Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whose Environment Is It?

by Joel Marks
Published in Philosophy Now, Issue No. 66, March/April 2008, p. 33.

A peculiarity about the contemporary discussion of the proper human treatment of other animals is that, when the topic is broached at all, it often falls under the rubric of environmentalism. No doubt this is an unintended consequence of the otherwise welcome prioritizing of an “environmental crisis,” which was highlighted in a recent issue of this magazine (issue 65). It is peculiar nonetheless because it begs a rather key question: whose environment is it? The word “environment” has its roots in the notion of surrounding. We humans are ensconced in an environment that surrounds us, and other animals are surely a part of that. But every living being lives in an environment, so humans are a part of the environment of other animals. When we speak of the environment, I suspect that the unspoken assumption is that it is our human one. I doubt that most people have even considered the possibility that there could be others. The current use of “environment” therefore appears to be largely egocentric in a species sense, or in a word, anthropocentric.

That environment is a relative notion can be appreciated with the help of a concept coined by the late perception psychologist J.J. Gibson. Gibson developed a theory of ecological optics (and ecological perception more generally) to counter the idea that perception is a purely subjective phenomenon. Perception, he held, is an objective relation between an organism and its environment. This is brought out more particularly in what Gibson called affordances. Thus, an apple of a certain color affords picking and eating, a doorknob affords grasping and turning, an automobile affords driving, and so on. But of course those examples are from the human environment, and even a particular sort of human, who is technologically aware, etc. For a deer the automobile affords mainly getting out of the way of, and for a worm the apple affords burrowing into (and also eating), and for a bird the doorknob may not even be noticed other than as a glint of light. So to speak of the environment as the habitat of other animals risks masking a substitution of our environment for those of the other animals.

This suggests an even deeper ambiguity in what we mean by “our.” When we speak of “our environment,” do we mean the human one, or the animal one? After all, humans are animals. Obviously placing the discussion of other animals under the rubric of environmentalism delimits “our” to the human. But was this a conscious decision based on good grounds, or simply an habitual thought pattern based on unexamined assumptions? And what are the implications and consequences of such a division between humans and other animals? It seems to me that the whole plight of other animals, that is, their mistreatment at human hands, could be due to this very division.

Perhaps “environmental ethics” was not the happiest term to begin with. Suffice it to say that the main idea environmentalists typically mean to convey is that all animals or even all life shares a single planet, such that we are completely interdependent for our survival and thriving. For that matter, all animal life is in interaction and interdependent with the inorganic world as well: this is as obvious and immediate as the elements of which we are composed, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the neighborhood hillside we quarry, not to mention global warming. Thus, we modern people need to have greater respect for the whole world that surrounds us and not treat it solely as our private gold mine or our garbage dump since doing so distorts our true relation to reality and hence puts us in peril.

That is surely a compelling idea, but a person who is concerned about the proper treatment of all animals (not to mention, all life) cannot be satisfied with such a view insofar as the anthropomorphism of “the environment” remains a possible implication. For then it would still be the case that other animals are seen in their relationship to us but not vice versa. It is our survival and thriving which would remain the touchstone of what is right and wrong. This is apparent in, for example, the “environmentally friendly” organic foods movement, which is far more likely to tout the human health benefits of detoxified animals than to display any deference to the animals’ welfare. Thus, according to Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s new book on The Way We Eat, the milk and cheese and eggs and meat in “natural foods” stores are just as likely to be the products of pain and suffering and premature death, just as deceptively disguised, as the food in the supermarket; this is because the treatment of the animals will still conform to minimal standards dictated by economic competitiveness. In this way animal issues can become hijacked by an anthropomorphic environmentalism, with animals conceived as just another “sustainable resource” for human use, well-being, and enjoyment.

Meanwhile, might it not be mainly wishful thinking, or some kind of extra-scientific faith in an all-good providence, that “what’s good for humans is good for the other animals”? This is an empirical claim, despite its intuitive appeal. Therefore we cannot simply assume that there is a pre-established harmony in this best of all possible worlds, such that humans would never be called upon to make a genuine sacrifice for the welfare of other species (or vice versa). Frankly, I find the harmony hypothesis as questionable as the theological one that an all-good God exists. It also falls prey to the Achilles heel of any consequentialist theory of ethics, which would base the rightness of actions and policies on the goodness of their outcomes, since it is well-nigh impossible to predict the total (i.e., relative net) long-term consequences of anything.

Instead, and in essential agreement with ethicists like Paul W. Taylor and Tom Regan, I submit that all sentient and perhaps all living beings merit respect as ends-in-themselves, regardless of our interdependency. Certainly facts about our interconnections, just like other contingencies, will be relevant to deriving specific moral recommendations and injunctions. But the underlying principle will have to do with the inherent worth and dignity of the respective beings -- perhaps of all existence or existents, analogous to the way God looked down upon every created thing and deemed it good -- and not with their place in somebody else’s, and specifically the human, environment.

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