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Equal Consideration: thoughts on environmental ethics

November 28, 2017

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

Lawrence Buell, a literary scholar who has focused on environmental aesthetics, rhetoric, and ethics in his studies of literature, has argued that there are four components of an “environmentally oriented work.”  In large part, the argument focuses on the ways that the imagination in and of a text, what we typically associate with a work of literature (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama) necessarily involves an ethical orientation. Environmental literature, in other words, demands ethos, not just pathos or logos. The following is taken from his book The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Harvard UP, 1995). We can think about these guidelines in response to Wendell Berry and Peter Singer. We can also take them with us as we head into the field.

  1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
    1. examples Buell offers: Forster’s Passage to India; any novel by Thomas Hardy
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
    1. example: Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” in contrast to Shelley’s “To a Skylark” or Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale. “
    2. “Cradle is more concerned with the composition of a specific place, and Whitman’s symbolic bird is endowed with a habitat, a history, a story of its own.”
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
    1. example: “By this standard, Wordsworth’s ‘Nutting’ comes closer to being an environmental text than his ‘Tintern Abbey,’ insofar as the function of landscape in the latter is chiefly to activate the speaker’s subjective feelings of rejuvenation and anxiety, whereas the former reminiscence prompts him to retell a self-incriminating tale of his youthful violation of the hazel grove.”
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.
    1. Susan Cooper’s Rural Hours … is a more faithful environmental text than any or her father’s Leatherstocking romances (Last of the Mohicans, etc)    [The Environmental Imagination, 7-8]

One ethical orientation we have just read is Wendell Berry’s. Consider the conclusion of “The Pleasures of Eating.” This ethical vision differs from Peter Singer’s in crucial ways. It is, to give it one word, anthropocentric. Berry admits this in places such as “Preserving Wildness.” So we can think about Berry as a counter to Singer’s ethics and his biocentrism. But, perhaps the case (like any good counterargument would show) is more complicated than that. Does Singer agree in points with Berry’s ethical vision, or at least give it consideration?

A keyword and concept of Singer’s ethics, particularly related to his philosophy developed in his groundbreaking book Animal Liberation (1975), is “equality of consideration.”

Equal Consideration versus Animal Liberation

Many people often use the terms animal rights and animal liberation interchangeably. This might be all right sometimes, but in a strict sense animal liberation is made up of two different approaches to liberating animals: equal consideration of interests and animal rights.

Singer advances animal liberation through equal consideration of interests. Although he often talks about animal rights he does so only as shorthand, what he really means is liberating animals by giving them equal consideration.

Equal Consideration versus Animal Rights

Considering the moral interests of all animals equally is not the same as giving rights to animals. If you maintain that animals and humans have the same moral rights that forbid harm to them, then you cannot, say, experiment on them. However, if you maintain that animal and human interests are morally equal regarding experimentation then you can experiment equally on humans as on animals. If you are not prepared to experiment on one then you cannot experiment on the other. []

For some further background on this ethical position of “animal liberation,” not the same thing as animal rights, link here.

Finally, we can consult William James from 1899, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” the beginnings of an ethical position for treating others, all others (including nonhuman), not equally, but respectfully given the very fact that we are not equal, not the same, but fundamentally different, individual, plural. You can think of this as the beginnings of a principle that some have called “animal pragmatism.”

OUR judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.

We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals.

Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world; and yet, outside of that tie of friendly fondness, how insensible, each of us, to all that makes life significant for the other!—we to the rapture of bones under hedges, or smells of trees and lamp-posts, they to the delights of literature and art. As you sit reading the most moving romance you ever fell upon, what sort of a judge is your fox-terrier of your behavior? With all his good will toward you, the nature of your conduct is absolutely excluded from his comprehension. To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking him to walk and throwing sticks for him to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life? The African savages came nearer the truth; but they, too, missed it, when they gathered wonderingly round one of our American travelers who, in the interior, had just come into possession of a stray copy of the New York Commercial Advertiser, and was devouring it column by column. When he got through, they offered him a high price for the mysterious object; and, being asked for what they wanted it, they said: “For an eye medicine,”—that being the only reason they could conceive of for the protracted bath which he had given his eyes upon its surface.

The spectator’s judgment is sure to miss the root of the matter, and to possess no truth. The subject judged knows a part of the world of reality which the judging spectator fails to see, knows more while the spectator knows less; and, wherever there is conflict of opinion and difference of vision, we are bound to believe that the truer side is the side that feels the more, and not the side that feels the less….

And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. Even prisons and sick-rooms have their special revelations. It is enough to ask of each of us that he should be faithful to his own opportunities and make the most of his own blessings, without presuming to regulate the rest of the vast field.


Further reading by Singer on Animal Liberation.



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