Jensen, Endgame II (cont.)

I needed to reply to a comment by Keith Talent in response to my review of Derrick Jensen's Endgame Vol. II. I was trying to reply in the comments area, but it was taking more space than was in any way reasonable. Hopefully he won't feel attacked by this, since my intention isn't to personalize the debate; I take his remark to be culturally symptomatic, and respond accordingly.

Keith wrote as follows:
Looks like a pretty poor argument to me.

I think [Jensen] needs (among many other things) to persuasively argue for amoralism or moral egoism for the premises to lead to the valid conclusion that he *should* do whatever it takes to get there. It's far from clear why old growth forests are intrinsically a good thing. No doubt he attempts to make his case elsewhere. But I don't think one would need to be a rabid global-warming denier to find the arguments unpersuasive. If the summary of the book is as you present it it looks as if any arguments he does have are predicated on some fairly speculative premises, such as civilisation being unchangeable.
The summary is pretty much as I present it, and it does begin from some specific premises. In fact, both books begin with a set of them, including Premise Six which begins with the words "Civilization is not redeemable." But it's a 900-page two-volume work, so naturally Jensen covers a lot more ground than I've described.

I ran out of space in my comment and had to create a new post because you got me cranky, Keith: How on earth could a person see old growth forests as a bad thing?

Here's one argument thread that hits close to home for me in British Columbia, because of how much I happen to know about the topics: trees in the watersheds of salmon-bearing streams are significantly larger than are trees in non-salmon watersheds, even when you adjust for age, precipitation, temperature, elevation, and so on. Trees tend to be further apart, with a less dense understory that's more easily travelled by larger mammals as well as home to stronger and more diverse populations of birds and small mammals. More scientifically, "[i]sotopic analyses indicate that trees and shrubs near spawning streams derive approximately 22 - 24% of their foliar nitrogen (N) from spawning salmon" (Helfield and Naiman). As well, "At salmon-spawning sites it takes 86 yr for Sitka spruce to reach 50 cm dia ... as opposed to 307 yr at sites without salmon" (Bartz et al).

Why? Based on analysis of tree-core samples, it's clear that this is because the nitrogen from dead salmon is widely distributed throughout the entire watershed by the actions of (primarily) birds and bears.

Put a dam on a river, and the number of salmon able to get upstream and spawn drops precipitately. Or you could fish the population hard in the ocean and as it enters the river (as we do here at the mouth of the Fraser River), and for that reason as well fewer salmon will make it upstream to spawn.

The consequence of a crashed salmon run is that every single upstream watershed changes, dramatically. Without the arrival of several tons of fertilizer every autumn, the plants just can't grow like they used to. Trees stop growing as quickly; the understory changes; populations of mammals, birds, insects, and amphibians decrease and have to find alternative food sources.

In the last 100 years, salmon numbers have dropped catastrophically in BC, and the consequence is that huge volumes of nutrients aren't reaching upstream landbases. The example closest to home for me is the Salmon River, near where my parents live in on Shuswap Lake; it was difficult a century ago to take a boat up-river, so thick were the salmon in spawning season, but only a few hundred salmon return each October now.

The government's response has been to promote fish farming in open-net pens in the ocean, with its attendant hazards of sea lice infestations; dead zones from fecal matter and non-organic food waste; and threat to wild populations based on genetic change and competition due to escaped Atlantic salmon into this Pacific environment.

Let me be clear: habitats hundreds of miles from the ocean are changing because of how we treat salmon, and our response isn't to find some way to increase spawning salmon populations, or to help those upland habitats replace the lost nutrients (through some magical solution without impact on that other place that will have to surrender its nutrients to replace the salmon), but to find other ways to eat more of something similar to the various local species of fish we've driven to the brink of extinction.

So, yeah, I'm comfortable saying that civilization is unlikely to undertake change voluntarily that threatens the privileges of the civilized.

On the other hand, I deeply respect the work of Terry Glavin, who in Waiting for the Macaws argues forcefully that we're decent enough as a species that we always want to change positively and to learn from our mistakes, but I'm having a hard time being optimistic. I just don't see us learning fast enough to be able to do enough to change before it's too late.

Comments

Keith Talent said…
Hi Richard,

I certainly don't feel attacked, happy to debate this.

