A Pluralistic Humean Environmental Ethic: Dealing with the Individualism-Holism Problem

Dissertation, Michigan State University (2003)
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Abstract

Environmental ethicists often argue for ethical holism, granting moral standing to ecosystems and species. However, this conflicts with traditional ethics and commonsense which attribute moral standing to individual organisms based on characteristics wholes do not possess, such as sentience or autonomy. Despite the apparent inconsistencies between these two approaches, any acceptable holistic environmental ethic must account also for these individual-oriented convictions. This is the individualism---holism problem. Marry Anne Warren and J. Baird Callicott have each offered solutions which they claim are monistic in that they provide a single systematic approach which can generate one right answer to each moral dilemma. I synthesize their views and reinterpret them as a pluralistic Humean ethic, one which ameliorates but cannot fully eliminate the conflict. ;Warren proposes a number of moral principles reflecting multiple sources of value which confer moral standing to both individuals and wholes. This, she argues, avoids the need for both higher level theories, which engender problematic conflicts between individualism and holism, and pluralism, which comes dangerously close to relativism. Callicott develops a community model in which the moral standing of various entities, and the strength of our corresponding obligations, is determined by their roles within nested circles of communities. His work builds on both Hume and Aldo Leopold by arguing that our increased ecological awareness should inform our sentiments in ways that incline us to include ecosystems and their constituent parts in our moral community. Warren's principles---revised here in light of my contention that interests play the central role in determining the moral standing of individual organisms---provide substance to Callicott's otherwise more abstract approach. Callicott's work, in turn, provides theoretical coherence for Warren's principles. ;Humean sentimentalism, however, is open to the charge of relativism, especially since Hume's appeal to universal agreement on central moral values and beliefs cannot be sustained in a world so obviously diverse. I respond by arguing that Humean sentimentalism can be reinterpreted pluralistically. Differences in experience and culture prevent universal agreement, but the common experience of living as humans in this world, with its particularities, limits the range of acceptable alternatives. Furthermore, because reason informs sentiment, there are grounds for critically assessing Humean moral claims. ;Despite Callicott's and Warren's rejection of pluralism, I argue that in making room for difference, their views become more consistent with the Humean insight that ethics exists only in the context of experience. A pluralistic approach to moral reasoning provides an alternative to the continuing theoretical and practical stalemate between individualists and holists. It allows room for both sets of concerns in theory building and encourages compromise as a morally justifiable, not simply a politically efficacious, solution to practical dilemmas. Choices may have ethical remainders, but neither side of a debate can so easily insist that compromise threatens their moral integrity

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