Optimizing Hope: A Response to Nolt

In Andrew Brei (ed.), Ecology, Ethics, and Hope. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 65-82 (2016)

Trevor Hedberg
Ohio State University
John Nolt’s “Hope, Self-Transcendence, and Environmental Ethics” is a unique attempt to defend a partial biocentrism – the view that we should regard a significant portion of non-sentient life (as well as sentient life) as having direct moral standing. After defending a general duty to optimize human hope, Nolt argues that this duty requires us to become self-transcendent toward living things in nature. Self-transcendence refers to an intentional state of valuing the good of some object other than yourself as an end. Thus, though Nolt begins from an anthropocentric starting point, his argument reaches a conclusion that biocentrists should find palatable (though some may feel it does not go far enough, since it does not grant direct moral standing to all life). Although Nolt’s argument is novel and thought-provoking, I contend that it is nevertheless unsuccessful because it cannot overcome three significant difficulties. First, it is not clear that self-transcendence toward living things in nature would actually optimize hope. Second, the general duty to optimize hope does not entail an individual duty to seek self-transcendence toward living things in nature. Third, the value of the hope attained by achieving self-transcendence toward non-sentient life seems astronomically minute compared to the hope attained by achieving self-transcendence toward sentient life and especially toward human life. In light of these difficulties, I conclude the essay by arguing that self-transcendence is best directed only toward sentient living things.
Keywords Environmental Ethics  Environmental Hope  Self-Transcendence  Biocentrism  Hope
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