Ethics (background to THE PURSUIT OF ECOTOPIA)

Between Us and Things

E. N. Anderson

Supplementary Online Material:  Ethics

General Considerations


            We now know that humans are born with a great deal of moral equipment, some of which goes so far back in time that we share it with chimpanzees (de Waal 2005).  However, moral instincts determine only very basic concerns.  The rest of morality has to be explained as the development of self-conscious social codes. 

Children begin to work these out on their own.  With inborn tendencies, parental guidance, and peer interaction, they work out playground codes by the age of four or five.  We all know these:  Don’t hurt other kids, care and share, be fair in dividing goodies, and so forth.  Many people never advance beyond this, and a few never get even this far.  A functional society requires rather more, but at least playground morality is valuable and indeed essential.  It is also shared almost worldwide.

Without playground morality as a foundation, humans would not come so universally to standards of duty, integrity, fairness, honesty, generosity, courage, self-sacrifice, responsibility, and respect—these all being universal in every human society, though different societies may value some of these more and others less.  Honesty, in particular, is very highly valued in some societies and hardly valued in others, but every group on earth pays at least lip service to it.  Nonviolence also varies enormously, from the totally pacific Semai to the incredibly warlike Near Eastern mountain peoples. 

Also from playground morality we get certain tensions:  individual rights vs social obligations, honesty vs politeness, active help vs simply not harming others, and so on.

Why do we need sophisticated morality from religion and philosophy, if intuition and childhood interaction do so well?  Partly because there are always exceptions:  people born sociopathic or psychopathic. Much more common, though, is the problem of the natural human tendency to overvalue one’s own concerns.  Sometimes, even unselfish concerns get too much play.  The most dedicated, selfless, ethical persons can, with the best will in the world, feature their personal crusades at the expense of all else.  We have people who would sacrifice all other causes to clean air, or saving the whales.  Yet the real key to saving the world environment may lie far from such single issues. 

Formal morality has to deal with another human curse:  blame.  People attribute intention to everything, even the weather.  They are particularly prone to attribute evil intentions to everything and everybody that seems to oppose their pet interests.  When people attribute bad things to innocent others, morality is needed.

A third systemic reason why intuition is inadequate is that people often act impulsively, without thought, especially on fear, anger, and hate.  The need to control this has been perhaps the most widespread justification for ethical rules.

A fourth reason, and perhaps the most serious, is that we humans feel a strong sense of outrage—of deep wrong—when our most trivial and silly social codes are violated.  There are countless proper souls who are more outraged over seeing someone use the wrong fork, or wear ill-matched clothes, than over the deaths of millions in Africa.  Apparently this part of the moral sense has more to do with social-membership markers (notably including class markers!) than with deeply meaningful rights and wrongs.  It leads to the extremely common massacres and genocides in human history; they usually turn on trivial differences in religion, language, and culture.  Edward Gibbon’s famous example was the war over homoousia versus homoiousia that nearly destroyed the Roman Empire; Christians, supposedly peaceful, were fighting over obscure and trivial doctrinal views that not even the priests understood.

So humans have a deep, intuitive, innate moral sense.  But this sense is not a good guide to ethics.  On the other hand, it is inevitably there, a powerful, deep-rooted, emotional force that is absolutely essential to human moral behavior.  Without it, we would no doubt live isolated lives and fight each other on sight, like mountain lions, or like Thomas Hobbes’ “savages.” 

One cannot predict from any economic data the content or shape of moral codes.  Marx’ economic determinism is useful only in predicting that there will be some environmental code.  Perhaps not even that; in fact, some traditional groups (such as many Near Eastern societies) have or had virtually no sustainable-use codes. 

Aristotle was already quite conscious of intuitionist ethics (Aristotle 1955:89).  Along with later writers, he tried to maintain that people really want to do each other good, but sometimes need to have this urge jogged. 

Hopeful writers of a later age tried to maintain that everyone really wants to be good to everyone else.  Henry Sidgwick, dean of English ethicists, was one such (Sidgwick 1907:501), but even he had to admit many people were a bit undeveloped in that regard (Sidgwick 1907:502–yes, the very next page).  Aristotle, writing for aristocrats, could finesse this by saying that people who did not want decent civic values were coarse, low, or sick.  We cannot sustain that claim.

Derek Parfit (1989) pointed out that even one’s “self” is a problematic concept.  He showed that the only clear, consistent, infallible way to run your life is to do exactly what you want to do right now—the ultimate in short-term, narrow strategies.  This may be clear and consistent, but it won’t do for an environmental ethic or any other ethic.  

There are total skeptics among us, as well as post-Nietzscheans, postmodern amoralists, and other rejectors of any moral charge.  The skeptical position is not a mere analytic abstraction.  In the modern United States, even family morality has broken down (in spite of rigorous laws); what hope have we for the great family of Gaia?  Kant might say we need morality to control both external negation leading to general indifference, and internal negation leading to malicious destruction.

Humans are also capable of nastiness and cruelty inconceivable to a chimpanzee or even a macaque.  Our moral intuitions are not, by themselves, adequate guides to prosocial behavior.  Too often, morals are downright destructive.  Revenge, feud, and oppression of minorities are often considered to be moral imperatives.  Particularly striking is the horrific treatment of women in a vast number of societies around the world.  These various evils prove our social nature, for our most horrible acts (war, genocide, political and religious repression) are done collectively to collective “enemies.”  The most evil human acts often require the most loyalty and cooperation, as in the case of the Nazi atrocities.

However, such evil acts arouse utter revulsion in most people, including, at first, the perpetrators themselves, though they rapidly habituate (Baumeister 1997).  Babies cry in sympathy with other crying babies; toddlers help each other and react with real compassion to each others’ hurts.  Adults are normally still more empathetic and supportive, and it seems clear that normal humans are genuinely horrified by cruel, hurtful acts.  Some individuals, brain-damaged or otherwise non-normal, simply don’t care, and they seem quite uncannily “different” to the rest of us.  The postmodern popularity of nauseatingly sadistic films and comics is proof of our fascination and repulsion.  People go to movies to be stirred by these darker emotions.  These media, however, de-sensitize people to violence and model it as correct and appropriate behavior, thus contributing substantially to the sadism and violence that typify today’s world.

Finally, in understanding human problems, any regress back toward ultimate causation always seems to take us up the emotional gradient.  What seems to be a technical or rational problem turns out to be a problem of love or hate. 

It is thus folly to attempt to make morals “rational,” in so far as “rational” means “unemotionally and dispassionately considered.”  Such rationality can be a goal to strive for—I think it should be—but we cannot expect to achieve it.  But, conversely, we cannot rely on intuition.  We have to calculate rationally the ethics that our sense of “rightness” is to maintain.


People being social animals, the irrationally social win.  A world of rational individual choosers in the classic Hobbes-Olson sense would be defeated, one by one, by even a pair of “irrationally” social humans that could cooperate to take them on one at a time.  A real-world case very close to this is presented by voting.  Notoriously, it is irrational to vote; the chances of one’s vote making a difference are less than the chances that one will be killed in a traffic accident while driving to the polls.  Therefore, the rational people (who do not vote) inevitably and invariably find themselves ruled by the irrational.  Admittedly, this explains all too much about the observed functioning of the United States, but nondemocratic systems do even worse, in spite of rationality.

            So instinct and emotion may ground morality, but the final elaborate moral codes of a society are social contracts in a solid Hobbesian sense.  People draw up codes through conscious practice.  Codes are not carefully planned.  Those that are never seem to work.  Codes actually happen through constant practice and renegotiation (Bourdieu 1978, 1990; Giddens 1984). 

            Another corollary of these findings is that morality has to be represented in an emotionally compelling way.  This prevents rational self-interest from successfully selling it, in spite of “what would it be like if everyone did that?” and other classic justifications to children.  Rational self-interest would immediately lead to meltdown, as everyone from Thomas Hobbes onward has pointed out.  (Hobbes thought he had found a way out, but he hadn’t.)  Thus, we are trapped in a catch-22:  morality has to be rational enough to do its job—it can’t be totally ridiculous or irrational—but it has to be irrational enough to unite people.  Since humanity began, this issue has been resolved through religion.  A rational morality is sold by irrational but compelling beliefs, images, symbols, allegories, and artistic glories (Durkheim 1912). God or gods provided the foundation in past ages, but any comparative scrutiny of sects shows that people develop all manners of moralities and then claim the gods revealed those.  Even within small traditional communities, morality, and consequently religion, changes fast.  This gives no consolation to those claiming morality is divinely revealed.

Yet humans respond to moral discourse.  De Tocqueville pointed out that “those who prize freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long” (de Tocqueville, quoted in Elster 1993:145).  The same is obviously true of almost any other moral point, as de Tocqueville would surely have agreed.  It is certainly true of conserving nature.  When that is done for purely economic reasons, the result is rarely good.  Lovers of forests, fish, and mountains have generally been the leaders; responsible citizens concerned about humanity or community have been most important of all; narrow economism rarely saves anything by itself (cf. Elster 1993).

In fact, jogging people into thinking of their moral acts as self-interested or financially motivated usually makes them less moral (Bowles 2008).  Experiments and surveys from all over the world show that people will usually act fairly decently, and that getting them to think “money” will change this.  Rewarding people financially for being good can be very counterproductive, as many parents know (often to their sorrow).

Ideally, societies allow people to try to bring social codes into accord with their own basic moral views, as these develop through personal experience.  People self-consciously abstract moral principles from their life experiences, and negotiate morality in their lives and communities on the basis of this.  The Kantian loner who reasons out his morals in splendid isolation is, of course, an ideal type, not a reality, as Kant knew perfectly well (Kant 1978). 


Ethics and morals were originally the same thing—just the Greek and Latin roots, respectively, for the same concept.  They meant something slightly different from our ordinary meaning.  For the ancients, and for many since, they referred to the regulation of individual behavior.  Aristotle, who had much to do with making ethics a separate and important topic of enquiry, used it that way.  He contrasted ethics with politics; politics was about governing the realm, ethics was about governing oneself.  Thus, a great deal of his writing focused on what we would now call “self-care” rather than “ethics.”  His “ethical man” (Aristotle was writing for males, and upper-class ones at that) was accurate in self-assessment, had a positive yet reasonable self-image, and knew when to stop eating and drinking (Aristotle 1955).  These things we would still value, perhaps, but we wouldn’t necessarily call them central to ethics.  We lost an ethical valuation of positive self-image partly because centuries intervened in which Western ethical philosophy was dominated by Christian ideas of meekness and humility.  Conversely, a great deal of the social side of virtue was “politics,” not “ethics,” to him.  Again, Christianity, with its social message, changed this.

Today, the word “ethics” tends to mean abstract high-level systems, “morals” tends to be used to refer to everyday working morality.  Sometimes “ethics” are considered secular or philosophical, “morals” are religious.  In what follows, I generally use the words interchangeably, but I tend to follow the former usage—I think of “ethics” as general and philosophical, “morals” as specific and everyday.

Aristotle gave us one unfortunate bias in ethical examination:  he made ethics an individual matter.  Philosophers still write as if ethical standards were worked out by individuals meditating alone.  This stands in very striking contrast to east Asia, where moral codes have always been seen as thoroughly social.  Confucius and his followers in China were particularly clear on this issue, but to varying degrees it is generally held.  (Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu hermits are a partial exception, but they have self-consciously severed ties with society; they are not prescribing for a society of isolated individuals.)

Social scientists have found that the east Asians are right.  Ethical codes are social constructs, worked out through interactive practice.  These codes hold society together and keep individuals from getting out of line.  People exhort others to help them or to work together to fix a problem, or they blame others for hurting them or for failing to work together.  They censure the unsocial and praise the sociable.

In everyday life, there are various levels of justification.  One explains moral rules to a child by recourse to very simple, low-level constructs.  The subtle thought of Rawls or Habermas is far different.  Yet, the child may still receive fairly high-level philosophic generalizations.  If she is told that people will be hurt if she acts in such-and-such a way, or that such-and-such an act is unfair, she is getting the condensed wisdom of the ages.  On the other hand, we often tell our children that such-and-such an act is done “just because everybody does it” or “just because I say so.”  This does not pass muster as ideology, though it often gets the right behavior established.  It is in such cases that we see how far social rules can diverge, in practice, from their rationales.

It thus follows that there is often more consistency in the low-level behavioral rules than in the ideology.  The farther we get from daily practice, the more we are in realms of interpretation.  The more remote and sophisticated the interpretation, the less it is apt to be shared (other things being equal).  Thus, we would expect to find cultural behavior most clearly shown in practical daily acts, not in high-level philosphy. 

People often agree on broad principles, especially ones that arise easily from experience, such as “fairness” and “not hurting others.”  A moral code is structured, usually around such elementary insights as these.  People deduce logically, from the code, what is right in a new situation.  This provides grounds for debate.  How dangerous is a new chemical?  Is it “fair” to restrict its sale until we see if it is “harmful”?  Can we assess the risks?

Practice and structure constantly influence each other.  People deduce, logically (but on the basis of prior experiences), what to do in a new situation.  They then try out the logical deduction, and revise or refine their plans accordingly.  Usually, our logic is imperfect, and we massively revise our plans.  New rules or generalizations, with more or less extent and power, are the result. An individual does this on the basis of internal “dialogue.”  Social groups do it by talking everything out as they go along.

Morals are thus means to an end:  successful social systems that allow tolerable life for the members of the society.  Morals are practical rules.  They are not, in everyday practice, the elaborate comprehensive systems that philosophers love.   

Modern ethicists pride themselves on transcending the old group morality and developing a morality for the Individual.  Often it is alleged that the Individual is a special product of ancient Greek thought, or even of the Renaissance.  We need not take this allegation too seriously, for ancient Chinese and Indian philosophy was filled with speculation on the individual’s role in society, and there were those, like Zhuangzi, who espoused an individualism as radical as anything in the West.  Even the small, kin-based societies have their individual moralities, as Paul Radin showed in Primitive Man As Philosopher (1957). 

Indeed, the rise of the moral individual, who may be able to assert a higher or more general ethic than that of his or her society, is a human triumph.  The emphasis on individual morality found in early Greek and Chinese texts does have great importance for all modernn life.  But to assume that individual morality is automatically an advance over socially negotiated morality is, at best, a narrow evolutionism.  At worst, it can become a mere excuse for individual irresponsibility.  Morals are about society.  They grow and change through individuals maintaining and negotiating their positions, not from individual intransigence.

A moral order differs from a list of morals in several ways.  First, it has to specify something about what rules are observed and what ones are not.  Murder is taken more seriously than the 55-mph speed limit.  A moral code even has to specify rules for breaking rules (in an emergency, it may be not only tolerable, but heroic, to invade privacy or grab someone roughly).  Moral rules may even have sub-clauses specifying how seriously they are to be taken.  Who decided that it is fine to be more than half an hour late to a social appointment in Riverside, California (my former home town), but bad to be even ten minutes late in New York?

Aristotle had to work out a whole new language, inventing words or giving them new meaning (see e.g. Aristotle 1955:126-127).  This is anthropologically interesting, because it shows how cultural concepts form.  It shows that a thinker in a highly traditional society was not bound by the conventions of his language and culture.  He could examine and change them at will.  This was not some peculiarity of the ancient Greeks; similar conscious changing of moral concepts is well documented from many societies, giving us hope for the future.

In every society, people expend a great deal of effort “pushing at the envelope.”  Thus, societies change, and can change very fast.  Consider the sexual mores of the United States over the last fifty years, and the constant debate that has gone on about sexuality. 

In the world of environmental ethics, recent decades have seen major changes in attitudes toward cruelty to animals, and toward recycling.  Also, since my childhood, Americans have learned to protect songbirds and raptors, which were shot with indifference when I was a boy in the Midwest. 

Littering declined dramatically after public campaigns and the imposition of fines in the 1960s and 1970s.  It has increased again recently, as enforcement and public campaigns go slack.  As in the case of unions, individuals all know it is in their self-interest not to litter, but they also know they must expect others not to do so or their own forbearance is meaningless.  This requires a social morality, enforced by convention, public disapproval, and personal conscience, as well as by law.  Shame and guilt restrain most; law is necessary to restrain the rest.  In so far as either weakens, the littering starts again.  A very little litter today means a flood of it tomorrow, as everyone sees that littering is out of control and one might as well not bother to look for a trash can.  The anti-litter campaigns were successful while they lasted, because they mobilized public opinion, and got public censure directed at litterers. 

Garbage has its own moral dimension.  As Preston Hardison puts it:  “…garbage or waste may be looked at as a failure to find reuse and economic opportunity in the products of production and consumption.  From a human rights point of view, waste and garbage often represent failures ot value and mitigate impacts on others, who shoulder the burdens” (posting to Eanth-L listserv, April 23, 2007).  This moral view lay behind much of the anti-litter campaign.

Change comes when people want it:  either a few people in power, or a lot of people with the same idea.  Economists hold that ethics are one kind of institution, and that institutions exist to reduce transaction costs, i.e. the costs of doing business as opposed to the costs of producing stuff.  This can be a good way to think about it.  Ethical rules are somewhat costly to establish and maintain.  But they are necessary if we are to transact anything, even a “hello.” 

In the 1960s, many of us thought that love and spontaneity, and confronting “the system,” would be enough to change morality and bring utopia.  It wasn’t.  However, we should not have given up hope.  Too many did, selling out or, more tragically, committing suicide.  Morals do change, and sustained effort works.  It just has to be done through interactive persuasion and practice, not through individual defiance.

As people interact, their experiences lead them to have particular ethical and moral views.  James Scott has used the concept the moral economy, the grassroots rules developed by individuals (farmers in Scott’s cases) working with each other every day.  They developed an economy in which trust, cooperation, rough equality, and expectations of mutual aid are a pragmatic necessity.  Naturally (and we remember “natural man” here), their morals reflect this (Scott 1976, 1985).  Scott has been criticized for being too optimistic about peasants (Popkin 1979), but that isn’t the point: the point is that peasants do have to take account of needs for cooperation and mutual aid in their moral codes.  Whether they live by their moral codes is another matter. 

Moral codes are intended to be too perfect for this world of ours.  Since we never quite live up to our codes, the only way to get us to be even sort of good is to have perfectionist codes.   

The alternative, common in politics, is what Caribbean islanders call “crab antics.”  If you put crabs in a bucket, you don’t have to cover the bucket, because whenever a crab begins to climb up and out, the others promptly pull him down.  (They do, too.  Studying fisheries, I have watched this on countless occasions, and I always get a wry smile out of it.)

Recognizing the social nature of morality leads us to realize that ehical philosophy since Aristotle has had rather a split personality.  The expansion of “ethics” to include general morality never quite shook Aristotle’s individualism.  This was reinforced by mainstream Protestant and liberal Jewish thought, which privilege individual conscience.  Several Catholic and Fundamentalist writers dissent sharply and provide more communitarian views, but—if I read them aright—they are more interested in providing arguments for specific tenets of conservative Christianity than for a generalized social ethic.  (Consider, for instance, their positions on the family and on gender roles within it.)  Modern environmental ethics are based, typically, on the rational individual making rational choices (see e.g. Attfield 1991, Rolston 1988; see also more general works such as Habermas 1989; Rawls 1971, 1993; Brandt 1979). 

Providing an ideal ethic for a highly moral and rational individual is, no doubt, a praiseworthy and desirable thing in itself.  However, it does not provide us with a social charter or a social code.  It attempts too much—no society will ever be composed entirely of highly moral and utterly rational people.  It also attempts too little—no rational individual will sacrifice his or her wealth and life for society with the cheerful abandon that all social codes must necessarily demand.  Every society has its cheaters, and there must be at least a few self-sacrificing individuals who balance them out.  Society runs on tit-for-tat games; people exchange cooperation.  Society requires simple, clear, memorable codes; the tax codes and civil codes wouild be hopeless as general moral guides (Gigerenzer 2007).  God, or Moses, held it down to ten commandments, not because those ten covered everything but because the human animal has enough trouble remembering seven items at a time, let alone ten.

Every society has its unfortunates—at least, the mentally handicapped and mentally ill persons; at most, the millions of unfortunates that follow a war or depression.  There must be people self-sacrificing enough to care for them; otherwise, the society falls victim to a downward ratchet in which more and more people fall into the needy category and fewer and fewer can help them.

Gift-giving and generosity hold society together by creating intangible interpersonal ties.  As Marcel Mauss (1925) pointed out, even a trivial and apparently unnecessary equal exchange leads to an increase in good feelings and solidarity.  Children swapping marbles on the playground provide a standard example in sociology texts.  Generosity, of course, is also socially important.  I, personally, cannot imagine a society functioning without “irrational” generosity, and I doubt if any social scientist can do so.  Mauss (1990, Fr. orig. 1925) noted that gifts, everywhere, are holy and magical (and thus scary) things.

Social gift-giving is notoriously prone to sabotage by “rational” free-loaders.  Only the most powerful social sanctions, coupled with very strong social needs on the part of individuals, can keep people writing letters, giving Christmas gifts, throwing dinner parties, and celebrating festivals.  Yet, in every community on earth, things of this sort go on all the time; the sociability of Homo sapiens is truly awesome.  Cooperation after assurance contracts provides one notably successful method that people use to effect such results (Scmidtz 1991; see Brown 1995 for other mechanisms).  By themselves, they fail for the usual reason–irrational individuals will violate the most reasonable of contracts.  Thus, there is need for stronger moral suasion, and it usually is forthcoming.

