In What Sense, If Any, Should An Environmental Ethic Attribute Value To Whole Ecosystems?

2983 words - 12 pages

Aldo Leopold, in “The Land Ethic”, elucidates the title of this chapter by stating: “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.”1 This implies that no matter what instrumental value a biotic community may have to human beings, it is also of paramount importance to preserve biotic communities based on our “obligations to land”2. This concept of a prima facie responsibility to protect our environment and the communities within it is known as the preservationist intuition3. We certainly attribute this value to our fellow man, putting laws in place to prevent harm and maltreatment in our ...view middle of the document...

Peter Singer takes this claim a step further by stating outright that rocks are representative of all non-sentient beings. He claims that if a being is not able to suffer, it cannot therefore have any interests of its own7. Although it would appear that this claim is hastily made and surely we can draw distinctions between a rock and a plant (which cannot know suffering either, yet is wildly different in nature to a rock), Singer’s contention contains a significant point: the concept of interests being influential in discussing moral considerability. A thing has an interest if it can in some way be hindered or helped. For example, a plant has an interest to grow, to survive and to reproduce. It is not a sentient being, nor can it suffer in pain or revel in happiness, but its interests can be affected by our actions towards it. If we cut off all its leaves or spores, for example, this would hinder its abilities to carry out its goals. So how can we apply this to the value of ecosystems?
An ecosystem can be difficult to define, as it is simultaneously a collection of individuals carrying out their specific and distinct actions and can also be termed as a unified being, much like a brain operating as an amalgamation of interconnected and interdependent components. A crucial notion in determining whether ecosystems can have value is the idea of goal-directedness. This refers to the idea that living things have goals they strive towards, and are “teleological centers of life”8. As has already been stated, we can say that a plant is goal-directed as it strives to survive and grow in its optimum conditions. An example would be the sunflower, which gradually moves itself to always be facing the sun in order to absorb as much sunlight as it can. So we can say that a sunflower is goal-directed. However the sunflower is just a single entity, acting on its own individual goals to its own ends. An ecosystem relies on the goal-directedness of the unit as a whole. Let us take the example of a forest. Many animals and plants make up the ecosystem and can be said to have their own goals (the fox has a goal to catch its prey while the rabbit has a goal to not be caught. Similarly the trees strive to grow and the ivy endeavours to climb and consume). However the ecosystem as a whole must maintain itself and protect its biotic community. If one element of the ecosystem were to fail, let us say all the rabbits were to die due to some contagious disease, the foxes would have far less prey and their population would diminish, and the plants the rabbits would consume would then grow in higher numbers and potentially eliminate the growth of other plants in the community. The ecosystem as a whole would suffer. I believe those who favour the idea that an ecosystem is merely a collection of individuals would have to concede that regardless of their own goals, every part of a biotic community relies and is reliant on another part of the ecosystem. Therefore I suggest that...

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