Leopold's Land Ethic
About Aldo Leopold
- Leopold's reappraisal: "A shift in values achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of
things natural, wild, and free."
- This reverses the tradition, extensioninstic, ethical methodology (whereby nonhumans are valuable in so far as they
are like humans)
- Extensionism as arrogant and condescending: Beings get included in the moral club only in so far as they
are sufficiently like us
- Instead of arguing that we should extend moral concern to nonhumans ("the land") because it has the
same properties we find morally important in human life (intelligence, sentience, life, etc.) and rather
than valuing the nonhuman on the basis of what we value about human life
- Leopold ask us to evaluate human life and culture (what is unnatural, tame, and confined) in terms of
what is valuable about nature (what is natural, wild, and free)
- Henry David Thoreau on value of wildness
- Leopold puts human value in the context of land's value: It is the land community that has ultimate
value and human value is to be seen in that context.
- The land (seen as a holistic, interconnected, ecological web or ecosystem) has moral standing:
- "The land ethic
simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:
the land. Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and
- Dirt has moral standing?
- Land is not mere property, a mere commodity, or mere resource; but a moral community to which we belong
- Land is not something properly viewed in solely economic terms, as a matter of mere expediency or
self-interest without any ethical obligations
- Compare a Northern Blackfoot Indian's response to White Man's attempt to buy land:
- "Our land is
more valuable than your money. It will last forever. . .As long as the sun shines and waters flow, this
land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals;
therefore we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it
because it does not belong to us."
- Worry: Does it make sense to see land as a community (moral or otherwise)? Many ecologists talk about "assemblages" of organisms rather than communities. Many ethicists think moral communities involve reciprocal obligations and the land can't have obligations. For more on this click here.
- Humans as plain members and citizens, not conquerors of the "land-community"
- The conqueror role is morally inappropriate and practically suspect:
- Even if it once made sense to see humans as tamers of the wilderness, it no longer does today.
- Skepticism about human's ability to manage nature
- Thinking humans can manage nature assumes
we have knowledge of its workings that we don't now have and aren't likely to get anytime soon.
conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. . .because it implicitly [assumes] that the conqueror
knows. . .just what makes the community clock tick. . .[But] the biotic mechanism is so complex that its
workings may never be fully understood."
- Worry: Defending the idea that we should not manage nature on the grounds that we don't know how to do so successfully becomes weaker and weaker as our knowledge grows and technology improves. Better to argue that we morally ought not manage nature, even if we could?
- .Leopold's (Maxim) or Fundamental Principle for Land Ethics: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve
the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise."
Ecocentric values and goals: The values Leopold's maxim would have us promote
- Beauty: Not just pretty scenery; aesthetic value even in drab little tundra plant. Is all pristine nature
beautiful (when properly understood)?
- Stability: Does not mean unchanging (for change is essential to ecosystems), but either "resilience" (if disturbed it has a strong disposition to return to its pre-disturbance state) or resistant to being
disturbed/upset in the first place.
- Wholeness (having all the parts, the "original" complement of species, being "intact"); justifies restoration of species to ecosystems
false or fake (e.g., plastic trees/plastic birds)
- Being true to its own character (e.g., preference for
native rather than exotic species)
- Wildness/naturalness (=the degree to which natural processes are unfolding on
their own without humanization--i.e., significant human alteration, control, or management; valuing letting nature take its course as in National Parks).
- Does wildness ignore that in certain senses humans are part of nature?
not= ecosystem health.
- Diversity: Of species, of genes, and of ecosystems. Rarity enhances value on this criterion.
- Worries: Might justify increasing diversity by bioengineering. Would require that we work against
nature in those cases where natural extinction is taking place. (Diversity and wildness values can conflict.) Possibly too product oriented (# of species),
not process oriented enough (speciation). Relationship between stability and diversity?
- Ecosystem Health: (A popular, but not clear an ecocentric goal) The ability of an ecosystem to carry out its biological and ecological functions (water and nutrient cycling). Note, that unlike, integrity in the sense of wildness value, humans can improve on ecosystem health (e.g., by eradicating an insect pest from a forest)
- Worries: Health is partially a evaluative notion and advocates of ecosystem health pretend it's purely objective; Do they sneak in their preferred states for ecosystems into their conception of ecosystem health? Anthropocentric in the end?
- Leopold's Holism or "Eco-centrism"
- Holistic: Because a vision of the good of the entire biotic community determines what is right and
- The earth itself (the entire biosphere as an interconnected system) has moral standing (intrinsic
- The individual gets value by its contribution to the good of the whole community (individual's
value depends on its instrumental value to the community).
- Leopold's ethic is inegalitarian, because individuals can contribute more or less to the integrity,
stability, and beauty of the biotic community and thus have more or less (instrumental) value
- E.g., a deer contributes far less to the integrity, stability, and beauty of a long-leaf pine
ecosystem than does an endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
- Ecofascism objection to holistic land ethics
- Fascism is a political system that sacrifices the individual for the state.
- According to the critics, holistic land ethics are "ecofascist" because they allow sacrificing the
individual biotic citizen for the good of the biotic community. For example:
- Eradicating exotics: Poisoning exotic fish; shooting feral goats to protect endangered plants.
- Sanctions poor treatment of humans?: Shooting poachers of endangered rhinos; letting people
starve when they have exceeded the carrying capacity of their ecosystems; being in favor of
- Reply to ecofascism objection to ecocentrism : Some concern for individuals is needed to supplement holistic land ethics (and is actually
hinted at in Leopold's writings: Leopold does talk about "respect for fellow members"--suggesting that
his view of moral standing is not exclusively holistic.)
- Pluralism rather than monism: Accept both biocentrism (biocentric individualism) and holistic ecocentrism