Conversely, from the social and interpersonal point of view, self-destructive behavior by an individual is to be condemned only if it threatens others.  Most moral codes have little to say about drunkenness, profligacy, and individual stupidity.  Significantly, the Protestant codes of north Europe are the main exceptions.  These codes, based on individual guilt and on liberty of conscience, were developed to sustain persons in their faith during times of conflict and persecution.  They also have a strong individualism derived from the highly individualistic Celtic and Germanic cultures of the area.  Moreover, as befits the codes of nascent capitalist societies, they anomalously value thrift over generosity (Weber 1958).  Many Protestant codes born in different social circumstances are more concerned with social matters; the Hutterite, Mennonite and Amish ethical systems come to mind.  Even the most individualistic Protestant codes, however, place a value on self-sacrifice and are rather tolerant of personal foolishness.                          

The basic moral code, then, is that of Dumas’ Three Musketeers:  “All for one and one for all.”  Individuals can be expected to take care of themselves without the urgings of a moral code.  The moral code is needed to make us see that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”  Thus it occurs that all societies place a strong moral value on self-sacrifice and generosity and a lower value than “rational self-interest” would predict on individual self-protection and welfare.  

In practice, there is a firm rule that can be extracted from all accounts of human action:  No long-term interest wins without moral and ethical institutions supporting it (Frank 1988 argues this point at length).  Short-term considerations will always govern or undermine rational choice.     


Recognizing that moral codes are socially constructed through interaction, and not worked out by wholly rational individuals, and then made available to the masses, clears up many problems.  First, we realize why moral codes are always ambiguous and changeable: they are negotiated in society, between individual actors competing in the social arena.  They reflect a lot of jockeying for position, debate between interest groups, balancing of rival demands, and mistakes corrected slowly and erratically over time. 

Rather than being constructed by “rational persons” living in isolation, they are constructed by the interaction of real persons—persons who are emotional, short-sighted, often selfish but often incredibly altruistic.  They are enforced not so much by individuals’ innate sense of good and right as by social pressure.  Directly affected groups react to whatever is affecting them.  Society as a whole enforces conformity through ridicule, ostracism and other personal sanctions.                             

This leads to development, within individuals, of concepts we sum up in the words “responsibilty” and “commitment.”  People are expected to be responsible for their behavior—to regulate themselves, to follow the social codes even when not being watched.  They are also expected to commit themselves to those that depend on them, and to the social group and its needs.  A moral individual owes certain duties to all living things, or at least all humans; but he or she owes more to some beings.  Commitment to family, friends, livestock, fields, and even a favorite wilderness is a real moral choice.  It entails many obligations.  Most of us, probably, would sacrifice our lives for our families, and would defend them by killing enemies who could not be stopped any other way.  

Differences in the real situations of societies then create the differences in morality that we observe in the world.  Valuing honesty varies with the need for honest, above-board dealing with strangers (who do not know us well enough to know how trustworthy we are).  Nonviolence is most valued in societies scared of larger, inimical neighbors, next most valued in strong harmonious societies with strong formal or informal legal codes.  Violence is especially common in chaotic situations, of course, but it becomes institutionalized as a highly moral thing to do in societies characterized by high levels of poverty and social inequality.  A major worldwide study by P. J. Henry (2009), backed up by experiments and interviews, led to the conclusion that violence is particularly valued in bottom-dog cases:  poor and marginal groups that still have enough autonomy to get away with it on a social level and are not scared into pacified tranquility.  Henry was testing a theory that herding societies were especially violent; he found it wanting.  Herders are violent when they are marginal players in wider social worlds, and have on the one hand very little vested interest in peace, on the other a good deal to gain by maintaining “honor” and by taking land.  Thus, indeed, many herding societies are violent—one thinks of the Mongol hordes and the ancient Israelites.  But so are farming societies in the same situation, as in highland New Guinea, the Caucasus Mountains, and Afghanistan.  Conversely, herders in tranquil settings are peaceful enough.  The tranquil shepherds of Arcadia are proverbial.  Herders sometimes get a bum rap; America’s Wild West gunslingers are popularly thought of as “cowboys,” but the violence actually centered in mining communities, and even then was usually carried out by bandits, gamblers, and other shady elements (see e.g. Mark Twain’s wonderful Roughing It). 

Trust, and trustworthiness, are obviously the most basic and absolute necessity for a functioning human society, and accordingly is highlighted in moral codes.  Pace Immanuel Kant, absolute honesty is not; it leads to blunt statements (“yes, you’re fat, and that outfit looks terrible on you”) that no society could tolerate.  But a more general trust is necessary.  Thus, people have to know what kinds of honesty are tabooed in their culture, and what kinds of honesty and trustworthiness are required.  Generally, people are expected to support and defend each other, to honor major promises, and to avoid stealing and trickery, but are expected not to be totally honest about others’ faults and uglinesses or about their own intense feelings, especially such disruptive ones as sexual urges and states.  Accounts of this sort of hedging on honesty are widespread in the anthropological literature, but have never been brought together in a cross-cultural survey.  This is a real lackin the literature.

Moral codes are also internalized and continually individualized and reconstructed as individuals grow up.  The biological substrate of morality, such as it is, becomes supplemented almost immediately by parental teachings.  Long before they can consciously think about or choose their morals, children develop a “habitus” (Bourdieu 1978), an internal representation of the social codes of family and peers.  This habitus is accepted unthinkingly, and rarely changed.  It is what gives us the picture (so often remarked by grave authors) of the modern ethical philosopher constructing arguments that clearly are intended to prove a pre-existing belief, not to construct a new vision.  (This point is, for instance, often argued against John Rawls; see below, and also Schmidt 1991:161-163.)                                                    

Indeed, morals may simply come about through the needs of parents to keep life bearable.  A “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon (note those names) once showed Calvin refusing to take a phone message for his father, with the line “What’s in it for me?  People always assume you’re some kind of altruist.”  There is little doubt that his father will have something to say about this, and Calvin will learn, painfully and unforgettably, to be more altruistic in future.

Some things considered moral almost everywhere are usually directly beneficial to the person who has them:  courage, patience, wisdom (or at least interest in learning useful knowledge), industry.  Others are pure cost, in rational-individual terms:  generosity, self-sacrifice, tolerance, accommodation.  Naturally, moralists have to work harder to sell these latter morals, and thus said latter ones often become privileged and specially honored in moral codes.

This constant negotiation gives moral codes the necessary flexibility to allow them to function in this rapidly changing world.

Moral codes are also constructed from the dialogue between individuals and society, which, of course, brings us back to the dialogue within the individual between autonomy needs and social needs.  As usual, we must recall that “society” is not some literal being or object; it is the summation of a lot of individuals interacting with each other.  Each individual has demands; society represents the compromise.  This observation predicts, but does not resolve, the endless conflict between those like Robert Nozick who stress freedom as a major and irreducible ethical end and those who see it as, at best, a means to utilitarian ends.  

Of course, one must negotiate from some sort of principle.  One cannot negotiate in a vacuum.  The need to construct a viable society is the absolute floor.  The other necessary component, for any sort of environmental morality (or any morality at all, for that matter), is the classic thing that makes morality: the pressure to take long-term and wide-flung considerations into account, rather than stick with narrow and short-term interests.  Obviously, most morality also concerns itself with reducing harm and favoring help. 

Thus the great religious teachers agreed that, from natural feelings of love for one’s family and neighbors, one must generalize as much as possible, and try to love everyone.  Usually, we live in a world of fast-fading generalization, in this regard.  We love our families (some do not manage even that).  We tolerate our neighbors and people like us.  We often fear, and therefore hate, everyone else, and sometimes pervert the teachings of the religious leaders to justify this.  But the vine of love is a stubborn one, and I have experienced the most incredible hospitality in Mexico, Afghanistan, China and other places very different from my own and very much less cosmopolitan.  Ethical teachings do work.                                

Conversely, depersonalization is the greatest threat to an ethical system, perhaps especially an ethical system involving human-environment relations.  Judging some people as intrinsically more worthy than others is a deadly game.   Thus, the ethical position summed up in “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is both widespread and pragmatically well grounded.

The general goal of human action is to make the actor and his immediate group better off.  The wider the group of reference, the better for everyone.  This is a pragmatic point; ethical codes build on the realization.  Ethical codes are usually concerned with maximizing help and minimizing hurt.  They are based on people’s internalization of group concepts of social responsibility.  This much is descriptive.  Cultures differ somewhat (perhaps more than somewhat) in what they consider “helping” and “hurting,” but always there is a major focus on individuals sacrificing some of their personal agendas, in exchange for social support and acclaim, so that the rest of society may do better.  In many societies, elites take advantage of this, forcing the masses to sacrifice so that the elites may live in even more luxury.  This undeniable fact–which has negative ecological consequences, as we have seen–should not blind us to the wider utility of ethical and moral codes

The most accepted, and thus happiest, people are often those who are gentle, low-key, even-tempered, and positive.  They reassure others simply by being there and being what they are.  They are generally good listeners—“sympathetic ears.”  They can actively and openly reassure others without seeming somehow “weak” for doing it, and without making the reassured ones feel weak either.  The aggressive, confident people may wind up running the country, but the gentle and tolerant ones have the better lives.  They have the happiest marriages and make the best parents.  One cannot imagine a society running without them.

            The human average lies somewhere in between the above types.  Ordinary people—my neighbors, your neighbors, our friends everywhere—tend to be gentle and caring with their families, reasonably responsible to their neighbors and friends.  They are often good leaders in some situations—fatherly or motherly with the young, encouraging with peers, respectful but firm with others.  But they are also easily offended, and vindictive when feeling so.  They tend to be defensive and even suspicious, especially toward potential-rival groups in their own societies.  They are usually calm, but will flare up, and will join or support without much hesitation when war or raid are called by their leaders.  They are fairly trustworthy and reliable, but, especially when scared, they will sometimes lie, cheat, and betray trust.  This, they will learn, often costs them a great deal later on.  Few indeed are the persons who can face such problems without turning a hair.  Most of us get depressed or furious, and fall apart or fight back //fn//.

//Fn  It has been interesting to watch the fate of 1960s radicals as the ideals of the 60s wither and die.  Among my many friends from that universe, some committed suicide.  Some sold out.  But most have gone on to keep the faith as best they could, getting rid of the more extreme and hopeless goals.  They have become liberal to moderate, or even conservative.  We are now professors, teachers, lawyers, “green” entrepreneurs, and the like.  More than a few now codemn the younger generation for being indolent and into drugs….

However, the most interesting ones are those few who have kept claiming their radical ideals, but have become bosses who now treat their subordinates with classic bossist oppression.  I know several of these intimately.  They are the ones who always had chips on their shoulders (unlike the gentle romantic idealists).  When young and poor, they hated the oppressive upper class.  When older and successful, they shifted slowly, almost imperceptibly, to seeing their underlings as the threat.  These underlings were not idealist enough, not class-conscious enough, not anti-colonial enough, or the like.  Eventually many of these ex-radicals became extremely elitist, and indeed replicated the evils of bad bosses throughout history.  I now understand how Stalin and Mao could continue to maintain their ideals while butchering millions of helpless poor.//

All achievement of human individuals must come because they have been supported, helped, and mentored, somewhere along the line.  No one grows up without care, and no one is unaffected by the caregivers.  People who describe themselves as “self-made” and “independent” usually prove to have been the most dependent of all on mentoring and early help.

Whatever potential the child has must be actualized through learning, inevitably in a social and cultural context.  A child born ten thousand years ago might have been the world’s greatest computer designer, but never had the chance to show it.  A child born in modern New York will never develop his or her potential as a mastodon hunter.  Morals develop similarly; cultures bring out some moral potentials and not others (d’Andrade 1995; Cole and Scribner 1974; Shweder 1991).

Conversely, the child develops courage, based on innate tendencies to explore, adventure, love, and otherwise take risks.  In so far as these are supported and praised, the child is literally “en-couraged.”  Cowardice is usually shamed out of a child, mostly by peers.  Both courage and cowardice are modeled by parents and peers.  It takes tremendous courage to interact with people and to be a moral individual in society. 

The best caregivers teach their children to cope competently and courageously with life’s problems, but no child or adult ever fully loses the deep-buried memory of a time when every stress was an uncomprehended and unmanageable menace.  The worst caregivers subject their children to random brutalization; the children learn to cope by violence and cruelty.  Life is a dialogue between strong, exploratory, confident, outgoing tendencies and scared, weak, abject ones.

Philosophers from Aristotle on down have reminded us that true courage is not the same as fearlessness; true courage lies in facing openly the fears we have, and going on anyway.  This in turn requires some self-confidence, some sober evaluation of risk, and some ability to face real risk and go on.  Rarely do people do this.  Defensiveness of every sort is the more common recourse.  Preemptive, undirected, and displaced aggression are not courage, but cowardice.

The corollary is that the key to social functioning is inclusiveness.  Are disadvantaged groups to be supported, as less fortunate members of one’s own society, or bullied, as structural opponents?  This is the basic question in politics, conservation, economics, and much else.  The content of the support matters less, though debates over whether support means “doing things for” people or “letting them do their own work” can be sharp and interesting.

These real-world moral codes are all contractarian in the sense that they are social institutions worked out through negotiation.  It is safe to say that no one in premodern times actually sat down to draw up a contract.  Hume was right: family and kinship, not formal contract, was the source of moral society.  However, there is a sense in which Hobbes’ “social contract” (Hobbes 1657) tale is a realistic fable.  Since neither “family values” nor “moral intuitions” are complete guides, a society must have a set of institutions, worked out through mutual accommodation, mutual commitment, and mutual negotiation, that end “warre” by laying out rules for “peace.”  In modern terminology, they convert a sort of worldwide Prisoner’s Dilemma into an assurance game.  They allow people to exchange and cooperate long enough to develop assurances of reasonable dealing.  Social behavior thus arises out of individual exchanges of goods and information nested in an emotional and social context of kinship and friendship networks.

The old belief that cultures (at least traditional cultures) had rigid values systems, to which everyone conformed, has turned out to be false (see e.g. Bourdieu 1978, 1990—or any modern ethnography).  This is fortunate; it was a depressing and totalitarian view.  In reality, all social groups deal with dissent, debate, argument and a plurality of values systems.  Some deal better than others, but all face the same irreducible tendency of humans to disagree about both basic principles and immediate applications.

One major problem with the contractarian view, especially its Hobbesian form, is that we now know, beyond reasonable doubt, that states came into existence through conquest and military force, not through voluntary contract.  Free people simply do not put themselves under state government unless military force scares them into the arms (in both senses) of the state. 

Even later states, of a more explicitly contractarian nature, have problems with the scope and enforcement of the contracts.  The United States was established on contractarian grounds—with explicit acknowledgement of the contractarian theory—with a government limited to white male property-holders.  It expanded the pool of citizens very slowly, and by ongoing negotiation.  Most other countries have similarly limited pools of founding fathers.  Virtually no one wants to reverse the negotiations of subsequent centuries and go back to such a leadership pool. 

The decline of the political unity and power of the working classes in the United States has enormously affected our debates over morals, and not in any very positive direction.  One effect has been to foreground ethnicity, and thus make ethnic separatists out of (former) liberals; this has continued the division of the working classes, leaving the elites in firm control—not a good outcome, however it may have transiently helped some ethnic groups.           

This leads us to a conclusion: negotiation is the way rights are constructed.  Partly because of this, there is reason, deontological or simply utilitarian, to prefer a wide construction to a narrow one.  To that extent, we must rely on intuitionist and deontological views that seem to me impossible to prove.  Minimally, we have to assume that all humans have “inalienable rights…[to] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

The same must, to some extent, go for the environment.  Decent environmental conditions seem obviously worthy of valuing, for utilitarian reasons; but it seems reasonable to assume that we all have rights to a decent environment, even over and above immediate utilitarian concerns.  We have a right to know that there remains some of the wonderful beauty and variety of the world.

Humans are social and want a good social life.  Humans are all different, and thus every society must, to some extent, assess each person as an individual.  In every society, one person’s rights start where the other’s stop, and minimal fairness suggests that all people should have equal rights except in so far as is absolutely necessary for enforcing efficient laws.  These seem minimal tenets of a functioning society.  Beyond that, until the ethical philosophers give us clear and unequivocal guides, we can do no more than look at what real-world codes actually accomplish.


There is rather little in anthropology about moral codes—their origin, propagation, and practical application.  The reason for this lies in the history of social thought.   Anthropology has been greatly influenced by political economy and by Weberian sociology.  Both tend to see ethics and morals as derived.  Marxists and other political economists—including even conservative economists—maintain that ethics follow interests.  One can dismiss the problem of morality: it is wholly predictable from economic reality—from the workings of the market and the relative power of the economic interests involved.  Marx held that the ruling class writes the codes to maximize its own interests. 

            Weber opposed such naïve economic determinism with a more complex and nuanced view.  Weber’s own position is too complex to discuss here (see Weber 1992),  but anthropologists who follow Weber rarely capture the full complexity.   They have usually been content to say that ethics and morals are part of an ideological framework that must be interpreted.  They thus tend to move to a high level of abstraction, seeking to interpret the underlying and usually implicit principles that  provide the broad grounding for action in general (see e.g. Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck 1961).

One can, however, extract generalities about moral rules from the anthropological literature.  One can assume there is a minimal level of moral action necessary for society to function at all.  Near-universals probably capture this code.

No moral rule is completely universal, but, worldwide, some moral rules seem close to universal (Brown 1991; Goldschmidt 2005).    Richard Shweder (1997; see also Gigerenzer 2007:187) sees five dimensions of morality:  harm (vs help), autonomy, hierarchy, ingroup/outgroup, and purity.  These cluster into ethics of the individual or individualism or autonomy (the first pair), of communitarian values (the second pair), and of divinity (the last).  I find this scheme rather preliminary, and will develop my own (I fear equally preliminary and simplistic) schemes below. 

Social-scientific studies of actual morality, as opposed to philosophic speculations on ideal morality, also disclose that people tend to evaluate active, independent agents differently from those who are mainly acted upon, such as children and the mentally incompetent (Gray and Wegner 2009).  The natural tendency is to evaluate the former more thoughtfully—to praise them is they do well, blame them more if they do wrong, protect them less (they can take care of themselves) if protection is needed. 

Also visible in anthropological studies, as in traditional moralistic writings, is an opposition of proscriptive and prescriptive morality (Janoff-Bulman et al. 2009).  “Thou shalt not” is always stricter, more precise, and less loved than “thou shalt.”  Ethical philosophers have deplored the frequency and importance of the former, but banning the bad does seem both easier and more typical of humans than promoting the good.  Of this more anon.

            All codes share broadly similar restrictions against murder, antisocial behavior, exploitative sex, and the like.  Traditional literature everywhere—both elite and folk literature—celebrates helping, generosity, unselfishness, courage, restraint, civility, considerateness, following general social codes, and so on.  Basically, this is the helping code we all know from childhood.  Even domestic animals have been bred to be tame, pacific, gentle, and docile; some have been trained to be loving, trainable, reliable, and obedient.  Not the highest of virtues, surely, but if “man has created dog in his image” (as someone once said), to say nothing of cats, llamas, and the rest, “man” has some good within.

Ethical and moral codes always discourage members of the same society from injuring each other.  Indeed, one could easily construct an ideal ethical code on the simple principle of “do no harm,” or on the more complex one of “do no harm unless it is clearly necessary to do harm to prevent a much greater harm.”  However, all social codes insist that individuals must suffer for the common good.  In environmental matters, an example is the denial of fishing rights when the fishery is severely depleted.  In extreme cases, a few individuals may have to starve to death, if the society depends for survival on maintaining its fishery. In the modern world, we are mercifully given more flexibility than that, but sacrifices of a lesser sort remain necessary.  The devastating overlogging that took place in California forests until recently could not last, but stopping it inevitably threw many loggers out of work; they complained, but most of them realized that they would otherwise lose all the forests and be out of work anyway, so they adapted.

            Environmental damage is generally condemned, but what counts as “damage” varies enormously.  Flagrant waste of key resources is usually condemned, even when not effectively regulated.  Some very small, technologically simple societies with low population densities, however, have no such rules, but most ethical codes take the environment into account, at least marginally (Bierhorst 1994; Callicott 1994).  People are typically enjoined not to take more than they need, to “leave some for others,” and to avoid waste and cruelty.  Many codes are more specific, demanding protection of forests or trees, of rare animals, and of particular landscapes or landscape features.  In general, traditional moral systems usually are fairly good protectors of the environment, though there are some spectacular exceptions.  Unfortunately, when the modern world impinges on traditional cultures, they lose the old rules and at the same time acquire vastly greater powers of destruction.  

All societies praise fairness, generosity, mutual reciprocity, mutual aid, and cooperation.  All have stiff sanctions against abusers (“cheaters”), though some allow a lot of presuming on others’ tolerance.  The range is, however, enormous, from extremely self-sacrificing to rather bloody-minded societies (Henrich et al. 2004).

            Property is always protected; theft is always forbidden, but some societies have almost no private property to steal, which makes theft a minor threat.  Some hunting-gathering groups regard everything as common property except personal equipment (such as one’s knife or bow), and enjoin generosity even with that.

Sex is always regulated.  Marriage to legitimate sex and descent is universal, though reduced to the barest figment in some local groups (not—contra some anthropological claims—in any entire society).  All cultures ban incest; however, incest is variously defined, and some societies make exceptions for royal couples who have to keep sacred bloodline pure. 

            Mutual respect, and politeness based on it, is universal.  The politeness rituals differ from culture to culture, because they have to be arbitrary to work, but this should not blind us to their universal functional resemblance.

            Hierarchy is universal.  At the very least, elders have some nominal authority over younger adults and adults over children.  Almost all societies have a good deal more than that.  Disrespect for social inferiors is considered bad almost everywhere, but almost universally practiced.  Even the idea that clients (considered underlings) deserve to be taken seriously is a rather radical concept in bureaucratic regimes, as Max Weber pointed out a century ago.

