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Ethical Dimensions of Human Attitudes to Nature

Ethical Dimensions of Human
Attitudes to Nature
Radim Bures
In this paper I intend to pursue the question as to how ethics can
make a contribution to human efforts to protect, or rescue the
environment. A complementary question is how the continuing
environmental crisis can influence the development of ethical
theory itself.

Historically speaking, the exclusive task of ethics has been the
moral regulation of human behaviour towards society – including
action in relation to others and also towards ourselves. The main
aim of morals was the influencing of human behaviour in accordance with the aims of society – to secure its maintenance and
integrity. It is obvious that in such a system of morals, attitudes
and behaviour towards nature were not and could not be included
within its proper scope. Human behaviour towards nature was
thus treated as morally irrelevant. Rather, ethics focused immediately on values and behaviour in relation to their impact on

The development of civilization itself brought an important
change to this system. Man can be dangerous towards others and
also to himself and to society as a whole both directly by murdering, adultery, stealing, breaking promises, and so on, but also
indirectly by misusing nature. By damaging the environment
human action damages society and its integrity, as well as humans
themselves and their health. This state of affairs was brought
about by the rapid increase in means of production, knowledge
and technology, enabling humanity to win the age-old struggle for
survival with nature. In this new situation it was clear that human
action towards nature had to be brought under moral regulation
and so become the concern of ethics. Acts against nature were
now acquiring a moral dimension, and ethics had to start to deal
with this problem.

The responses of ethical theory have so far been very diverse.

The sources of diversity are not confined merely to particular
norms and values, but include differences of general approach. At
one extreme, these approaches might consist solely in the introduction of a new criterion – impact on nature – for distinguishing
between good and bad acts. The formalism of this type of simple
reasoning aroused a lot of criticism, however. This dissatisfaction
with merely relying on subjective judgment for what is good for
nature and what is not led the critics to search for deeper, more
fundamental criteria for evaluating the moral quality of an act in
relation to nature. This effort can be subsumed under the concept
of ‘deep ecology’. Its unifying feature is an attempt to overcome
the standpoint of human interest and utility, and to put humanity
and nature into a broader ontological system. Among the leading
ideas of deep ecology are a broadening of the realm of purposes
from humans to nature, or, at least, to some of its part, and the idea
of nature as a system, of which humanity is only one element. The
key point is thus not man and his utility but the stability of the


system and all its elements and relations.

In the above considerations, I have started from the role of
morals in society and its historical development. From that
standpoint moral norms and values should influence human
behaviour towards the environment not primarily because of the
damage that might otherwise be caused to nature itself, but rather
because of the mediate impact of such damage on humans themselves. This mediation has, of course, a temporal dimension in
that the results of our behaviour now may not be apparent until the
rather distant future. With little exaggeration we may say that our
environmentally destructive behaviour of today may cause harm
not to ourselves, but to future generations. So far as the present
generation is concerned, there may be virtually no ‘feedback’

from our anti-environmental behaviour.

Here it will be useful to define what I mean by such concepts
as ‘pro-ecological’, ‘moral ecological’, ‘environmental’ (etc.)
behaviour. To be very brief, we may say that by these concepts we
understand behaviour based on a consideration of the equilibrium
of the various systems comprising the environment: such behaviour
presupposes acquisition of such knowledge as is obtainable and
the establishment of norms of conduct which take into account
this knowledge. Consequently moral ecological behaviour is
feeling and taking these ecological norms as obligatory for

Let us now turn to a second aspect of this mediation of human
action in relation to the environment. At first sight it seems that
nature has become an object for moral action – contrary to the
historical limitation of the scope of morality. But this change of
object or focus is only apparent. The final aim of our action
remains humanity and society: its welfare, harmony, health,
dynamic balance and the survival of future generations. The
moral relations between humans and nature are thus ultimately
moral relations to humans themselves, as well. Nature is placed as
a mediator between humans and their goal: human survival and
health. Only now does human action towards nature gain its moral
dimension. The aim of moral regulation is not primarily the
protection of nature for itself, but rather protection of nature as a
basic, necessary and natural condition for the harmonious life of
humans and society. The aim is to protect, or to re-establish, a
harmony in the relations between humanity and nature as two
aspects of one system.

M y point of view – that of seeking out social aims in the moral
aspects of ecological behaviour, a utilitarian approach – is likely
to be criticised for its anthropocentrism. According to those who
would make such a criticism, human interests should not be
considered in environmental protection. Such criticism is generally
based on what might be called ‘cosmocentrism’, of one sort or

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

However, for the following reasons, I see the cosmocentric
view as rather problematic:

1 A concept of value existing independently of humans and
society is unacceptable. The existence of value is grounded in the
meaningfulness of the world to humans, and so it cannot have its
own independent existence. This could, of course, give rise to a
long discussion for which I have no space here.

