In “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic,” J. Baird Callicott defends Aldo Leopold’s concept of the land ethic in the face of certain criticisms and conflicts. Because of its emphasis of the value of the biotic community over the value of an individual, the land ethic has been accused of preaching “environmental fascism.” One major conflict is between the holistic land ethics that is based on the well-being of the entire biotic community and the more individualized ethics that are focused on anthropocentrism. In other words, how can we look out for our fellow human beings at the same time if we adopt on an ethics that serve to preserve the entire biotic system?
The land ethic asserts that “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” (Leopold, 231). In other words, this position does not look out for the well-being of an individual, who is not granted “the right to life.” The land ethic emphasizes a utilitarian position because a consequence is judged to be morally correct if it resulted in the greatest amount of pleasure for the largest group of beings. In this case, the largest group of beings constitutes the biotic community. Thus, this land ethic would deem it wrong for a farmer to abuse natural resources for profit or for the government to leave a population of deer unchecked as they devour a forest. However, this leads to the conflict with human ethical and moral communities. Critics of the land ethic state that under this theory, it would be morally right if large communities of humans were exterminated in order to solve the ongoing problem of overpopulation and resource competition. Individual ethics of anthropocentrism would obviously deem this scenario to be horrific, inhumane and absolutely wrong. This theory values every individual human life and the preservation of the human race. Our community teaches us that it is wrong to take the life of another let alone a population of individuals.
Is it impossible to believe in both the land ethic and the individualistic ethics of one’s community? In his article, Callicott attempts to offer a solution to the major inconsistency between the biotic and human moral communities. He states that “our recognition of the biotic community and our immersion in it does not imply that we do not also remain members of the human community…or that we are relieved of the…moral responsibilities of that membership” (Callicott, 243). In other words, we can adopt the land ethic but we are still entitled to respect universal human rights and the principles of human worth. Callicott recommends that our obligations and duties to the human race come before environmental duties. However, “while the land ethic does not cancel human morality, neither does it leave it unaffected” (Callicott, 243). In making this comment, Callicot is trying to assert that it is possible to believe in both philosophies because they have an interdependent relationship.
Though I believe that it is important to have moral obligations to one’s own species, I disagree with Callicott’s solution that “humanitarian obligations in general come before environmental duties” (Callicott, 243). This is because he offers no explanation why this is the case! This solution places Callicott in the dangerous waters of speciesism. His solution gives off an air that we should place human obligations over the environment just because we are more important. Throughout the whole article, Callicott preaches the genius of Leopold’s “Land Ethic.” However, in making this comment, he contradicts his whole article! Though he gives us an extensive lesson on what are environmental duties based on the land ethic, he leaves the concept of “humanitarian obligations” undefined. Thus, one can have a duty to grant the human race with a comfortable and luxurious life by depleting the Earth of its natural resources. Since this can be considered as a humanitarian obligation, then its consequences would be justified even though it is detrimental to the biodiversity and ecosystems of the natural world. I believe that a better solution would be to adjust one’s individual ethics to one’s community to match the land ethic. There may be a time one has to place the wellbeing of the biotic community above our own human communities. For example, we might have to put a cease to using convenient modern transportation such as cars or trains in order to control green house gas emissions. However, I believe that this position should be applicable vice versa as well. Every individual has the moral obligation to ensure the well-being of their species. Instead of exterminating several human communities to solve the problem of overpopulation, an alternate solution should be devised, such as spreading birth control or legislation on family size.