Supernaturalistic vs. Naturalistic Ethical Foundations: The Case of Deep Ecology
This is reposted from an email that I sent off to some friends in response to some questions about Arne Naess– so if you guys are reading this, feel free to respond here, too.
The reason why I think that deep ecology doesn’t quite qualify as a philosophy is that it ties philosophical positions to political action directly, and refuses to differentiate between the two. While this is part of what makes it interesting, it also makes it philosophically vulnerable. Because deep ecology was designed as a movement, it has weak philosophical foundations. When asked to defend his value of interconnectedness, for example, Naess falls back on Spinoza’s metaphysics. Since Spinoza’s metaphysics have a substantial supernatural component, I think they’re untenable. I also think that his ideas regarding substance are quasi-mystical at best, and nonsensical at worst. There are a lot of better ways to defend the idea that by endorsing the values of deep ecology, you’re also endorsing an idea that will help the progress of the human race in general. We don’t need enlightenment or 19th century philosophy to back us up on this point– 20th and 21st century philosophy can do the job just fine.
For example, consider evolutionary ethics. There are a couple people out there who are trying to blend work in evolutionary psychology on the nature of altruism with traditional systems of ethics. It’s important to note that this kind of work is mostly descriptive, and not prescriptive, so it’s not the strongest kind of ethics. What it does describe, however, is some basic reasons why ethical action is important to humans as a species. Beyond that, we can take cultural and pragmatic hints and flesh out the sort of ethics we think are important, and they will become important (kind of like hauling yourself up by your bootstraps) just because they are things we value. Our ethics will then become twofold– one part descriptive and very naturalistic, one part prescriptive and pragmatic. Knowledge of the first will help inform how we want to develop the second, until we can answer the question of how we should act.
With that sort of system, we don’t need to rely on a spinozistic metaphysics or the other quasi-mystical principles that Naess is into in order to get to the goals that Naess wants. Since I agree with his goals, but not his foundation, this is just where I want to be. To return to talking about the value of interconnectedness, let’s take a critical look at Naess’ foundation. He believes in the interconnectedness of beings because of a unity of substance in the world– since all beings are made out of one kind of substance, we’re all connected because of similar qualities. Some beings have a different, sort of divine substance which enables conscious action, and we as humans are also made up of this substance. Because of this, we can improve the overall quality of substance by maximizing the flourishing of all beings. Naess has a very special definition of flourishing that differs only slightly from the idea of utilitarian good, but since they’re mostly analogous to one another I won’t go into it here.
But we can defend the value of interconnectedness without all that talk about substances by taking a more naturalistic turn. First, we have some biological similarity with other beings. This is closest with other primates, mammals, and then spreads out from there. We are also increasingly concerned with sustainable development, partially because we’re starting to realize (as a political whole, hopefully), that our lifestyle depends upon a better stewardship of the resources we use to maintain those lifestyles. As our interests are similar to the interests of some other creatures on the planet, and also tied up within the interests of other non-human beings, it makes sense pragmatically to place more value on how our goods are tied up with the goods of non-humans. If we want better lifestyles for increasing numbers of people, it seems like this is a value that will help us achieve that goal. All of that teleological ethical thinking is valid, and it doesn’t rely on Naess’ more spaced-out thinking. That is where we should all want to be.