Personizing the Land in Aldo Leopold’s Land-Ethic
Uta Maria Jürgens
Institute of Technology Zürich
Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
of Evolution and Technology - Vol. 24 Issue 3 – Sept 2014 – pgs 60-64
Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic (1949) was one of the
first clarion calls announcing a new era of thinking about Nature, but it is
obviously difficult for the human race to turn conceptual insights into action.
I propose that the missing link lies in acknowledging non-human personhood. If
we allow ourselves to “personize” Leopold’s Land, we enable moral behavior
towards the world as a whole. In this paper, I build on Leopold and develop the
acknowledgement of non-human personhood as the logical and necessary next step
in his Ethical Sequence.
Personizing the Land
“We can be ethical only in relation to
something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in”.
(Leopold 1949, 214)
One of the
first modern appeals for rethinking our relationship, as human beings, to our
fellow world has been Aldo Leopold’s Land
Ethic with its principal premise that “The extension of ethics […] is actually
a process in ecological evolution” (Leopold 1949, 202). Aldo Leopold construes the development
of ethics as a process undergoing a development of increasing
inclusiveness. He holds that the rules for social intercourse initially were defined over individual
humans and have, in a next stage of the “Ethical Sequence” (ibid, 202-203),
been expanded to include injunctions about how individuals should behave
towards their community. The third step, Leopold proposes, is an ethic that
informs a respectful relationship between human society and land. The Land
Ethic thus argues for endowing the natural world with ethical standing.
decades ahead of a wide-spread “ecological conscience” (ibid, 221), Leopold lay
the ethical foundation for the emergence of a Deep Ecology (Naess 1973), an
Ecopsychology (Roszak 2001), an Earth Jurisprudence (Cullinan 2011); and the
ideas of an Earth Community (Berry
1999), of Biophilia (Wilson 1984, Kellert 2003), and of a joint Journey of the
Universe of all beings (Swimme and Tucker 2011). These appeals to reconcile
humanity with Nature are widely hailed since they come in the wake of centuries
of human dominance and exploitation. Reason and intuition tell us that living
in harmony with our fellow world is more than a romantic notion—it is a matter
of life and death for the natural world and, because of our dependence on it, our
only hope for long-term survival of humankind. The idea of harmony, of living
in peace and feeling whole and embedded, is an archetypal human desire. Ethics
are a means to foster and to safeguard harmony. And both harmony and ethics
ultimately rely upon the genuine and irreducible feelings of love and connectedness
to beloved others. Allowing for a personal connection is paramount for including
someone or something within the boundaries of an ethic of harmonious communion.
What or who
is the “something” towards which we should behave ethically? Leopold suggests:
“[S]ome mental image of land as a biotic mechanism” (ibid, 214). This includes “soil”,
“waters”, “plants”, “animals”, the “fountain of energy” and “fertility” (ibid, 216-217).
To be sure, for an ecologist like Leopold, species, habitats and biotic pyramids
(ibid, 214) are exciting to think and to moralize about. But consider the
average citizen. Will he care about the biotic pyramid? What is ecologically
correct is not necessarily ethically compelling.
abstract notions of an “Earth Community” (Berry 1999, Cullinan 2011), the
concept of a “fellow world” or the overused “Nature” and “The Environment” only
appeal to people who are already convinced of the cause. Specifically, these concepts
are so holistic and loaded with tacit assumptions that they fail to evoke the
vivid images that enable “love, respect, admiration” (Leopold 1949, 223). Acting
responsibly is contingent upon evidence that our behavior affects and is
meaningful to individual others (Heberlein 2012) and that we are personally
liable (cf. Darley and Latane 1968). The average
citizen understands much better why it is good to post a birdhouse in the
garden than why he should reduce his carbon footprint in order to protect
biodiversity. Thomas Berry (1999) traces his “life orientation” back to a field
of white lilies to which he bonded as a boy.
Aldo Leopold, too, had a personized picture of “the land-community” in mind when
he conceived of the Land Ethic. He must have seen the Sand County that gave
rise to the Sand County Almanac
(1949) his collection of stories and environmental essays, i.a. comprising “The
Land Ethic”, he surely immersed in the view of the pines and the shrubs
surrounding his shack, birds circling above him and bees humming over the
ground. Don’t we all carry an image of “land” in our hearts, an image in which our
attachment to the non-human world crystallizes? The one-on-one encounter with
particular animals, plants, and landscapes that, collectively, constitute Nature
is the mediating link between personal responsibility and actual land-ethical
is “personizing” in the sense suggested here? To personize another being means to
recognize him or her as an individual with a unique set of qualities, motivations
and capacities. Essentially, personizing means recognizing another being’s personhood,
cherishing his or her inherent value and right to be and thrive according to
his or her disposition (cf. Berry,
cited in Cullinan 2011). Personization, thus, is the extension of the respect
and appreciation we show to our beloved others beyond the circle of kin, friends
for personizing the non-human world is no ivory-tower notion about how the
world could be a better place in a parallel universe. It actually is an
explicitly non-academic idea since it circumnavigates the dogmatic question of
which entities may, philosophically speaking, be eligible for “personhood”. The
present argument solely depends on the natural personizing capacity of the
human mind. Recognizing personhood is what we do every day. We automatically
single a being out of its category when we encounter him or her. We do that
with our fellow humans, of course, but likewise with animals, plants, even machines
and landscape features.
