Today we talked about environmental ethics.
Mary Midgley argued that it makes sense to talk of duties to things like islands - and that in fact we have duties to many things that are not other human beings, including animals, works of art, and so on.
Midgley considers a few ways that philosophers have resisted these duties. Some, like H. P. Grice, suggested that we must get used to the fact that children - like islands - are not part of the moral community and so that we have no moral obligations to them. Midgley finds this view untenable due to its repugnant conclusion. Others, like John Rawls ignore duties to islands; others still, like Immanuel Kant, interpret them as duties to ourselves. Midgley thinks that Rawls downplays the importance of these duties, while Kant's account misses the point that islands, children, animals and so on are fitting objects of moral duty.
How might we formulate such duties? Midgley does not say, so we looked at a few accounts.
Aldo Leopold thinks that our moral duties are based around a central duty: to protect the beauty, integrity and stability of the biotic community. Leopold sets no limits on this principle, meaning that culling human beings may be permitted.
Arne Næss tried to offer a more moderate alternative to Leopold. Næss recommends that we learn to identify ourselves with the biotic community, and learn to distinguish both a self (i.e. our human selves), and a Self (i.e. the biotic community, of which we are all parts). This would allow us to avoid actions that harm the Self, just as we would avoid anything that would harm the self.
Both Leopold and Næss are on the political left, searching for global solutions. Sir Roger Scruton comes from the political right, and he argues that just as an unregulated market achieves stability, so might an environment. What would stabilize it, he thinks, is the actions of many individuals striving to preserve the home and the nature they've grown up with and loved. If you preserve the parks where you grew up, and I preserve the ones where I grew up, and if everyone does the same - if we manifest what Scruton calls 'oikophilia' - then don't we end up preserving the environment by our local actions?