2 A cosmocentric theory will usually require a concept of nature
as it is in itself, independently of any influence from human
action. But this concept is a rather hypothetical one. How can we
distinguish a ‘pure nature’ from one influenced by human activity? Nature as we know it – as a biosystem – is the result of
thousands of years of massive interaction between humans and
nature. Nature is undergoing a slow but steady process of evolution:

it is not the same as it was only one thousand years ago. Why
should we single out the present state as optimal when it is one of
many forms in a continuous course of development? Moreover,
nature as it is now is a human creation, so how could we now reestablish a ‘natural’ evolution? Who knows whether the direction
of evolution itself has not yet been changed? Posed at such a
general level the discussion seems to be rather subtle, but it issues
in many considerations and problems at a more practical level.

For example: all my readers will surely agree with protecting
elephants from ivory traders. But if they ought to be protected
simply because they are creations of nature and thus intrinsically
valuable, why not protect rats in the city underground? They are
creations of nature as well. And I do not speak about bacteria,
parasites and so on.

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

3 The difference between an anthropocentric attitude towards
nature and a cosmocentric one is usually – and falsely – connected
with a distinction between a ‘predatory’ and a ‘partnership’

approach towards it. It is true that a cosmocentric point of view is
incompatible both with a predatory approach and with the idea
that nature must be overridden by human beings in order to save
them. But the anthropocentric point of view, whilst it may be
consistent with such approaches and attitudes, does not strictly
imply them. Human needs – when we understand them on the
basis of reflection on our present situation in the world – may be
satisfied in different circumstances either by exploitation or by
protection of nature. This ambiguity in the anthropocentric attitude to nature can be summed up in Francis Bacon’s famous
expression that ‘we can defeat nature only by subordinating
ourselves to it’. We can conclude that humanity is an inseparable
part of nature, that we need an undestroyed nature as our necessary living condition, and so that there is a human interest in
finding a balance between humans and nature which would
maximally protect and preserve it.

4 The last argument concerns human practical activity in the
world. There is little opportunity to change the course of human
civilization, as twentieth century red – and later green – attempts
prove. It is not possible to restore a state of pristine nature, nor
even to protect nature in its present state. A high level of dynamic
change seems to be essential for the survival of society, and this
dynamic is always ambiguous – a unity of progressive and
regressive forms. Let us take the case of the generation of
electrical power as an example. Coal power stations cause acid
rain, and contribute in other ways to the destruction of nature.

Nuclear power stations are notoriously dangerous, with possible
breakdowns as at Chernobyl, and unknown side-effects such as
radiation (as in Britain). Hydro-electric generation is possible in
most countries only at the cost of immense alterations to large
areas of landscape, with consequent impacts on the biosphere
(Donau in Czechoslovakia and Hungary). And can anybody think
responsibly about stopping the production of electrical energy?

I want to use these examples to show that civilization must
continue to develop, and that in doing so an equilibrium must be
found between the known laws of nature and our own aims. Many
critics suppose that our technological and scientific approach is
not able to deal with such problems. The only solution, according
to them, is to be based on human feeling and common sense. But,
for example, the Yugoslavian coastal mountains were deforested
not by our science but by Venetian ‘common sense’. Nevertheless, it is clear that science cannot solve these problems alone: the
necessity of connecting scientific knowledge with wide public
discussion will be my theme later on in this text.

To acknowledge the moral relevance of our actions towards
nature is only a first step. Other conditions must also be fulfilled
if we are to create an effective system of moral regulation of
ecological behaviour. One ofthese conditions is the establishment
of a general philosophical framework. Ethics, however, cannot
usually be decisive by itself. Every system of moral norms and
standards is based on more general ideas about society and its
aims. Ideas about the social structure, its functions and aims have
always been decisive in shaping moral values and the ordering of
priorities: witness the ancient Greek ‘polis’, the Christian religion,
the rationalistic enlightenment, economic liberalism and socialism. In this sense, ethical theory is not independent and its
premises are based on broader philosophical, religious or political

Every analysis of the moral regulation of pre-ecological
behaviour must be based on a certain theory ofthe ideal interaction
between humanity and nature: the above discussion of the opposition between anthropocentric and cosmocentric approaches


exemplifies this. Nevertheless, a practical framework, combining
general aims with concrete knowledge and possibilities, is also
important, providing the necessary mediation between aims and
practical behaviour. Only within such a practical framework can
practical norms of moral behaviour concerning the environment
emerge in the longer term.

