Aristotelian Ethics and Biophilia

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Aristotelian Ethics and Biophilia

Aristotelis Santas

Professor of Philosophy

Valdosta State University


Published in in Ethics and the Environment, 19, 1, (2014)


Biophilia is a concept that has been characterized as the human love of living things and has been much utilized as a foundation for an environmental or “land” ethic. E.O. Wilson, who popularized the concept, suggested that it is a genetic disposition that links human survival to valuing living systems. In a similar move, J. Baird Callicott has argued that human sentiments are naturally directed to all living systems and beings and this sentiment has evolutionary value. While I find great merit in these suggestions and arguments, it is my contention that if biophilia and human sentiment is to be a viable foundation for such an ethic, it must go beyond the human love for other living things and be conceived more abstractly and broadly as an interconnecting feature of biotic systems. Interestingly, the foundation for such a conception can be found in ancient Greek thought. Aristotle’s work in ethics, although his view is generally ignored or dismissed by environmental ethicists, is particularly useful here. Although his ethics is decidedly anthropocentric, Aristotle’s discussion of friendship holds a key to the much sought-after theory of interspecies obligation. Philia, Aristotle’s term for friendship, is described by him as a feeling of good will towards another self. Although his focus in the Nicomachean Ethics is human relations, he makes it clear that this sentiment can be felt towards other living beings, and after undertaking a study of the history of this word, one can see the precedent of such a usage. In this paper, I develop such a broader conception of philia that includes interspecies relationships and then reconceive the modern concept of biophilia as a form of interspecies philia. I will then go on to argue, using Aristotle’s theory of obligation as reciprocity within friendship, that such a re-conception of biophilia might provide another approach to founding an environmental ethic on a theory of sentiment.

Aristotelian Ethics and Biophilia

[H]uman history did not begin eight or ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture and villages. It began hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago with the origin of the genus Homo. For more than 99 percent of human history people lived in hunter-gatherer bands totally and intimately involved with other organisms.1


When my children were very young, we used to go to a little creek near our home. They would catch minnows with nets we had fashioned out of materials we had available to us and carry them home to keep in their aquarium. One day they managed to catch a young large-mouth bass and decided to keep it in the tank. This experiment became quite a proposition, as this wild fish could not subsist on fish flakes or pellets, and needed live prey on a regular basis. So there were many trips to the creek, and many minnows to be caught and brought back to the tank. Eventually, the fish was released back into the creek and that was the end of the experiment. In the time that we had kept this fish, however, a curious thing had happened. On one of the trips to catch minnows, my children had managed to capture a large crawfish and had been curious to see how this animal would interact with the bass. At first, predictably, the two were antagonistic to one another, but well matched by virtue of their comparable sizes. As the days passed though, they became used to one another; and not only did they stop the antagonisms, they seemed to form a bond. It was as if the confinement of their shared environment precipitated a relationship that had always been possible, but needed special circumstances to bring it about. We had observed an “interspecies” friendship, an apparent fondness of one living thing for another wherein a line is crossed between differing species.

I have characterized this example of interspecies (cross-species) relationships as a form of friendship. Jennifer S. Holland’s recent book, Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom, describes numerous other such cases. She writes:

Less common than a human-pet connection…is a bond between members of two different nonhuman species… The phenomenon is most often reported in captive animals, in part because we simply catch them in the act more often. But it’s also because, notes biologist and primate specialist Barbara King of the College of William and Mary, that’s where constraints are relaxed, where animals aren’t fighting for their basic needs--which allows their emotional energy to flow elsewhere. Of course, there are cases of cross-species bonds in the wild, as well. “Most important,” King says, “we know animals, under whatever circumstances, have that capacity.”

Holland, knowing full well that this characterization of these relationships as friendship runs the risk of inappropriately anthropomorphizing these cases, continues:

Not all scientists are comfortable using a term like friendship when referring to nurturing or protective animal relations. For many years, “animals were to be described as machines, and students of animal behavior were to develop a terminology devoid of human connotations,” wrote primatologist Frans de Waal in The Age of Empathy. He himself has been criticized for attributing human traits to animals by biologists who believe “anthropomorphic anecdotes have no place in science.”

