A Theory of Ecological Justice

By Brian Baxter | Go to book overview

10

Ecological justice and the sentient

It is important to emphasize at the start of this chapter that, although we are now moving beyond the non-sentient realm of the 'merely living' to organisms which possess sentience, consciousness, self-consciousness and various forms of intelligence, our focus is still firmly upon the requirements of ecological justice and upon what environmental resources such organisms are entitled to claim against moral agents. We are not concerned with the issues of how moral agents may treat or mistreat such organisms in other respects, such as in their direct personal interaction with them. It is important to emphasize this point because it is with respect to organisms possessing sentience and beyond that an enormous amount of ethical thought has already been expended without, however, addressing issues of distributive justice regarding environmental goods and bads of the kind with which ecological justice is concerned. We need to maintain, therefore, a firm grip upon this set of issues, without, of course, disparaging the efforts of those whose concern has been primarily with the welfare and suffering of individual non-human animals.

What are the appropriate subjects of claims to resources as we move to the class of sentient organisms, and to what does ecological justice entitle them? With respect to many of those organisms that occupy the region between the bare possession of sentience up to the onset of self-consciousness, the requirements they have for environmental resources will be essentially the same as in the case of non-sentients. But at some point, short of full self-consciousness, we have many organisms which possess as part of their life activity a very heightened awareness of much that is in their environment, including a very detailed awareness of, and need to respond to, members of their own kind. Such creatures, found among mammal groups in particular, especially primates, have developed the kind of sensitivity which it is not inappropriate to think of as a social sense.

Self-consciousness appears to exist only among the great apes, including, of course, ourselves, although there seems to be good evidence that it can be found among other mammal groups, such as dolphins and pigs. Members of these groupings appear to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror, a simple and convincing test of the possession of self-consciousness. For to do this requires the ability to have the following thought (albeit not necessarily expressible in a language): 'the creature in front of me is identical to this creature looking at it.' This necessitates possession of the concept of 'this creature doing the looking'.

The importance of these kinds of distinction for ecological justice is, of course,

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