Environmental ethics was born out of a realisation of the wide-scale degradation of the natural world caused by human intervention. This crisis was unimaginable to Aristotle, who lived in a world still overwhelmingly dominated by non-human nature. Aristotle’s relationship to environmental ethics is complex. The charge of anthropocentrism sometimes debars his entry while modern biocentric and virtue theories claim his allegiance. While the fact that Aristotle’s views do not line up with any modern approach is hardly surprising, there are important points of contact which this paper will explore in more detail. It will be concluded that there are many resources within his philosophical biology to find non-anthropocentric values in nature which can usefully supplement those of contemporary philosophy.
Although Aristotle’s philosophy has been used to support the burgeoning of Environmental Virtue Ethics (or EVE), it is not this aspect that I will concentrate on, but rather the idea that there is something worth our moral attention in the living natural world.
‘Each living thing….[is] an entity pursuing its own good in its own way according to its species specific nature’ (Taylor 1986: 45)
‘[E]ndangered species are objectively valuable kinds, good in themselves; they do have their own welfare. Respect for life ought to be directly based on this value’ (Rolston 1986)
‘the equal right to live and blossom is an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom’ (Naess 1973: 96)
Biocentrism concentrates on the intrinsic value of individual living things, their species and sometimes ecosystems. As we will see, the distance in time creates special difficulties with matching Aristotle’s philosophy to these views – not only is it questionable whether Aristotle had the conceptual space to think species’ destruction possible, his worldview which grounds the value of entities within it, is now obsolete. I will argue, however, that there are still resources within his philosophical biology to support environmental concerns. Even without any principled account of ecology, his philosophy is able to explain how to value living beings, species kinds and biodiversity.
For Aristotle the ecosystem has no intrinsic value – what is to be valued is the process of perpetual generation and thus the reproduction of form. The forms of living beings ensure an integrity and an elegant continuity of process and function. This is also facilitated by their structure, that is, the arrangement of their parts. The form has value in and of itself as a perfection, something that can exist eternally and can be known by intelligent beings. But this value exists whether it is known about or not. While this view requires further investigation and nuancing in light of the various problems and objections, it also has great potential to halt the common retreat to the idea of a universe devoid of value and thereby ours for the taking.
Rolston, H. III. 1986. Philosophy Gone Wild: Essays in environmental ethics. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Book.
Taylor, P. 1986. Respect for Nature: A theory of environmental ethics. Princeton University Press.
Naess, A. 1973. ‘The shallow and the deep, long-range ecology movement’, Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 16: 95-100.
Soulé, M.E. 1985. ‘What is Conservation Biology’, BioScience 35: 727-34.