Environmental and Land Ethics as the Categorical Imperative (Blog 19)

In his essay, “Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair,” J. Baird Callicott draws the distinction between the animal liberation movement and the land ethic theory proposed by Aldo Leopold. Humane moralists (liberationists) really “are atomistic or distributive in their theory of moral value.”[1] This view relies on sentience as the only criteria for judging equal moral value. Whereas, environmental ethics is based on Leopold’s land ethic, which Callicott takes to be the categorical imperative; “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”[2] Critics of Callicott and his use of Leopold’s “maxim” as the categorical imperative of a greater land ethic say that the theory can and will degrade into what has been called “environmental fascism.”[3] However, Callicott refutes this argument by saying that individual rights cannot and will not be outweighed by the aggregative considerations for maximum utility of the biotic community.[4] Callicott also brings in to question the practicality of the animal liberation movement. In practice, if we were to free all of the domestic animals chaos would ensue and there would be a huge loss of species. The movement for P13-0353_9353_blowupanimal liberation comes from the moral repugnance that people feel for what is viewed as inhumane and unnecessary slaughtering of animals, mainly in the practice of factory farming but hunting and scientific research are included in the argument as well. Callicott says that the land ethic challenges this inhumane treatment of animals too but on different grounds. The repugnance for the practices does not originate in the slaughtering itself but rather from the shift from natural to mechanical. Rather than becoming vegetarians, which is the solution put forward by humane moralists, (he says this lifestyle would actually be ecologically catastrophic) we should do as Leopold did and devolve back to being morally appreciative for that which we eat and to get rid of the mechanical process we rely on for our food in exchange for the hunting that our ancestors did or at the very least eating organically.

I think Callicott takes on a lot of interesting arguments in this essay. Though I understand that he does take some criticism for his use of Leopold’s land ethic in a quasi-utilitarian manner, I find it difficult to see where the hole in the argument is found to say that the killing of humans in the name of a sustainable future or the sacrifice of individual animals would be morally acceptable. I find his argument of the practical implications of a total liberation of domestic animals rather convincing. As we discussed in class the argument for liberation would seem paradoxical because it goes together with the requirement to become vegetarians. However, as we said, animals already eat a majority of the crops grown by farmers and if we were to remove meat from our diets and rely on grains, fruits and vegetables it would be rather impractical because we are now in direct competition with the animals that we just liberated for food. Not to mention the fact that most if not all of these domesticated animal species would not be able to survive without human guidance because they are in fact an invention of man. Conservationist and Environmentalist usually go hand in hand with vegetarianism, which is why Leopold was criticized and questioned for his hunting practices. This takes me back to Callicott’s idea of “the transmogrification of organic to mechanical.”[5] The vegetarian/carnivore argument is one that we have had in class on more thavegann one occasion and it is one that I have had with myself a number of times. It seems only fair to say that if you are an environmentalist that you should be against the killing of animals and using them as a means rather than an end. However, I’ve always struggled with this concept because humans are naturally omnivores. Our diet allows for and requires the nutrients that come from both plants and animals and it always seemed odd or unreasonable to me that we as a species should be expected to completely stop eating meat when we would never hold another animal to the same expectation. This seemed odd because we are arguing for their equality and all things being equal if humans have to stop eating meat to create a health sustainable environment then wouldn’t other animals be required to do the same. I know the idea seems absurd but, for me, it’s where the argument for the human species practicing vegetarianism always ends up. In practical terms, it makes no sense for the reasons that Callicott gives. Going back to the idea of the transmogrification of organic to mechanical, I see real merit in this idea. I found it impossible to watch the killing of the animals in factory farms that was shown in the movie we watched in class. But I know that killing for food is natural and necessary for the human species. Therefore, while I know I will be the one purchasing organic rather than killing the animal myself, it also makes sense that the immoral judgment is not in the killing of the animals but rather in the mechanized process that removes the natural aspect that once existed.

Question: Would Regan agree with Callicott’s use of Leopolds Land Ethic as a maxim considering it doesn’t aim to tidy up the system but rather gets to the heart of the problem, which is the shift from natural to mechanical?

[1] J. Baird Callicott, Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair, 249.

[2] Callicott, 241.

[3] Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Belmont,  CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2003), 180.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Callicott, 249.


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