6 Does Kant Have Anything to Teach Us about Environmental Ethics?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Immanuel Kant's thought typically is represented as hostile to environmental concerns, but his aesthetics offers significant resources for environmental ethics. His account of the disinterestedness of taste raises the possibility of a manner of motivating a noninstrumental and responsive--rather than self-interested and consumerist--attitude toward nature. The aesthetic consciousness thus can help situate us within rather than pit us against the natural world. Kant's thinking about the beautiful and the sublime point to an ambiguous conception of subjectivity, a picture of the subject who experiences itself both as immersed within a meaningful world and as raised above a world to which it is morally superior. Such a conception may orient investigations in environmental philosophy by providing a more realistic view of the relationship between human beings and nature than do either dualistic or monistic theories.



IMMANUEL KANT'S THOUGHT typically is represented as hostile to many of the concerns motivating the work of environmental ethicists. His sharp distinction between person and thing grounds a position for which only rational beings may be counted as objects of moral worth and the rest of creation in its entirety is reduced to the status of mere instrumentality. Nature's only value is determined on the basis of its capacity to serve human interests and needs, and Kant goes so far as to tell us that in the absence of human interests, the natural world would be nothing but a "mere wasteland, gratuitous and without a final purpose." (1) Thus his view may be seen as the philosophical consummation of Descartes' program of rendering human beings the "lords and masters of nature" through the achievement of technological control.

Kant goes further than Descartes does, however, by elevating the instrumentality of nature into an ethico-ontological principle. The orders of reason and nature are determined by radically different principles. All objects of experience are determined without exception by a thoroughgoing determinist natural causality; finite rational beings, on the other hand. are obligated to obey the rational laws of freedom. Here, "we find a rule and order altogether different from the order of nature." (2) The laws of nature are the "laws according to which everything happens; those of [freedom] are laws according to which everything ought to happen." (3) Thus reason and nature are divided by a chasm that "cuts off the domain of the concept of nature under one legislation, and the domain of the concept of freedom under the other legislation." (4) This ontological heterogeneity translates into an uncompromising moral distinction between rational human beings and the physical world Kant claims that a "thing has no worth other than that determined for it by law. [The] lawgiving which determines all worth must therefore have a dignity (i.e., an unconditional and incomparable worth)." (5) Kant thinks that all value is determined ultimately in relation to moral aims, but that the ground of valuing, or reason itself, is beyond all evaluation; since the condition for value is not the subject of evaluation, its worth is incomparable and absolute. Irrational nature, however, contains nothing possessing the capacity to represent its own ends to itself or the capacity to choose its own ends on the basis of that conception; nothing within nature, then, can present itself to us as dignified and deserving of moral concern. As it consists in nothing but a mechanism, nature can make no moral claims upon us, and any significance it possesses is merely relative to the purposes of rational beings. Morally considered, nature is nothing but resource.

If it is too much to say that Kant's position is an invitation to wholesale exploitation of the natural world, it would be equally difficult to abstract from Kant's ethics any form of environmental concern more robust than some sort of injunction to engage in sustainable development. …


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