As I mentioned above, moral reasoning concerning ecological
behaviour is distinguished from the rest of moral reasoning in that
there is no direct feedback from the kinds of actions with which
it is concerned. Information about the results of our anti-ecological behaviour is given to us mainly by scientific research. In the
absence of such results or prognosis, the grounds for a modification of ecological behaviour are missing. Thus, the way we deal
with information about the environment becomes a morally
important matter.

But, equally, the scientific results, even when they are available,
are not able to directly provide solutions. Sometimes a solution
which involves no damaging impact on nature does not exist. It is
then a matter for decision-makers and public opinion to establish
the lesser evil. Moreover, a scientific view, because of specialisation, often has only a partial character. It is not able to answer the
question of the mutual relations of different public interests:

economic, ecological, educational, recreational and even ‘humanizing’ ones. An especially difficult question is to find a
reasonable balance between economic and ecological demands
and the level of living standards. Public discussion, properly
informed, and led or supported by environmental ethics, will be
crucial to the formation of appropriate norms.

But public discussion has yet another important purpose. It
removes the appearance of ‘certitude’ from ecological questions,
or, in other words, it overcomes a narrowly economic and technocratic view of problems. It exposes to view the extraordinarily
difficult and even confusing network of human interests. It may
lead to the formation of a new, more personal, emotional attitude
to environmental protection. All these factors are important for
the gradual establishment of moral attitudes towards the environment on a wider scale.

Let us see, now, how the ecological challenge can influence
the concept of moral responsibility. Speaking about moral responsibility in connection with environmental problems requires
answers to two questions – responsibility for what? and responsibility to whom?

A simple answer to the first question is that humans are
responsible for their ecological – or anti-ecological- behaviour
and its impact on the immediate environment. But, at the individual level, humans may appear not to be responsible for nationwide or world-wide ecological problems unless they sit in some
decisive body in industry, agriculture, or are otherwise professionally involved in ecological activities or policy. But moral
responsibility is broader than this, and there are many other ways
in which individuals have the capacity to affect things, even if
often very mediately. We have responsibilities for the upbringing
of our children, how we behave as consumers, how we deal with
anti-ecological behaviour which we encounter, and so on. In this
sense our responsibility is much broader than it at first sight
seems. Of course, I am not advocating an absolute responsibility
of everyone for everything. This approach would lead only to holy
orders or the psychiatric hospital. It is necessary to distinguish
levels of competence and thus of responsibility but it is still
essential to keep in mind our responsibility in the broader sense
as individuals. Asking everyone to accept some responsibility
does not mean to excuse the decision-makers. There, moral
responsibility is connected with a political and legal one. Social
organisations like the state must be obliged to provide space for
citizens’ ecological responsibility.


In societies, such as ours, where the aims of production and
efficiency are uppermost, there may be conflict between the moral
responsibility for pro-ecological action and powerful demands
from economy and business. In a clash between moral attitudes
and economic interest, the former will usually prove to be too
weak: nevertheless, it is indispensable. Courageous personal
action carried out from a moral ecological point of view can help
to make a problem transparent and stimulate public pressure. This
shows how both legal measures and moral attitudes are important.

Legal measures may be worthless without moral backing, whilst
moral attitudes may be powerless without legal support. Informed
public interest is the guarantee of their unity.

Our second question was, ‘to whom are we responsible?’

Historically, answers to this question have involved a search for
an absolute, usually heteronomous authority – God, or class. But
environmental problems have given rise to questions about a new
range of objects of moral responsibility – about our responsibility
towards the future, towards our descendents, or to humankind
itself. The idea of a responsibility to our descendents as parts of
ourselves is especially deeply rooted in people’s minds.

Of course, for many people, a rational analysis is insufficient
to stimulate moral activity. It does not follow from the fact that a
responsibility can be demonstrated that people will be able to
recognise it. We must, then, distinguish between objective and
subjective (or ontological and gnoseological) aspects of responsibility. The former is based on the fact that humans have a
capacity for self-reflection, and are able to consciously control
their own activity. The human species is capable of changing its
surroundings, the whole of nature and the world. This capability
is of such an extent as to be potentially disastrous to both nature
and to humanity itself. But humans are not able to overcome their
biological nature. They have the power either to destroy or protect
themselves. This ability is the basis for human responsibility in
the world.

The other side, or aspect, of responsibility is consciousness of
it. Such a consciousness has two necessary conditions:

– to have some relationship to that for which we have responsibility;
– to have the freedom to determine one’s own activity.