            Many religions and moralists agree with Jesus that “greed for money is the root of all evil.”  However, no society really moralizes this.  There is a great range, from societies that adulate wealth to egalitarian societies that dislike and fear it.  However, every society recognizes that people have to go for material security.  A well-known corollary of human optimism is that people tend to undershoot, getting less than they really need for safety.  A society that encourages acquisition thus tends to do better than one that devalues wealth.

All ethical and moral teachings note that humans do not live by bread alone.  Systems therefore enjoin varying amounts of attention to social needs and autonomy needs.  They also define justice, usually with some reference to fairness and to recourse for the powerless.  Unforunately, hierarchic societies get very far from fair principles.  They are notorious for creating moral codes that reinforce their hierarchies and their grossly unbalanced distributions of power.  Such codes are incompatible with any acceptable ecological or environmental policy.

All moral codes enjoin solidarity—support, mutual aid, self-sacrifice—to keep the social system functioning.  They even order enjoyment of the social fabric, by enjoining people to attend festivals, celebrate holidays, and attend gatherings.  One of the more thought-provoking effects of secularization in the United States has been the decline of festivals.  People just don’t have time or money, unless religion tells them to find some anyway.  It is axiomatic among social scientists that a society holds itself together partly through festivals.  The decline of celebration in America has, indeed, accompanied the rise in crime and social disruption.

Anger and hate are especially condemned by Buddhists and some Christians.  Coarse, unregulated, mean-spirited behavior is especially condemned by aristocrats and elites everywhere.

Widely, religions (self-servingly?) see a particular cluster of virtues:  mysticism, a sense of unity, love for at least some created beings, spirituality, detachment from the worst traits of “the world,” thoughtfulness and mindfulness, and arts as creation of beauty and pattern.

Social thinkers, and some religious ones, are more apt to foreground a cluster of cooperation-and-support values: Caring, helping, sociability, solidarity, acceptance, tolerance, mutual aid, collective standards for behavior, warmth, forgiveness (within reason), sense of shared fate (“we’re all in this together”), fairness, civil and human rights, support, empowering, duty, responsibility, sharing, mutual respect, rational considered judgment, charity, environmentalism, respect for all and for human spirit and its accomps, laudable pride, self-reliance within reason, modesty, humility, deference, and so on.

Basic to society, also, is a third, defensive cluster:  loyalty, courage, bravery, steadfastness. 

Work produces its own cluster: hard focused sustained effort, industriousness, doing one’s share, and zeal.  More broadly, work within society leads to a sense of need for productiveness, usefulness, education and training, self-dedication to feeding the hungry and curing the sick, and so on.

All this entails, in modern societies, a science and learning cluster: search for truth and good, originality and independence of thought, inquiry as opposed to received dogma.  Here, the modern world breaks with the traditional one, that usually values received wisdom over inquiry—a logical and reasonable position in societies where change is slow and accumulated wisdom is usually the best guide.  (We tend to forget how often even the best scientific ideas and innovations fail, even in contemporary society.)

Finally, most societies respect the value of laudable enjoyment: loving one’s family and enjoying life with them, enjoying wider good company, enjoying good food and other innocent pleasures and amusements.

All societies have a wealth of taboos, avoidances, minor social rules, and so on; these vary wildly from place to place.  What matters is that they exist.  Every society feels the need to micromanage life.  Above all, these trivia announce membership in particular social groups and classes, and thus are all-important to a category-conscious social animal.  Again, recall how much of moral outrage is focused on using the wrong fork or wearing an “inappropriate” shirt.

            The reason for this is clear:  one has to show one is willing to pay a cost for belonging.  (Atran 2002 makes this point memorably for religion.)   One must put oneself on the line, doing something irksome and unpleasant.  This proves one is actively engaged in one’s society and its culture.  Active nonconformists are hated, but even passive nonconformists, who peacefully go their own way without bothering to do much to mark membership, are shunned and ostracized.  Consider how much gossip is of this sort.  Such gossip has its effects, shaming nonconformists into making the effort.

            Equality, tolerance, civil and human rights, and religious leeway are far less universal than the above rules.  Most societies put a value on personal freedom and on tolerance within the local community, but some do not, and many limit freedom and tolerance to very narrow aspects of life. 

All ethical systems must deal with defense of the society.  Defense–more broadly, peace–is the classic case of a public good; it benefits everyone.  Many individuals, often the best and brightest, must die in defense of their societies.  All ethical codes condemn unreasonable aggression.  Unfortunately, many ethical codes construct “defense” exceedingly widely, making it seem moral to wage war against weaker enemies on the slightest provocation.  Without going into wider concerns, this is ecologically unhealthy; war is as damaging to the environment as to everything else.   

Modern American and west European society definitely stands at one extreme in allowing more personal leeway and freedom than almost any other known society.  This certainly goes back to the dramatic privileging of individuals—especially, the tragic hero, standing tall against fate—that characterized Greek drama and Celtic ballads and epics.

Conversely, the stricter forms of modern Islam seem almost unprecedented in human history in their regimentation of life.  They are quite unusual within Islam, formerly a relatively tolerant and liberal religion.  This may be part of a widespread reaction against modern freedoms. 

Rising regimentation is not limited to Islam.  Today’s strict forms of Catholic and fundamentalist Christianity appear to be unprecedented in the history of Christianity in the detail of their rules and the thoroughness of their enforcement.  Earlier Christianities killed more people, but had much looser de facto rules.     

Conversely, consider the universally condemned evils of the world.

First on almost everyone’s list would come a meanness cluster:  defensive aggressiveness, hurting self just to hurt others too, cruelty, viciousness, sadism, hostility, general bloody-mindedness, sourness, neuroticism, vindictiveness, controllingness and abuse of power, maliciousness, malicious neglect and irresponsibility, passive-aggressive behavior, hatred, excessive anger, hypocrisy.

Close to this is an amoral-selfishness cluster: theft and crime, sociopathy, using others cynically, power hunger, arrogance, jealousy, envy, greed, denial, vanity.

This leads to an injustice cluster: unfairness, injustice, oppression, exploitation, nonreciprocating.  Part of it, or possibly a separate bias cluster, come prejudice, selectiveness, anti-intellectualism, hatred of other (especially weaker) groups, displaced anger, scapegoating, “ignoring” the weak and other malicious ignoring.

Almost all cultures recognize a rudeness cluster:  in-your-face irresponsibility, rude remarks, mean and icy politeness, inconsiderateness, thanklessness, gracelessness.

Worst of all, to many in this world, is the cowardice cluster:  cowardice, abjectness, debasement, dependence, selling out, withdrawal, flight, self-handicapping, escapism, conformity, popular culture, mindless dogmatism, mindless following of received wisdom.

Much more pardonable, if deplorable, is the sloth cluster: laziness, sloppiness, carelessness, preventable ineptness, failure to learn needed skills.

Finally, there is a mere self-indulgence cluster: gluttony, ordinary greed, taking no thought of the morrow.

The common thread in most of this is acting from fear.  This is obvious in the cowardice case, but the mean, selfish, unjust, and bias clusters all involve defensive aggression.  They are, I would argue, almost always the aggression of the weak, scared person who feels trapped and cornered.  At any rate, they are clearly defensive actions. 

Mere sloth and gluttony are not fearful, but often laziness and greed are defense mechanisms of weak persons, and so do indeed fit the general trend.

Thus, in general, “evil” is really a set of defense mechanisms used by people who think they are one-down and put-upon.

Evidence comes from the really significant case of things that can break either way.  Societies are generally ambiguous toward  competition, independence of mind or conversely overdependence, originality, fun, pride, ambition, humility, religious faith, and sexual morality.  All these can be considered good or evil, depending on the society or on how they are actually used.  Without ambition, we would still be swinging from trees; yet, zealous, competitive, cutthroat ambition has ruined thousands of governments.  Without humility, we would never get along in society, but without pride we wouldn’t be able to hold our heads up; we need to balance both of them.  Without sexual morality, society could never operate, but some sexual moralities are so perversely destructive that they ruin societies.

Moreover, pace the ancient Greeks, moderation would not solve the problems here.  The idea is not to be moderate about, say, competition or ambition or sexual morality, but to compete fairly and freely without ill will, to be ambitious but not at others’ expense, and to be strict about sexual morality but also make it a reasonable, humane form as opposed to the insane sadism we often observe.  Religious faith needs to be strong and deep, not “moderate,” but it needs to be loving and caring, not bloody and murderous.

In all these cases, we observe that the basic qualities are indeed virtues. It is only if they are combined with defensive aggressiveness that they are evil.  We need all those dubious virtues, but without the defensive aggressiveness that often makes them poisonous.

Humans reveal a horribly vicious and cruel streak (even in breeding and training guard dogs).  It is almost never directed at people-in-general.  It is directed at two classes of people:  flagrant nonconformists and rebels within one’s society, and direct enemies, especially group enemies.  Moralities generally are about helping one’s own, and minimizing hurts to one’s own, but often include maximizing hurts to one’s enemies.  Most moralities powerfully advocate hurting enemies, at least in wartime.  All moral codes counsel restraint in dealing with personal enemies; almost all counsel kind and generous treatment of strangers.  Most counsel restraint in dealing with group enemies.  However, all (except some very modern ones) seem to emphasize the need to be condign to groups that are traditional rivals.  Especially condemned and treated prejudicially are those subgroups of one’s own society that do not follow all the social rules, and thus seem enemies, or at best competitors, within.  These are the cultural, religious, and political minorities that suffer genocide and discrimination.

Most and worst of all, people love to shift the blame for problems onto scapegoats. 

People are prone to anger and love, aggression and aid.  Individual experience cuts the difference.  Society always influences–and frequently constructs outright–this experience, and thus writes on slates that are not blank but are easily cleaned and rewritten.

Bias and prejudice are worst, and most often “moral,” when people are defending their current behavior against challenges—real or imagined—from structural opponent groups.  The crudest line is “what I do is moral, what anyone else does is immoral.”   For the Chinese of old, not speaking Chinese proved one was an uncouth barbarian; for Americans in the 19th century, the Chinese were immoral for speaking Chinese.  Everywhere, people find some salient, deeply emotional points in their own tribal moral code, and savagely judge anyone not conforming to those particular points.  Hatred of homosexuals, opposition to birth control, killing of those who shave beards, and similar moral points are currently familiar in the world.  Much research needs to be done on why these particular items are seized on; all have to do with male dominance and privilege of a particularly crude kind, but that may not be an adequate explanation.  In any case, other moral sticking points are not sexist.  Clashes over rights to teach or deny evolution, over global warming, and over trade policies are equally involving in some quarters.

            Finally, all morals are off when dealing with notably inferior beings—as defined by the wider society.  If they are in a moral universe at all, it is only to consign them to a lower, despised level, where stricter rules apply to them but very loose ones apply to their “superiors.”  Risk factors for such definition are poverty, low status, female gender, and minority ethnicity.  An impoverished minority woman, almost anywhere in the world today, is fair game for almost anything anyone of status wants to do to her.  Outright murder may be considered a bit out of line, but killing her by denying her medical care, a lifesaving abortion, or an opportunity to make a living is rarely condemned and is often considered downright praiseworthy.  In the United States, for instance, no one except the victims seems to mind that African-American infant and maternal mortality rates are many times as high as those of affluent whites, though the causes of the differential are trivially easy to prevent.

At this point we may break out some related concepts that will be useful to define.  Outright hatred is common and deadly, but far commoner and arguably far more deadly is selective indifference.  Groups are tuned out, as if they simply do not exist, or, at best, are unworthy of consideration (Sen 1992).  Many people tune out everyone outside their immediate family circle.  This is bad enough, but worse is granting humanity only to elites, or only to whites, or only to fundamentalist Christians, or only to academic liberals.  Usually the ignored group is low in status, but anthropologists often privilege the small, indigenous groups they love to study. 

In short, harm to individuals is wrong only in certain cases, and extreme harm is taken as a social good in many contexts.  The human race certainly has its flaws.  Moreover, it has not improved much through time.  Anthropologists have learned that traditional small-scale societies, once condemned as “savage” and “primitive,” have standards of morality at least as high as most modern states.  In so far as there has been progress, it has consisted of making moral codes applicable to wider areas—but usually this merely means that the societies have grown from face-to-face societies of 500 people to large nation-states.  War and murder have consequently become less frequent in the lives of individuals, because there are fewer states and individuals within them are more protected, but on the other hand the total world incidence of violent death, rape, robbery, and so forth remains high.  Moral codes expand to include wider and wider networks of people, because polities are larger; but there is little change in the content of the codes.  World religions do show much progress, by teaching that all humans should be subject to the same morals, but the actual practice of real-world societies never approximates this.  Christian nations war with each other as much as any nations do, in spite of Sunday preachings about universal love and peace.  Christian and Muslim nations are at least as cruel to their minorities as others are, in spite of teachings of equality and love for neighbors.

Morality is supposed to be about caring, helping, and supporting, but it often—perhaps usually—is about condemning, attacking, and harming anyone different from the speaker.  Moralists all too easily lapse into sin-shouting rhetoric.  Often, this covers up the fact that their own personal lives do not bear inspection.  Sinclair Lewis immortalized the breed in Elmer Gantry, but not only preachers succumb.  University professors of ethics are not always exempt.

A great deal of the differences between moral codes lie in how closely we regard members of our own society as deserving full moral recognition, and still more in how much we regard everyone else as deserving of very little.  Above all, the definition of “us” and “them” is negotiable, differing widely from place to place.  This simple cut explains much of the worldwide differences in moral codes.

One can see five conflicts endemic to all human societies throughout all history and prehistory.  All moral codes, everywhere, have to deal with them.  We could classify moral codes according to how they deal with these.

Individual vs. community has been addressed above; the range from the 19th-century United States frontier (privileging individual freedom) to places like modern North India (cf. Shweder 1991) covers much of the variation in real-world codes.

Pursuant to that, originality vs. conformity covers much of the same ground, but one can be highly social yet an original person (like the English “eccentrics” or the fishermen I knew in Hong Kong).

Egalitarian vs hierarchic choices have been noted above.  Jonathan Haidt would usefully add loyalty (a value within hierarchic systems) and purity (Haidt 2007). 

Purity vs indifference.  Haidt (2007) has also reminded us of this this worldwide concern.  Purity, especially chastity, is idealized in the Abrahamic religions, though Christians have rather gotten away from it within my lifetime.  Jews and Muslims avoid impure animals, mostly those that obviously eat blood or carrion, like pigs and dogs.  Hindus maintain caste purity as well as avoiding the same pigs and dogs while idealizing the cow as pure (even its urine and dung is purifying).  Indeed, most, if not all, religions have some concern with ritual purity and contamination (Douglas 1966, 1970).  Religious formalism takes us out of ethics and into ritual, but many religions, including the Abrahamic ones, elevate sexual purity—often, in practice—oppression of women—to an ethic.  With the coming of modern medicine, concern about ritual purity gradually morphed into concern about germ and chemical contamination.  This very real problem is now a major moral concern worldwide, but especially in the west and in Japan—both areas having long traditions of ritual purity.

Extent of application of basic values is the final, and most interesting.  Some traditional societies extend their moral codes only to their own borders.  The neighbors are more or less fair game for slave-raiding, head-hunting, and acquiring meat for cannibal feasts.  Most traditional societies do recognize moral rights more widely, but still see outsiders as fairer game than insiders for, say, raiding.  Many traditional societies assign more rights and moral personhood to animals and even plants in their own territory to humans in other, distant territories; the same Northwest Coast natives who apologize to a tree for taking a bit of bark from it used to raid neighboring societies for slaves and trophy heads. 

The progress of morality has largely been one of extending more and more rights to more and more beings.  Buddha and Jesus taught compassion and love for all humans.  Buddha added at least some regard for all sentient beings.  Jains and some Hindus went farther and recognized even plant rights, thus going beyond even the “animal rights” ethicists of today.

With the rise of world religions, ideas of love for all humanity were propagated.  World moralities, such as Christianity and Buddhism, try to be as inclusive as possible—to see the world as family.  (Biologists have made the obvious connections with William Hamilton’s concept of inclusive fitness.)  Bloody-minded people try to be the opposite, for whatever reasons.  Over the centuries, more and more charges have been extended worldwide.  We now work for universal justice, universal human rights, and most recently of all universal prosperity.  The idea of aiding the African poor is a very new thing; only two centuries ago, the rest of the world was concerned with them only to capture them for slaves. 

So we now have a globalized moral discourse.  Unfortunately, it does not always affect actual practice.  And the globalized morality is not always what Kant or Mill would like.  Worldwide, one sees the same mix of love and hate, tolerance and bigotry that I found in tiny isolated villages in Malaysia and Indonesia a couple of generations ago.  The world is indeed a global village, complete with a village’s gossip and pettiness.

However, globalizing the debates over standards of morality is no mean accomplishment.  Making it serious, and turning the world into one real community, has to be the major goal for everyone in the near future.  The human race simply cannot afford any longer to write off whole communities and peoples as “inferior” and beneath moral consideration (Sen 1992, 1999).

No society can go all the way to either end of any of these four dimensions.  Total anarchy and total conformity are impossible in practice.  Totally hierarchic societies have been tried; they fail quickly (think of Hitler’s Germany).  Jesus notwithstanding, treating all humans exactly the same as one’s own family is not really viable.  Neither is isolating oneself or one’s family as the only morally relevant beings.  Today, in fact, isolating humanity and denying moral personhood to nonhumans is flatly suicidal—as it was in the animal-dependent, crop-dependent world of the ancient Israelites, who pragmatically recognized that “thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn” and many other such charges.

Few genuinely new moral dimensions have entered the world since the first humans found they had to deal with those four.  The ancient Greeks added moderation in all things, and contempt for mere material possessions.  The ancient Asians (Chinese or Indian, probably) added an ideal of mystical quietism.  Kant’s logical defense of the individual as an end (and Levinas’ extension of it discussed below) and the consequent expansion of the Golden Rule to a concern for “universal law” ranks as an original transform of earlier morals, and the utilitarian code (see below) is a new way of looking at the old problems.  Most moral leaders, however, do nothing more than restate in the languages of their times the classic ideas on the classic topics.  I see nothing deeply original in St. Francis, Ryokan, or Gandhi, for instance, though they are among the highest among my personal saints and inspirations.


Obviously, cultures differ greatly in moralities, and this has led many into moral relativism.  Cannibalism, sati, genital cutting, and so forth are “moral” in some areas; why not simply eliminate all moral standards and say that anything goes?

The first and main answer is that everyone, everywhere, recognizes that some things help people and some things hurt them.  The problem comes from the fact that everyone also recognizes that exceptional circumstances force people to suffer for a better future or for the common good.  The most obvious such circumstance is war.  If a group suffers all-out attack by powerful neighbors, everyone must unite, and must sacrifice goods, safety, and often life itself in the defense effort.  A famine or flood may be less dramatic, but still forces sacrifice for the common good. 

The second answer is that some things simply cannot be left to individual choice, because they are so notoriously disruptive.  Sex is the most obvious one.  Every culture has strong sexual codes, to keep the young and wild from totally messing up the social system and producing countless children with no one to care for them.  Almost any sex code seems to work, as long as there is one.  Weak and sloppy enforcement is typical, without social meltdown, but, again, there has to be something.  The same applies to property and exchange, “honor” (whatever that may be in a given culture), and other touchy matters. 

The third answer is that evil people often take over in this imperfect world, and they institute evil moralities for their own selfish purposes.  Hypocritical sex codes that torture women gratuitously, or lead to brutal repression of normal youthful enthusiasm, are particularly typical and common (see above). 

Leaving aside this last case, every moral code has to be a balance between morals that are good, pleasant, and helpful and those that are defensive and thus condign and stringent.  The balance found in a particular society depends on that society’s history.  The strict protective sexual morality of the Near East, for instance, is in large part (probably all) the result of a 5,000-year history of warfare involving organized and systematic rape, capture and enslavement of women.

Thus, moral differences among humans are not arbitrary, not ludicrous, and not proof of the nonexistence of universal morals.  They are systematic, and result from local contingencies that influence universal tendencies. 

Cross-cultural comparison of ethics and morals has scarcely begun as a field, but it is advanced enough to allow us to speak, very roughly, of three broad moralities:

1.  A defensive one, characterized by rigid codes of conduct, strong focus on “honor,” and proneness to violence at slight provocation.  Often, this leads to hate, intolerance, exclusiveness, confrontation, immediate violence toward anyone perceived as a threat, and admiration of anger, vengefulness, and cruelty.  This is usually the sort of behavior that warfare brings out toward enemies, but it is notoriously common within strongly hierarchic societies in which life is perilous and insecure because of competition for power.  It is even found commonly within families, especially in such societies—the behavior of elites toward masses is mirrored in the behavior of patriarchs toward women and children.   This is a morality based on fear and defensiveness, and consequent adulation of power. Broadly, societies that have long histories of constant war and conflict have stern, controlling ethics that often involve foregrounding vengeance and oppressive protection of women.  Conversely, societies with histories of relative peace and growing prosperity are more liberal and less condign.  This would seem fairly tautological (of course, violent societies have ethics of violence) if it were not for numerous exceptions; there are enough exceptions to make one wish devoutly for further research on this little-studied issue. 

2.   An abject one, characterized by passivity, accommodation, and conformity for conformity’s sake (often glossed as “being nice” or “appropriate”).  This is also commonest in hierarchic situations, especially among those on the very bottom.  It is perilously close to many of the “communitarian” moralities now advocated in some circles, including environmental ones; but it would destroy the possibility of environmental responsibility.  This is based on the same dynamic as the foregoing, except that weakness and hopelessness replace a drive to take power and abuse it.