Even those less averse to associating people-based ideas with nonpeople say we don’t know how much awareness exists between “friends” regarding their behavior. But behaviorists argue that declaring that there is none at all leans too far the other way. The famed primatologist Jane Goodall, who has described her own relationship with wild chimpanzees, said in a recent interview with me for National Geographic, “You cannot share your life in any meaningful way with an animal and not realize they have different personalities. Are their capabilities and emotions similar to ours? Absolutely.”2
This controversy over what feelings we can attribute to non-human animals is ongoing, and will not be my focus here. My reason for discussing such cases is to motivate a deeper discussion of biophilia, commonly understood as a love of life. This phenomenon is of great import in contemporary environmental philosophy and has been used by theorists as a sort of naturalistic foundation for an environmental or land ethic.

The term ‘biophilia’ was first used by Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. There he “described biophilia as ‘the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.’ The term was later used by American biologist Edward O. Wilson in his work Biophilia (1984), which proposed that the tendency of humans to focus on and to affiliate with nature and other life-forms has, in part, a genetic basis....”3 Both usages focus on human awareness and attitude; and both see biophilia as a generalized human love for living things or systems. While I think that such a usage has merit, there are other levels to explore, especially when one considers the history of the Greek term ‘philia’ on which the concept relies. It is my contention that the above described “friendships” between members of different species are important cases in biophilia, and that the discussion of biophilia to date has been missing an adequate discussion of this phenomenon. To undertake such a discussion, I shall explain the early use of the term ‘philia’ and its role in Greek ethical theory, drawing heavily from Aristotle’s ethical philosophy, show its applicability to interspecies friendships, and then outline its relevance and import for contemporary environmental theory.

Aristotle on Friendship and the Meaning of Philia

Aristotle’s ethics is generally treated in cursory manner and selected readings typically exclude his discussion of friendship. His theory is characterized as ‘virtue ethics’ and his famous discussion of moral virtue as moderation dominates most discussions of his work. However much merit there is to the idea of virtuous action as effecting a “Golden Mean” in conduct, such a picture of his view provides only a glimpse of his theory; and a fuller account of his moral philosophy might prove useful.

First of all, the term ‘virtue ethics’ can be misleading for linguistic reasons. The English ‘virtue’ is a translation of aretē, which has a broader and often different meaning than what we today call ‘virtue.’ Translator Martin Ostwald’s glossary entry on aretē provides some insights, which I quote here at length:

aretē (αρετή): Of fundamental importance in all Greek ethical systems. This term, which is the noun corresponding to the adjectives agathos, ‘good,’ aristos, ‘best,’ originally denoted the excellence of a brave or noble warrior….The full history of the term would involve a history of Greek moral ideas, but it is important to realize that aretē was eventually generalized to denote the functional excellence of any person, animal, or thing. For example, the aretē of a shoemaker is the quality that makes him produce good shoes; in a horse race, it is the quality which will make the horse run to victory…. It is against this background that any Greek discussion of the aretē of man as man has to be seen: his aretai or ‘virtues’ are those qualities which make him function well in relation to his fellow men, that is, the qualities which make him play his part in human society well. This means that the overtone of divine sanction of human morality, which is the cornerstone of any Judaeo-Christian system of ethics, is absent from the Greek…. The English translation ‘virtue’ is too narrow, though often inescapable, and we use, accordingly, excellence, goodness, virtue, or a combination of these, depending on the context.4
On the basis of this conception of virtue I like to characterize Aristotle’s ethics as an excellence-ethics, which includes three main areas of focus:

  1. Excellence in Character Development (“moral virtue”)

  2. Excellence in Intellectual Development (theoretical and practical wisdom-- sophia and phronēsis)

  3. Excellence in Human Relations (virtuous “friendships”)

Notice that I interpret his approach as under the general umbrella of aretē, ‘excellence.’ This move allows one to include the friendship discussion as in keeping with the overall argument of his theory, which characterizes the good life (eudemonia) as “an activity of the soul in accordance with excellence or virtue.”5 The first area indicated above, as we have mentioned, is well treated in any discussion of Aristotle’s ethics and will not be my focus here. Such is the case also with his treatment of the second item, intellectual virtue, or, wisdom. His distinction of the latter between sophia and phronēsis is also an important and well known move in the development of moral theory, but will not be a focus here either. What I shall develop presently is the third item on our list, excellence in our relations, philia.

