Indiana University Bloomington

Hierarchal Holism

Abby Matt, psychology and religious studies

Written for REL-D350: Environmental Ethics

Instructor: Prof. Lisa Sideris


In environmental ethics, there are two main camps used to discuss rights. The first is environmental holism, which focuses on the environment by itself without humans. On the opposing side is environmental individualism, which applies human compassion by valuing the rights of every individual animal. I would like to propose a new environmental ethic that is not based on animals or humans alone; it revolves equally around humans and nature. I believe different ethics for animals and humans must exist because we should not apply our human compassion to animals the same way we do to other humans. Humanity must soften the boundaries between ourselves and nature. When we cannot see our place in nature, we do not respect nature – we must learn our function within nature. I will be arguing for hierarchal holism that Shrader-Frechette suggests as the middle ground between the two main camps of environmental ethics. Rolston and Cronon support environmental holism, while Jamieson advocates for environmental individualism. At that point, I will be using Goodenough’s work to discuss if creating a new environmental ethic has religious implications. We must find a new environmental ethic based on what humans would like the world to be and what science tells us – an ethic that involves humanity but cares for the environment. Hierarchal holism is the best way to look at environmental ethics because it is the most practical camp as it involves nature and humanity’s place within it, instead of just focusing on nature or humanity alone.

Humans and animals are inherently different, therefore, it is unethical for humanity’s compassion to intervene with wild nature. Holmes Rolston supports this argument in his article, “Ethical responsibilities toward wildlife” argues we cannot treat wild animals with “compassion learned in culture” because it “does not appreciate their wildness” (Rolston 618). Rolston argues that if an animal gets a disease that is natural, it would not be appropriate to intervene because we would not be helping the species as a whole, “to intervene artificially in the process of natural selection is not to do wild animals any benefit at the level of the good of the kind” (Rolston 619). However, if the disease is human caused, then Rolston suggests we must intervene; we must solve the problem we caused. “When conscience turns to address the high quality of wildlife, our human instincts and the imperatives of our ethical traditions need to be rethought” (Rolston 621). The ethics for animals and humanity should be separated by compassion and can only be applied in the case of human caused diseases. While Rolston argues that if humans helped wild animals, we would be helping them beat natural selection. Additionally if we allowed this for wild animals, we would be domesticating them. We cannot use our ethics to influence evolution.

In Shrader- Frechette’s article “Individualism, Holism, and Environmental Ethics,” the authors argue that, “evolution is blind both to an organism’s evaluations of the facts, whereas ethics is blind to the facts and can see only evaluations about the facts” (Shrader- Frechette 62). Evolution and ethics are separate domains. How are we supposed to treat ourselves one way, nature another, and not have conflict? This creates a dichotomy of ethics. However, I believe that separate ethics creates problems because it gives humans environmental cognitive dissonance: we treat the environment badly, but fail to see the consequences when they do not directly affect us. If humans and nature had the same ethic, we may be less likely to harm nature because we would understand it better. If humans interact with nature, it is not inherently bad. We cannot use ethics on evolution and therefore, need a practical way to think about humanity’s ethics in nature. I argue that the solution to the dichotomy is hierarchal holism because it will practically involve humanity and nature together.

William Cronon argues that there is an undeniable dualism in nature. Nonetheless, we cannot treat nature and humanity as mutually exclusive because that removes humans’ place in nature. It is impossible for humans and nature to not influence each other and that is why we cannot pretend humanity does not have a place in nature. “Wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural” (Cronon 80). If we treated nature and humanity as independent, then the wildness may represent our false escape from reality. With wildness as our false escape, we will fail to treat it as part of us, which could make us act irresponsibly towards it. When humans do not see themselves as part of nature, it leaves no hope for us to sustain it. This separation elicits irresponsible behavior. I believe it is wrong for us to be merely anthropocentric or biocentric; we have to balance the two. Like Rolston, Cronon advocates for something other than environmental individualism. Cronon and Shrader-Frechette both agree that humanity and nature are intertwined.

While environmental holism and individualism may just seem like abstract concepts, it could be applied to a real life situation. There is an abundance in the deer population of Bloomington, Indiana. They will occasionally run into the road, cause accidents, and eat the vegetation preventing other animals from doing so and therefore, disrupting the ecosystem. Environmental individualism would say that every individual deer matter and that we cannot kill them just because there is an excess. Environmental holism suggests to kill all of the deer in order to keep the ecosystem in check. Hierarchal holism may advise that the ecosystem needs to be kept stable, but suggest an alternative other than killing the deer such as de-sterilization. Hierarchal holism allows us to care for nature, while still acting on our humanity such as compassion. I believe that hierarchal holism would propose the best outcome.