3.  A morality of concern, caring, and respect.  This leads to fairness and even-handed justice, and to the use of violence only as a last resort for protecting one’s group.  It also leads to self-improvement as a virtue—in striking contrast to the other two moralities, which regard self-improvement as foolish at best and pernicious at worst (it is not deferential or conformist enough for Morality 2).  This sort of morality is usually found among equals within a group; only rarely is it extended widely.  It is the “natural” morality, in that it is what our “best instincts” tell us—in a very literal sense.  It is the product of social instincts, not of rational formation of a social contract.

            Obviously, a single individual may display any of the three, at different times, depending on the social situation.  It is also clear that morality has to be seen as part of a wider social vision, based on emotional reactions to social situations, rather than as an individual and rational matter (as argued by Rawls, for example) or as a direct product of economics (as Marx thought).  Economic systems do produce their own morality—capitalism has made “private property” a holy cause, and gross wealth a proof of moral virtue—but such things can be seen as elaborations on more basic social codes. 

These moralities have management implications.  Management that creates strongly hierarchic systems automatically increases Moralities 1 and 2 until they take over the system.  Management for bottom-up participation, in which decisions are made by equals negotiating at each level in the system, is necessary if Morality 3 is to survive.  This involves a great deal more openness and tolerance, as well as forbearance and responsibility to the workforce, than is typical of current management systems, governmental or corporate.


            The picture that emerges is of a species that is preeminently social, living largely to care for other members of the social group, by helping one’s own and protecting them against enemies—especially, rival groups.  The worldwide differences in morality seem due largely to the relative felt needs for caring vs. defense—or, in other words, the relative sense of whether the most immediate and serious threats to one’s own are from problems like sickness, loneliness, and hunger, or are from enemy humans.  This in turn has much of its effect via definitions of groups:  who’s in, who’s out, who’s friend, who’s enemy.

The nature of the universals, as well as the thousands of ethnographic studies of traditional societies and their conflicts, makes one thing clear:  Ethical and moral codes are not only for individuals, but are also for societies.  They lie at the core of the “social contracts” that Hobbes and Locke proposed.  (The full “social contract” also includes a charter stating who makes the decisions.)  In practice, in every society, the ethical and moral code is the set of ground rules for playing the social game.  It is the rules for interpersonal dealings and for all actions that affect others.                        

In spite of all the cultural and social codes that seem so “right,” the basis of morality in playground fairness is widespread.  As everyone knows who has lived in small traditional communities, such communities have about the same range and kind of goods and evils as the most sophisticated community of moral philosophers and educated intellectuals.  Moral philosophy per se does not change people much.  The cultural codes are almost noise in the system, however frantic people get over them.  Using the wrong fork, or holding chopsticks the wrong way, do not bulk large in ultimate moral judgments, even though people have no doubt been killed over such matters.

In classic terms, people are “basically good,” unless crossed.  Yet the “basic evil” is there, largely taking the form of paranoid or psychotic perception of everyone, or of every even trivially different group, as enemy.  The political leader who sees a potential assassin or traitor in even his closest comrades is a well-known figure in history.  Most of us know individuals who recapitulate this on a small scale.

            Consider the way individuals grow up:  trained gradually, and hopefully empowered but often simply scared.  Rejection and harsh judgment are the lot of us all, much of the time, as we form moral consciences.  It is all too easy to internalize the negatives, and deal with the world that way, harshly judging everyone, especially those significantly different from what one has been taught to fear and obey.  The more irrational and cruel the standards, the more people tend to identify with them, because of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance; feeling shaky in one’s belief makes one argue oneself into believing it all the more strongly.  Weak people make bad thinkers and bad judges.  They are prone to a characteristic suite of evils:  hatred, cowardice, treachery, betrayal, faithlessness, and bullying.  With the rise of bigness, and consequent loss of control and self-efficacy, more and more people inevitably fall deeper and deeper into these ills.

The social scientist often seems to face an infinite regress.  Everything is explained by something else.  In morality, there is a kind of endpoint, or at least a nexus, in personal responsibility:  “The buck stops here.”  This still leaves us with the question of how people become responsible, but that is really a question in a different realm (education).  In dealing with moral behavior per se, grounding in personal responsibility is the real necessity.

            Probably the most reasonable overall position is that which is reached by common sense, or by looking at human needs in order of imperativeness, or by following the great religious teachers, or by simply looking without bias at what people do:

            First, saving the environment—at least that which is necessary for human survival, such as water, breathable air, and biodiversity—is essential. 

            Feeding the hungry, or at least producing food, is the next most obvious and immediate need.

            This is followed by medical care, shelter, and other basic physical needs.

            Security and defense normally come next, but in times of war they have to have absolute priority, driving those differences mentioned above.

            After this come the basics of keeping a society together:  Generosity, common decency, morals related to sex and reproduction, and so forth. 

            Finally, it is morally good to make life worth living.  Plain personal niceness matters.  So do arts, good food, exercise, and other such amenities.  Puritanism and dour self-mortification should be immoral everywhere.


Individuals obviously differ greatly in their level of obedience to moral rules. There is a huge range from the good to the bloody-minded and defiant. Personality psychologists speak learnedly of inborn differences in openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness—but, confusingly, the same individual may be good all week, then defiant and outrageous on Saturday night at the bar. 

Power makes people more rule-oriented and rule-based in moral thinking; lack of power makes people more outcome-based (Lammers and Stapel 2009).  This makes sense, especially when the power is bureaucratic, within structured systems.

More interestingly, people differ in their ways of conforming.  Some prefer the spirit of the rule to its specific demands; Jesus was one such, judging from his statement that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”  Others, however, are meticulous literalists.  These, according to psychologists, are high in conscientiousness, low in openness.  Many of us combine approaches, following the spirit when dealing with major rules, the letter when obeying local traffic laws and the like.  Then there are those (low conscientiousness, high openness) who ignore conventional morality as much as possible.

            Societies, like individuals, differ rather stunningly in the degree to which they live by their (ostensible) moral teachings.  Small towns in Scandinavia and much of North America a couple of generations ago were almost painfully moral (remember Lake Wobegon).  The slums of major cities, worldwide, tend toward moral chaos, even by their own local standards—which are inevitably quite different from, but not necessarily looser than, those of the wider society.


Morality rarely changes dramatically, but it does change.  Like all cultural rules, morals are constantly being negotiated, tested, and renegotiated (Bourdieu 1978, 1990). 

One dramatic change has been the downfall of slavery.  Until the late 18th century, slavery was universally accepted without question in all civilizations and most simpler societies that had any hierarchy to speak of.  Many isolated individuals came out against it, but no organized opposition surfaced.  Even revolted slaves usually accepted the system, often taking slaves of their own.  Finally, the Quakers decided in the late 18th century that it was unacceptable.  Even John Stedman, who provided the classic and horrific account of slavery in practice (Stedman 1988, orig. 1806-1813; note the introduction by Richard and Sally Price to the 1988 edition), did not question the institution until he met Quakers in London after his book was completed. 

However, once the Quakers raised the issue, anti-slavery propagated fast.  Serious antislavery movements began in the 1770s.  Within a century, slavery was eliminated almost everywhere.  The progress of capitalism, which substituted more productive and manageable proletariat labor for forced and inefficient slave labor, explains a large (if debatable) amount of this change.  Slavery persists today in out-of-the-way corners of the world (largely southeast Asia and west Africa), and is still accepted there. 

The fall of slavery was thus due to Christianity and capitalism, two forces now associated in many quarters with all things evil.  An ironic sidelight.

War, including unprovoked war purely for looting, has never been banned or discouraged by any full society, and all societies have long histories of it.  Theoretically banned by religions and most moral codes, it is in fact engaged in as often as countries can afford to do it. 

Rape in the course of war (and often even in ordinary life) has generally been excused.  Most modern societies ban it, but few outside of the richest nations take the ban seriously.  Only within my adulthood has it been really considered a bad thing in the United States; when I was growing up, a woman who was raped was “asking for it” by “dressing provocatively” or some such fiction—unless the rape was committed by a minority member on a woman of higher status.

Child molesting is now much more widely condemned than it once was, and marriage of extremely young teenagers, though still routine and widely accepted in most societies, is declining.  Marriage of young teens was common in the United States until a generation ago, but is now rare, and teen birth rates are falling sharply there and in Europe.

A fairly typical case of the evolution of morals is shown by the solidarity ethic in labor unions.  Individuals felt aggrieved by low wages and bad working conditions; they acted alone and got nowhere.  Joining together brought more success, but also more personal risk (bosses penalized union members) and the possibility of free-riding.  A solidarity ethic had to be sold to union members.  This, notoriously, was only partially successful.  It has grown less successful with the breakdown of community in the last couple of generations, and union membership in the United States has declined precipitously since the high point of the 1950s.


Another way to look at this—oversimplifying for rough classification, as anthropologists often love to do—is break morals along individual, interactive, and social lines. 

Aristotle’s original “ethics” were strictly for individuals.  The moral side of his ethics involved cultivating virtues:  courage, forbearance, and so on.  Virtue ethics and various descendents of that are still important.  Much ordinary advice of the sort parents give children is at this level:  be reasonable, be nice, be considerate, be disciplined, and so on.  Another, quite different, sort of individualist ethic is that of mystic hermits, like the Chinese sage Han Shan, who go off to mountaintops to meditate and enjoy aesthetics.  They can escape worldly cares, competition, and rejection—the “red dust” of Chinese literature.  Daoism and much of Buddhism, as well as the monastic and eremitic strains of Christianity and other western religions, are based on this ethic.   

Interactive codes privilege the virtues that appear in direct face-to-face interaction.  One common code foregrounds honor, shame, generosity, loyalty, personal courage, self-control, and the like.  It usually goes with an attitude toward women variously termed “protective” or “oppressive.”  This is preeminently the code of warrior bands, chiefdoms, and small village communities facing a hostile world.  This ethic is familiar to us from the Iliad and other epics, and from any war movie.  It is also the ethic of Mediterranean folk society, according to some authors (e.g. Peristiany 1966); reality is actually more complex, but the honor-and-shame ethic is certainly foundational.  It surfaces today in militant Islam.  It is also the basic morality of fundamentalist Christianity.

Another, essentially opposite, interpersonal interactive code evolves in families:  love, caring, self-sacrifice, helpfulness, sharing, and so on.  This code was memorably generalized to the world by Jesus, Confucius, and other sages who saw the world as family.

With widening circles, however, come needs to foreground more abstract virtues:  justice, fairness, mercy, care for the poor, civic responsibility, abstract “Good,” holiness, purity, and so on, as well as less pleasant virtues of competition, hierarchic power-assertion or obedience to it, conformity, puritanism, oppression of the “undeserving,” and generalized deference.

Any modern moral code will hit all three levels, but most have a natural resting place at one level.  Religion generally operates at the interactive level; the high theology is often familial, as noted, while the folk version is militant.  However, mystical religiosity is individual, while modern movements like the “Social Gospel” are, well, social.   Modern secular ethical philosophy, from Hobbes and Kant to Mill and Rawls, also prefers the social level. 


“One cannot predict from any economic data the content or shape of moral codes.  Marx’ economic determinism is useful only in predicting that there will be some environmental code.  Perhaps not even that; in fact, some traditional groups (such as many Near Eastern societies) have or had virtually no sustainable-use codes.  I describe below four different systems, each about equally effective or ineffective at saving resources.  They had quite different content, were phrased in very different language, and were justified in very different ways.  The most basic content of the codes—the idea that one should save resources for others—has some economic rationale, but is obviously a social matter, too.  All four codes differed widely in how the general goal of conserving resources was phrased, taught, and socially constructed.  Values and social beliefs determine much of the difference.

The above implies six interesting conclusions.

First, morals come from practice.  They come from people’s actual experience of what hurts them and their loved ones.

Second, morals are especially concerned with real life-or-death matters—in these cases, with livelihood.  It is more important to protect the resources on which the community’s life depends than to protect the merely beautiful.  However, in all these codes, the moral teachings run far beyond the necessary, and enjoin protection of the rest too.  In the Northwest Coast, especially, unnecessary killing of any animal, no matter how useless, is heinous.  And Third, morals are phrased in terms of the culture’s cosmological belief system.  They may have the immediate practical function of saving trees, but the ultimate reason why saving trees is good (and cutting them is bad) depends on the cultural teachings about ultimate cause.

Fourth, morals have to be taught.  This is obvious, but the ways of teaching are at issue here.  Obviously, from the first finding, there is no sense thinking we can teach by mere exhortation.  Children have to have at least some real experience with the resources in question.  They have to know something about proper and improper use.  They have to live the experience.  Thus it is properly a source of very great concern, among environmental educators, that most children in today’s world have very little contact with anything except urban or intensively industrial-farmed environments. 

Fifth, morals are effective.  They work.  The commonly held belief that people act according to immediate self-interest, not according to morals, is simply wrong.  (Most of the people that make the cynical claim are quite honest and reliable sorts; one wonders if they ever look at themselves.  Perhaps they think they are the only moral ones!)

Sixth, they are not perfectly effective, and no one expects them to be.  There have to be sanctions to keep the dissenters in their place.  Moral codes vary a lot in their effectiveness, depending on the thoroughness and effectiveness of the teaching.”

(Quoted from SAVING THE WORLD)


Most major problems in the world depend on group rejection, indifference, or hate, especially prejudice against weaker groups.  Environmental destruction, for instance, appears to be simply “greed” or “jobs vs owls,” but inspection always proves it really consists of passing the costs of production on as “externalities” to the weak, the poor, or the unborn (Anderson 1996, 2006; cf. Sen 1992).   If we could control this, we could have Utopia and Ecotopia.

            Privileging one group as the only one that matters has an obvious distorting effect on affording services, planning, and justice.  If only the elites deserve consideration, the costs of production are passed on to the poor as “externalities.”  If only the ranchers, or the local indigenous people, or the loggers deserve consideration, then wider concerns over environmental use lose out completely.  This concept has been much better developed in the literature on health care and food security than in the environmentalist literature, but it is a key point for environmentalists too.

            The solidarity that I shall advocate further on, with all its legal and moral entailments, also depends on prior attachment of intrinsic importance, worth, and dignity to humans and other organisms of concern.  Again, a minimal solidarity is possible without this.  We can feel some lukewarm fellow-feeling for those we pity and despise.  Even that would be far preferable to tuning them out totally. But the kind of solidarity necessary to drive environmental action and policy is not of this weak order.


A moral code need not be perfectly consistent and proof against all criticism.  It need only hold society together.  It is an institution, one of whose functions is to make transaction costs lower (North 1990).  Morals are cheaper than lawsuits; Japan, held together by a widely shared ethical code, has fewer lawyers than the Bay Area of California, where self-interest and diversity prevail, leading to frequent legal conflicts. 

A moral code should allow people to choose rapidly under uncertainty and imperfect information.  It also, above all else, is internalized.  It stops the poacher even when the warden is not around.  It stops the potential water thief at the irrigation head, even when the water boss is not there.  It calls together the community when one member is cheating; a cheater can succeed only when the people he is cheating cannot unite against him.

Ethics and morals free us from the artificial “means-ends” separation that vitiates so much of rational choice theory.  They are thus logically preferable as a way to regulate society.  Ethics are both a means–a way of achieving justice, social survival, or general welfare–and an end in themselves, internalized by individuals as goals to living.  Moreover, they define what is permissible as “means” and as “ends” in all sectors of action.

It is interesting to observe the course of intentional societies.  Some succeed, others fail, depending on the moral codes they succeed in establishing.  In the 1960s, a large number of people lived on communes.  These intentional societies almost always failed quickly.  I asked many people what had happened.  The answers were surprisingly uniform.  Children were undisciplined and drove childless adults to distraction.  Lack of sexual rules led to continual jealousy, and also to wasting an inordinate amount of time on seduction and resulting conflicts.  Finally–and, significantly, last after the two more substantively divisive concerns–Mancur Olson’s free-rider problem surfaced; people would not do their share of the work or respect collective property.  Selfishly individualist models worked, then, for societies without established rules—even though the societies were self-consciously utopian.  The extreme value of “unwritten rules” and general morality to a functioning, traditional society could not be more strongly demonstrated.

Intentional religious communities, such as monasteries, Hutterite and Mennonite colonies, and Buddhist ashrams, usually succeed well enough.  They have clear codes, and members of the communities are intensely involved—emotionally and personally—in those codes.      


            It is notorious that most people do not follow the highest values of their ethical traditions.  Few Christians are as self-sacrificing, or as simple in living, as the Twelve Apostles.  Few Buddhists seem poised to achieve Nirvana on the basis of immediate deeds.  Therefore, many grave cynics have asked whether ethical codes matter at all.  If people are usually motivated by everyday concerns—getting by, making a living—what good are saints and sages?

            The answer is that the few who do approximate the highest ideals start a lot of institutions and organizations.  They disproportionately influence the laws, the courts, the charitable foundations.  They are always causing trouble, from the point of view of princes and powers.  And they follow their cultures’ codes.  It is hardly surprising that the very concept of human rights, as well as the major human rights organizations, emerged from the northwest European cultural area, with its strong traditions of personal freedom and individual rights (traditions that, by the way, go back as far as we can trace history—not just to the Enlightenment).  Devout followers of the major world religions are overrepresented among founders of charitable foundations everywhere.  The specifically healing focus of Christianity is not unrelated to the importance of medical research in Europe and America, but one remembers that Jews and Muslims have been deeply involved in this enterprise from the first. 

            Conversely, devout followers of harming and repressive philosophies have similar effects.  Hitler and Stalin were true believers.  So were the “Christians” who organized the Inquisition, witch-burning, and the Ku Klux Klan.  No ordinary person, devoted to just getting by, could do so much damage.

            The general conclusion is that high ideals do matter, because even if only a few people try hard to follow them, those few have an enormously disproportionate impact on culture and society.  It therefore remains exceedingly important to get these ideals right, especially when we consider the devastating results when certain ideals are put into practice.


Moral codes are notoriously prone to be subverted, often by the powers-that-be, who naturally wish to enshrine themselves as above criticism.  Thus we have the divine right of kings, laws against criticizing the government, discouragement of open enquiry and learning (it discloses too much), and above all the valuation of the letter above the spirit.  At worst, moral codes can be frankly anti-poor, anti-woman, anti-minority, and anti-human.  To an anthropologist, it appears that such codes occur when elites are locked in zero-sum, or negative-sum, games with the rest of the population.  They are less likely in improving economies, or when common struggles make the elite feel that they have common cause with the people.  They are least likely when there is no elite—or when the elite is not sharply separated from the masses.  Social justice is a good idea not only for its own sake but also to keep the elite at least minimally involved in society—or, put another way, to keep civil society from flying apart and creating two very uncivil class-defined societies.

A nice example of elite morality masquerading as “science” is social Darwinism. (It is misnamed; it was developed by Herbert Spencer, not Darwin.)  The claims that humans are innately savage, vicious, selfish, intolerant, and so forth are best seen as the views of certain academic elites playing zero-sum games with each other, and invoking a thoroughly religious set of beliefs:  the old Calvinist claims about the sinfulness and selfishness of human nature.  Whether advanced by sociobiologists like Dawkins (1976) or economists like Olson (1965), these claims are ideology in the Marxist sense, not science. 


Finally, there is a thoughtful place here for a revival of the moral lifestyle of medieval China.  This was a period when scholars were intensely involved in government, but were also meditative and contemplative.  Social rules led to regular alternation of work with periods of retired contemplation of  nature, which involved writing poems or other creative work.  These periods allowed the scholar-poet-bureaucrats to drop the barriers of ordinary social conventions and ambitions—the “red dust,” as their Buddhist phrase had it.  Without the red dust blinding them, they could see clearly what really mattered in the world:  people and nature, honesty and loyalty, fearless criticism of dissolute emperors, refusal of corruption.  Many lost their lives or endured long periods of exile in consequence, but they never stopped working or writing.  People we now know largely as poets, like Yuan Zhen and Su Shi, were not professional poets like those of the west; they were fearless political activists who suffered many setbacks.  The west has surprisingly few great poets who were also great social philosophers and ethicists (one thinks of Goethe, and, in his retired way, Milton, among others).  Even rarer are contemplatives who seek mystical clear sight but then use it to get their minds clear for political action.  There were a few:  Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., possibly Lincoln and others.  But it is hardly a recognized lifestyle, as it once was in China and other Asian countries. 

One reason is that, in the west, political action has generally been either very much easier or very much harder.  The medieval Chinese empire was a quite open society, especially compared to China today.  But it was no democracy.  In freedom of speech and advocacy, it stood midway between a western republic—where people need not periodically flee or suffer exile—and a western dictatorship, where no criticism or independent moral action is tolerated.  Rough equivalents in the west were the Italian Renaissance city-states (where a Medici could patronize arts and take some criticism) and absolutist France (where the Enlightenment grew and grew in spite of royalty).  These did indeed produce fusions of politics, aesthetics, and ethics.  The whole question of the social correlates of ethical systems arises here. 

Leaving that for another book, we may observe that the current situation in the western world seems perfect for a revival of the Chinese ethic.  Democracy is stiffening into rigidity, and in the United States into something perilously close to fascism.  The open society is as dead as the frontier.  But political and moral discourse is not yet dead.  We can still have some effect.  I believe we can now have an effect only if we can follow the medieval Chinese poets into some degree of retreat into nature and into quietism, to get our minds clear and reasonably calm for work and action.  But quietism for its own sake is dead; we have to devote our lives to making the moral program work.

