoff also points out that although Singer has a problem with conservationist organizations because they are not focused on humanitarian issues; this is not their goal to begin with. Furthermore, “[the organizations] do not fail in their mission insofar as they devote themselves to causes other than the happiness or welfare of individual creatures; that never was their mission” (Sagoff 40). Sagoff concludes his summary of Singer by claiming that these ideals cannot be involved with or allow for environmental ethics because they are inherently anti-environmental.

Animal liberationists speak of animals’ rights. In appealing to rights, animal liberationists attempt to move beyond the desires of an animal. However, the problem is that environmentalists are not concerned with rights to begin with. Ecosystems do not have rights; “only individuals may have rights” (Sagoff 43). The distinction between the two camps can therefore not be an obligation of rights. The goals of animal liberationists are anti-environmental because they do not preserve the ecosystem. Leopold says, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” Extending rights to wild animals and relieving suffering is completely ruining the ecosystem. Environmentalists care about the big picture of a population, while liberationists care about the individual animal. Saving individuals does not help the environment and is therefore anti-environmental.

I believe that Sagoff makes some good criticisms of Singer’s argument, but Singer could still argue his position. Singer argues that relieving suffering is the primary goal. However, the ability to suffer is important because it is what makes the individual count in the first place. To Singer, this means that we do not have to relieve the suffering of every individual.  In order to be qualified to relieve suffering, the individual must have consciousness and be self-aware, which Singer calls personhood. Not all humans are self-conscious and have personhood; the same is true for some animals. Additionally, Singer would argue that Sagoff is crazy for not seeing that equality for all of the individuals containing personhood is a prescription, not description. Even if we spend a lot of time relieving suffering and nothing else, this is our moral obligation because the individual animals have the same moral status that humans have.

Overall, I do believe that animal liberation is in conflict with more holistic environmental ethics because one side is arguing to save what the other side is sacrificing. While environmentalists care about the whole species and ecosystem, animal liberationists are fighting for the individual animal and to relieve its suffering. Environmentalists do not specifically care about individuals and would even argue that helping a wild animal is disrupting the ecosystem and hurting the environment overall. To environmentalists, animal liberationists are anti-environmental. Animal liberationists say that we have a moral obligation to help the animals because they have rights; these animals have personhood because they are self-conscious. Humans should apply the same set of morals to these animals that we apply to ourselves. We must learn to treat them as equals even though they are a different species; species is something we must look beyond. Animal liberationists might even ask environmentalists if they would not save another human in order to equate the animals with personhood to a human with personhood. The only common ground between the two is that they both want to help the environment, but they do so in contrasting ways. Because of their values, I believe they are ultimately at odds like Sagoff suggests.

Part II

Gardiner discusses how climate change is a perfect moral storm because not only are there big obstacles, but it may be difficult to act upon because of the global, intergenerational, and theoretical storms.

The global storm incorporates three important characteristics: “dispersion of causes and effects, fragmentation of agency, and institutional inadequacy” (Gardiner 399). All of these characteristics are affected both spatially and temporally, like all of the storms are. Even if it was possible that one person caused climate change, that same person would not necessarily receive the effects because, “impacts are dispersed” (Gardiner 399). This leads to fragmentation of agency which is that no one person caused climate change. Even if we were to start to solve the problem, it would be hard to organize a solution because climate change is a global problem. This leads to the third characteristic of institutional inadequacy. It is hard to create a system of globally rationing resources. Ultimately, governments make their own decisions and it is hard to enforce any decision about climate change because of fragmentation of agency; “the need of enforceable sanctions poses a challenge at the global level because of the limits of our current, largely national, institutions and the lack of an effective system of global governance (Gardiner 401).