Before beginning Aristotle’s discussion of friendship, it might be worth looking at the history of the term itself. According to the Great Dictionary of the Entire Greek Language (Demotic, Katareusa, Middle Ages, Modern, Ancient),6 the term is used in ancient times to characterize everything from relations between lovers, to that of nations, to the relations between gods and men or those of children and parents. I reproduce the entry in part here:

Herodotus, 7.170 - friendship between nations
Plato, Symposium, 8, 15 - “pure friendship (or love) is the character of the soul”
Plato, Symposium, 188c - “friendship is part of love and affection between families”
Plato, Symposium, 188d - “friendship brings Athens great power; hatred brings disastrous fate.”
Plato, Republic, 581A - “It is profitable for one to hold pleasure and friendship with someone else”
Isocrates 6.11 - “forsaken friendship will cause detriment”
Isocrates, Epistles, 7.13 - “renewing our former friendship and hospitality”
Isocrates 88D - “mortals judge each other by their friendship”
Thucydides, 1, 91 - “our friendship depends on the fact that love-- friendships -- exist between gods and men”
Xenophon, Anabasis, 1 - “treaties are a sign of trust and friendship”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2, 7, a3 - “attraction, strong desire, intercourse, carnal desire, eros”
In keeping with the diversity of usage of the term, Ostwald, at the beginning of Aristotle’s treatment of the topic in Book VIII, notes at length the meaning of this term and its significance:

The human relation of ‘friendship’ forms the subject of this book and the next. As we shall see, the connotations of philia are considerably wider than those of ‘friendship.’ Philia is best summed up in the Greek proverb: κοινά τά τών φίλων, “friends have in common what they have.” It designates the relationship between a person and any other person(s) or being that person regards as peculiarly his own and to which he has a peculiar attachment. For example, in Homer the adjective φίλος, “dear,” is frequently used as a person’s heart or mind, and also used to describe the relation to one’s wife and children. In neither sense would we speak of friendship in English. But of course, as in English, the term also expresses (from Hesiod on) the relationship to a person to which one feels especially attached, i.e., to a ‘friend.’ On the other side of the scale, philia constitutes the bond that holds the members of any association together, regardless of whether the association is the family, the state, a club, a business partnership, or even the business relation between buyer and seller. Here again, we would not use the term ‘friendship’ in English, but the expressions such as ‘harmony’ or ‘good will.’

But for the Greek, it is the bond that gives people something ‘in common’ that counts in philia, and it is for that reason, and especially for its importance in social and political matters, that a discussion of it is given more space than is given to any other problem in the Nic. Eth.7
Such a background of usage serves as a good introduction to Aristotle’s analysis, as he undertakes to reign in the broad concept and distinguish between types of friendship. He provides a threefold distinction between the types of items we find worthy of affection, which is his explanation for sources of attraction that binds us together. They are:

  1. Friendships Based on Usefulness (Benefit)

  2. Friendships Based on Pleasure (Pleasantness)

  3. Friendships Based Virtue (Excellence)

The first form of friendship, that of usefulness, is the least “perfect” form of friendship for Aristotle, although nonetheless very important. It accounts for all “profitable” forms of relationships, be they business partnerships, strategic alliances or treaties, buyers engaging with sellers, or neighbors looking out for each other’s houses or children. It is important to note here that there is friendliness in these relations, and therefore an emotional connection, albeit a weak one. We can characterize these relationships as quid pro quo arrangements facilitated by good will, although the friendliness will only last as long as the usefulness. The latter point is why Aristotle deems such a friendship as “imperfect,” since the affection is not for the person but for what he or she brings to the bargain. When the bargain runs thin and the other party ceases to be useful, there is simply no reason to continue the association. Affection quickly becomes indifference, or worse yet, hostility.

The second form of friendship, a relationship based on pleasure, is also imperfect in Aristotle’s analysis, but also an important part of human life. This form of relationship exists between any two individuals or entities that seek and enjoy each other’s company because they find it pleasant to be around. One can include here not only sexual attraction, but partners in amusements (from spectator sports to drinking, to gaming of any sort), or simply friends who make each other laugh. The bond here is clearly emotional and stronger than what one finds with useful friends. Moreover, it is clear here that the good feeling one seeks from the relationship only exists when the given partner is present, that is to say, the feeling is not a detachable good. For this reason, interestingly, Aristotle holds this form of friendship in higher esteem than one based on usefulness. Nevertheless, Aristotle, identifying permanence and stability as key criteria for determining the best kind of relationship, suggests that this type of attraction is ultimately imperfect. When the thrill is gone, or the fun runs out, the company will inevitably part.

Perfect friendship, for Aristotle, is manifest in a relationship based on excellence--virtue. There are a number of reasons. First, these relationships are stable. When one is attracted to another because of qualities esteemed as admirable, the attraction does not come and go with small changes in circumstance. Second, since the source of the attraction is admiration, what is deemed lovable is not a detachable good or fleetingly pleasant quality, but the person’s character. That is, the attraction is for the person, not simply for what that person brings. Thirdly, because the attraction is for a person one deems as admirable and good, a motivation exists for each party to give their partner affections, goods, and pleasure for no other reason than the fact that such goods are deserved. There is no bargain, in other words, and there is never a gift given or affection paid with an expectation of some material return. We can see in this description of virtuous friendship that it seems to incorporate the other two types of relationships, though the motivation changes.