Part III:  Some Traditional Moralities


These stories have two conclusions:

Moral suasion  is effective in proportion to how well it is rooted in immediate practical concerns, but it must also be tied to broad cosmological or scientific principles to succeed.

Environmental morality must be grounded in a wider sense of responsiblity.  We have to realize we are hurting people we care about, to say nothing of other beings we may care about.  We have to want to stop hurting and start helping.  We have to be able to justify uniting and acting to stop abuses.  One problem with many moral communities, including the ones in which I now work (Mexican rural society and American academic life), is that they have become too tolerant.  There is a strong ethic of letting other folks do what they will, even if it is flagrantly destructive.  We wouldn’t do it ourselves—but we don’t feel right about stopping someone else doing it.  That way lies world destruction.


            Moralities in modern thought-systems are variously grounded.  Christian morality was traditionally grounded in love for one’s neighbor.  (It now seems grounded in hate for one’s neighbor, and there is far too much precedent for this.  However, love is still the official line.)  Buddhist morality is based on compassion—a concept similar to love, but not the same.  Jewish morality since the Prophets has explored justice in all its aspects, as well as being aware of love and charity.  Confucianism values proper social relations of respect. 

Outside of the religious arena, feudal morality everywhere was based on loyalty, and on mutual but asymmetrical rights and obligations; the leader owed protection, the followers loyal service.  Civil morality since Locke and the Enlightenment has been based on human rights and on learning and improving.  Puritanical morality is always based on restricting others’ sex lives and pleasures.  Modern political moralities are often grounded in economics:  free market, socialism, and so on—more concessions to the rational self-interest paradigm. 

Aristotle’s virtue ethics held that people should improve themselves by being better citizens and family members as well as by staying healthy and learning useful knowledge.  For some of these reasons, “virtue ethics” and “virtue language” have been advocated by some environmental ethicists (Sandler and Cafaro 2005), notably Louke van Wensveen (2000).  Indeed, virtues cannot be ignored.  Certain personal qualities seem particularly well designed for the new world:  courage, patience, industry (hard focused work), learning.  On the other hand, Rolston (2005) points out that for environmental protection they place too much on individual qualities, not enough on social rules. 

Needless to say, none of these moral systems remains simple, straightforward, or faithful to founding principles.  All grow up in complexity and accommodation.  They have to. 

For one thing, standards based on face-to-face interaction have to change in a globalized society.  Christian morality, otherwise, would work only for the face-to-face communities it was originally designed for.  Most of us really cannot love, in any meaningful sense, people across the world that we never meet and do not really understand.  Amazingly, some do love them.  Perhaps Christianity’s appalling record as a religion of murder and cruelty rests on the very impossibility of loving everyone.  Even the Aztecs, who sacrificed thousands of people—including women and children—to their bloodthirsty gods, were horrified at Spanish brutality and intolerance. 

Confucianism explicitly sees world as family—again, a rather limited and limiting world.  It too has had to generalize.  Confucius recognized this at the beginning, and his followers have expanded its gaze accordingly, over the centuries.  Confucian ethics depend on serving properly in one’s social roles as parent, child, ruler, subject, or friend.  This has given it a major place in ethical behavior toward the environment in China (Anderson 2001).  The downfall of the Confucian order in the 20th century released a holocaust of environmental destruction, especially after the far less eco-friendly philosophy of Maoism became dominant, replacing harmony with “struggle against nature.”


            All the above leads us to view in a charitable light the “Enlightenment project”:  the development of a bundle of goals including peace, reason, enlightened self-interest, progress, valuing of individuals, “propagation of useful knowledge,” and tolerance.  This project is under attack on all sides today.  Conservatives, whether elitist or libertarian, have always opposed it.  Today, many “liberals” follow communitarian or anti-rational positions that are equally opposed.  Still, the old project deserves a further hearing.  One thoughtful observation about the Enlightenment project is that its goals are process goals:  they are not goals that can be perfectly achieved in this world, but every step in the direction of them is an improvement.  The more peace we have, the better (as long as it is actual peace, not just oppression to the point where everyone is terrorized into submission).  Of this, more anon.


However, most current environmental-ethical philosophy can be divided into one of two camps: Utilitarianism and Kantianism.  Without going into technical matters, we can crudely summarize these positions as follows. 

Kantians hold that humans should never be treated as means, but only as ends; that there are absolute standards of ethics and morality; and that these absolutes are binding on all persons at all times (Kant 1956; Korsgaard 1996).  For instance, he defended a strong position on honesty: it is binding, and an individual cannot lie.  Kant also privileged the individual.  Respect for the individual and his rights (sic; Kant was equivocal about women’s status) took precedence over communal goals.  Individuals were always to be treated as ends, never as means.

Kant advocated institutions that would guarantee freedom and fairness beyond the immediate community.  A rather cynical individual in a hard time and place, he worked to ground Christian morality is a more harshly realist view of the world; cold logic and some degree of political realism, not love of all, grounds his Christian values.  Kantian ethics seem best at dealing with justice issues; John Rawls’ justice-as-fairness morality has a Kantian base.  (And thus a Christian one.  Rawls has been accused, not without basis, of sneaking Christianity into a supposedly secular ethic.) 

Kant deduced these absolutes from his version of the Golden Rule:  Act so that the moral principle behind your actions could be taken as a universal law.  This principle, however, is highly problematic. The Golden Rule has not done well lately, largely because people don’t keep it, but partly also because people want different things.  If I am eating Brussels sprouts, do I really wish everyone were now eating Brussels sprouts?  No, Kant meant that we should extract the basic principle, the “maxim.”  But how does one determine the maxim?  Does my act imply I wish everyone would eat dinner?  Or eat healthy food?  It turns out to be impossible to extract a valid maxim that would find universal agreement (beyond, perhaps, moral truisms like the universals above).  The most intractable problem is logical, but a close second is the practical one of sheer human difference.  Roger Williams, in Biochemical Individuality (1956), showed that each human is not only psychologically but also biologically and biochemically unique.  Brussels sprouts might poison someone. 

More seriously, a masochist or a self-denying ascetic following the Golden Rule would not be a good neighbor.  Neither would the far commoner true bigot, willing to make himself suffer horribly just to make his structural opponents suffer even a tiny bit.  The fact that bigotry is a negative-sum game is surely not lost on all bigots—perhaps not on most of them.  The hatemongers who try to ban Hispanic immigration know that much of the United States economy depends on said immigration, and that throwing out the Hispanics would make everyone a great deal worse off, but the hatemongers still want Hispanics out.

In all such cases, we have to “extract the maxim” by Monday-morning quarterbacking.  The maxim must involve being considerate and not hurting people, rather than doing exactly what I would want.  One might as well begin with a help-not-hurt morality—a variant of utilitarianism—and drop the Kantian Golden Rule entirely.  We are then left with Kant’s directive to take people as ends, not means. 

Individual differences mean that one key aspect of morality is to be considerate of people by respecting those differences.  The general rule is to be good, not to serve Brussels sprouts to everyone.  The practice differs according to circumstances; the rule, or maxim, is the same.  Kantians hold, correctly, that even in a world of negotiation and personal difference, a society’s basic moral charges have to be absolute, however much they may be qualified in practice.  The Ten Commandments say:  Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; and so on.  They do not say: Thou shalt not kill except in self-defense (which you have to judge), thou shalt not steal unless you need to.  Even Moses must have known that situations sometimes force those latter qualifications on the faithful, but he was wise not to add them. 

            Any fundamental moral teaching has to be absolute, if only to give us a mark to shoot for.  Any qualification has to be at a higher or less basic level, and has to be taken in full knowledge that you are breaking a basic rule—perhaps in a necessary service, but still you are doing something very, very shaky.  In many societies, even the most necessary exceptions to basic rules necessitated some form of absolution.  Among the Akimel O’odham of Arizona, for instance, killing even in defensive war required a long expiation procedure.

Yet, this absolutism has major costs.  Kantian morality tends to be inflexible.  Critics, from Kant’s own time on, have asked how Kant dealt with social fictions.  Was he really too virtuous, or obstinate, to answer “I’m fine” to the question “How are you?”  Since he was not married, he did not have to answer “You look lovely, dear,” to a wife’s questions on her appearance; this saved his principle.  The rest of us are aware that absolute honesty is impossible in a social world.  Faced with such needs as a wife’s for approval, one is forced to be a utilitarian—to recognize that the greatest good for the greatest number takes precedence over honesty. 

The same problem holds for intellectual property rights.  Anything short of absolute perfection in fairness is anathema for many indigenous rights organizations.  For instance, since perfection is impossible in this world, some forthrightly advocate the cessation of all ethnobiological research (Pat Mooney and Rudolph Ryser, personal communication in response to direct questions by myself and others at the International Society of Ethnobiology meeting in Athens, GA, 2000).  At least by implication, this extends to all ethnographic research.  Ultimately, all questioning of anyone about anything could be considered a sin. 

By this time, we are back with all the classic problems of religion, such as the theoretical need to kill anyone who insists on eating leavened bread at the wrong time, or shaving.  (The Taliban movement actually kills barbers guilty of shaving men, which is banned by extreme Islamic rules.) 

Thanks to this rigidity, also, many Kantian goals must be achieved 100% to count as being achieved at all.  By contrast, utilitarian goals are usually set such that any progress toward them is improvement.  Because of the need to check bad impulses and valuations, moralities around the world come to stress deliberation, openness, and owning up to responsibility.

Utilitarians hold that the ultimate guiding principle for action should be “the greatest good for the greatest number over the greatest time” (Mill and Bentham 1987; see also Brandt 1979).   

Mill, who appears to have been a more hopeful individual than Kant, grounded ethics in rational self-interest, making popular the concept of “utility” as a self-interested goal.  Mill’s ethics owe a lot to Christianity too, and a great deal to the Celtic and Germanic tribal ideals of freedom and equality that kept cropping up irrepressibly throughout North European history.  The cold utilitarian calculus, however, is not well suited to the human animal, which is wired to be warm, generous and kind to immediate family and friends, not so much so to the distant.  We get internal reinforcement as well as the external sort for being nice (Moll and de Oliveira-Souza 2008).  Cold calculation to sacrifice one for the good of many is necessary in war, and is done, but no one enjoys it, and doing it outside of a conflict situation is truly difficult.  In Hong Kong in the bad old days, I knew families that, with agony and suffering, had sacrificed a child (giving it up or even letting it die) in time of famine so that the others would have enough food to survive.  The parents, especially the mothers, never got over it, and were depressed decades later.

It does seem that Kantian ethics fit troubled, harsh times, and utilitarian ones go with expansive, hopeful periods when children don’t have to be sacrificed.  This would account for the shift from Millian utilitarianism to a Kantian concern with individual harms in the contemporary United States.  This shift has led to better rights protection.  Unfortunately, by ruling out even the least harm no matter how huge the benefits, it has also led to the end of playground and outdoor games in schools.  (Some kid might get hurt—no matter that literally tens of millions receive major benefits.)  It has shut down utilitarian searches for traditional remedies among indigenous peoples.  It is, in fact, shutting down all public goods that might conceivably harm a rare individual somewhere.  Individual rights to protection continue to gain rapidly against even the smallest sacrifices for the public good.  This is partly a rise of sheer selfishness, but mostly a real shift in morals.  It tracks the decline of perceived control in society.  As people lose control of their lives to giant corporations and government agencies, they desperately assert what control they have, by “suing the bastards.”

Modern philosophers, such as John Rawls (1971), who set up impartial justice as the touchstone of morality, are in the Kantian tradition in that they have a single guiding principle, taken as absolute, from which they deduce the rest of the system.  To that extent, their rules are “deontological” (God-given, or similarly absolute), rather than “assertoric” (merely asserted, therefore negotiable).  Utilitarians tend to be assertoric, but the rule of helping-not-hurting is, de facto, deontological for utilitarians.  Rawls, Korsgaard (1996), and other modern Kantians or quasi-Kantians also maintain a focus on individual rights.

However, John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (1971), derived a Kantian goal—fairness—that is absolute and should be met 100%, but that can also be approximated with much good result.  The closer we get to perfect fairness, the better off we all are; it is a process goal.  Rawls postulates a rational individual behind a veil of ignorance.  This individual is assigned to construct a world in which he (sic) would be happy.  (Rawls has been criticized for a traditional-male view of morals; he partially corrects this in later works; see Rawls 2001.)  He would have to build self-respect into it, as well as fairness and equal opportunity for all, because he would not know where he would wind up.  There is much to be said for this view as one basis for morality.  It foregrounds social justice and defines it the way most of us instinctively define it: as basic fairness, in the sense of equality of opportunity and equality before the law and before the social body.

However, Rawls argued from a highly individualist, almost Hobbesian position: Morality as devised by a detached observer “behind a veil of ignorance,” figuring out what rules society should have such that he or she would be least badly off no matter where he or she wound up.  This neatly allowed Rawls to construct a morality on the basis of individual rational choice.  We don’t need to be “good” or self-sacrificing, we need only be rational about what we want of the social order–assuming we could be anywhere in it.  Rawls’ humans are isolated.  They are also emotionless; they are without jealousy or envy, for example.  His ideals are unworkable for actual humans, with their irrational hates and self-sacrifices.  Since morality is about regulating social interaction in a warmly emotional, compulsively social species, a morality developed for coldly rational beings cannot be quite adequate.  Surely, a rational being behind the veil of ignorance would choose to have nothing to do with people at all, and would be like the anonymous Buddhist sage who wanted “to live alone like the rhinoceros.” 

Rawl’s “justice” is—by his own admission—not very relevant to the environment:  “Justice as fairness…would seem to include only our relations with other persons and to leave out of account how we are to conduct ourselves toward animals and the rest of nature” (Rawls 1971:17).  Since Rawls wrote this, justice-as-fairness has been generalized to apply to at least some environmental concerns (Rawls 2001), but few would deny that it needs some serious supplementation. One is left wondering how far fairness extends to trees and animals.  He also, explicitly, leaves considerations of the arts out; his minimalist government, supplying civil liberties and protection of opportunity but little else, would not endow museums. 

Justice (in anything like a Rawlsian sense) would prevent the rich from dumping toxic wastes on the poor.  It would prevent upstream users from dumping wastes on downstream users, thus impoverishing the downstream users to the point where the latter could not protest.

But it would not solve all the problems.  Putting myself behind a veil of ignorance (and God knows that is where I really am in this matter) does not help me decide the question of fur trappers vs. fur-bearing animals.  If I expand the veil of ignorance to make me ignorant of what species I am (Attfield 1991), I will probably decide for the animals, since there are more of them and they die immediately and horribly.  But then the trappers starve.  If I decide for the trappers, the fur-bearers die.  A general conclusion follows:  From an environmental point of view, justice is a necessary precondition to dealing with the real questions, not the final answer /2/.

Rawls might not like to be called an “intuitionist.”  But his view of the insights of the isolated, “rational” individual come very close to an intuitionist position.  He seems to argue his concept of fairness is clear enough to be culture-free—not a safe assumption. 

Rawls’ view of rational individuals is hopelessly inadequate for the real world. Not surprisingly, Rawls gives no plan for getting from here to fairness.  He admits that invidious and malicious feelings would get in the way.  So would bigotry and religious extremism.  Even compassion would get in the way; the irrationally kind and good would expend too much consideration on the near and dear and on the handicapped, creating “unfair” systems. 

Extreme fairness is unworkable in any case.  The Chinese under Mao Zidong found this out.  Life isn’t fair; chance guarantees inequity.  Moreover, sadly, the conservatives are right in saying that there is really no way to be totally fair except by holding everyone down to the lowest standard.  The only way for society is survive, let alone advance, is by having the best come forward and providing special services for the other end of the spectrum.  Consider the problems that have occurred with treating the mentally ill “just like everyone else”—releasing them to die on the streets.  Consider the related problem that has occurred with “mainstreaming” in the schools.  Out of fairness to brain-damaged children, they are put in regular classes.  Since, inevitably, a class cannot progress much faster than its slowest students, this is devastating to the whole educational enterprise.  The brain-damaged child may be the most hurt of all; he or she is incapable of benefiting from the education, but is all too vulnerable to schoolyard bullies and name-callers.  Perhaps children are better behaved than they were in my day, but in that era the “dumb” kids were sitting targets.  One eventually snapped and went on a rampage, killing several people, including a family just up the street from where I had lived.  I knew him well enough to know exactly what he felt and why he acted.  Mainstreaming fits abstract rational Kantianism; it does not fit this world of cruelly irrational bullies.  Some people really do need special treatment.

Fairness is not the same as equality before the law, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment in emergencies, or tolerance.  All those are clearly necessary to a functioning society in today’s world, but they are not fairness. 

Rawls’ justice, following Kant’s, is based on the classic Golden Rule.  It thus has all the problems registered above for that much-abused rule.

Moreover, it is theoretically possible, under Rawlsian morality, to sacrifice the lives of millions of people to preserve even the tiniest bit of fairness.  Rawls himself would no doubt find a way around this in any real-world case.  Mooney, Ryser, and others, however, are more rigid.  They see any appropriation of indigenous knowledge by the First World as unfair, and are quite willing to live with the loss of knowledge of cures for AIDS and cancer.  (This also was stated explicitly by them in response to direct questioning.)

Somewhat more loosely Kantian is Tom Scanlon’s idea of right and wrong as “what we owe to each other” (Scanlon 1998).  This is based on a contractarian theory, ultimately related to Hobbes’ idea of the social contract.  Scanlon sees individuals as having reasons to act, and as basing their morals on such reasons.  Scanlon is too sharp to assume people are “rational” in the usual limited sense, but his is still a highly rationalistic ethic (note his rejection of psychologizing, p. 154).  As such, it—like Rawls’—has little place for the environment, because plants and animals are not rational and cannot make social contracts with people.  Since they are not reasoning beings, they cannot do right and wrong and thus—to Scanlon—cannot be righted or wronged (Scanlon 1998:178-221).  They are outside the truly moral universe, the universe of right and wrong.  Cutting down a great tree may be destructive to some person’s interests, and torturing an animal may cause unnecessary pain (Scanlon 1998:221), but these acts are not wrong in any deep or basic sense.  Even Kant, though more aware of the moral value of noncompetent humans, argued that torturing animals was bad because it made the torturers worse people (a point I would certainly second), rather than because it is wrong in itself.

I find this morality unacceptable.  It is not just shortsighted; it is deeply immoral, in the same way that other narrowly rationalist and contractarian moralities are.  Plants and animals are alive, animals suffer (as Jeremy Bentham memorably said), and as other lives they help us constitute our very selves.  They may not talk, but they are part of our interaction universe; they are among the infinitely important Others that Levinas discusses.  As such, we may not owe them as much as we owe other humans, but we owe them genuine moral consideration.  I am not arguing that a plant or animal deserves the same consideration as a human, only that it deserves genuine moral consideration, such that wanton killing of such is a genuinely wrong act.  Almost all environmentalist ethicists—especially Kantian ones—argue that denying rights to “nonrational” beings denies them to young children and mentally ill humans as well as animals, and that extending rights to infants makes it almost necessary to extend them to animals too.  Scanlon’s extreme rationalism, like Rawls’, seems hopeless for a modern ethic, even if we do not take animals into account.

Thus, deontological morality can produce a rigidity merciless to other lives.  These may even be human lives.  Extreme protection of individual humans’ Kantian rights may lead to major damage to millions of other humans. German Kantians of the 19th and early 20th centuries were famous for backing powerful autocratic governments. 

Repugnant to Scanlon (1998:171-172), though not to Limbaugh, is the deontological system that represses sexuality in fundamentalisms worldwide.  Millions, probably hundreds of millions, of women have died horribly from honor killings, genital mutilation, beating, starving, and sheer brutalization, because of absolute moral standards that privileged abstract ideals over human lives.  Of course this is extreme, but history reveals that there is no deontological moral system that cannot be used by “fundamentalists” to excuse rape, torture, and murder of women and other “weaker” elements.  Every such system, except purely theoretical ones, has been so used.

Two basic Kantian points may, however, be salvaged, and made basic for an environmental ethic: we’re all in this together and my rights stop where yours start.  These may be “folk Kantianism,” but they follow directly from Kant’s respect for other persons and for the Golden Rule.  In Kantian logic, others are always ends, never means (though Kant did recognize such partial exceptions as the fact that soldiers have to die in defensive wars).  These guiding principles also “pay off” in utilitarian calculus, but they are Kantian formulations.

Utilitarianism means “the greatest good for the greatest number,” a remark found in Jeremy Bentham’s writings, apparently after he died (Sidgwick 1902:244).  Bentham did not add “…over the greatest time,” as later writers did, but Bentham apparently meant this too.  Bentham also ruled “everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one” (Sidgwick 1907:417).  Note that this sneaks Rawlsian fairness into the ethic /3/!  Like the privileging of helping over hurting, this is a concession to deontology.  It would seem that pure utilitarianism, like pure Kantianism, doesn’t work well for anyone. 

As good a place as any to start is Henry Sidgwick’s classic, The Methods of Ethics (1907).  He argues for utilitarianism:  the greatest good for the greatest number over the greatest time.  He equated good with happiness, on the theory that no one has any better way to judge it.  

Utilitarianism was something of a world-rulers’ ethic, a true child of the British Empire; it was something you could impose over all those local cultural systems. 

Sidgwick eliminated Darwinian evolution as a source of ethics.  The “struggle for existence” (the right of the strong to do anything they want to the weak) and “preservation of the species” simply do not give adequate philosophical grounds for ethics.  (Sidgwick 1907; he was unfair to Darwin; as we have seen,  Spencer was the guilty one here, while Darwinian theory allows dogs, chimpanzees, and people—among other animals—to have some biological underpinning for morality).     

