Philosophy Gone Wild: Environmental Ethics

By Holmes Rolston III | Go to book overview

2
Can and Ought We to Follow Nature?

"Nature knows best" is the third law of ecology according to Barry Commoner and the gravity of his claim is underlined by its ranking with the first two, that everything is interconnected and that nothing is ever destroyed, only recycled. 1 But this third law is curiously normative, not merely describing what nature does, but evaluating it, and implying that we ought to follow nature. Such following may ordinarily be more prudential than moral for Commoner, but for others, if not for him too, the deepest commands of nature reach the ethical level. Radcliffe Squires writes of Robinson Jeffers, "To direct man toward a moral self by means of the wise, the solemn lessons of Nature: that has been Jeffers' life work."2

But there are dissenting voices. We have for too long thought of "Mother Nature" as "sensitive, efficient, purposeful, and powerful," laments Frederick E. Smith, a Harvard professor of resources and ecology. She does not exist; nature is adrift. "This absence of 'goal' in the world systems is what makes the concept of Mother Nature dangerous. In the final analysis nothing is guiding the ship." 3 This, of course, exempts us from following nature--to the contrary, we must take control of our aimless ecosystem. And, again, if this is for Smith more a matter of prudence than of morality, another, earlier Harvard professor noted with intensity the moral indifference of nature. Coining a memorable phrase, William James called us to "the moral equivalent of war" in our human resistance to amoral nature:

Visible nature is all plasticity and indifference,--a moral multiverse. . . and not a moral universe. To such a harlot we owe no allegiance; with her as a whole we can establish no moral communion; and we are free in our dealing with her several parts to obey or to destroy, and to follow no law but that of prudence in coming to terms with such of her particular features as will help us to our private ends. 4

Those with a philosophical memory will see that the environmental debate

____________________
Reprinted by permission from Environmental Ethics 1( 1979):7-30.

-30-

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Philosophy Gone Wild: Environmental Ethics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents 7
  • Preface 9
  • I. Ethics and Nature 11
  • 1: Is There an Ecological Ethic? 12
  • Notes 28
  • 2: Can and Ought We to Follow Nature? 30
  • 3: Philosophical Aspects of the Environment 53
  • 4: The River of Life 61
  • Ii. Values in Nature 73
  • 5: Values in Nature 74
  • Notes 89
  • 6: Are Values in Nature Subjective or Objective? 91
  • 7: Values Gone Wild 118
  • Iii. Environmental Philosophy in Practice 143
  • 8: Just Environmental Business 144
  • Introduction 144
  • References 177
  • 9: Valuing Wildlands 180
  • Iv. Nature in Experience 221
  • 11: Lake Solitude 223
  • 12: Meditation at the Precambrian Contact 233
  • 13: Farewell, Washington County 241
  • 14: Nature and Human Emotions 248
  • Subject Index 263
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