The second storm is the intergenerational storm and the three characteristics are same as the global storm. Climate change does not have an immediate cause and effect. Because of the greenhouse effect, it takes society a while to see the consequences of our actions. Because of temporal dispersion, future generations will be the ones who will have the consequences of what we are creating now. Temporal fragmentation of agency is difficult because we cannot communicate with future generations. It is possible that we will communicate with people we are spatially fragmented from now, but unlikely that we will communicate with people who are temporally fragmented from us. As time goes on, the problems grow; this is called backloading. In fact, “backloading makes it hard to grasp the connection between causes and effects… and undermines our ability to respond” (Gardiner 403).  For this storm, institutional inadequacy comes from the lack of incentives. Because we are not facing the consequences as severely as future generations will, politicians are not as concerned about the issue while running for election.

Third, the theoretical storm is that we are unprepared to deal with the long-term problem of climate change. There is a lot to worry about; many individuals and whole populations will be affected by climate change and we are not certain of all of our discoveries regarding climate change.

Because we are facing such spatial and temporal problems with climate change, Roman Krznaric suggests that empathy can start to tackle the problem; “it is economically beneficial for us” (Krznaric 154) to take of the problem now because just spending money to Band-Aid the problem is not thoroughly fixing it. Additionally, taking action now is a moral obligation because greenhouse gases will harm others in the future. Both of these ideas sound great, but the problem is that most people simply do not care to change the picture. “There is an absence of empathy across space… there is a lack of empathy through time” (Krznaric 155).

Empathy is a “shared emotional response.” For example, if someone was sad because they are mourning the loss of their dog and someone else saw this, that person would be sad as well; this is empathy. However, a second definition of empathy is perspective taking. This is stepping into someone else’s shoes and seeing where they are coming from. Perspective taking is more applicable in dealing with “social change” (Krznaric 157). Additionally, “empathy is thus not just a psychological phenomenon but also a political tool” (Krznaric 157). Empathy would help us see the human in others. Instead of just imaging a group of people that live on the other side of the world, perspective taking would allow an individual to see themselves in another’s shoes.

Our government is better at working on short term goals rather than long term goals because long term goals are harder to plan and organize. This structure forces society to think in the short term and procrastinate taking action against climate change. Krznaric uses a metaphor to demonstrate how easy it is to know, but not care enough to change the consequences. Even though smokers know the consequences of smoking, they will still do so because the end of their life seems like a far time away from when they began smoking. To fix this problem, “we need to create an empathetic bond between the present and the future” (Krznaric 161).

Rich countries who create greenhouse gases do not suffer the consequences and do not assist those who do suffer the consequences. Why? Our reason is “these people live far away and we don’t know them” (Krznaric 165). If we personally knew another person across the country affected by a problem that we caused, we would be more likely to help them; it is in our human nature.

Gardiner is worried globally about how no one person is responsible for climate change. It is complicated by the change not having an immediate or direct cause and effect; it will only be seen through generations. With empathy, we might be able to see how we are hurting poorer counties. This does not solve the problem of who is responsible, but it will show richer countries that who caused the problem individually does not matter. All of us in the first world caused the problem; that should be enough responsibility. We do not know the people that are suffering and this makes it difficult to care to fix the problem. If we connected with individuals across the globe and used perspective taking, then we would be passionate enough to act on climate change.

For the intergenerational storm, climate change takes a long time to be seen. If we had empathy for future generations and imagine the hardship they will be facing, we might begin to act. Climate change is going to affect our children, their children, and so on. Every generation is going to have more climate change and it will be harder to fix as time goes on.

Part III

The utopian ideal of the biospherians was living together sustainably. Through Columbia University, Biosphere 2 became, “no longer a miniature world, but a laboratory, a giant test tube” (Reider 230).