Sidgwick tried to establish utilitarianism at the expense of intuitionism; he showed that our ethical intuitions are inconsistent, incoherent, and unclear.  He knew enough about other cultures to realize that they had very different standards.  He didn’t know quite how bad it could get: the Aztec’s intuition told them it was necessary to sacrifice children and captives to the gods.  In the early 1940s, the best intuitions of several million Germans, Rumanians, Poles, Italians and others, revealed that truly ethical behavior consisted of exterminating Jews, Gypsies, mentally ill persons, and the congenitally handicapped or physically challenged, to say nothing of political dissidents and religious leaders.  Germany’s leading philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, gave their active support to this cause (Sluga 1993). 

However, by focusing on “happiness,” Sidgwick merely took us another step down a path of infinite regression.  Our intuitions (!) of what make us happy are then the guide. Sadists, rapists, and vandals have debatable ideas of happiness and the Good.  Sidgwick partially countered such claims by strongly advocating individual rights and a sort of society-wide cost/benefit accounting of happiness, but the problem remains with us.

The “one for one” rule eliminates the charge that utilitarianism would hold a nation successful if the dictator is supremely happy and everyone else miserable.  This is a common Kantian charge against utilitarianism.  In fact, it is literally true of one type of utilitarianism: that of the World Bank and IMF.  They have planned, and now revel in, the successes of countries like Cameroun and Gabon, though they know that essentially all the developmental wealth goes to one person and his closest cronies.  Their claims that “China” is “developing rapidly” are similarly appalling, and would most certainly have appalled Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick.  This is, however, a perversion of utilitarianism.  It certainly is not the greatest good over the greatest time.

The key argument for utilitarianism is that it is the only ethic that tests all actions against actual human welfare.  All other systems end by privileging abstract ideals and sacrificing humans to them.

At this point, we seem to be driven back to a utilitarian calculus.  It has been scorned and flayed by recent ethical philosophers.  Environmental ethicists have been among the scorners (see e.g. the essays in Elliot 1995, especially Routley and Routley 1995, Sagoff 1995).  The attacks are not without reason.  A narrowly construed utilitarian calculus would reduce nature to more groceries.  However, utilitarianism has not usually been that narrow (cf. Sidgwick 1907 on animals), and at least utilitarianism offers something of a beginning.  Richard Brandt (1979) and R. Hardin (1988) have done much to rehabilitate utilitarianism as a general and environmental philosophy. 

Overall, utilitarian ethics, and to some degree most other ethics, are based on the idea that one should help others and not hurt them.  Here they begin to converge on Kant’s Categorical Imperative (a.k.a.the Golden Rule), and its weaker sibling the Silver or Confucian Rule:  Do not do to others that which you would not like done to you.  The farther these rules deviate from a full-scale help-not-hurt morality, the less they help the environment, as a minute’s thought will show.    

A variant of utilitarianism, now investigated for its environmental usefulness, is prioritarianism (Broome 2008).  It assigns varying degrees of priority to the poor or otherwise unfortunate—specifically, to the people disadvantaged by whatever system is being investigated.  In environmental matters, it would presumably prioritize those most directly suffering because of pollution or biodiversity loss or whatever other crisis is being addressed.  Broome considers this in connection with discount rates, an economic concept with major moral implications.  How much are we to prioritize, or discount, the future?  He argues for considering a child a century from now as much as one would consider a child today.  This runs into the problem of knowing what children will really face a century from now.  Maybe the human race will be extinct by then.  In practice, I fear, one has to prioritize the present to some degree.

The real problem with utilitarianism, especially vis-à-vis Kant, is that utilitarianism assumes that people can rationally calculate their own and others’ best interest.  Utilitarianism depends on a Lockean psychology that holds people are good information processors and learners.  They can maximize their utility or happiness, or, following Mill, they can at least do better at it than anyone else can. 

            In fact, however, people are generally unaware of their most pernicious biases, and are not reliable judges of how to reach their own best futures.  Particularly shaking to moral groundings are two truths.  First, people often “enjoy” things they actually hate, if they get social approbation from pretending to enjoy.  Second, people often sacrifice their own welfare, and even harm themselves terribly, if they can hurt opponents in the process.  Suicide bombers are the most conspicuous case, but it goes on down to the lowly level of drivers who incur tickets for acting out “road rage.”

This is what Kant argued long ago.  He believed more in rationality than we do today, but he was acutely aware of human information processing problems and social pressures, and took account of them.  This is one bit of factual undergirding of his deontological ethics (see Kant 1978).

            Even if we allow rational calculation to mature, educated adults, what of young children?  In practice, they have to be raised in a deontological world, and not a Kantian one of sweet reason, but an “irrational” one of “because I say so.”  Even parents who idealize learning through experience, natural curiosity, and situational morals draw the line when the child hits other children or steals the grocery money.  Good utilitarian parents try hard to explain why these are bad things to do, but ultimately they have to teach the child absolute rules, just as Kantians do.  Moreover, the peer group insures that children learn many cultural rules as absolutes.  These carry over into adult life, reason or no.  Thus we all wind up being Kantians. 

            More important, there are some things that are so devastating to society as a whole that they have to be forbidden, even though they might make sense for a lot of people for quite a long time.  Slavery, armed robbery, aggressive war, genocide, repression of freedom of conscience (on which Kant wrote a great deal), and other abridgments of others’ rights have all seemed like excellent ideas in many societies over many centuries.  In the end, they cost too much.  Thus, they are condemned in the last analysis for utilitarian reasons.  However, in real-world societies, this final cost never appears till too late; the societies in question have institutionalized the evils, and kill anyone who challenges them.  But the evils are also unacceptable because they trample on humans.  They use humans as means (at best) rather than ends.  Thus they have to be absolutely banned for Kantian reasons, long before their utilitarian evils could show up.  Real-world societies that have eliminated slavery, repression, and so on have done so for both Kantian and utilitarian reasons.

            So, grounding morals in practical reason is not wholly adequate for society as a whole.  This is perhaps truest of all in environmental matters, where the temptation to cheat is great and the costs of cheating are often unclear or long-deferred.  We need to look at ultimately practical reasons, but have many absolute prohibitions as well.

            Modern utilitarians usually argue, therefore, that what is needed is not individual rationality, which easily declines into greed, but open and free dialogue and negotiation, to allow all positions due consideration.  In fact, this was the basic reason why both Kant and the utilitarians were among the early champions of freedom—especially freedom of speech, press, and conscience. 

This means that environmentalists have to be both Kantian and utilitarian.  An absolute morality of responsibility and safeguarding has to underlie a working morality that calculates actual benefits and harms.  And neither deontology nor utilitarianism solves the basic problems; negotiation has to.

Even if one can figure out the Kantian imperative without considerations of  benefit (which I believe to be impossible), one could never ground, prioritize, or manage a Kantian ethic without considering the results.  A particular Kantian or Rawlsian rule has to be justified by some sort of recourse to results.  It seems genuinely impossible to justify maintaining clean air and water any other way.  Even preserving species has to have an instrumental and result-oriented component.  We do have to sacrifice lives, and total nonviolence toward all species is possible only for Jain monks.  This being said, we have to worry about which lives are sacrificed, and that gets us back to the utilitarian calculus.  When we come to the problems of treating children’s malaria or intestinal worms, we have some particularly interesting calculations: how many worms can we morally sacrifice to save one human child?  A utilitarian speciesist has no trouble with that question.  I cannot imagine what an animal rights activist would do with it.

The ideal example of a principle that satisfies both is the precautionary principle (Cooney and Dickson 2005 provide ecological applications; see also Anderson 2006).  Kantian in origin, it requires utilitarian assessment.  The only problem with it is that both sides of a controversy can use it.  Global warming debates in the early 2000s pitted those who feared the dreadful effects of global warming, in the far future, against those who feared the dreadful effects in the immediate future, or even in the present, of economic chaos caused by sharply cutting fossil fuel use.  Both sides pleaded the precautionary principle—one in regard to future humanity, the other in regard to immediate economic life.

Even so, such principles enable us to get beyond the whole opposition.  If people negotiate and accommodate, and if they do this from a basis in helping the world rather than hurting it, they are in fact getting beyond the opposition, into a shared ground.  The top-level ethics—fairness, helping, not unnecessarily hurting—are given.  The bottom-level rules of managing society—driving at 25, not stealing, not killing your neighbor’s prize begonia—are negotiated, but once they are set, they must be enforced as flat, unequivocal rules.  Only a layer of high-mid-level morality—between a general agreement to keep society functioning and help people, and the day-to-day tactics and strategies of this—is really up for grabs.  This was approximately the situation in the United States, before its negotiating arenas were distorted by fundamentalist religion and giant corporations.  The American formulation of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and the folk saying “your rights stop where my rights start,” are environment-friendly.  Freedom, not welfare or obedience, was maximized.  It is no wonder that the United States was the birthplace of conservation (in the works of Thoreau and of George Perkins Marsh).   


Some other moralities seem far less useful than those noted above.  Marxism has been an almost totally worthless source of environmental ethics (in spite of partial rehabilitation, recently, by John Bellamy Foster [2000] and a few others).  Marx and Engels were concerned with human-“resource” interactions, and had at least some dim view of ecological problems, but they did not worry about the environment; to the contrary, they gloried in “man’s” appropriation of the gifts of “nature,” and saw little but good in the transformation of the latter.  Their legacy is all too clear today in the ravaged landscapes of east Europe and north China.  On the other hand, Marx accomplished the extremely valuable goal of fusing rational empiricism—in the form of political economy—with Kantian idealism, and thus giving us a useful model for fusing utilitarianism (which derives from rational empiricism) with Kantian ethics.

The “Deep Ecology” of Arne Naess (Zimmerman 1993) is perhaps the closest thing we have to a general environmental ethic, but it is flawed: based on Leopold’s Land Ethic, it makes the same error of alleging a separate and harmonious Nature.  It also has, as its human goal, a fuzzy “self-realization.”   It basically ignores the more serious human concerns of food, clothing and shelter (see debates in Zimmerman 1993).  Naess’ thinking is heavily influenced by Nazi ideas (Bookchin 1982); among other things, Deep Ecology privileges power, affluence(one has to be among the global rich to live the lifestyle), and the strong young male.  On both factual and moral grounds, Deep Ecology must be totally rejected.

The communalist view is equally unpromising.  As expounded by writers such as Aladair MacIntyre, it reminds me irresistably of the worst aspects of my midwestern childhood.  I am afraid that when I read MacIntyre, all I hear is my older and bigger schoolmates yelling the old familiar theme:  “He’s different—let’s beat him up.”  The communitarian ethics so common in America a couple of generations ago produced nothing except abject conformity coupled with vicious brutality against everyone the least bit different in dress, accent, religion, skin color, gender behavior, or anything else identifiable.  Communitarian ethics in the past gave us the Inquisition.   One could go on and on indefinitely, but this should be enough.  MacIntyre and other communitarians not only give us no way out of this sort of brutally enforced  conformity, they seem to welcome it actively.  This is the ethical universe that—even in supposedly “liberal” academic circles–has embraced female genital mutilation, East Asian dictatorships, and other frontal attacks on individual humans and on the human spirit.  It is also the viewpoint of the small towns and extractive communities that react violently and hysterically against any and all advocacy of sustainable extraction, safe practices, or conservation of any sort.  Common, for instance, is the hard-deontological position summarized on a bumper sticker:  “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  This position traditionally goes with an obsessive attention to minor details (avoiding pork, not wearing mixed fabrics, not letting homosexuals marry) instead of concern for matters of general welfare.  It inevitably grades into a third system:  Might makes right.  Probably most social systems today are based to some degree, and some are based 100%, on the idea that the will of the ruler is the whole of the story.  Hitler and Stalin perfected this system, and now they have countless imitators.  This system is as bad for the environment as it is for humans.

Communitarian ethics tend to be based on rigid, extreme religious doctrines.  “Satan can quote the Bible to his own purpose,” the proverb says.  The Bible includes a great deal of sound ecological advice, starting with God’s injunction to Adam to care for the Garden of Eden, but there are those who read the Bible as a profoundly anti-environmentalist document.  Apparently this reading is justified solely by the annoying fact that the first word the Bible says about the matter is that “man” has “dominion” over the rest of creation.  The rest of the Bible, from Genesis 2 on, follows a very different “stewardship” line.  However, both militant Christians and militantly anti-Christian environmentalists never seem to get beyond “dominion.”  Other religious traditions have the same ambiguities (Callicott 1994).  We will have to wait for further divine revelations if we want to ground environmentalism in a divine-will ethic.

Far worse is the new communitarian position that holds that nations, elites, and ethnic groups cannot be critiqued for their behavior if it can be claimed as “traditional” or “cultural” in the area.  Still worse is the communitarian position that says that all human rights rhetoric is western colonialism and therefore an illegitimate attempt to impose western values in the name of “human” values (for examples see Mutua 2002; Shell-Duncan 2008; for critique of this misuse of anthropological tolerance, Brown 2008).  From the Enlightenment onward, human rights were developed with full awareness of Chinese, Islamic, Native American, and other values.  (The idea of government of laws rather than men, for example, owes something to Greece, but more to China, where the concept was really developed; it was brought to Europe in the idealized, romantic accounts of the Jesuit missionaries, and enthusiastically adopted by European liberals.) 

Modern critics of “western” human rights include, ironically, the Communist rulers of China, who defend their purely western form of government against critiques based on Confucian and Taoist ideas.  Similarly, extremist and dictatorial Muslim regimes defend their regimes, which are pure Hitlerian fascism, against local critics who may draw much more on Hanafi or Shafi’i Islam than on western traditions.  On top of that, these elites criticize the west for its heavy-handed ways, but brook no criticism of their own ways.  They discredit western criticism as colonialist while practicing pure western-style colonialist repression in Tibet, Irian Jaya, Darfur, and many similar areas.  Certain westerners are so disenchanted with the west’s sorry history of colonialism and repression that they are willing to turn a blind eye to the same behavior among nonwestern elites.

Using the “tradition” argument to defend, for example, female genital mutilation, or suttee, or dowry killings is based on the long-discredited notion that a given culture is homogeneous and harmonious.  In fact, this essentializes culture.  “Culture” does not exist in the real world; it is an anthropologists’ abstraction.  Real traditions do exist, but they are constantly being negotiated, debated, argued over, qualified, and changed.  Indeed, suttee is an ancient custom in India, but it was very rare until recently, and certainly never popular with most Indians.  And, however widespread and traditional it may be (Kiernan 2007), genocide is hardly popular with its victims.

The inescapable conclusion of all this is that communitarianism is, if not downright evil per se, at best such a perfect excuse for evil that it deserves little consideration in developing an environmental morality for the future.  We may draw on past traditions of particular small cultural groups, but with full knowledge that these were worked out by individuals in dialogue, not by dictators forcing their will on helpless victims and then claiming this is “traditional” and beyond critique.


            One related issue that has concerned grave minds (e.g. Nussbaum et al. 2002) is what moral obligations one owes to the world as opposed to family, country, and group. 

This is a special case of the contrast of short-term, narrow interests and long-term, wide ones which I have been foregrounding.

All ecologists and environmentalists recognize that humanity has been far too local in its allegiances, and that worldwide thinking is now necessary.  That said, concerned people range from those who consider themselves true world citizens without local loyalties (as Nussbaum does in the cited work) to those for whom “think globally, act locally” is the ultimate watchword, and concern themselves with their immediate neighborhood, hoping that the world will be saved because other activists in other neighborhoods will act locally too. 

In practice, both extremes are somewhat impractical.  Biology guarantees that nobody can really think globally.  Preference for one’s immediate group—especially, one’s kin—is simply hardwired in all organisms, humans included.  Humans are the most sociable and flexible of all animals in this regard, but we still can’t help thinking differently about our families and face-to-face groups, caring more about them than we do about the “starving masses in (wherever).” 

Moreover, this trait evolved for a reason.  Not only do we have more genetic investment in our families; we can actually do almost everything for them (especially for our young children).  If we tried to do exactly the same good works for all 6.5 billion people on earth, we would do very little per person, especially since we would have to limit our activities to what we could do for people living halfway around the world in unimaginably different situations.  Far better to take care of our own and hope that those people can take care of theirs.

Thus, common sense backs up biology.  We owe most to family and friends.  In this modern world of email, friends need not be face-to-face, but they are people we interact with often enough and intensely enough that we make a real difference in their lives. 

Contrary to the “think globally, act locally” rhetoric, we are rarely in a good position to invest our best efforts on the very local scene.  Suburban housewives and regional politicians are an exception.  As a scholar and writer, moving frequently between large, amorphous, community-weak urban areas, I have been completely unable to make a difference at the community level.  I shop at farmers’ markets and don’t litter the roads, but is that saving the world?  Most people are in the same boat.  They could invest an incredible amount of effort in the local scene and accomplish almost nothing. 

We also owe something, also, to country or other polity, if it has done its job.  Theoretically, it should be protecting, providing justice, defending freedom, educating, providing at least some medical care, conserving resources, building roads, delivering mail, and so on.  If it does this for us, we have an obligation to care and appreciate, and to give back—to vote, speak, write letters, fight in truly defensive wars, and generally try to fix problems and cooperate in service.  If it does not do this, it has broken the social contract, and we owe it a good rousing revolution, as political thinkers from Mencius to Locke have maintained.

A major problem with Nussbaum and with similar political rhetoric is imperfect separation of patriotism and chauvinism.  Patriotism is good citizenship based on active caring and gratitude.  Chauvinism is just hate of other people and places.  Hate comes from insecurity, as we have seen—not from commitment or caring.  Confusing patriotism and chauvinism is like confusing love of family with hating everybody else’s kids.

Beyond that, however, we have to think globally and act globally (as well as locally).  Buying at farmers’ markets and picking up litter isn’t enough.  We have to recognize that our basic kinship is with all humans and, beyond that, all living things, and thus fight for human rights and preservation of the nonhuman realm.  We depend on them.  We all are in the same boat—on the same liferaft, Spaceship Earth.

This implies concentric circles of concern, but the emotions are different.  To family and friends, we owe warm personal love.  To immediate “local” region, we owe whatever we can do to keep it habitable and functioning; this implies real, but not necessarily deep, concern.   To nation and polity, we owe full loyalty and care—as long as it keeps its side of the contract.  But our real problems now are global, and our real concerns are global.  We simply have to care about the Amazon and the Mongolian steppes and the Australian outback.  We have to try to stop genocide in Sudan, war in Lebanon, and brutal tyranny in China.  All these places—their ecologies and their political economies—are now intimately tied with our lives and fortunes.  Our major moral and personal commitments have to shift accordingly.  It would be wonderful to do everything for everyone at all levels; in practice, family and friends still deserve priority (and biology insures they’ll get it), but after that the world comes first.

            This is true morally even without the current unity imposed by economics and ecology on the planet.  With that unity, we really have no hope of regional or narrow moralities now.  Nation-states may or may not be obsolete, but certainly the idea that they can be wholly autonomous—invading each other at will—is obsolete.


We may recall the moral universals and the issue of minimal morality.  Today, even the most minimalist moral code has to have environmental protection as a major, basic component.  It also needs a firm commitment to expanding knowledge and developing new technology, since we are in deep trouble already.

I think that even the most minimal of environmental ethical codes must be “Kantian” rather than “communitarian” in the sense of Georgia Warnke (1993): that is, it must be based on a general categorical imperative—saving at least some of the environment—rather than on the practice of a given group of people, real or imagined.  This can be squared with the observation that morality is negotiated, but only if the negotiation is on a worldwide (or at least trans-cultural) level, and if it is directed at developing a general standard that people of good will but of different backgrounds can all accept.

On the other hand, extreme Kantian codes privilege individuals to the point at which the collectivity is sacrificed.  This will not work.  An environmental ethic must be utilitarian and consequentialist.  I do not see these as excluding Kantian considerations.  Recall that real-world ethics are dynamic, negotiated, and always evolving.  Societies have to work out what rules must be absolute (no murder, no slavery…), what must be negotiated and renegotiated for pragmatic reasons (game limits, forest regulations…), and what should be abolished (blue laws, restrictions on liberty of conscience).  Of course this makes me also both “consequentialist” and “contractarian.”  Some modern philosophical writings make a major distinction between these, but surely the reason one draws up a contract is to create certain consequences.

I would, however, strongly tilt toward the consequentialist side.  Contracts are drawn up by elite, adult, fully capable individuals—the people who say they are “rational.”  Therefore, they tend to be most protective of such people and their interests.  Yet what we want in a moral code is “first, do no harm,” especially to the weak.  The real individuals of concern in a moral code are precisely the nonelite, nonadult, and noncapable:  children, mentally ill, plants and animals. 

Also, I would change utilitarianism in one key way that would neutralize most of the criticisms of it:  I would go out to minimize harm, not to maximize happiness.  For one thing, happiness is personal; it isn’t the government’s or the society’s business.  The Constitution correctly guarantees “the pursuit of happiness” rather than the happiness itself.

More seriously though, a utilitarianism of minimizing harm would make the resulting moral code stand clearly, directly, and uncompromisingly against the major human problem:  the urge to do harm to fancied opponents.  In doing so, it would, among other things, provide full justification for preserving liberty and rights.  Taking these away might increase “happiness” by some measures.  However, it would certainly do direct harm by going against the human need for control over one’s life.  It would also harm society, since common experience and common sense tell us that any restriction on liberty of conscience and of political action almost immediately slides over into tyranny.  Focusing on harms and potential harms, rather than on “happiness” or “utility,” brings this into sharp perspective. 