This latter description points to the fact that human relationships are complex. A little reflection on the nature of our relations shows us that it is rare for both parties of a given friendship to be motivated by the same affections and desires. Most relationships are of a mixed sort: one party may be motivated by benefit, while the other is motivated by pleasure. One might seek out someone’s company by virtue of respect and admiration, while the other seeks something else. Often these differing motivations are unclear or mistaken, which leads to complaints, disagreements and unhappy dissolution of relations. Aristotle comments:

Surely, there is nothing strange about breaking friendships based on what is useful or pleasant when the partners no longer have the qualities of being useful or pleasant…. But there is reason for complaint, if a person loves another for being useful or pleasant but pretended to love him for his character… [D]ifferences between friends arise most frequently when they are not friends in the sense they think they are.8

In addition to this complicating factor of mixed relationships, Aristotle also discusses the phenomenon of relationships between unequals.9 Here he discusses the connection between inferior and superior and the relationships he saw as such. In his world there were differing classes of people with different levels of status, and they did possess philia between them, but the difference in status limited them in the level to which the relationship could go. Many if not all of these cases, such as, for instance, the deference of a slave to a master, or of an inferior social class to a higher, we no longer accept as legitimate. Others, like that of woman and man, we no longer see as an unequal form of relation. He argues, for instance, that men and women can never be virtuous friends (though there can be useful and pleasant affections mutually between them), since they cannot be equal in virtue. The woman can respect the man, but the man cannot fully reciprocate the feeling. Such a view is obviously dated.10 What is interesting about his analysis, however, is that he observed something accurate about such relations: where there is unequal power between entities, no virtuous friendship can exist.11 The respect and admiration can only go in one direction in such cases; and this will be important for us later.

In developing his theory of obligation based on friendship, Aristotle considers the nature of the relationship in question. Relationships based on usefulness are the ones in which obligation is the easiest to determine. Since the relation is motivated by material benefit, the obligations arise out of a simple quid pro quo. We owe what is of equal benefit to what has been given. Though this may be tricky at times in detail,12 the basic principle is clear. In relations based on pleasure, on the other hand, obligation is harder to measure, if not inappropriate. One enjoys someone’s company and this enjoyment binds us together. There is no quid pro quo here, no debt that has not been paid. The pleasure is inherently something experienced together. Aristotle writes:

[C]omplaints [do not] occur very much in friendships based on pleasure. For the desire of both partners is fulfilled at the same time if they enjoy spending time together. In fact a man would impress us as ridiculous if he complained that he did not find his friend delightful, since he is free not to spend his days with him.13

In discussing friendships based on virtue, Aristotle notes that obligation is again difficult to measure. There are material benefits involved in such a relationship to be sure, but as we have said, the motivation to the giving of any benefit is not expectation of some return, but a desire to give to that person we deem admirable and deserving of good things.

[W]hen people are friends on the basis of virtue or excellence, they are eager to do good to one another, since that is a mark of excellence as well as friendship…. If a person gives more than he receives, he will have no complaints against his friend, since he accomplishes what he has set out to do: for each one desires what is good.14

This initial sketch of obligation is followed by a more complicated discussion of obligations between “mixed friends” and “unequal friends.” As one may surmise, mixed relations can be a source of much complaint, especially if one’s motives for a given relationships are not clear. Aristotle’s discussion here is interesting and insightful, but most of this discussion will not be my focus here. The obligation between unequal friends, however, is very relevant for our purposes, but I will wait to develop the analysis in the next section of this paper.

