One of my favorite parts about environmental studies is environmental ethics. I find it incredibly interesting to use ethical frameworks to decide whether or not the things we hold true are ethical.
Last year, in an Environmental Ethics class I was in, we learned about the Western Super Ethic. While this ethic is not explicitly stated in any legislation or history, it governs nearly all of our actions towards the environment. It goes like this: The earth belongs to man and he can do with it what he pleases, as long as he does not harm anyone else or himself irreparably.
This is problematic. The thinking that this super ethic inspires is one that is destructive and unsustainable, as we have discussed in class. The problem that is posed is that if there is one man left on Earth and he destroys all he can, wantonly and without reason, avoiding harming himself, is he doing anything wrong according to this ethic?
Usually, the answer is no.
However, I’d argue that there is a way that we can get around this. While the western super ethic is larger problem outside of this hypothetical scenario, it is the scenario itself (like many others in the discipline of ethics) that makes it possible to get to the root of the issue and see how we can change our actions towards the natural world.
My argument is this:
The premise of the western super ethic is the assumption that the earth belongs to man and he can do with it what he pleases. He has full dominion.
But, if this man is the last man on the planet, then is the earth still his to do with what he wants?
My question is centered around seeing “man” as a natural species that is still subject to laws of competition no matter how much of our environment is contrived, as opposed to “man” the individualist egoist- this is the root of the problem, the flaw in the super ethic.
IF man is suddenly no longer a multitudinous species and all of a sudden an individual, would that mean that he has lost the natural competition against other species (not to other species, he is just in a condemned position evolutionarily) and thus is not “man the conquerer” anymore so the earth is not his to do with as he pleases? Ironically, the individual man loses his power in individuality.
My idea is that the western super ethic has embedded in it an assumption that the earth belongs to “man the species” and that man is the only being with intrinsic moral worth, otherwise the super ethic would say something along the lines of “Do no harm to any living being or to oneself irreparably”. If that assumption is correct and there is suddenly only one man left on the planet, then don’t the tables turn against him and he loses that anthropocentric title created to protect and give status to humanity? Then, the idea that the earth belongs to the fittest species is also lost to humans without the prospect of any repopulation.
What do you think?