I did not state that old growth forests were a bad thing or that anyone could see them as a bad thing. I said it was not obvious that old growth forests were intrinsically a good thing. So that leaves the option that they are intrinsically neutral or bad (the negation of good is 'not good' not 'bad').

But I think the more important point to emphasize is my use of the term 'intrinsically'. The quote you use of Jensen makes it sound as if old growth forests and wild salmon should be a goal in itself but it is not obvious that they should be if we need to 'do whatever it takes to get there'. Old growth forests are indicative of a flourishing eco-system ditto wild salmon. But still it does not look like an over-riding good that justifies whatever action Jensen deems necessary. For example suppose we could kill every person on the planet and we would end up with wild growth forests and wild salmon would this be the right thing to do? Presumably not, and presumably Jensen would not argue that either (although I've not read him so maybe he really does mean that, in which case things are even more worrying).

The way to look at this is to consider what the grounds are for moral values. Some options on the table- utilitarianism; deontological ethics; virtue ethics. But all of these are concerned with humans, we might make (to my mind plausible) arguments to extend the sphere of moral concern to animals (for example a utilitarian might be committed to not causing pain to animals as per Peter Singer), but it would be a really weird moral theory if we were to extend the sphere of moral concern to plants and trees. Plants and trees do not have rights.

So I guess (I am guessing a lot here, I should probably go away and read Jensen, but as you've presented him I do not feel that inclined) that Jensen cannot argue that there is an inherent value in wild trees, but rather there is some value in a flourishing eco-system of which trees are a part. But what is this value? Is it just that it is needed for humans and animals to survive? And that this in turn is a good thing for utilitarian or similar reasons? In which case it is just really odd that he should take it upon himself to do whatever it takes to get a flourishing eco-system if those very acts cause harm themselves.

As presented Jensen sounds like someone who suffers from some kind of mono-mania. Sure the environment is important, it impacts greatly on people's quality's of life. But this is not the end in itself.
richard said…
Wish I had more time this afternoon!

First, no way would Jensen say that all humans need to be killed. We're a species like any other, entitled to exactly the same protections -- included the right to prey on other species.

Jensen talks about the predator-prey relationship a great deal, arguing that when we becomes predators, we take on responsibility for the health of the prey community. I'm still trying to work this out properly, but the point seems to be that when a predator puts the existence of an entire prey community at risk, then that predator has betrayed the nature of the relationship. The logical outcome of overpredation is die-off of the predatory population, and that's how he understands what he describes as the coming collapse.

Rather than anti-human, Jensen's position is instead that human rights have been given a wildly inappropriate amount of weight when we've tried to balance the competing rights of various species, and that humans have mistakenly and abusively grown to think of privileges earned by the exploitation of other people and species as "rights." Fur coats for urban dwellers, for example.

You're correct in a legal sense that plants and trees have no rights (and in California that's been affirmed by the courts in turning down a petition on behalf of a redwood), but why is it morally true? A plant or tree is part of an ecosystem, too, not just an isolated being, and if you take out one part of the machine (cut off one part of the body), then the whole may fail.

More later, when I have time.
Keith Talent said…
Right a plant is part of an ecosystem, but that doesn't confer any rights on it even assuming that an eco-system as a whole has rights. My toenail doesn't have rights just because it is part of a human that does have rights. But furthermore I do not see that an eco-system has any rights or that if we are not deontologists that the welfare of the eco-system is the sort of thing that enters into moral calculations. Sure it is pretty to look at and sure it helps us live, but this does not confer rights on it. Picasso's paintings are pretty, they do not have rights, we do not have to consider their welfare for their own sake (we might consider it for the pleasure his work brings to others but this is a separate point). Similarly carbon and oxygen helps to keep us alive, but it would be ludicrous to argue that carbon has rights.

So the point about killing all humans was not to suggest that that was Jensen's aim or desire but to point out that the quote from p718 would need to be heavily qualified by him, he says 'whatever it takes' but clearly does not mean that.

