1.4 Ethics of nature

The ethics of nature attends to the moral aspects of dealing with lower ‘insentient’ life forms (plants, fungi, bacteria, etc.) as well as with other supra-individual biotic entities as species, ecosystems and landscapes. In the form of ‘conservation ethics’ it discusses questions of preservation of natural areas to protect them from destruction by humans. In this sense it will contribute to the environment-related protection of civilisation. In a narrower sense the ethics of nature deals with the determination of the moral status of nature or larger natural systems (ecosystems). We will see later that the substantiation of nature ethics will confront us with most difficult problems. The main concern is not with individual ethics referring to single organisms and the protection of certain individual beings, but about supra-individual entities, for example, species conservation, perhaps even the protection of evolutionary potentials or processes. In this case nature ethics is ‘biocentrically’ (all living beings) or ‘ecocentrically’ (ecological systems) or even ‘holistically’ (all natural things) oriented. Nature’s ethical considerations touch on difficult natural philosophical questions. For example: Does nature as a whole hold a moral status? Do the protective rights of biotopes (habitats of organisms) rank higher than the protective rights of single organisms and species, so that we have to sacrifice single organisms or even whole populations in favour of the conservation of larger ecosystems? Nature ethics asks whether each form of life or complex natural systems—and perhaps even nature as a whole—possesses moral value and therefore is absolutely worthy of protection. Such ethics (however it might be substantiated) goes—even more than the animal ethics—beyond the scope of an environmental ethics that respects the interests solely of humans. Instead of anthropocentric, nature ethics is physiocentric oriented (see Eser and Potthast 1999; Krebs 1999).

Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realise that we cannot eat money (A prophecy of a nineteenth-century Cree Indian

made popular by Greenpeace).

To finish this section let us look briefly at the historic development of these three areas of the environmental ethics

Historically, resource ethics is the oldest form of environmental ethics. In earlier times, people were already wondering how existing natural materials, such as the wood of the forests or water, could be used in a sustainable (protecting) manner. This was based on experience of the desolation of entire regions that had been cleared completely for construction and shipbuilding (the ancient Greeks, who maintained large fleets, had already noticed this with pain); or on experience of the contamination of waters that had been used too intensively for tanning skins and dyeing textiles. The resource-ethics debate reached a first culminating point in the 1970s with the realisation of the ‘limits of the growth’, as the Club of Rome warned of the over-exploitation of fossil fuels and natural metal deposits.

Animal ethics also has old philosophical roots, with Immanuel Kant postulating a prescription of brute contact with sentient animals (in contrast with René Descartes who, still thinking mechanistically, had viewed animals as dumb machines). Furthermore, as Kant believed, considerate contact with animals could contribute to the moral improvement of the humans. Even the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham formulated a primary obligation of humans towards sentient animals.

Nature ethics, in the form of conservation ethics, refers back to the age of Romanticism (end of the 18th century until the mid-19th century), as the beauty of landscapes was appreciated extensively for the first time (see Pfordten 1996; Thomas 1983). The contribution of the aesthetic feeling for nature to the emergence of environmental ethics cannot be estimated highly enough. This is still valid today. In the tradition of the romantic philosophy of nature the home- and nature conservation movement began in Europe and North America in the 19th century: here for the first time, criticism of civilisation and technology was joined with national homeland ‘connectedness’ and the feeling of a deep bond with nature. This connection is still alive in miscellaneous varieties of eco-philosophy or ‘deep ecology’ as well as in the green movement.