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Nature as Property and the Land Ethic

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Presentation on theme: "Nature as Property and the Land Ethic"— Presentation transcript:

1 Nature as Property and the Land Ethic

2 Announcement Change of schedule: March 13: The Nature of Animals: Animals as Machines March 18: Environmentalism on Campus Guest speaker: Ann Kildahl, Sustainability Coordinator for HKU

3 Midterm 20% of overall grade Mostly very good. High scores, curved: A: 78+ B: C: Section Two, Question 1 A few people didn’t answer the second part of the question: “do you think Gore’s views best characterized as conforming to virtue ethics, natural law ethics, deontology or utilitarianism?”

4 Projects Find a contentious environmental issue
Present both sides of controversy fairly Take a stand Defend your stand on the basis of philosophical ideas that we have discussed 10 minutes powerpoint presentation in class + 5 minutes discussion time Develop into final paper ( words) Individual tutorials (15 minutes each) next week to talk about the issue you’ve chosen Time slots: Thursday, March 13: 4:00, 4:15 Tuesday, March 18: 12:35, 4:00, 4:15, 4:30, 4:45 Thursday, March 20: 12:35, 4:00, 4:15, 4:30, 4:45, 5:00

5 Nature as Property John Locke British Philosopher ( ) Empiricist Social contract theorist The Two Treatises of Civil Government (1689) Chapter V: Of Property What is private property? How does land become personal property?

6 The creation of private property
The earth and all its resources was given by God to Man in common. The land and its plants and animals originally belonged to everyone. Something becomes private property when a person takes it out of nature through his labor, e.g.: -- the apples become mine when I gather them up -- the deer belongs to the Indian that killed it This works as long as there is sufficient natural resources for everyone. There is plenty for everyone to take via their own labor: “No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man… who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst.”

7 Plenty of land Land becomes private property when it is improved by a person’s labor. “God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life.” “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.” But: only take enough for yourself to enjoy, without spoilage. “Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” As long as everyone uses only as much land as they can benefit from, there is no scarcity of land in the world: “since there is land enough in the world to suffice double the inhabitants”, e.g. in the “uncultivated waste of America” World population in C17th: 500 million World population now: 6.65 billion

8 The value of labor vs. the earth
Cultivating land is a public good – it increases the resources available to humanity. Labor is the largest contributor to the value of earth’s products, in fact the contribution of labor is (usually) 99%, while the contribution of the earth is a mere 1%. “If we rightly estimate things as they come to our use … what in them is purely owing to nature, and what to labor, we shall find, that in most of them ninety-nine hundredths are wholly to be put on the account of labor.” “land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste; and we shall find the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing.” “… nature and the earth furnished only the almost worthless materials”

9 The Land Ethic Aldo Leopold ( ) U.S. ecologist and forester “A Sand County Almanac” (1949) Influential thinker in biocentrism movement Biocentrism: all forms of life are equally valuable – humanity is not special Contrast with anthropocentrism: only humans have intrinsic value, and the value of anything else is measured by its effect on humans

10 Ethics and the Land Ethics evolves, e.g. people once regarded as mere property Ethics should now evolve to include ethical responsibility to the biotic community/the land, i.e. land should not be regarded as mere property, but as something with intrinsic value The land (ecosystem): soil waters plants insects higher animals

11 The Biotic Community The land is a community, and people are members. “The 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.” The biotic community (the land/ecosystem) is: a biotic pyramid an energy circuit an interacting web of food chains interdependent potentially fragile

12 Not mere property “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this, in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.” All members of the biotic community have intrinsic value: “…birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.” But, are all members of the biotic community equal?

13 Instrumental value of the land
Ecosystems have instrumental value to human life, as well as intrinsic value, i.e. caring for the biotic community is also in our own self-interest (as a community) People have largely ignored the importance of nature in history, e.g. bluegrass vs. dust bowl, resiliency of nature in Europe vs. America. People and nature live together symbiotically, and our health and well-being depend on the health and well-being of nature. Nature not just 1%! The health of the land effects everyone, so it is not ethical for private landowners to disrupt or damage their own land. Despoiling your own land (your own property) damages the whole community. Land is not mere property. The health of the biotic community is a common concern.

14 Caring for ecosystems When people disturb an ecosystem, things can go haywire. “…native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not … man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary change, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.” Many members of an ecosystem have no obvious economic value, e.g. wildflowers and songbirds. “Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.” Species may have roles in the health of the ecosystem that are not yet understood (e.g. beech trees good for soil fertility), and eliminating or drastically reduces their numbers brings unseen dangers. Changing the energy circuit also has its dangers, e.g. importing energy (via guano) from Pacific islands.

15 Solution: a new ethic We need a new ethic that gives land a moral value. “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, of course, I mean something broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.” “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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.”

16 Problems with the land ethic
“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.” Is this a definition of morality or an instance of one moral good? Are biotic communities valuable as a whole, as systems (why?), or are they valuable as collections of individual members? Should the interests of individual members be subordinate to the health of the whole (fascism?)? Are biotic communities stable? Should they be? What does beauty have to do with ethics?

17 Readings Required: Leopold, Aldo (1949), “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac, New York: Oxford UP, 1989, available at: Descartes, René (1637 ) “Discourse on Method,” Part 5 , in Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, available at: Environmental Ethics, Chapter 9, on handout Optional: Locke, John (1689) “Of Property,” in Two Treatises of Government, available at:

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