I certainly agree with the assertion that many people do not pay sufficient attention (or indeed are entirely ignorant of) the rights of other species. The bit about betraying the nature of the relationship does not make much sense to me it sounds like quite a wishy washy assertion of Jensen's that needs much to back up what is exactly meant by that and why it should be morally relevant. If I begin foraging for wild mushrooms then it is sensible to not pick all of them so that they can spore, and indeed there might even be a moral imperative to do so so that others can also enjoy the mushrooms, but I do not owe the mushrooms anything, they are mushrooms!
richard said…
Why does the fact that a mushroom is a mushroom mean that you owe it nothing? Why is the only "moral imperative" involved in your examples the pleasure of other humans? Not their survival, but specifically their pleasure?
Keith Talent said…
Well most extant moral theories do not value survival for its own sake. My leanings are towards utilitarianism evaluated on pleasure of humans and also animals. That is a very rough characterisation of my position. There does not seem to be anything inherently valuable in the survival of a specific person or species, take for example someone with an incurable painful terminal disease, it seems here that euthanasia is justified because their continued survival would bring an excess of pain over pleasure. Now obviously that is not directly analogous to the mushroom case because of course mushrooms are not experiencing pain, but importantly they do not experience pleasure either.

I think the onus is very much on Jensen to provide us with a reason for supposing that survival of a species is inherently morally valuable. The reason why the onus is on him to do so is that he is very much swimming against the tide of current moral theory. Perhaps he can tie it in with Aristotelian virtue ethics or somehow link it to the Kantian categorical imperative or some other moral theory, but I have not seen those arguments.

Just in terms of the dialectic it looks like he needs to offer specific reasons for adding survival of a species to the stock of morally relevant factors. To just ask why we should not add it in to the mix since we already have pleasure does not look like an argument. Since we can just add in anything we like by that route, why is the wearing of a hat on Thursday not a moral imperative if maintaining the pleasure of humans is?

Just a small point it is not because a mushroom is a mushroom that we owe it nothing it is because mushrooms are not capable of consciously experiencing pleasure or pain that we owe them nothing. That is it is not the identity of the mushroom but rather its nature that is salient.

My general worry is that it sounds like Jensen is someone with little or no philosophical training making some fairly out there philosophical claims without rigorously backing them up. He writes popular non-fiction that may well not be peer-reviewed with an eye to the philosophical content. I am genuinely interested to hear any arguments that he might have backing up these moral claims, but I have not heard anything that even approaches a sound philosophical argument, and my suspicion is that any that might be contained in the book will have holes in them that one can drive a bus through.

Just to be clear, I think there are good arguments for protecting the environment but in the Jensen quotes and summary you provide I don't see any. And I think his stronger pro-eco-terrorism argument is founded on a number of shaky premises, not least of which are that civilisation is doomed to collapse and that the ends justify the means (which note is what he needs and is a far stronger claim than the denial of pacifism as a sound moral principle).
richard said…
I'm going to respond this morning to a couple of your comments, Keith, so here's the first:

"it is not because a mushroom is a mushroom that we owe it nothing, it is because mushrooms are not capable of consciously experiencing pleasure or pain that we owe them nothing. That is it is not the identity of the mushroom but rather its nature that is salient" (July 25, 1:20).

As attractive as it is for human-to-human interaction, utilitarianism permits the privileging of one species over another based on how well we recognize the two species' relative sensation of pleasure or pain. This is behind the history of fish-eating "vegetarians." It's an old and fairly discredited tactic to say that our ability to assess the sensibilities of beings unlike ourselves is limited, but one of Jensen's ideas seems to be that we can communicate directly with nonhumans, including trees and other non-animals, if only we listen properly. (I haven't yet started A Language Older Than Words, but that looks like the thesis of that book.)

But I don't want to have to hear nature's response before deciding whether it has inherent value. Naively -- without philosophic reference -- I would assert that we're missing the point of being natural ourselves if the only measure we accept is how human others seem. I'm not willing to accept as determinative the duality of human and nonhuman, because there are larger categories available that subsume human and nonhuman.

It's certainly possible to argue that we should preserve (for example) mushroom species because we can eat them, but that reduces nonhuman species to items for use: planet as larder, if you will. This means it's time for your other remark, namely:

"Sure the environment is important, it impacts greatly on people's quality's of life. But this is not the end in itself" (July 24, 12:13).

Actually yes, the environment is the end in itself. Without a viable environment, we die. It's not a question of pleasure or pain, or "quality of life." I'm used to assessing the worth of my life based on objectives like pleasure caused and experienced, pain caused and experienced, posivite and negative contributions to "society" (in its various definitions).

But I'm questioning my allegiances these days.

