Archive for October 4th, 2009


What Environmental Ethics Is (Not)

October 4, 2009

Or Saving Private Henderson, Pt. II:

I want to return to some points I made earlier about Joe Romm’s attack on environmental ethicist David Henderson.  You can read those earlier comments first.

The reason I want to elaborate on these points is because it matters that our profession not be misunderstood.  Almost no one in environmental ethics is out to “shout from the mountaintop” any sort of thing, even if he or she wholeheartedly believes in a very strong version of environmental progress.  This is definitely not what a “true” environmental ethicist would do.  It’s what a true activist would do… and that’s a problem for activism, whatever the political stripe.

The impartiality of my field is exceptionally important because, as it happens, people tend not to like indoctrination.  I don’t care much for indoctrination either, which is why I don’t do it.  Ideally, no ethicist is in place to indoctrinate students (or, more broadly, readers) into particular ethical worldviews.  Pedagogically, we’re in place to introduce a range of arguments to our students, even though, and in some cases particularly if, we may disagree with those arguments.  We’re in place to do this charitably and to introduce the arguments in as strong a light as we possibly can.  We’re in place to show the weaknesses and the strengths of the arguments.  Academically, and in our scholarly research, we’re in place to advance arguments, as well as to beat the tar out of bad arguments and expose them as bad arguments.

Obviously, lots of other professions do this too, including scientists and journalists, each in their own way, each with their own methodology.  It’s just that philosophers tend to focus primarily on the arguments and not so much on the substance of the arguments.

Unfortunately, if environmental ethics is misunderstood as being in the business of indoctrination, this can be used as a political bludgeon against anything I or my colleagues say.  So again, we don’t do it.

By contrast, I’m a professional philosopher.  I am employed, by a university, to think and write about environmental values and responsibilities.  Most people who do environmental ethics are professional philosophers, though some non-philosophers may claim to be environmental ethicists.  That’s their prerogative, of course, as any jackass can hang a shingle outside his office calling himself anything he wants, including “Class-A Jackass,” so long as his moniker isn’t followed by the deceptive suggestion that he is also certified as a physician, a lawyer, a CPA, or some other such designated specialty.  (All bets are off, of course, if you are a batshit-crazy dentist-lawyer, in which case you can say whatever the hell you want and CNN will invite you on as a regular guest.)

No.  Not us.  We environmental ethicists are a considerably more humble bunch.  We have no certification organization in environmental ethics, so we’ll let anyone join our little party.  We’ll just trounce your ass when you belly up to our bar.

Now why would that be?

Because, as I said in my earlier post, we traffic in arguments.  They are our stock and trade.  We like them.  They make us happy.  We revel in eviscerating each other.  And then we drink.

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