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1 August 2012 Refounding Environmental Ethics: Pragmatism, Principle, and Practice.
Jay Odenbaugh
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Ben A. Minteer's Refounding Environmental Ethics: Pragmatism, Principle, and Practice is a sustained critique of contemporary environmental ethics. In addition, it is the best articulation and defense of environmental pragmatism to date. In this book, Minteer, an associate professor of environmental ethics and policy in the School of Life Sciences and senior sustainability scholar in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, argues that the twentieth-century field of environmental ethics has been largely irrelevant to policymakers and scientists, and to rectify this, it should follow philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey's lead and become pluralistic, contextual, and naturalistic.

In traditional ethics—developed by luminaries such as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and Aristotle— theories have routinely been articulated in which our actions and character are dictated as morally right or wrong, virtuous or vicious. In the 1970s, the field of environmental ethics arose with the idea that this standard approach to ethics was incomplete. Specifically, traditional ethical theory was almost always anthropocentric. Environmental ethicists argued that the Earth was home to more than humanity and that an attempt should be made to develop nonanthropocentric ethical theories. Thus began ethical extensionism. For example, consider the property of being sentient. Nonhuman animals experience pleasure and pain, and if these qualities confer moral standing, humans are not the only living things with moral standing. From these humble beginnings, environmental ethicists have controversially argued that plants, populations, species, and even ecosystems have interests that can be furthered or thwarted. As such, these interests must have moral standing and deserve moral consideration.

The early environmental ethicists were motivated by their objection to anthropocentrism, but they were also influenced by the various countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In their view, modern philosophers should not merely grapple with the abstract, metaethical questions but should also provide relevant guidance regarding current issues of race, gender, class, and the environment. However, what is striking about this area of applied ethics is just how theoretical it has been. The question Does nonhuman nature have intrinsic value? has been at the core of this field, yet answering this question has become tantamount to addressing the objective or subjective nature of values. Therefore, in pursuit of a distinctive nonanthropocentric ethical theory, environmental ethicists have consequently less and less to say about pressing environmental problems.


In light of this predicament, Minteer urges philosophers to “refound” environmental ethics on pragmatic footing. Specifically, he urges that we follow John Dewey's lead when thinking about ethical decisionmaking. According to Dewey, ethical questions arise when we find ourselves in a problematic situation in which we simply do not know what to do and in which our decisions affect the well-being of others. Contrary to traditional ethical theory, Dewey argued that moral principles are provisional hypotheses regarding what is valuable and cannot be applied in an algorithmic manner. For example, the content of principles crucially depends on the circumstance in which these principles are applied. Dewey provides a procedural view of ethical decisionmaking: The right action is the one that intelligent participants would choose as the most reasonable option after discussion and evaluation of the alternatives. Dewey's pragmatic ethics is pluralistic, since it reflects a variety of values; it is context dependent, since no moral principle is always relevant; and it is naturalistic, since it does not require knowledge of divine will or transcendent truths.

What gives this book particular relevance is Minteer's articulation of how environmental pragmatism can be applied to twenty-first-century environmental issues. First, he argues on the basis of empirical fieldwork that stakeholders value the environment for a multiplicity of economic, recreational, aesthetic, and religious reasons, which are sensitive to different management contexts. True enough, some of these reasons are anthropocentric, but they are one group of values among many. Second, environmental pragmatism revives the notion of the public interest and uses tools such as dispute negotiation as a model of how environmental ethical reasoning can be made effective. Third, Minteer explicitly addresses the importance of what he calls ecological ethics— how biologists should make decisions regarding their own research projects. For example, should biologists use toe clipping to mark and recapture amphibians? Should assisted migration be used on thermally challenged species that attempt to migrate in light of global climate change? Should we restore degraded landscapes to historical baselines when endangered species are using them as habitat? Here, he calls on the environmental ethicists to provide a collection of moral heuristics to aid their decisionmaking.

In summary, Refounding Environmental Ethics is readable, and Minteer's challenge to his readers is important. He clearly identifies substantial problems in the way that environmental ethics is practiced, and he presents a powerful and pragmatic alternative that embraces tools from the social sciences, political philosophy, and conflict negotiation in service of this alternative. Two critical points are worth raising, however. First, I would argue that a cognitive division of labor is needed among this new school of philosophers. Distinguish those who are best at thinking about questions on the nature and objectivity of value from those who are best at thinking about how to evaluate novel moral challenges (e.g., assisted migration) in light of our best normative theories and from others who are best at working in interdisciplinary policy contexts and scientific working groups, providing valuable assistance in the articulation and evaluation of moral aspects of environmental decisionmaking. Of course, some philosophers can seamlessly move among all these areas, but we need not all be doing the same thing. Second, one can endorse a more pragmatic approach and still reject Dewey's particularism. Environmental ethics could embody and pursue a policy that is both relevant and independent of the tradition of American pragmatism.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Minteer's book is an important defense of environmental pragmatism and deserves a wide readership. Neopragmatist Richard Rorty once wrote, “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with” (1979, p. 176). Minteer, in this important work, refuses to let environmental philosophers get away with policy irrelevance.

Reference cited


R. Rorty 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton University Press. Google Scholar
Jay Odenbaugh "Refounding Environmental Ethics: Pragmatism, Principle, and Practice.," BioScience 62(8), 769-770, (1 August 2012).
Published: 1 August 2012
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