Jensen's arguments, you're right, are often based in narrative rather than philosophically sound. He deliberately avoids much philosophic discourse, taking the position that much of it is hopelessly anthropocentric; I see in this his preference for taking down civilization rather than changing it.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that I'm in Jensen's sway based on the strength of his philosophy, even though that seems to be what we're debating, but evidentially I'm finding myself similarly pushed toward radicalism.

I could go through stats about species extinction and threat, but I won't. You've heard those yourself. My point is that in the face of that news, reading Jensen pushed me toward a desire to do something different than I'm doing now.

And I can't figure out what that is.
Keith Talent said…
Hi Richard,

Taking a couple of quotes from your post above:

"As attractive as it is for human-to-human interaction, utilitarianism permits the privileging of one species over another based on how well we recognize the two species' relative sensation of pleasure or pain. This is behind the history of fish-eating "vegetarians." It's an old and fairly discredited tactic to say that our ability to assess the sensibilities of beings unlike ourselves is limited, but one of Jensen's ideas seems to be that we can communicate directly with nonhumans, including trees and other non-animals, if only we listen properly."

There seems to be underlying this the assumption that we choose what moral theory to subscribe to rather like we might choose which team to support. But if we are moral absolutists (as seems like a fairly sensible position to adopt) then morals aren't like that. There is one moral theory that exists, is non-human dependent and is the only theory that gives us what is morally right and wrong. I sign up to utilitarianism, which means I believe that utilitarianism is the correct moral theory, which means that whatever anyone else believes to be the correct moral theory I should still believe utilitarianism to be correct. If someone else signs up to a deontological theory then I should believe that they are incorrect. Moral theories are rather like mathematical theories or theories of physics, they exist and are true regardless of people's approach to them (and indeed regardless of people's existence full stop). So utilitarianism does not permit the privileging of one species over another on the basis of how well we recognise their ability to experience pleasure or pain, this would be like claiming physics privileges whether some particles are attracted to electrons on the basis of how well we recognise their charge. Rather what is happening when people erroneously privilege one species' pleasure over another is that a mistake is being made, the theory is being incorrectly interpreted, perhaps because of ignorance of the species' capacity to experience pleasure or pain. But I just do not get what could be meant by the claim that we can communicate directly with trees, in any case whether we could communicate with trees is not morally relevant, what is morally relevant is whether they are consciously capable of experiencing pain and pleasure, they are clearly not, any theory that claims otherwise has a considerable uphill struggle to prove the science of that before we can even get to the stage of discussing morality.

You also say:

"It's certainly possible to argue that we should preserve (for example) mushroom species because we can eat them, but that reduces nonhuman species to items for use: planet as larder, if you will."

At most this argument would be addressed at non-pleasure-and-pain-experiencing species rather than nonhuman- I say elsewhere that animal pleasure and pain can be morally relevant. (Indeed I think one should be vegan for these reasons.) But also there might be other morally relevant reasons for preserving mushroom species that I have not ruled out. They might be useful in sustaining life in ways other than being foodstuffs, they might for instance be useful in breaking down organic matter, and in turn help promote the food-chain. They might be pretty to look at. They might give mycologists something to do (that they enjoy) etc.

You say:

"Actually yes, the environment is the end in itself. Without a viable environment, we die. "

That looks contradictory, perhaps I haven't fully elucidated what I mean for something to be an end in itself. When I say that the environment is not an end in itself I mean that what morally motivates us is not to have a perfect environment full stop. Rather what should motivate us is the overall sum of pleasure and pain, I agree that having a flourishing environment is probably necessary for this, my point was just that this is not what we aim at, but rather is a means to our end.

If Jensen takes the position that much of philosophy is hopelessly anthropocentric that sounds like begging the question at best, at worst it looks like an admission that he has no reasoned argument for his position and so will just avoid giving one. Philosophy is like physics, it is the study of the way the world is, so there are philosophical theories that are not about humans just as there are scientific theories that are not about humans. If his point is that there is not much philosophy that is not about the environment then this is wrong, but in any case there is nothing stopping him from doing that philosophy.

When you say:

"But I don't want to have to hear nature's response before deciding whether it has inherent value. Naively -- without philosophic reference -- I would assert that we're missing the point of being natural ourselves if the only measure we accept is how human others seem. I'm not willing to accept as determinative the duality of human and nonhuman, because there are larger categories available that subsume human and nonhuman."