There is much more to say, for instance about defining “liberty” such that we can still restrict libel, shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, and so forth.  Clearly, the need is not for “liberty” per se, or “safety” per se, but for balancing social bads against each other to minimize overall disutility.  Full consideration of this would take us too far from the environment (see Rawls 1971, 2001;  Scanlon 2003). 

How the anthropologist, concerned with actual functioning societies, envies the philosopher, who can afford to think about absolutes and disregard compromise, accommodation, negotiation, and social diversity!  Kant’s total honesty, Rawls’ fairness, the fundamentalists’ total repression of female sexuality, and MacIntyre’s communitarianism may all seem lovely on paper, but think of how they play out in the real world.  Even the utilitarians’ maximization of happiness leads one to think how perlously close we have achieved to that with TV, Hollywood movies, and throw-away magazines devoted to celebrities.  Having the corporations, or the government, decide what makes us happy, and then feed it to us, is not the best way to run a state or an ecosystem, even if they are correct about the pleasures of the majority.

The sad truth is that people, left to themselves, not only want above all to hurt those that they perceive as potential threats, but tend to think of this as the highest moral good.  Any moral code that takes the environment into account, and indeed any moral code that is functional in today’s diverse and globalized social world, simply cannot afford this.  We have to go beyond the morality of hate that has dominated so much of moral life in the last many thousand years.  The only way to do this is by focusing overwhelmingly on social bads—violence, cruelty, intolerance, oppressio, and the rest.  A utilitarianism of problem-solving is the foremost need.

Humans are also prone to moralize, intensely, their ordinary customs—to think that those who use the wrong fork or wear the wrong colors are beyond the pale and deserve no consideration.  Conversely, the highest good—the most moral action—is to conform to social fads or codes, however arbitrary.  This is, basically, the communitarian position.  I confess that it is a reductio ad absurdum of that position, but I would challenge any communitarian to think of a real world in which communitarianism did not rapidly degenerate to this level.  This too can no longer be afforded.  The world environmental crisis does not respect national or cultural borders, and we have to cooperate with those who do not conform to our pet customs and religions.

            Once again, we are reminded that morals and ethics are designed to produce a livable society.  Above all, if they are any good, they are designed to check precisely those aspects of human nature that are most disruptive—violence and selfishness, but far more the group biases and hatreds that actually cause the vast majority of human suffering, especially when turned against the poor and weak. We need a morality based on a correct perception of the central and basic problem of humanity: social hate.  Utilitarianism is valuable for focusing attention on material needs and wants, Kantianism and its relatives are valuable for focusing attention on the need to respect individuals and to be as rational as possible, but the need today is to ground both of them is to ground them in a deeper ethic.

The philosophers tend to see morals in terms of speculation by rational individuals, or, on occasion, intuitions or innate preferences among (otherwise) rational individuals.  They thus see no need to provide evidence or cross-cultural data bearing on anything they say; they talk in a world of abstract ideas.  Anthropologists see morals as constantly negotiated practice within complex social formations that include infants, animals, trees (that may have spirits), landscapes, and supernatural beings.  They thus see it as absolutely necessary to study the moral codes of different societies around the world, seeing what “works” for what purposes.  They are also aware of the hard choices that most moral philosophers neglect:  not just about the poor man stealing medicine for his sick wife, but about jobs vs. preservation, when to relocate a city on a floodplain, how to allocate water in drying world, and above all how to balance priorities in a world where dozens of environmental problems are exploding out of control.

            This matters in any situation, but in environmental ethics, we are dealing with life-and-death choices about all life on earth.  We do not have time to be perfectly rational about every detail of the code, or to be perfectly fair about every choice.  Humanity for the last century has consistently erred on the side of producing more and thus creating more material abundance.  We cannot do this any more, and are having to make very hard choices about whose livelihood to sacrifice.  So far, the poor, being weakest, have always been the ones paying most.

Part IV:  Interactive Ethics


Here we turn to the dialogic and religious phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas /4/, and the more general phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who wrote extensively and brilliantly of how we construct our perceptions from our interactions with the world around us.

The phenomenologists have been less than concerned with nature (though Heidegger, in Being and Time, has a surprisingly useful few lines on the environment; see esp. p. 100, and Merleau-Ponty was coming to terms with it when he died; Merleau-Ponty    ).  Buber and Levinas were concerned with human-human and, especially, human-Divine relationships, and say nothing about dogs or trees.  What we can learn from them is, however, absolutely basic: the perception that our interactions with what is around us are basic, foundational, and primal, not something we methodically go and do after we are already “beings” who have “knowledge,” “selfhood,” and “rationality.” 

This bears some elaboration.  Robert Zajonc (1980) pointed out some time ago that humans react to stimuli, and evaluate them as “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative,” before they are aware of them.  The first thing we do, when we notice something, is rapidly and subconsciously evaluate it.  This quick, preattentive check allows us to decide whether we want to notice it—that is, to bring it to conscious awareness.  Consider the well-known phenomenon of hearing your name mentioned across the room in a crowded party.  Obviously, you were attending to the flow of conversation everywhere in the room, whether you knew it or not.  Or consider the fact that a parent who can sleep through traffic noise and worse is unfailingly (all too unfailingly…) awakened by the softest cries of the child in the next room.  Clearly, even when asleep, we are attending to sounds, and processing them to see whether they demand attention. 

First consciousness must be like that.  In the womb, in the birth canal, in the hospital, we were aware—but of what?  Of sounds, tastes, sensations.  We did not “know” what these “meant.”  We did not even have a “self” or a higher-order “mind” to allow us to figure out.  Those things came later—constructed from our experiences.  No wonder that our memories of our first years are so dangerously fragmentary, disorganized, and deceitful.  We had no “self” or “Being” to file and arrange them, or to sort out dreams from waking experiences.  And, as Freud taught us, all our truly basic experiences—all the experiences that actually went into building that “self,” creating our personhood—took place during those lost years. 

Even in the womb, there was some sort of identity wrapped in that skin; but it was a whole body, a little world of consciousness, an “I” before “I.”  That first “I” felt and responded, and slowly constructed a “self” different from and interacting with other “selves.”

As I look out at bushes and trees, listening to a flow of conversation in the background, I am reacting to these at a far deeper and more total level than I let myself realize.  They are still shaping me.  The main job of laying foundations for “self” and “person” was done more than half a century ago, but—at both conscious and preattentive levels—I am still constantly working on them.  Meanwhile, I am constantly working on the building that has developed on those foundations. 

Emmanuel Levinas realized that, if interaction and evaluation are prior to knowing and being (and they are), then ethics is prior to philosophy, and (as we have seen) ethics is interactive, not individual.  Not necessarily “ethics” in the textbook sense—rational rules of conduct—but the real ethics that govern our dealings with other people.  Our minds are literally created by intense, emotional interaction with those others.  We understand helping, harming, and responsibility before we can “think” in any meaningful sense.  Cogito, ergo sum is the end point in a long process.  No wonder Descartes went so wrong (as Damasio 1994 reminds us).  He thought, but he had forgotten that far more intense, searing, and deep physical and emotional experiences came before the thought—before the rational, self-conscious, self-reflexive thought that he meant by cogito.  And the very core and basis of those blazing experiences that formed our lives were the experiences of help, harm, care, recognition, sociability, love, warmth, anger, forsakenness, and, perhaps most formational to “self”hood, the anxiety of abandonment.  From the fear of being alone and the warmth of active, warm interest in each other, we construct a world. 

Therefore, in its very beginning, before we have even the slightest idea of anything else, we live our social ethics.  Ethics begins as lived experience—not as rules deduced rationally from dispassionate knowledge.  Instead of ethics being deduced from philosophy, philosophy is deduced from ethics.  (So far Levinas.  A more skeptical reader may suspect that philosophy is all too often faked up by someone wishing to avoid ethics.  Certainly, Heidegger was not the first or the last person to use philosophy to argue himself out of acting like a decent human being /5/.)

Ever since Hume, we have known that one cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is.”  Whence, then, can we deduce an “ought”?  Only from our spontaneous social nature: from the immediate sense of empathy with the Other, of understanding of his or her joy or pain and our own responsibility for increasing the joy and alleviating the pain.  We cannot avoid choosing whether to be helpful or cruel, and we all know it.  We know perfectly well what our more serious actions do to the Other, and we know we are responsible for the choice.  From this comes our general decisions to be good or evil, supportive or sadistic.  From these decisions, in turn, come moral laws of various types.

For Levinas, the key words are responsibility and interest.  (He meant being interested in others, not money added to capital.)  He reminds us of etymology: responsibility is the ability to respond.   Interest is Latin: “being between.” 

However, this does not imply a particular content to morality.  It merely provides a grounding for moral codes.  Societies must construct their own moral codes.  This is where the debates come in: Kantian versus utilitarian, puritanical versus liberal, and so on.         

For deeply religious Jews like Levinas, the priority of emotional, supportive interaction is enough to make us infinitely responsible for the Other.  More skeptical readers, and those from other religious traditions, may need further justification and elaboration. I hope to show that Levinas’ perception implies that we must combine utilitarian and deontological approaches rather than treat them as mutually exclusive.

            Levinas was a Jewish theologian as well as a phenomenological thinker: a Rabbinical Kantian.  His position was reasonably close to that of Martin Buber (1947), but there are important differences.   In his own words, he “attempted a phenomenology of sociality based on the face of the other…” (Levinas 1998:148).

            Levinas was motivated partly by a felt need to square his Jewish ethics with phenomenology after Martin Heidegger made the latter a Nazi philosophy.  Levinas was apparently unaware of the degree to which Heidegger was a committed, enthusiastic Nazi to the last (cp. Levinas 1998:116 with Bourdieu 1991, Sluga 1993), but he knew enough to realize he had to devise a new phenomenological ethic that could not be coopted for mass murder (Levinas 1969:45-6; 1998:103-121) /5/.  Unlike some modern apologists for Heidegger, Levinas knew that Heidegger’s philosophy was integral to his Nazism, and not a separate part of Heidegger’s thought.  He also sought to refute other Nazi ideas, notably the submission or submerging of the will into the vast will of the power State (Levinas 1969:120). 

            To save phenomenology, Levinas combined it with Jewish ethics, and came to a powerful and radical vision.

Levinas maintained that humans find their very selves in interaction with others.  To this point, he followed well-known findings in social psychology (Dilthey 1989; G. H. Mead 1964).  Martin Buber created a theology based on the relationship of I and Thou—of human and divinity.  Social psychologists such as Ellen Berscheid have proposed “a science of interpersonal relationships” (Berscheid 1999:260). This is no new field; it was invented by the great German social scientist Wilhelm Dilthey (1985), and transmitted to psychology by his student George Herbert Mead (1964).   

            Humans are excellent at putting themselves in the other person’s place—understanding what others think and feel (Frith and Frith 1999; Mead 1964).  This understanding is localized in the frontal lobes, and is a uniquely human ability; higher apes and other social animals have it in very modest amounts, but human abilities in this regard go far beyond any other animal’s (Frith and Frith 1999).  The Friths find that tickling is localized near the emotion-reason integration center explored by the Damasios.  It will be recalled that only someone else can tickle you—you can’t tickle yourself—and, when you are tickled, whether you laugh or fight depends on your understanding of the other’s motivation.   Humble things best reveal grand processes!

But Levinas pointed out that this makes other people literally infinitely important to us.  Our very selves, our very being, depends on others.  Unbarriered, unchecked experience of self (to say nothing of others) opens the world—we contact “totality and infinity” (Levinas 1969) by our experience of others.  This is truly seeing the face of the other, as opposed to simply looking at him or her.  Of course we can “see” in contemplation, without even having to be looking at that other presence.  Yet this makes us individuals and keeps us so: “the idea of infinity, revealed in the face, does not only require a separated being; the light of the face is necessary for separation” (Levinas 1969:151).  We are unique individuals, experiencing each other and learning from that. There is no isolation, but there is no group-mind or group-will either.

It is therefore reasonable to find what we actually do find: a spontaneous sense of caring and responsibility toward others.  Here, Levinas has evidently been influenced, directly or indirectly, by sociology and anthropology.  He was writing before the recent discoveries in primate studies that show a real if rudimentary morality in chimpanzees and bonobos (de Waal 1996); this work dramatically confirms Levinas’ guarded claims.

            The infinite, or at least unbounded, importance of others is a rational corollary of our recognition of their importance to us.  It is also an emotional response to those who make, shape, determine, and validate our selves and our worlds.

            Of course, such spontaneous feelings are not adequate in themselves, or we would be as happy as bonobos—whose policy of “make love, not war” produces something close to a hippie utopia (de Waal 1998).  Kant grounded ethics in reason (cf. Grenberg 1999).  Levinas takes us farther.  He sees the experience of the other person as a far more shattering thing than Kant did.  For Levinas, it is something like a mystical enlightenment.  Clearly, he agrees with Kant that people are ends, not means.  But they are the ends of a more brilliantly intense program.  From this, the reason naturally infers a greater importance to humansThey are not just the ends of action; they are the very essence of our selves, our lives, and our meanings as people. 

            This ethic solves the major environmental problems.  Clearly, humans depend on the environment, and the human life support system cannot be ruined—that would destroy other people.  But, more to the point, humans are not the only “others” out there.  We owe a great deal to the environment.  It, too, defines and creates us.  It, too, presents itself to our clearest sight with mystical intensity.  We have to save it.  That is a paramount end of human action, and it eclipses all other imperatives save the imperative to care about and care for other humans.  It also follows that preserving the environment from destruction is necessarily more a concern than preserving minor comforts and luxuries for a few humans.  This follows both because the environment has its own importance and value, and because a really healthy environment is necessary for human survival.  It is not moral to destroy the livelihood of millions to provide a few luxuries for a few hundreds /6/. 

 Clearly, again, humans near to us are more directly important than humans we never meet; but even the latter are of total concern, because as humans we are totally personally involved in humanity. We have to care about starving children in Bangladesh and about Albanians butchered in Kosovo’s “ethnic cleansing.”   But we also have to care about rainforests and fish, because we are totally personally concerned with their lives.  This realization would bring us close to Native American environmental ethics, which recognize trees, animals, mountains, and waters as persons—other-than-human persons and needing a different type of interaction, but persons nonetheless.

            Levinas speaks of face-to-face encounters as the basic human act.  The “naked face”—the face I see when I drop my barriers and defenses, and actually look at and encounter the person in front of me—is the Other in pure, immediate form.  Indeed, anyone who looks without defenses or distancing at another person  cannot help being absorbed in the emotional tides that sweep through the mind.  

            This can certainly be applied to the environment.  To look at the face of the land is to be emotionally caught up in it.

            David Hume made the point that we cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is.”  However, it seems that biology gives us some “oughts.”  It is impossible to sustain Hume’s point in practice.  When we see anything, no matter how trivial, we automatically evaluate it as good or bad (Zajonc 1980; cf. Damasio 1994).  Some degree of rudimentary morality thus inheres in all perception.  Certainly, judging people as good or bad is an obvious given of the human condition.  People do it all the time; they can’t help it.  We may not be able to deduce “ought” from “is” by rational logic, but we do it anyway, quite automatically. 

            From the perception that the Other is boundlessly important to us follows a great deal of moral concern.  Levinas cautiously stops short of getting into difficult cases.  He condemns violence and genocide, but he does not talk about everyday questions or about the environment.  

            Reading Levinas through the lenses of Mead, Damasio, and de Waal is thought-provoking indeed.  One is forced to conclude that humans are moral animals far more than they are rational animals.   People want social goodness—in others even if not in themselves.  (Even sociopaths and psychopaths know that they can exist only in a world where most people are good enough to be taken advantage of without their taking revenge.)  People are happiest when they are doing good to others.  They feed the stranger and send money to orphanages halfway around the world.  The curmudgeons among us show signs of brain damage or of abusive childhoods (just as even the most loving dog can be whipped to savagery). 

            I think Levinas would argue that the worst evil comes from an odd mix of  good and cruelty.  It is the evil of “for your own good,” on which Alice Miller has cast so pitilessly brilliant a light (Miller 1983).  Such oppressive goodness ranges from mere parental ignoring of a child’s cries to the massacre of six million people to “purify” the world for the rest.  From parents to tyrants, from inquisitors to deans, wounded humans in authority are most sadistic when they seem most genuinely convinced that they are doing right.  Truly, humans are a moral animal, and they can be truly vicious only when they can argue themselves into thinking they mean well.  Few observations could be more sobering.

            This puts Levinasian ethics into something of a bind.  We are infinitely responsible for the other, but must be infinitely careful not to let our responsibility get out of control.  Infinite responsibility means everything it says: we have to be responsible not only for the other person, but, still more, for ourselves in the interaction.  Paraphrasing Dostoievsky, he says “All men are responsible for one another, and ‘I more than anyone else’” (Levinas 1998:107).

            Thus, interaction becomes a complex and charged invocation, a “religion” in germ (Levinas 1998:7).   Love and mercy follow, and justice should theoretically grow from them (Levinas 1998:108).  For Levinas, love is not the rather banal amour, but something like a sacred flame—people being open with each other and thus totally personally involved with each other.

            Naturally, in such an interactive world, people will want to relieve each others’ sufferings, and this is the base of Levinas’ working ethics.  He never developed an ethical code in any cut-and-dried sense, but left it to humans to work out their own.  He was concerned with the phenomenological grounding of ethics, not their specifics.  Almost all he has to say about that is a quote (used as an example, at that—not as a commandment) about feeding the hungry (Levinas 1969:201).  However, he is explicit about the beginnings of ethical life.  As we have seen, he starts with responsibility.  He works outward from that to a “help, not harm” ethic.  He expects people to work out their own salvations from those grounding principles.

            The environmental applications of this seem to me to be twofold.

            First, people obviously have to care for the environment to ensure that others are not hurt.  No pollution in the drinking water, no pesticides sprayed on farm workers, no ripoff of indigenous forests.  Conversely, however, no appropriation of poor people’s land to tie up in tourist parks, and no bans on hunting and trapping unless something is done for such people as depend on those activities for survival.   This can be worked out on a simple “maximize help, minimize hurt” calculus.  It is, in short, a utilitarian ethic.  But it is grounded on the deeper ethic of realizing we are all infinitely responsible for each other.

            Levinas does not discuss the environment, but, since humans have reactions to animals, plants, and healthy landscapes just as they have to humans, they must necessarily have roughly similar gut-level senses of morality and responsibility.  It seems usual for humans to react more strongly to other humans than to nonhuman lives, but the reactions to the nonhuman can be very strong indeed, particularly to familiar landscapes that are healthy, productive, and diverse.  Many people, for better or worse, do feel more deeply about their homelands than about remote humans.  I assume that Levinas would put people first, but would not put other lives far behind.

            Putting these two together, we can work out an entire environmental ethic.  The second principle gives us an environmental categorical imperative, and one rooted in human nature.  We owe moral responsibility to all lives, perhaps to all environments, just as we do to fellow humans.  How much we owe must be worked out case by case. 

Obviously, I stick at valuing nonhuman lives equally with human ones.  I may be merely mired in anthropocentrism, or my genes may be too selfish, but I think there is a moral point here about taking care of one’s own first.  Among other things, one knows one’s own best—their needs and their weaknesses.   They also are the ones most responsible for constituting and defining us.

I doubt if Levinas would follow me in utilitarian applications, since he is also a Jewish theologian, pledged at some level to regulate his life by divine law rather than by utilitarian calculus.  So, from here, I must make my own choices.  What matters to me is that humans are, quite literally, moral animals, and that they take responsibility for others by simply dealing with them..

            Levinas’ philosophy provides us with a starting place—I believe it is the only possible starting place—for an environmental ethic.  We begin with our interactions with each other and the rest of the cosmos. 

            Some might see hyperbole in Levinas’ “infinity,” and prefer to read “large and unbounded.”  I agree with Levinas:  Infinite is the right word.  But even if our interactive experience requires only some large and unbounded share of  responsibility, it still is so rich, complex, and foundational that the amount of responsibility must be very large, and must grow with further interaction.  Usually, interaction means the kind of involvement that leads to love.  Sometimes it produces hate, but we are still responsible.  Sometimes the responsibility is of a hard kind—we are forced to kill or destroy that with which we interact.  Killing in self-defense is only the most dramatic such case.  Even eating bread takes the lives of countless wheat seeds, and of insects that inevitably were mixed in with them; vegetarianism is no easy out. 

            An inevitable corollary of his view is that we have an actual moral charge to be as open to experience and interaction as we can be.  This does not mean sensation-seeking.  It means opening ourselves to really seeing the other, face to face (Levinas 1998).  If we are to have an environmental ethic, we have to begin by seeing—actually seeing, not just looking at—the warblers, walnuts, and waters around us.  It may be a less intensely and totally involving vision than that which we have when we actually see a fellow human being.   But it is none the less vitally—infinitely—important.

            This involves two things.  First, we have to cut the social and personal barriers that keep us from such clear sight.  This cut requires at least some serious meditation.  Second, we have to do the looking—to see those others who are truly and infinitely important.  Usually, we see daily trivial problems and worries.  At best, we see abstractions and simplified representations.  Following Levinas takes serious moral discipline; we have to cut the old simplifications that blindfold us with indifference, and see the brilliant lights around us.

            Such experience is reminiscent of Taoism and Zen, which teach the same opening to the world through meditative or contemplative clear sight.   Indeed, there is a great deal that is parallel.  (I think that one source of the similarity lies in the Hasidic teaching stories that Martin Buber made famous; they were greatly influenced by Asian traditional religious teaching stories.)  The difference lies in two things.  First, Levinas does not build from a long meditative discipline that guides the looker to a certain sort of experience.  He starts with the newborn baby (if not before), and looks at the whole development of interaction, from raw new experience onward.  Second, he does not construct his experiences into a remote, otherworldly code that idealizes isolation and inner experience.  He constructs it into a warm, directly human, totally engaged ethic of helping people. 

