The Considerability Question

Okay, so I think I’m getting a little bogged down by all the ethics discussions. Still, I know they are valuable considerations with which to approach the coming content of this course. So, just two more readings on the subject, and I’ll move on.

The Ethics of Respect for Nature | Taylor, Paul W. The Ethics of Respect for Nature . In Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston, III. (Eds.) (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (p. 38-46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

To be completely honest, I actually gave up on this reading after about 2 pages. It is a great piece; however, at this point, I think I’ve had my fill of ethics. I decided that, if I am to read any more on ethics, I’d like it to be more applicable for urban issues. That being said, from what I did read of Taylor’s piece, I gained a better understanding of the moral concerns like I had hoped. Also, Taylor emphasized how necessary it is/will be for society to recognize that nature is valuable in the first place; only then will nature be rightly considered.

What this piece did inspire me to do, however, is interview someone about their views of nature and its value- someone who I know rarely thinks twice about how their actions impact the environment: my husband. My husband is my complete opposite and unfortunately, when it comes to the environment, he only does “green” things to satiate my demands. So I wondered, what’s keeping him from considering nature and how can his view be changed? I’ll post the results once I find a moment to conduct this interview!


Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems | Cahen, Harley. (1988). Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems. In Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston, III. (Eds.) (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (p. 38-46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

I know I said I was done with the ethics talk; but, if I wasn’t fully behind that statement before, I think I can safely say I am now completely through with the ethics part of my study. I did find this particular piece online, and you can click the link above if you’re interested in reading it yourself.

Although I’ve nearly had my fill with ethics, I appreciate how this reading effectively tied together everything that I’ve read on the subject thus far. Additionally, it encouraged me to consider my own stance, just as a few other readings have. The big question in Cahen’s piece, however, was whether ecosystems were morally considerable. Up to this point, most of the ethical discussion has been a very basic consideration on the value of nature in general; whereas Cahen’s piece looked at the collective whole of an entire ecosystem. I should mention, the phrase moral consideration was thrown around quite a bit in these last two readings; and while it was explained somewhat, my understanding was still quite vague. I looked online for a definition and apparently I’m not the only one who’s a bit hazy on the meaning. Although the blog, The Misanthropic Principle, featured a 2007 post about the term, I commiserate with commenter “Bobbo”s distress: the description is still too broad. Nevertheless, the definition provided by the author was a great start…

“First, moral considerability is essentially the technical jargon in the field of morals that is used to indicate whether or not one is worthy of moral consideration. As moral people tend to grant moral considerability to all other humans, the term is primarily used in relation to other species.”

…but I have want for more detail. Regardless, in Cahen’s reading, interests were requisite for something to be granted moral considerability. This, however, raised a swarm of additional questions in the considerability discussion; particularly in the case of ecosystems. Can we defend that ecosystems have interests because they have a tendency to maintain and heal themselves (an argument made by Kenneth Goodpaster et al.)? Getting to this question meant having to first decide how important sentience was in the matter. Can plants and other non-sentient beings be seen as having interests? But then, how do we define interests in the first place? As you can imagine, I felt like I was stuck on a never-ending roller coaster ride: at times much like the merry-go-round, circling back to the same questions; and occasionally like the extreme coaster, shooting passengers up amid the clouds of one theory just to be dropped back down to the grounding concepts of another.

Even if we do conclude that non-sentient beings have interests, how can we attribute those interests to an ecosystem? And then we face yet another dilemma:

“Once we admit non-sentient beings into the moral considerability club, how can we bar the door to ordinary inanimate objects?” (p. 117)

Enter goal-directedness. (Ay-yi-yi! You thought this was supposed to be a course about urban ecological sustainability, didn’t you!?). Distinguishing between true goals and incidental, systematic outcomes gets to the root of the problem (I think). Interests, as it turns out, cannot be easily attributed to ecosystems because, although ecosystems have a tendency to maintain themselves, how can we say stability is not just a happy byproduct? Even though the many individual parts of an ecosystem can be seen as being autonomous, it is not so easy to see them all as working collaboratively.

I am certainly not an ecologist or evolutionary biologist (and thankfully so; after these discussions, I’m positive I’ve made the right career choices). However, I must say that I don’t entirely agree with the arguments put forth by Cahen. Though sound they were, I question whether or not his arguments – or those of his contenders, for that matter- even make a difference; at least in my case. Let me explain. Perhaps Cahen and others are right, maybe ecosystems do not have interests of their own. Surely, however, it is in our own best interest to protect them or at the very least consider them! Our species is intelligent enough to recognize the many valuable ecosystem services which serve us tremendously. All the constituent parts may not be cooperating intentionally, but my- cooperate they do! Oh, how the individual actions of one species often just happens to produce a positive effect for the others!?

Perhaps I should have considered reading more about systems ecology, but I didn’t know enough about ecology in general to even realize there was a specific sector that could have been more appropriate for my purpose. Anyway, to conclude, Cahen made a fantastic effort to illustrate both sides of the spectrum, and it was indeed effective.  I still personally refute his argument, but he provided the right material and provided a great debate which allowed me to see where I fit amongst it all.

There we have it, the end of my environmental ethics readings. The concepts may arise again, but hopefully in a more evolved discussion. Keep an eye out for my next post, coming shortly, which will summarize my interpretation of the study so far!


The Misanthropic Principle, post titled “Moral Considerability – What does it mean? To whom does it apply?

University of Minnesota, pdf version of Harley Cahen’s essay.


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