I don't see what the point of being natural is, or why this has any moral relevance, that is something that needs to be argued for. The distinction between human and non-human is not what is relevant, as argued above, it is whether or not something is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain that is relevant. Why is that relevant, well you might just think that pleasure is an inherently good thing. Why am I not committing a moral wrong against the mushrooms when I wipe out their species, because they don't care! They're not capable of caring. Sure there might be a moral wrong in wiping out the mushrooms in so far as it has repercussions for the pleasure and pain of the world, but I'm not doing the harm to the mushrooms.

It looks as if Jensen is personifying Mother Nature or some such and thinking that we have moral duties towards that person. No doubt he doesn't say anything as simplistic as this, but it does look like (from what I have seen you present) that he thinks we owe some moral duty to an eco-system, and this seems like very muddled thinking, that without some solid underpinning from ethical theory does not deserve much attention (contrary to the attention I am giving it here!)

Anyway I'll leave it there, conscious that on reading that back it may look a little aggressive. That isn't the intention, nor the spirit it was written in.
richard said…
I also don't get what's meant by communicating with trees. I'm not defending Jensen about that, and until I read A Language Older Than Words, I'm not going to try to summarize his position on it.

Here's my objection, at its most basic, to what you're saying: You describe utilitarianism as "non-human dependent," but it isn't.

Utilitarianism requires us to measure pleasure and pain, and we can only do that based on whether we can see evidence of it, which means something that makes sense to us, in our way of seeing. Utilitarianism makes no provision for anything incapable of pleasure or pain as we know those terms.

My difficulty with it is that "pleasure" and "pain" are terms we construct based on our frame of knowing. There's no other frame of knowing possible, so I'm not slighting the intellect of utilitarian thinkers, but the consequence is that utilitarianism is inescapably human-focused.

Your remark about the mushrooms at the end above is a great example for me: "Why am I not committing a moral wrong against the mushrooms when I wipe out their species, because they don't care! They're not capable of caring. Sure there might be a moral wrong in wiping out the mushrooms in so far as it has repercussions for the pleasure and pain of the world, but I'm not doing the harm to the mushrooms." This is good utilitarian reasoning, but it's a worldview I can't accept. I suppose I could inflate your "pleasure and pain of the world" line to take into account the vastly greater number of animal species that at some point in their biological processes benefit from these mushrooms, but I don't want to. It's not the example I'm objecting to, but the reasoning for it.

The great challenge for ecophilosophy is that the debates are framed in terms that make sense based on human thoughts, values, processes, and so on. We've had 2500 years to build a human-centred philosophic tradition, so the strongest arguments that environmentalists can muster are practical ones about the interconnectedness of species and systems. Ecophilosophy loses these arguments, consistently and predictably and for good reason.

Which doesn't, let me be clear, mean that I in any way accept that it's philosophically defensible to exterminate a species because its individual members don't seem to "care" as we do.
keith talent said…
Utilitarianism doesn't require us to measure pleasure and pain. The successful application of utilitarianism to moral reasoning may well require us to measure pleasure and pain, but that is very different. That a theory is difficult to put into practice doesn't make it any less valid. Mathematics makes it such that polynomials of power greater than five are difficult to solve (there is no general formula for solving them and nor can there be), but this doesn't mean that we have discovered a problem with mathematics and consequently should abandon it. So utilitarianism is non-human dependent, but the successful implementation of it may well depend on humans, and it may well be humans that have discovered it. Furthermore utilitarianism does apply to everything (at least on some construals of utilitarianism) that is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, no matter what we know about pleasure and pain, and whether we know whether something experiences pleasure and pain. Eco-systems do not experience pleasure or pain, to argue otherwise would be a category mistake. Mushrooms do not experience pleasure or pain, while we do not have a fully worked out theory of pleasure and pain I can be pretty sure of this. We might have some kind of functionalist account of pleasure that talks about seeking out pleasure and responding in certain ways to pleasurable events and so on, this has not been fully cashed out, but however it is cashed out it does not allow the possibility of mushrooms to experience pleasure. If someone insists that mushrooms or eco-systems experience pleasure then the word is simply being used incorrectly. The terms pleasure and pain as used in ethical theory while being terms that we have invented nevertheless latch onto concepts that are robust and are not human inventions, pleasure and pain would exist just as they do now even if there were not human words to describe them.

When you suggest that you could 'inflate your "pleasure and pain of the world" line to take into account the vastly greater number of animal species that at some point in their biological processes benefit from these mushrooms', I agree with this. And there may well be a good utilitarian argument to be made here, but it will not be an argument that we have somehow committed a moral wrong against the mushrooms, but rather that we have committed a moral wrong simpliciter.