When Biosphere 2 was first conceived, it was viewed as an experiment for long term sustainability, not climate change and global sustainability. Sustainability did not have the same meaning that biospherians thought it had; it became a buzzword to the public. The utopian ideal held by biospherians was that Biosphere 2 would help life on Earth and teach us about living sustainably. According to Reider, both the scientists and biospherians initially held, “the same basic fantasy” about helping life on Earth. However, Columbia University wanted to answer global questions because that was the route to funding. To the biospherians, Biosphere 2 was a like another biospherian; “it was a living creature.” Biospherians treated it with, “tender loving care”, but there was a “paradigm shift to scientists in white lab coats coming in from nine to five” (Reider 235). Biosphere 2 was, “no longer a garden, it’s a research tool” (Reider 235). The language describing Biosphere 2 changed. It was once called, “my baby” and through Columbia University it became known as,“the tank.” This language change is very interesting because not only did it change from a personal possession of “my” to a neutral one like “the,” it also changed from personification to an object typically made for destruction.

From the beginning, Columbia University worked hard to get rid of Biosphere 2’s past. They framed John Allen as a cult leader. The scientists greatly changed the utopian ideal of sustainability to a laboratory for results. The utopian ideal was quickly disrupted because of the carbon dioxide problem; scientists wanted Biosphere 2 to become a playground for experiments. The scientists discussed taking out the desert and even performing a “scorched Earth” experiment. Biosphere 2 needed money and “the new Biosphere 2 therefore had to address top scientific and social priorities” (Reider 233). The experiments within Biosphere 2 mirrored outside politics.

In the utopian ideal of Biosphere 2, it was a place where humans and nature were to function in unison. The goal was to live sustainably long term. The ethics seem to be commitment, care, and learning to understand the interconnectedness of wild nature and humans. Biospherians wanted to help people and Earth to a better future. They had an optimistic view of helping the Earth and the willingness to try. The biospherians all had personal interest in the environment. Through the change to Columbia University, dystopia was introduced; humans and nature were separate: “as soon as they [the scientists] get their information, they walk away” (Reider 238). The ethics for the scientists involved helping climate change and global sustainability. In order to do research, they needed funding from an outside source.  The scientists had to appeal to, “what the outside world wanted.” Even if the scientists felt similarly to the biospherians in terms of hopes, they could not act upon it because “the bureaucratic and economic structure of academia did not match up with scientists’ intellectual understanding of the Earth’s interconnectedness” (Reider 241).

John Allen endorsed the utopian ideal that the biospherians held: Earth was a community that we are all connected to and must help save. John Allen first created the community through the theater of possibilities. He wanted to create a new world similar to the idea of Noah’s ark or the Garden of Eden. The theater of possibilities was a way for the people to reflect upon what they are doing in their life; it was all personal. John Allen was disgusted with the latter idea of Biosphere 2. It makes sense for him to feel this way because it was opposite of what he had worked to create. The scientists were detached from the work and treated something he wanted to be home as a laboratory; this is dystopic for John Allen. He wanted to create a community of people who all care for the environment and would do anything to make the dream of Earth sustainability possible. When Columbia University took over, it was the opposite. It became a group of people, but not a community, who would do anything possible to keep their jobs and experiments running, even if that meant destroying Biosphere 2.

Although I do approve of this idea, I think that the latter idea of Biosphere 2 would help us learn to live on Biosphere 1. I do wish that humans could live in nature harmoniously, like the biospherians tried to do. However, our government and society is based around a different set of principles. In order to do research, funding is needed. For funding, the government would like to see empirical data and concrete objectives. If we are to document and test what could happen to Earth, then the dystopic ideal must occur. If we want to show society the perks of nature and what living in nature would actually look like, then the utopic ideal would be best. However, we do not function in a utopian world. We must find a way to live sustainability in nature, but we must to do with some pessimism. I believe that it is extremely important for everyone to feel a sense of interconnectedness with nature like the biospherians did, but the way our society functions would not allow for this. If possible, I would like to combine the two worlds of Biosphere 2 so we can work within it, while having everyone appreciate it.

Part IV

To both Jensen and Orr, ignorance is not a negative idea because humans need to be reminded that human knowledge has its limits.