Environmental individualism is not a practical way to think about the relationship between nature and humanity because it only deals with how we treat other species. Some environmental holists may say that we cannot hurt a being that is incapable of consciousness, but Shrader-Frechette problematizes this statement. She argues that it is possible to harm something without the object of harm knowing that it is being harmed. For example, she states that chemicals hurt nature, but they are not something we feel directly, either physically or mentally. “Knowing that one is harmed does not seem to be a necessary condition for being harmed” (Shrader-Frechette 57). Environmental individualists propose an ethic which fails to consider the effects of saving an individual on an entire ecosystem. For this reason, we cannot use environmental individualism as our type of ethic because it would further separate us from nature. If we save individuals, we are wrongly using compassion like Rolston suggests. Hierarchal holism does not let compassion occur at inappropriate times, like environmental individualism does.

Environmental holism is the inclusivity of the many different elements of nature. In other words, environmental holism focuses on the outcome for the ecosystem, not just the individual within the ecosystem. Environmental holism strives for a balanced community. What does this mean when there is constant change in the environment through evolution? Communities are not stable nor do they adapt to humans’ idea of balance. “Evolution does not operate according to ends or aims” (Shrader-Frechette 62). Shrader- Frechette argues that evolution does not have an end goal. We cannot expect the environment to make decisions when it does not have a conscious mind. An ecosystem is complex, but does not make conscious decisions, especially based on an individual. With that being said, there is no real meaning of balance because of evolution and natural selection. “Evolution and natural selection ignore the contribution to reflective self-understanding of ourselves as agents of inquiry” (Shrader-Frechette 62). Evolution and natural selection are not conscious processes; they do not understand themselves. We are wrongly projecting our humanity onto nature. Ethics usually has an end goal in mind, while nature does not. Environmental holism is a good, idealistic ethic, but it does not take humanity’s role into account. Hierarchal holism involves the complex, changing ecosystem and combines that with environmental individualism’s ideas of rights and compassion. Whereas environmental holism does not consider humanity at all, hierarchal holism understands that we must acknowledge our humanity, but not let it control our actions.

I suggest a new environmental ethic that is neither only individualistic nor holistic; it cannot be purely anthropocentric nor biocentric. I support the notion of hierarchal holism that Shrader- Frechette suggests that pulls elements from both environmental holism and environmental individualism.

While ethics can be based on science, ethics and science are not synonymous. Science may use ethics to determine what they should or should not study, but science is the exploration of fact; ethics is the exploration of thought. Hierarchal holism includes both ethics and science and allows for changing scientific thought better than environmental individualism or environmental holism. Humans do not know everything about science and basing an ethic on incomplete science would not be practical. However, we should not discount the science we have as false. We have to keep in mind that it is not complete or definite now. We can use the science we have now to create our environmental ethic. In the meantime, we can remind ourselves that one day we will have more information about our environment and may need a new ethic. Our ethic will be both anthropocentric and biocentric. Because we are all humans, we see everything through a purely human lens. Our understanding of the world is from a singular species perspective. Although we can try to empathize with other species, we do not know what it is like to be them.  Hierarchal holism is an ethic that involves changing science. Hierarchal holism includes both humanity, nature, and allows for changing science better than environmental individualism or environmental holism.

Hierarchal holism is a better-suited environmental ethic because of the second-order principles such as human rights. While Shrader-Frechette does argue for a type of environmental ethic, she does not want to completely eradicate the role of humans and discusses a hierarchy. Environmental holism eradicates humanity’s role, while environmental individualism solely focuses on humanity’s role. Human and nature are not separable and cannot be treated as such. Shrader-Frechette creates the example of what would happen without second-order principles. For example, environmentalists may suggest that we need to lessen the human population for the good of the environment. Shrader-Frechette discourages this notion and because of this possibility, justifies the need for the second-order principles. One of the most important aspects in instating hierarchal holism is education to understand the hierarchy and why it is necessary. “One of the most important conditions for implementing hierarchal holism is that persons understand and accept a number of important principles of environmental education that illustrate the mutual interdependencies of the inhabitants of the planet” (Shrader-Frechette 65). We must understand why the environment is important in order to care for it. We must understand that not only do we need to take care of the environment, but that it has taken care of us for so long. We have an interrelated interaction with nature; we both influence the other. As Shrader-Frechette illustrates, hierarchal holism involves the care of nature by understanding it and humanity’s role in nature, while environmental holism does not.