I disagree with the implication that philosophy makes sense relative only to a system of thought, our current philosophy making sense based on human thoughts. I take it by making sense we mean something like is rationally argued, has sound and valid arguments? If so then these are not terms that are relativised to a system of thought they are absolute terms.

Note also that while I am talking form a utilitarian standpoint, should it turn out (per impossibile) that utilitarianism is false, then it is still not clear that Jensen's argument goes through. He has some very serious philosophical work to do to show that non-sentient objects or beings or systems have moral rights. He has not done that, and yet from the way he constructs his argument it seems that he does want us to draw a philosophical conclusion.

The kick start to our debate was your asking what was wrong with a quote from Jensen that appears on p718. Well the answer I want to give is that if it claims to have any philosophical substance to it, if it claims that we should also want to do whatever it takes then a great deal is wrong with it. For an argument to be persuasive it must be valid and have true premises. It is worrying that we could let ourselves be persuaded by something that is just a narrative with no claim to being an argument, particularly when the conclusion has quite large implications for our life (viz we should go out an blow up dams, not something I currently do on a day to day basis). I find it worrying because there is so much cod philosophy out there and it can be influential, but for bad reasons, we should not be persuaded by an argument if on examination there is no argument there. If however Jensen is not claiming to have made a philosophical argument, but rather just a sincere report of his feelings then in answer to your initial post's question there is nothing wrong with the quote. My suspicion is that this is not what he intended though.
richard said…
1. I loved the phrase "cod philosophy" in your post. I'm sure it's just a typo (probably either "good" or "bad"?), but it's terrific!;

2. see my more recent post on Ward Churchill; and most importantly,

3. see my recent comment in the original Jensen post.

Jensen's manning the barricades, raising the black flag, and slitting throats. I'm mourning and feeling lost. He and I are reacting to the same instances of environmental degradation, but our reactions -- and our ways forward -- are different.

My resistance to utilitarianism, which I cheerfully agree provides us with a theoretically sound way of approaching human relations, is that it provides us with no way to assign inherent value to something incapable of itself experiencing pleasure or pain. I can use utilitarianism to defend a grove of old-growth Sitka spruce (it provides shade to cool a river in which wild salmon spawn, and the coarse woody debris necessary for eggs not to be washed away, and humans love to eat wild salmon), and I have used utilitarianism in such a way, but circuitous backdoor methods worry me.

I don't mind hugging trees, but it's no substitute for philosophic soundness. On the other hand, philosophic soundness is unlikely to influence court orders against protesters on a road in front of a feller-buncher....
keith talent said…
'Cod philosophy' was no typo Sir, although I hadn't quite appreciated the fishy pun while writing it! Cf extract from OED below:

"2. A joke; a hoax, leg-pull; a parody, a ‘take-off’. (See also E.D.D. n.5) Also attrib. or quasi-adj., parodying, burlesque; ‘mock’.
1905 Sketch LI. 472/2 Says he: ‘Is that an absolute bargain{em}no cod?’ Says she: ‘I don't know what the fish has to do with it, but I am perfectly sincere.’ 1914 JOYCE Portr. Artist (1916) i. 45 Some fellows had drawn it there for a cod. 1952 GRANVILLE Dict. Theatr. Terms 46 Cod version, a burlesque of a well-known play. 1959 Church Times 16 Jan. 4/4 The ‘cod’ Victorian decorations tend to disguise the editor's underlying seriousness. 1959 Listener 29 Jan. 228/1 She obliged, initially in the delicious hiccup polka, a cod of Old Vienna. Ibid. 228/2 Joyce Grenfell too, doing her evergreen cod chorister. 1961 B. WELLS Day Earth caught Fire ii. 31 Pete picked up the empty tea mug and again used it as a cod mike. ‘Alcoholics of the press, unite! 1962 Listener 5 July 36/1 The very idiosyncratic cod cockney of the scenes. 1970 Guardian 11 May 8/2 The cod version of ‘Road to Mandalay’."