Such is Aristotle’s discussion of philia in brief. Before returning to a discussion of biophilia as it pertains to interspecies relationships, I pause to note that others before me have invoked Aristotle in the ongoing debate over biophilia, moral sentiment, and the meta-ethical foundations of the land ethic. Ernest Partridge, in discussing the biophilia hypothesis as it pertains to J. Baird Callicott’s15 use of Aldo Leopold16 and David Hume,17 writes:

Biophilia suggests that a fundamental genetic basis for may exist for this sentiment of love and respect for the land… These biophilic considerations suggest an environmental ethic that may be more Aristotelian than Humean in that the “goodness” of being in tune with nature (i.e., living in a surrounding that we evolved from and preserving the conditions of our evolution) is a goodness interpreted as a consistency with human nature and fulfillment. Furthermore, it is an ethic that endorses the actualization of human potential because it suggests that we are most likely to flourish in a natural environment, just as an acorn can manifest its potential “oakness” in a biome that is conducive to the flourishing of oak trees. Thus we can accomplish our fullest potential in the Aristotelian sense-- have the best kinds of lives-- if those lives can develop in an environment that is genetically natural to us, which is to say an environment to which we are “attuned.” This, I think, is an essential claim of biophilia that Aristotle might recognize and, apprised of the facts, even endorse.18

Here Partridge invokes Aristotle’s metaphysics to account for the sentiment of biophilia. In the same volume, Eugene Hargrove, while rejecting Aristotelian metaphysics,19 suggests that Aristotelian ethics could serve as a suitable basis for this moral sentiment, which is to serve as a theoretical underpinning for Callicott’s version of Leopold’s land ethic:

Callicott must rely on passages in “The Land Ethic,” where Leopold refers to “our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions,” and “love, respect, and admiration for land, and high regard for its value.” There are… problems here… Whereas love, respect, loyalties, affections, convictions, and so on can be tied to Hume’s notion of moral sentiments, they could also be associated with Aristotelian virtues, connecting Leopold’s views with my environmental ethics as well. In both cases we have connections to biology—Darwin’s biology and Aristotle’s biology, respectively. For example, the circles of moral considerability from self to family to citizens is equally present in Aristotelian philosophy and Darwinian-dependent philosophy.20

Here Hargrove is employing Aristotelian virtue ethics as an alternative basis for a land ethic. While I agree with Hargrove’s analysis, what I am suggesting is that a full treatment of his ethics must include a discussion of friendship, not only because it will help articulate the nature and range of other relations to other beings and systems, but also provide a framework for understanding obligations arising out of biotic interrelations.

Friendship, Biophilia and Environmental Ethics

I opened with an example of an interspecies relationship I had observed in a family aquarium. Years later, our family experienced another example of this phenomenon between a cat and dog. The dog had adopted us, as it were, when one day it appeared at our home and would not leave. You might say she was a pet, but it was not an ordinary sort of human-pet relation. She was obviously a stray, seemingly very intelligent and street smart, and she in some sense “chose” us. She refused to be confined by a leash or an enclosure (there were leash laws we had tried to obey), but she would never leave our company for very long. She would come and go as she pleased, and the dog catchers never seemed to find her. There were many remarkable things one might say about this animal friend, but it was her relationship to a feral kitten is what amazed me the most. The kitten had been collected by the animal pound and was to be euthanized, but my spouse and children had rescued her in a search for a pet. She was a beautiful kitten, but she was quite unaffectionate and generally hostile to human touch. I myself could not understand how she made it home to us. But there she was. One could not hold her or confine her in any way. She would not go into a house without a measure of coercion, even on the coldest days of winter; and it was always an awful affair to get her anywhere she was not going under her own volition. Then something happened. One day we noticed the kitten suckling on the dog. The dog had not had puppies and therefore could offer no milk, so it appeared that she was offering instead emotional comfort. As time passed and the kitten matured into a cat, the two had become inseparable. They spent their days together, they slept together (and not simply on cold nights when the need for warmth could easily account for their behavior); and they even hunted together. Yet with all that socialization learned and affection given from the dog, this cat never really shared such feelings with the human members of the family--not until, that is, the dog had died. When the dog passed away the cat’s countenance changed. She seemed despondent, as if she were grieving. She began to seek our company and made it known she wanted touch and affection—she started acting more like the cats we had known. Of course we cannot know for sure what she was feeling, but she did change her behavior and disposition towards us with the passing of her friend.

One might say, given the foregoing analysis, that the dog and the kitten had initially a friendship based on usefulness--at least from the standpoint of the kitten, which evolved into one based on pleasure. One might even surmise that there came to be some form of admiration or respect, though this would be difficult to establish. In the relationship between the kitten and the members of our family, you could say the relationship was not one of friendship at all initially, though there was good will on the part of at least some of us towards her. Later, there was usefulness, and then after the dog passed away one could say we had a relationship based on pleasure. In my earlier example about the bass and the crawfish in the aquarium, there was a similar pattern. There was first antagonism, then friendship based on usefulness (as there was need to cease hostilities in such a confined space), then an apparent relationship of pleasure.

Given these apparent parallels, and using Aristotle’s model, one might identify three kinds of interspecies friendships:

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