As to the first condition, it is clear that for something to be an
object of our responsibility it must become valuable to us in some
way. In the first place, it is nature which confronts us as a desirable
value. The usual basis for taking something as valuable is to have
some emotional relation to it, to love it. Together with Anthony
Weston, we can call this a positive experience with nature. Here
we must distinguish a positive or pleasant experience with nature,
and a consequent positive attitude towards it, from the same
experience as a positive basis for moral obedience. Pleasant
experiences of nature can certainly enhance the development of
. pro-ecological behaviour and moral norms and attitudes, but an
absence of such experiences cannot be an excuse for evading the
appropriate moral requirements. Moral duties are not derived
from pleasant experience.

However, this fact that we try to establish a pro-ecological
moral duty on the basis of an analysis of the human position in the
world, and not on subjective experiences, does not mean that we
deny the important place that positive experiences can have in the
formation of individual moral values. Some research has shown
that pro-ecological feelings are stronger in the towns than in the
countryside, where nature retains its character as a power which
can make life more difficult, and therefore must be overcome. In
the towns, pleasant experiences of healthy conditions, and
undestroyed nature, together with the general tendency of civilization to diminish such experiences (by the destruction of
nature) give rise to a desire to maintain or ;fe-establish the

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

conditions for such experience. This personally felt need may
transfonn itself into a love of nature for its own sake, independently
of utilitarian considerations. The same research shows that this
kind of non-utilitarian motivation is typical among ecological
activists. This infonnation about pro-ecological motivation leads
some thinkers to conclude that this fonn of consciousness should
be disseminated throughout the population to solve environmental
problems. My view, however, is that the enhancement of special
moral nonns in society is much more complex than this, and will
require a combination of rational and emotional elements, and
intrinsic values, with self-interest and utility. Positive feelings for
nature, and love of it, are important, but they are not an exclusive
means for establishing pro-ecological attitudes or a sense of
personal responsibility, since only a part of society has the
opportunity to develop such feelings.

The second condition for promoting a consciousness of responsibility for nature is the opportunity to participate in proecological activity and, to some extent, in ecological decisionmaking. It is important to know that a personal effort in this area
is not just a hopeless individual stand, but can be related to a
nation-wide or world-wide effort. Of course, the efforts of individuals can always be cancelled out by the misbehaviour of other
individuals, but it is important that such individual efforts should
not be overridden by systematically mistaken state policies, or by
the abuses of the rich and powerful. A basic condition, then, for
the creation of a sense of personal responsibility for nature is real
freedom, including the opportunity to participate in public decision-making – in other words, functioning democracy.

For many, the reduction of consumption, and so a limitation
of our needs, is essential for an end to the exploitation of nature.

For them, the cause of our present problems is to be found in a
blind belief in social and technical progress, the character of
science in the modem period, and the technical basis of our
civilization. According to this argument, what is regarded as
essential to current human cultural development is at the same
time destructive of nature and the future of society. The only
solution is seen to be a limitation of needs. But historical experience teaches us that it is much easier to make changes in economic
arrangements, or in technology, than in the sphere of human
needs. The failure and fall of communism with its declared aim of
creating a ‘new man’ with new needs is a good example. Short of
this aim, there are many technical measures which can be introduced in order to improve the environment. Nevertheless the
problem of reducing our needs will not go away. It poses the
question of the extent to which it is possible or justifiable to
restrict human rights where their exercise may be dangerous to the
environment. Such questions are posed when certain areas are
designated as preserved for conservation purposes, and may
extend, for example, to possible restrictions on the numbers of
children in families. One thing is clear: that solutions to these
problems cannot be given from the philosopher’s study, since
they could never be effective. Solutions can only emerge in the
minds of the people on the basis of broad public discussion. At this
stage, it seems unlikely that people will choose to regulate and
limit their own needs, but the recognition of ecological problems
is rather new, and the elaboration of a moral outlook strong
enough to constrain some needs will take a long time.

I have tried to show how, with the emergence of an ecological
crisis which is dangerous to the life of humankind, human action
towards nature is acquiring a moral dimension. This new situation
requires an alteration of ethical concepts and thinking, even
though the main aim of moral regulation – the well-being of
human society – remains the same. Against this background, I
defended the idea that an anthropocentric world view is a suitable
and practical ground for elaborating an environmental ethics. The

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

example of moral responsibility was used to illustrate a shift in
meaning and emphasis as a result of environmental demands. In
common with John Passmore, we do not suppose it to be possible
to create a new theory of environmental ethics which would have
a real impact on people’s value-system and behaviour. But neither
do we rely solely on environmental feelings and emotions. The
main route to a widespread understanding of the disastrous
consequences of anti-environmental behaviour, and the psychological grounding of the necessary moral nonns must be to put the
results of scientific ecology into the broad discussion of a free

The author is obliged to Ted Benton for substantial help with the
final draft of this paper.

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