automaticity of personization derives from a mental faculty, the so-called Theory
of Mind (Premack and Woodruff 1978). This built-in tool of our psyche enables
us to perceive mental states of others, their thoughts, feelings and
intentions. Our Theory of Mind responds to social stimuli emanating from our fellow
humans, but when non-human beings display similar characteristics, it responds
to them in a similar way. As animals’ expressions of life are akin to our own,
animal personhood to us is the most striking kind of non-human personhood. Remember,
for example, when you first met a fox, a deer or a skunk in the wild. Instantly
and involuntarily, you built a personal rapport, making that instance of a
species a partner in an infinitesimal conversation. When we deal with
individual animals, we automatically think of them as some kind of
animal-person. And naturally, we draw on moral principles in relating to them,
e.g. walking softly so as not to frighten the deer, boar or skunk. Moreover, we
easily observe how each animal, like every human, has a particular pattern of
behavior. Involuntarily, we apply personality qualities to them: “brazen”,
“shy”, “curious” or “shrewd”.
that this is not mere anthropomorphizing but that the inner life of animals is
real and is in many cases strikingly similar to human sentience and
intelligence (see Bekoff 2007 for an overview). Cutting
edge research attests our intuition that animals have personalities just like
us. Even lizards, spiders or sticklebacks exhibit behavioral patterns which we
would call “personalities” in humans (Ogden 2012). Also, other social animals evince
a Theory of Mind. Apes (Suddendorf and Withen 2001), dolphins (Connor and Man
2006), dogs and wolves (Udell et al. 2008), crows (Bugnyar 2007), and many more
share the ability to see others’ minds as being populated with thoughts,
feelings and intentions. Dr. Mark Bekoff (2007, Bekoff and Pierce 2009) takes this
one further step. He concludes from his research that “animals have morality”
and that “animal morality is different in degree, not in kind, from human morality”
(Bekoff and Pierce 2009, 33 and 139, respectively). This means that these animals
can really be partners in an emotional and moral dialogue.
appreciating non-human personhood is not predicated on non-humans being similar
to us. We can perceive and appreciate personhood in plants—haven’t you become
“friends” with at least one particularly personable tree during your life? We
can become attached to a certain rock formation; we can scold our electronic
equipment. The remarkable progress in developing of machine minds (e.g. Bina48
of the Terasem Movement Foundation 2014) further blurs the limits between human
and non-human personhood. That similarity is no prerequisite for love and respect
is self-evident and intuitively clear to us: We do not expect the same degree
of responsiveness from a mentally disabled person as from one who is unimpaired
but still cherish both as members of our moral community; and we rejoice in the
specific doghood of our dog although he will never comment with more than a
friendly wag on the draft of our recent paper. The inherent value of human-,
animal-, plant- and maybe even rock- and machine-persons derives from the premise
that a human, fox, deer, skunk, tree, and object has an existence that is inimitable
and singularly precious (Jürgens, 2014). The unique personhood of other beings
as perceived by us is in itself worthy of respect and personizing demands
nothing more than appreciating an individual as being unique in his or her own way.
A fourth stage for the Ethical Sequence
“[A] land ethic changes the role of Homo
Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to a plain member and citizen of
it.” (Leopold 1949, 204)
made us personizers. Thinking and moralizing about individual others is how
humans came to think and moralize in the first place, given that our ancestors essentially
depended on well-functioning small groups (Lieberman 1991, Vogel 1983).
Therefore, sociobiologically speaking, morals are meant for individuals facing
individuals. Consequently, Leopold (1949) incorporates this “I – you” relation
in the first stage of his Ethical Sequence. The second stage is defined by moral
obligations between a human being and society, making the “I – we” connection.
At the third stage, moral obligations between humans and “the land” forge the
“I – they” tie.
the land, the Ethical Sequence comes full circle and relates the human “I” back
to the “you” in another person who might be human being, animal, plant,
machine, object. This fourth stage is characterized by awareness and
mindfulness for the unique personhood of others, an evidence-based Neo-Animism
if you will, with the intent to forge a harmonious “communion of subjects” (Berry 1999). Let us term
this stage of reasoned consideration of our fellow world “Compassionate Coexistence.”
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I am deeply
grateful to William Vance, Christopher Faßbender, Inga Jürgens, Rachel
Scheinerman and Avana Andrade for their valuable comments on earlier versions
of this manuscript.