Leopold's Land Ethic

(an example of “ecocentrism”)

About Aldo Leopold



 1.       Leopold's reappraisal: "A shift in values achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free."

           a.       This reverses the tradition, extensionistic, ethical methodology (whereby nonhumans are valuable in so far as they are like humans)

                     i.        Extensionism as arrogant and condescending: Beings get included in the moral club only in so far as they are sufficiently like us

           b.       Instead of arguing that we should extend moral concern to nonhumans because they have the same properties we find morally important in human life (intelligence, sentience, life, etc.)

                     i.        Rather than valuing the nonhuman on the basis of what we value about human life

           c.       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)

           d.       See Henry David Thoreau on value of wildness

 2.       Leopold puts human value in the context of land's value:

           a.       It is the land community that has ultimate value and human value is to be seen in that context

 3.       The land (seen as a holistic, interconnected, ecological web or ecosystem) has moral standing–this is “ecocentrism”

           a.       “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

 4.       Land is not mere property, not a mere commodity, nor mere resource; but a moral community to which we belong

           a.       Land is not something properly viewed in solely economic terms, as a matter of mere expediency or self-interest without any ethical obligations

           b.       Leopold’s view of land is comparable to a Northern Blackfoot Native American’s response to the White Man's attempt to buy land:

                     i.        "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."


          c.       Worries: Does it make sense to see land as a community (moral or otherwise)?

                    i.        Many ecologists now talk about loose "assemblages" of organisms rather than tightly knit communities

                    ii.       Many ethicists think moral communities involve reciprocal obligations and the land can't have obligations.

                    iii.      For more on these two concerns, click here.



5.       Humans are “plain members and citizens,” not conquerors of the "land-community"


6.       The conqueror role is morally inappropriate and practically suspect:

          a.       Even if it once made sense to see humans as tamers of the wilderness, it no longer does today.

7.       Leopold’s skepticism about human's ability to manage nature

          a.       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.

          b.       "The 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."

          c.       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?


8.       Leopold's Maxim (the Land Ethic’s principle for right action): "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."


9.       Ecocentric values and goals: The values Leopold's maxim would have us promote

          a.       Beauty: Not just pretty scenery; aesthetic value even in drab little tundra plant. Is all pristine nature beautiful (when properly understood = “positive aesthetics”)?

                    i.        Worries: Is valuing nature for its beauty anthropocentric? Too relativistic and subjective to be useful for policy? Is aesthetic value too weak a value compared to the economic values used to justify destroying nature? Don't we need to protect ugly nature too?

          b.       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.

                    i.        Worries: Disequilibrium ecologists suggest that many ecosystems are not stable or balanced; Thus Leopold may be exhorting us to preserve what sometimes/often doesn't exist (stability in ecosystems). No duty to preserve ecosystems that are not stable? Also conflicts with environmentalists' idea of the "delicate balance" of ecosystems--if they are so stable, they should be able to handle human assaults. Does preserving stability mean freeze-framing nature (no: but let natural processes evolve on their own)

          c.       Integrity:

                    i.        Wholeness (having all the parts, the "original" complement of species, being "intact"); justifies restoration of species to ecosystems

                              (1)     Worry: Does wholeness ignore that species composition of ecosystems is historically contingent?

                    ii.       Not false or fake (e.g., plastic trees/plastic birds, fake lawns)


                    iii.      Being true to own character (e.g., preference for native rather than exotic species)

                    iv.      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).

                              (1)     Worry: Does human involvement always reduce the integrity of an ecosystem?

                    v.       Integrity not= ecosystem health (see below)

          d.       Ecosystem Health: The ability of an ecosystem to carry out its biological and ecological functions (e.g., water and nutrient cycling).

                    i.        Note that (in contrast with integrity), humans can improve on ecosystem health (e.g., by eradicating an insect pest from a forest) and so can exotic species

                    ii.       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? Is ecosystem health anthropocentric in the end?

          e.       Diversity: Of species, of genes, and of ecosystems. Rarity enhances value on this criterion.

                    i.        Worries: Suggests that human bioengineering would enhance ecosystems. Would require that we work against nature in those cases where natural extinction is taking place (Note here how diversity and wildness values conflict in this case.) Possibly too product oriented (# of species), not process oriented enough (speciation). Stability and diversity might come into conflict.


10.     Leopold's Holism or "Eco-centrism"

          a.       Holistic: Because a vision of the good of the entire biotic community determines what is right and wrong

          b.       The earth itself (the entire biosphere as an interconnected system) has moral standing (intrinsic value) as do ecosystems

          c.       An extreme holism, un-supplemented by moral standing for individuals, would view individual’s value as solely instrumental as determined by the individual’s contribution to the good of the whole community

          d.       If Leopold's ethic is such an extreme holism, then it is inegalitarian, in the sense that because individuals can contribute more or less to the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community they have more or less (instrumental) value

                    i.        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 (and so though it is of greater psychological sophistication, it has less–instrumental–value)


11.     Ecofascism objection to holistic land ethics

          a.       Fascism is a political system that sacrifices the individual for the state

          b.       According to the critics, holistic land ethics are "ecofascist" because they allow sacrificing the individual biotic citizen for the good of the biotic community.

          c.       For example:

                    i.        Eradicating exotics: Poisoning exotic fish; shooting feral goats to protect endangered plants.

                    ii.       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 AIDS?

12.     Reply to ecofascism objection to ecocentrism

          a.       Some intrinsic concern for individuals is needed to supplement holistic land ethics

          b.       Leopold's writings include such concern: He writes of "respect for fellow members"--suggesting that his view of moral standing is not exclusively holistic.

          c.       Accept both biocentrism (biocentric individualism) and holistic ecocentrism



Study Questions for Leopold and Ecocentric Holism
1. Do you agree with Leopold that the right to see geese is as important as the right of free speech?
2. What is the slogan for Leopold's reappraisal? Using examples, explain what it means.
3. What is the moral "extensionist" approach in environmental ethics? Why do some think it involves an arrogant and condescending attitude toward nonhumans? In what way is Leopold's ethic not extensionistic?
4. Describe Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic. What does he mean by land? How would believing in the land ethic change our attitudes toward the land? Describe the current conception of land that Leopold is criticizing. What alternative conception of land does he propose? Does this reappraisal of land (and the human relationship to land) make sense to you?
5. State "Leopold's Maxim" and explain what purpose it serves in his land ethic. Explain and give examples of each of its components (viz., integrity, stability, and beauty). What sorts of policies toward the land would violate each of these components? How might critics argue that these components aren't the right goals for land management? Do you agree with the critics or with Leopold?
6. How are ecosystem health and ecosystem integrity related and different? Can one have one without the other?
7. Explain how biodiversity and wildness value might conflict.
8. Is Leopold's maximum holistic or individualistic? Explain why.
9. With respect to individual members of the land community, is Leopold's position egalitarian or inegalitarian? Why?
10. What is the ecofascism objection to Leopold's land ethic (or any holistic ethic)? Is this a good objection to Leopold's position? Why or why not? How might Leopold defend himself from the charge of ecofascism?