I think if you or Jensen want to persuade me that utilitarianism is incorrect because it does not assign inherent value to something incapable of experiencing pain or pleasure then you need to show why things like eco-systems are morally relevant. Utilitarians can offer an account of why pleasure and pain are the only morally relevant factors. If you wish to argue that survival as a species is morally relevant then that case needs to be made not assumed. As it stands it looks like there is just a gut feeling that we should keep species for the sake of keeping them, but that's not particularly sound and is also probably not an intuition that everyone shares.

I really don't think using utilitarianism in the way you describe is somehow a backdoor method. I think a lot of environmental concerns can be show to be valid in the light of utilitarianism, and I think this ought to be far more likely to persuade people than imbuing non-sentient things with rights.

Granted that there are times and places when philosophical soundness is not called for, but a book that purports to present a reasoned argument is not one of them.
fiona-h said…
such an interesting exchange!
richard said…
(Glad you're enjoying it, Fiona! I am too, I think....)

One reason I resist using utilitarianism this way is that I feel its influence behind green consumerism; see George Monbiot's remarks in the Guardian at http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2007/07/24/eco-junk/ on green consumerism. Pet peeve on my part, though, so more of a bogeyman than a legit argument.

Much more important is that at its furthest reaches, utilitarian arguments used in the environmental movement become gymnastic at best.

Here in BC's coastal rainforest, an enormously important element of the ecosystem is mycorrhizal fungi, which have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. (See http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/olympic/ecomgt/unecosys/undergrd.htm for a brief and clear discussion of this phenomenon.) I can therefore generate this utilitarian chain in support of mycorrhizal fungi:

(a) Wild salmon are important to the culture of First Nations peoples in the area, and they're very tasty as well, thus providing two kinds of pleasure.
(b) For utilitarian reasons, therefore, wild salmon need to be able to spawn successfully, which means there need to be streams with cool water temperatures and lots of coarse woody debris.
(c) This means that there need to be adequate numbers of stable forest ecosystems to provide spawning ground.
(d) This argues for the continued site-specific existence of mature evergreens (Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western red cedar), appropriate undergrowth (salal, huckleberry, devil's club), and subsoil mycorrhizal fungi.

You see the backdoor-ish quality of this approach, perhaps? I've generated a utilitarian argument in defence of mycorrhizal fungi, but it's taken at least four steps to do it, and the argument's success is limited to specific places.

Much environmental activism is defensive or reactive, so there just isn't the time to sell case-specific utilitarian arguments. We're silently faced each time with the great big assumption that's guaranteed by utilitarianism and at the core of consumerist discourse: humans get pleasure from stuff, so we need more newer better stuff. That's why I yearn for a similarly broad argument, one that isn't case-specific.
richard said…
Terrific show on CBC Newsworld tonight about the mountain pine beetle near Prince George, in British Columbia: http://www.cbc.ca/clips/rm-hi/mcdiarmid-timberbugs070402.rm.

Good GOD.
Keith Talent said…
I think you are right to acknowledge that if utilitarianism is behind green consumerism this is not an argument against utilitarianism. If an ethical theory gets results we do not agree with this is not generally a sufficient reason to reject the theory, at least not in an area that is not one where everyone has firm and unanimous intuitions.

Some of what you say in your post of July 26 makes it sound as if utilitarianism is like a tool, one that we can chose to use or not. But a more common understanding of the nature of ethical theories is that they are either true of false, much as say theories of physics are either true or false. So just because utilitarianism does not yield a neat moral decision procedure does not automatically count against it- it's annoying, we'd like our moral theory to help us make decisions, but we'd like physics to be such that perpetual motion machines are possible too and this does not count against physics.

Your argument for the site-specific evergreens might or might not be right. Utilitarianism requires us to look at the total happiness of all the world over all time, so we need to think about what other potential pleasures are being sacrificed in order to save the evergreens. If some of these pleasures outweigh the sum total of happiness gained from the saving of the evergreens then utilitarianism dictates we go with the route that leads to the greatest pleasure over pain. So what you have presented is an argument for the continued existence of evergreens but nevertheless it is vulnerable to a counterargument that takes the form of demonstrating that this does not maximise pleasure. This does not mean that your argument is backdoor, for the utilitarian it is an entirely appropriate argument.

You are right that there is a ticking bomb of sorts and that as such there is unlikely to be time for the environmental activists to make a beyond reasonable doubt case in some instances. But this still does not justify Jensen's 'whatever it takes' statement, and it still seems intellectually dishonest for him to dress up rhetoric as reasoned philosophical argument.
Hydrocodone said…
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