Jensen defines ignorance as “not knowing” but it is more involved with the attitude of not knowing than the lack of knowledge: “We simply do not know the effects of our actions” (Jensen 295). Currently, our society thinks that we are clever enough to solve our problems. If we created the problem, then we can deal with the problems we cause. We think that we need to know more to be able to deal with the problems. The real problem is our attitude of wanting to know everything and this is simply not possible. Jensen would argue that ignorance is not necessarily a good thing or a virtue, but more neutral. Instead, acknowledging ignorance is good and a virtue because ignorance is in our human nature.

Orr defines ignorance as something that is unsolvable; “we simply cannot know all of the effects of our actions” (Orr 2). Universities try to eradicate ignorance when this certainly should not be the goal. Ignorance can never be eradicated and that is not even something Jensen would want to happen. Instead, he would want there to be a paradigm shift in awareness that humans do have ignorance. Some characteristics that would help this process are “propriety, interdependence, humility, respect, conservatism, and awareness” (Jensen 300).

Jensen discusses how “the primary goal of education is the acquisitions of knowledge – might be flawed” (Jensen 293); he suggests that we should, “embrace the inevitability of human ignorance, rather than seeing it as a problem to be cured” (Jensen 294). Human knowledge has its limits. With this in mind, then what should education do? Education should nurture its citizens. The real question we should ask is what characteristics we want our graduates to have. Our society has the assumption that we can handle whatever problem we are faced with as long as we have knowledge. Getting rid of ignorance should never ever be the end goal.

Orr argues that education may be perpetuating ignorance. He thinks that education may be a “deadly pride” like the Amish view it. First, education is a problem because it leads us to be environmentally destructive. The more we have progressed, the more clever we become, but not wiser. Our advancement leads us to be environmentally irresponsible. The more responsibilities we have, the more variables and problems arise. Second, “education is not an important determinant of behaviour, ecological or otherwise” (Orr 1). Orr’s main point here is that while some people are very smart, they are not good people. Just because someone is educated, does not mean they will do the right thing. Third, while education might have positive effects, they are not long-term. When we separate intellect from personhood, it “detaches us from human realities” (Orr 2). If we are not learning morals and attitudes, then our education may not be very applicable to our real life.

When humans think we know enough, “it is the difference between nature’s wisdom and human cleverness, between the ecological and the anthropocentric” (Jensen 296). We often try to assert our dominance like in case of the Industrial Revolution. When we assert our human dominance, we forget that ignorance is in our nature. In our graduates, attitudes are the most important, not just the actual knowledge. Education for ignorance should expand our horizons and increase awareness; it is about “questions rather than answers” (Jensen 301). Jensen suggests place based education as a way to learn about local history: “We must eliminate the separation between education and work so that students spend time producing food and helping meet their other necessities as part of everyday life” (Jensen 303). We should strive for sustainability and ecological citizenship.

I agree with Jensen and Orr that we often think education and knowledge is the way to fix all problems. It is impossible to know everything and thinking that we are able to learn and discover everything is ridiculous. However, our culture makes being omniscient a goal. As much I realize that being omniscient is impossible, I feel conditioned to strive for this goal. I am working my way through the education system and I feel that I am supposed to know as much as I can. Education is a lot about answers, not questions like Jensen suggests. We are not taught about the limitations of human knowledge because technology has done so much for us. In our education system, it seems that there is an inherent attitude that we are invincible. Morals or certain characteristics that would help society be ecological are not being taught. We must change our attitude and belief system to see that knowledge does not equal good behavior and teach others the same.

At the university level, I approve of the idea that ignorance is not solvable and we should not try to solve it. Every discovery we make, more ignorance is created because there are more variables that we may not know about. We could put place-based education in universities as well so that higher education can help human survival: “In the mounting battle for a habitable planet it is time for teachers, college and university presents, faculty, and trustees to stand up and be counted” (Orr 3). If there were required courses for every student in higher education, the purposes of education might change to take care of the environment and encourage us to be sustainable.


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