Levinas himself lived a remote, philosophic lifestyle.  Yet the revelation of Levinas’ ethic is that one can go directly from clear sight of the world to caring and engaged behavior in the world.  This may be no more than a sophisticated version of what all normal parents know by experience, at least about their children.  But we need the sophisticated version.  We need even the unsophisticated version.  Desperately.

Levinas assumed an impassioned but rational observer.  He was aware that people are creatures of emotion, sympathy, and reason, and that all of those things are linked.  I suspect that if he had known of Antonio and Hannah Damasio’s work he would have incorporated it in his philosophy.  I know of no other philosopher whose ideas fit so well with the Damasios’ findings.  Levinasian selves–the I and the other—are rational-emotional beings.  The system has a place for feelings—indeed, is based on them.  In this it differs from the cold and inhuman “reason” and the long, arid deductive chains that seem so sadly endemic to Western philosophy.  Levinas’ philosophy is a philosophy for warm, breathing beings.

This being so, I think a valid corollary of Levinas’ ethic is that we should see a full range of emotions as not only desirable but almost necessary to the human enterprise.  In particular, we need to cultivate those emotions that are not barriers and defenses erected as a way of dealing with hurt and fear.  Hurt and fear are natural enough; the point is to find rational or at least natural ways to cope with them.  Once we drop barriers and defenses, we have dropped hate, cruelty, and prejudice, since these are (or are based on) defenses against fear.  We can confront the natural world with warm interest and enthusiasm.  We can contemplate it with the calm intensity of the Taoist poets and Zen artists.  We can engage in it with the passionate and complex emotions that animate the Maya when they deal with their beloved and demanding forest, or the American small farmers of Leopold’s vanished era.  Levinas can be used as the charter for meditative discipline and for walking in woods and mountains, as well as for action on the humane front.

From this we can deduce Kant’s categorical imperative and its variants and relations, from the Golden Rule itself to the recent ethical statements of Kantian philosophers such as Christine Korsgaard.  But, following another fork, we can deduce utilitarian ethics.  If we see those others—human or nonhuman—we naturally care about them and want to help them.  From this comes the sense of consequences that we need to construct utilitarian or consequentialist morals.

Interaction brings us in touch with infinity.  If our eyes are open, we see that the other is infinitely worthy of care and cherishing, and we have an open-ended responsiblity to that other.   That being sensed, we naturally love and care for the other, or at least for the world in which we interact.  Reason extends the emotional message to a general, operational plan.  Caring entails a help-not-hurt ethic—an ethic based on helping others and minimizing harm to them.  This leads us to extend care logically.  We are led to help, and to reduce harm.  We can calculate these things both empirically and logically.  (Obviously, we sometimes have to harm to help, but the details of this may be left to their natural home: the philosophy class.)  We are thus no longer dependent on raw experience and raw caring.  Even when we are not in a Taoist meditative state of total openness to experience of the flower or leaf, we can figure out how to enjoy the flower without killing it. 

It also implies tolerance, in all senses: putting up with the other, except in so far as he has to be stopped from doing harm; and also profiting from others’ experiences, even if those experiences are new and strange to us.  Again, the logic of caring and responsibility has taken us beyond the raw feeling, into a realm where we can calculate behavior rationally.  We are led to figure out how much to tolerate, and how much to learn from others.  The basic rules of responsibility to others preclude some types of tolerance: tolerance for genocide, for oppression, for prejudice-based hate, for instance.  We are enjoined to oppose these to the last fibre of our being.  Tolerance for massive or unnecessary damage to the environment is obviously in the same category, for the same reasons. 

Moreover, this means that valuing diversity is a foundational principle–for far more basic and important reasons than the utilitarian ones.  Biological diversity is important for economic reasons, and cultural diversity because it gives us valuable new ways of doing things, but the real importance lies in that basic responsibility to the other.  If we value the other, the most basic and vital thing we can do is to appreciate as fully as possible all that other’s strengths and contributions.  We must experience, as thoroughly and directly as possible, all that the other can give to the world.  This entails sympathy, charity, and mutual appreciation as absolute moral imperatives, and ones that are particularly crucial to the whole system.

Once we define terms through logical extension of caring and tolerance, we can build a structure by a utilitarian calculus of helping and not harming.  We will look to maximize mutual aid and minimize harm.  It is in this realm that we locate the general policy of minimizing government role in production while maximizing its role in protection, and of giving maximal control and decision power to the people actually using the resource.  These become general rules of thumb because they work—not because they are absolute moral charges derived from Kantian imperatives.

It is at this level that environmental-ethics questions seem to enter the picture.  The pragmatics of grazing and the morality of using animals in medical tests can alike be considered only in the wider framework I have outlined.  The first thing that stands out clearly is that the first and last and most desperate need is to save what biodiversity we can.  This is the one environmental ethic that goes back to the very root of ethics; it is entailed by the basic experience of the other.

The circle has to be completed.  The final step is to check our utilitarian calculations against our own direct, impassioned, open experience.  It is all too easy to follow a logical path to an insane conclusion.  No doubt every evil has been justified at some point or other by recourse to moral arguments, often both utilitarian and Kantian.  I think the only way to avoid evil is to combine both types of argument and to ground them in full meditative experience of the world—in Levinas backed up by Taoist, Buddhist and ancient Celtic ability to confront Nature and merge into it.

When we reach a point of doubt, the appropriate behavior is to sit down and look at the world again—dropping prejudices and logical extensions long enough to see that other, that being for whom we are responsible.  When we see him, or her, or it, face to face, we have the space to reconsider.

Do we feel moral about interactions with nonhuman beings?  Levinas does not address this issue, nor does de Waal.  David Abram, in his wonderful book The Spell of the Sensuous, makes a beginning, and E. O. Wilson argues in Biophilia that humans love and care about animals /7/.  From the evidence they adduce, from Levinas’ logic, and from common experience, we are compelled to answer in the affirmative to the broader question.  We cannot possibly fail to be at least somewhat empathetic to animals’ pain, and we cannot possibly fail to care at least a little about the fate of plants and animals around us.  The logical chain that derives moral rules from spontaneous care for the Other must apply if the Other is a rose bush or a Cuzco street dog. 

However, this is subject to several obvious qualifications.

As de Waal points out at length, the various Darwinian mechanisms that selected for social behavior were working within our species.  Common sense, common reason, and common experience suggest that we feel closest to those who are closest.  This is particularly true in the genetic sense.  There is every genetic reason why we should sacrifice ourselves for our children. 

Modern society constructs completely unnatural groups, such as nations and religious communities.  People sacrifice themselves for these “imagined communities” all the time, and not only in warfare /8/.  Obviously, our genes allow for a great deal of flexibility and a great deal of learning in this regard.

Thus, while we cannot expect the genetics of biophilia to be overwhelming, we can certainly expect some extension of infinitely important interactions, and thus of moral life, beyond species lines (Wilson 1984).  However, such grounding is necessarily weaker than our concern for each other as humans.  Of course, many people love their pets–close neighbors and “family members” of different species–far better than they love human strangers.  Many people, moreover, feel more responsible for their pets than for human strangers.  To assume responsibility for a dog or cat means to pledge oneself to feed it, take it to the vet, house it, and treat it with kindness.  The morality of this is complex and involved, but clear enough in the concrete case.

Morality toward other lives must be expected to attenuate to the vanishing point at the margins of familiarity.  It is really hard to become deeply concerned over the fate of a bush halfway round the world, or of a gopher hidden in the soil, or of an animal utterly unlike us such as a sponge or worm. Contrast even the most rudimentary feelings about grass and birds with the real lack of feeling most of us have about bacteria, which we cannot see or cannot confront.  Bacteriologists, who interact with bacteria, may feel differently.  Doubtless, only training and logical extension of principles can make a person care much about such entities.  As de Waal points out, this is as it should be, at least from an evolutionary perspective.  What if we were equally concerned about all lives?  How would we care for our children and neighbors? 

In general, however, there is no question that human nature (in all senses of that phrase) embeds us in a moral community with all other lives.  We cannot escape it.  In so far as we notice other lives at all, we literally cannot view them as purely neutral. We may hate weeds, but at least we recognize them.  We may desensitize ourselves to maltreatment of animals, but it really is de-sensitizing—forcing ourselves to pretend we ignore perceived maltreatment.  It is a minor or weaker form of the desensitization that Baumeister reports for torturers. 


Interactionism thus produces an ethic based on what is necessary for interactions in a functioning society.  Basically, this boils down to mutual tolerance, mutual respect, mutual aid, mutual caring, and a desire to make the best of the human resources offered.  It is the extreme opposite of communalism.  It teaches mutual appreciation, especially the appreciation of personal differences.   Behavior is viewed negatively in so far as it reduces the quality of interaction.  Cruelty, violence, and intolerance become the worst sins.  Making creative use of differences to maximize the richness and variety of society is a high ideal.

Differences that can be used to advance the richness, excitement, creativity, and quality of life are to be appreciated as much as possible; differences that lead to reducing the quality of interactions (in particular, mutual respect) are downvalued.  Note that phrase can be used.  Differences that are even potentially beneficial do not deserve to be crushed in the name of communal harmony.

A science of relationships is a not a science that examines abstract networks.  Rather, it studies the things of this world and their contingent effects on each other. 

            Ethics is basically about interactions—specifically, about the ways in which individuals deal with each other.  As Levinas says, it is our experience of the other, properly construed.

            Our dealings with the environment are, clearly, interactions.  Ecology, by its very definition, is a study of interactions, connections, flows, exchanges, and relations.  Most authors, from Ernst Haeckel (who defined the field) down to modern scientists, have never imagined differently, though a strong and healthy individual-reductionist influence entered also, via Darwinian selection theory.   Concepts such as “ecosystem” and “food web,” and even “conservation,” make no sense outside of a relational grid.

There is no such thing—in the literal, physical sense—as “the environment” or “nature”; there is, instead, a vast summation of human dealings with nonhuman things of many types.  This is not to say that “environment” and “nature” are empty words.  They are useful labels for whole sets of intertwined relationships and complex feedback loops. 

When we study “the environment,” and our dealings with it, we are really studying a highly complex set of interactions and relationships.  Ecologists talk as if “the environment” and “the ecosystem” were real, bounded, identifiable objects.  Postmodernists respond, correctly, that these terms are clearly vague and clearly the product of a long history of contested use, but then go on to say or imply that, therefore, there can be no environmental problem—since the environment itself is pure nonsense.  This kind of pernicious nominalism can be combatted only if we are quite clear about what we mean.  What we mean, when we talk about human-environment issues and problems, is that complex set of interactions.  It may be hard to bound and define, but it is there.  It will not go away.

            Interactionism directs our attention to individuals working together–or even against each other, but at least with reference to each other.  It thus makes us look at grassroots organizations, informal management, and actual political behavior “as it plays on the ground.”   These things seem somewhat neglected in the existing literature, in favor of individualist models or else of models that deal with vast abstractions such as “the free market,” “the legal system,” “government,” “religion,” and “culture.”   Use of such models and languages has doomed some segments of the environmentalist movement to a basically sterile and hopeless approach, in which far too much effort is spent writing about such abstractions, and far too little attention is directed to actual work with people.  Fortunately, grassroots activism is very much alive in the environmental movement, but  it seems somewhat lacking in intellectual charters, in spite of the brilliant work of such inspirational scholars as Elinor Ostrom and Evelyn Pinkerton.  


A morality based on love might work if everyone could love everyone else.  This being dubiously achievable, the best we can seriously hope for is a morality based on care.  Even this may be too much, at least if caring is a warm, deeply felt emotion.  Cool caring—responsibility, civic duty, consideration for others’ rights—is perhaps the best we can hope for in these parlous times.  But we can hope for that. 

The corollaries include personal courage, the only real security; real enjoyment, without puritanism or conformity hindering it; and really rational action. 

The time for quietist retreat is long past.  Hermits and divines in previous eras could retain their integrity and shine as examples.  Today, there is no escape, and we have to stand and work actively to help.

/1/  Chimpanzees also have the glimmerings of the distinction between “feeding” and “eating,” “fressen” and “essen”; their social feeding is a quite different type of event from solitary feeding (de Waal 1996).  No other animal seems to make this distinction, so critical for human social life.              

Dogs, when meeting each other, tend to make friends quickly, using a variety of instinctive and highly stereotyped behaviors.  Restraint prevents many of these.  Thus, when dogs on leashes meet, they are apt to be much less friendly than when they meet off the leash, and a fenced dog barks and snarls when a free-running one would not.  The human parallels are intriguing.

Even dogs have a complex social behavior that includes some of the building blocks of morality.  Dogs socialize, play, make friends, reconcile after conflicts, cooperate in hunting, recognize packmates, mutually defend the pack, show deference, and keep their society smoothly functioning (Serpell 1995).  Most of this is mediated through fixed, instinctive behaviors.  For instance, when two dogs are playing and one inadvertently hurts the other, the injured party lets out a distinctive yip.  The dogs immediately stop play, reach out their heads toward each other, and just barely touch noses.  They then immediately go back to roughhousing.  Clearly, this fixed action pattern is the equivalent of “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” and it is clearly an important aspect of dog society–important enough to have evolved through natural selection.  Dogs are superb learners, and seem to reflect to some extent on what they do, but their behavior does not require intelligence of a high order.  Dogs certainly love, but they don’t think much about it; a literate dog would not write Stendahlesque novels. Yet even dogs must decide when to apologize, when to trick each other, when to play or attack.  Instinct cannot answer all questions.

Dogs and chimpanzees show shame, grief, caring for family members, and even a certain distributive justice to their young; dogs feed their litters, wolves feed packmates, and chimpanzees even distribute food to their whole troops.

/2/ Rawls’ “rational person” behind a “veil of ignorance” is also a bit unrealistic.  The theory appears to be based on the idea of trial by jury, and to share its problems in this modern world of all too abundant information on every case.  Rawls admits that the problem of the mentally incompetent is hard to handle under his theory (Rawls 1993:272). 

Several people have criticized Rawls’ lack of a charismatic voice.  It is a very cheap shot to criticise a philosopher’s style, but there is a real point to be made by comparing the teaching style of Jesus with that of John Rawls.  “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” and “he that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is Love” can be set against Rawls’ latest summary of his position:  “We can summarize the preceding sections as follows:  Given first, that the procedure of the original position situates the parties symmetrically and subjects them to constraints that express the reasonable, and second, that the parties are rationally autonomous representatives whose deliberations express the rational, each citizen is fairly represented in the procedure by which the principles of justice to regulate the basic structure of society is selected” (Rawls 1993:324).  Jesus was teaching ordinary people, while Rawls is writing for an exceedingly narrow intellectual and political elite.  No band of stalwarts is going to die heroically with Rawls’ sentence on their lips.  (Of course, the fact that the same criticism could be–and probably will be–leveled against my present book.  I do what I can.  I suppose Rawls does.)

And Rawls has been more successful than many at getting his position heard.  Weber spoke of the “routinization of charisma”; what we need here is the charismatization of the routine. 

Rawls’ great contribution, and a monumental contribution it is, has been in the realm of defining fairness and justice.  This question lies rather outside the scope of this book, which is narrowly fixated on saving the environment.  However, fairness is a necessary prior condition of society–without it we are all lost, and so is the environment.  For environmental issues, a utilitarian ethic is necessary, but for other social issues one must follow Rawls into questions of the foundations of justice.

/3/ Theoretically, a utilitarian could argue that enormous “good” to one person would justify imposing appreciable suffering on many, or slight good to many would justify imposing enormous suffering on one.  Actually, utilitarians always exclude this possibility by maintaining that each individual counts for one–no one can hog the utilities (Sidgwick 1907).  Of course, all societies do impose enormous suffering and unfreedom on some individuals who reduce others’ welfare and are thus considered “criminals” or “lawless.”  These questions are usefully discussed by R. Hardin (1988).   More serious, and all too common in this world of ours, is for a society to impose terrible suffering on one group–the poor, the nonwhite, the young, the old, the religiously different–in the belief that it will benefit the majority.  This prejudicial behavior is invariably justified on utilitarian grounds, e.g. in the conservative arguments that one group is innately inferior, or that cutthroat competition (resulting in immiseration of the poor) is necessary to progress.  The utilitarian calculus in question very rarely survives unbiased scrutiny, but what if it does survive in some particular case?  Does that make discriminatory laws ethically right?  Obviously not.  Here we really can rely on intuition, because it tells us that there is a more basic definitional issue here: the absolute moral injunction against treating whole groups prejudicially is a qualitatively different thing from the sordid practical reason that might make us want to discriminate.  These issues are powerfully raised and addressed in their environmental applications by Robert Bullard (1990) and the environmental justice literature stemming from his work (Anderson 2006).

Similarly, a utilitarian ethic could become a rigid totalitarianism by finding The Good and forcing it on everyone.  We are forever spared from this as a realistic option by the noncomparability of values and the lack of information about the Perfect Good.  This has not stopped dictators from trying their best to justify tyranny in precisely these terms.  The fact that utilitarianism can be credibly bent to this end, even though dishonestly, is a problem for the utilitarian ethic.

/4/  In what follows, I spare my readers the endless phenomenological dialogues about others, the Other, otherness, etc.  They seem to me to be irrelevant to our concerns here, though I am sure a proper philosopher would not find them so.  I am careful, in these passages, to say “other” and “others” rather than “Other.”  Capitalized, “Other” has taken on a meaning exactly opposite to Levinas’.  In cultural studies and anthropology, “Other” has come to mean the hated and feared structural opposite—the dehumanized person we are always stereotyping, exoticising, romanticizing, depreciating, or otherwise making into an alien and deliberately distanced being.  Levinas’ other is the familiar and warmly welcomed other, the spouse or friend or neighbor–plain common humanity made immanent for us.  His infinity included the infinite regress of knowledge (we have to know things in order to know how to know…) and of interaction (that is an unbounded universe out there). 

/5/ Heidegger was not just a “good German”; he was an active developer of the Nazi worldview, and he became, so to speak, the Nazis’ pet philosopher–docile on a short leash or yapping at strangers–and he remained loyal to Nazism to the last.  The claims that one can separate his philosophy from his Nazism are hopeful nonsense.  He made it crystal clear that he made no such separation.  Moreover, his disciple Paul de Man, who brought postmodernism to America, was also a dedicated and loyal Nazi.  Paul Ricoeur, another darling of the postmodernists, was a Nazi sympathizer until World War II, and remained a rightist.  Postmodernism in the United States has consquently had a strong far-right-wing flavor, in spite of its enthusiastic adoption by certain “intellectuals” who claimed to be “progressive.”  One need think only of its anti-scientific diatribes, its obsession with “race,” and its attitude toward “alterity.”

Heidegger’s background and personal quirks explain some of his attraction to Hitler (Bourdieu 1991).  Heidegger (following, in some measure, Nietzsche) privileged the lone individual, his authenticity, his will, and his power and control.  (I am using the male pronoun deliberately.)  This viewpoint was all too congruent with the Triumph des Willens (to remember the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant and sickening film).  The core philosophy of Nazism was one of the autarkic, authentic Will constructing a world through its power and control.  Paradoxically, this led to a culture of blind obedience, and, ultimately, to one of mass extermination.  Heidegger and de Man were more than willing to live with all these things.

Hence the need of Merleau-Ponty and, especially, Levinas to construct a phenomenology that held interaction and person-person relationships to be prior to Dasein and its ilk.

/6/  This is not to deny the ironic message of The Fable of the Bees (Mandeville) that luxury sustains the economy by creating work.  Indeed it does, and I have nothing against luxury.  The question arises only when luxury consumption destroys more than it creates, or when it destroys irreplaceable and valuable resources for transient benefits.   By this standard, ecotourism and homemade music survive, but sports utility vehicles and most of the fashion industry look pretty shaky.

/7/  My thinking, here and throughout this book, runs parallel to that of David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Pantheon, 1996).  For the value of phenomenology, and especially Merleau-Ponty’s thought, to understanding human-environment relations and traditional belief systems about the environment, I can do no better than direct the reader to Abram’s book.  He spares me from having to give a full exegesis!  And he has done an exemplary job of rewriting phenomenologists’ tortuous prose in fine English.  However, Abram concentrates on the phenomenology of the encounter, while I am focusing on the morality that we construct from it.

/8/  The phrase “imagined communities” is, of course, a reference to Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities (1991), which provides many details on exactly how people are led to sacrifice their lives or livelihoods for outrageously unnatural groupings.  This book is said to the be the most cited work in modern social science.

/9/  The only area of scholarship in which interactionism appears fairly standard, in analysis, is the study of the arts.  The view of art as “expression” of individual “genius” seems to be definitively dead, and so is the old myth of folk and traditional arts being “communal” creations.  Individuals create art to communicate their experiences of beauty, emotion, or whatever to a target audience.  Often, the target audience consists of other creators.  Recent analyses of the arts usually take account of this, though the old, dead ideas appear as unquiet ghosts.  Social cognition, however, is naturally based on an interactive approach, and is my source for much of what follows; see reviews in the special issue of Social Cognition (vol. 17, issue 2, 1999).  On interactive aspects of morals, see Damon 1999; Kohlberg 1983; Kagan and Lamb 1987.

/10/ Most of the specifics of environmental ethics have been well covered in other books.  Among the most valuable are the excellent survey by Holmes Rolston (1988) and the moving essay by Bryan Norton, Towards Unity among Environmentalists (1991).  


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