One reason that humanity does not have a good environmental ethic is because we do not understand our place in nature. In Dale Jamieson’s, “Animal Liberation is an Environmental Ethic, humanity has “little by way of positive images of how to relate to animals and nature” (Jamieson 13). Shrader-Frechette would fully agree with this quote part of the problem of creating a new ethic is that humanity does not understand nature and our place in it. In response, she would be happy to suggest her hierarchal holism. Overall, Jamieson would probably understand the idea, but not like the ethic because it exists based on the separation between the two camps. Hierarchal holism could not exist without the division. Jamieson argues that animal liberation is an environmental ethic, but Shrader-Frechette would disagree with this categorization. Shrader-Frechette would probably like to agree with, “We are in the midst of a transition from a culture which sees nature as material for exploitation, to one which asserts the importance of living in harmony with nature” (Jamieson 14). However, she may think that this goal is far in the future in and intangible without hierarchal holism. Overall, Shrader-Frechette argues that hierarchal holism is important because it will educate humanity on the importance of nature and the importance of understanding it. I agree with Jamieson’s statement because we cannot create the ethical transition unless we change the social constructs around animals and humans.

Could an environmental ethic be a religion? In Ursula Goodenough’s article, “What Science Can and Cannot Offer to a Religious Narrative,” she argues that types of cults that have survived due to “linkage with the past,” and discusses myths. The most important section is when she suggests “a cult for the present day” (Goodenough 324). She wants to create a cult that is based on science and “embedded in cognitive reality” (Goodenough 325), but not solely based on science. “The more we know about life, the more we can care about it” (Goodenough 327) is her reasoning behind the creation of the cult. She believes that all life is interconnected and humans need affection, knowledge, and experience to care for the environment. I believe the type of cult Goodenough is suggesting is a religion even though it is based on science. Shrader-Frechette would likely enjoy the idea of the cult, but may clarify that her idea is not a religion because it involves scientific education.  However, incorporating environmental education will change many lives and even lifestyles. From the knowledge hierarchal holism provides, we may live our lives differently. We may be more environmentally aware such as driving less, using less water, and recycling. I speculate that there will be more and bigger changes than the ones I just listed. I cannot begin to imagine what a new environmental ethic will do for how humanity lives. Changing mindsets, lifestyles, and actions? This is beginning to sound more like a religion.

Hierarchal holism tries to find a middle path between environmental individualism and environmental holism. I like this definition because it reminds me of how Buddhism was created. Buddhism was created as the middle division between aestheticism and self-indulgence; it is a religion that was built between the extremes. Hierarchal holism was created as the middle division between environmental holism and environmental individualism. It tries to find a reasonable route between two extremes as a way to live. While I do not believe that hierarchal holism is a religion, it does have parallels. Aestheticism and self-indulgence are extremes that are mutually exclusive; the same is true for environmental holism and environmental individualism. However, nature and humanity are inseparable and cannot be treated as extremes or mutually exclusive. Our new ethic is based on the idea that nature and humanity are interdependent. Buddhism was the adjustment for aestheticism and self-indulgence; hierarchal holism is the happy medium of environmental holism and individualism.

Although Shrader-Frechette parallels her idea with Buddhism, I argue that hierarchal holism is not a religion. Although the ethic could change the way humanity lives, it is based on science and will continue to grow. There are not a lot of religions that incorporate new information and modify themselves; hierarchal holism will be constantly developing. Like Buddhism was created as the middle path, this ethic is the middle path between environmental holism and environmental individualism.  It is a sensible route between both extremes. Hierarchal holism is a type of environmental ethic that we must adopt because it acknowledges the apparent polarity between nature and humanity and addresses the situation while including second order principles, like human rights. Second, it is not merely scientific. The ethic uses science to understand the world, but understands the difference between science and ethics. Hierarchal holism includes our understanding of the world through a human lens. This is why our ethic must be both anthropocentric and biocentric. If we cannot understand our place in nature, then we will not respect it. With hierarchal holism as our ethic, humans can understand our interrelated place in nature.

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