Religion and Environmental Ethics Praves Intongpan abstract


Responsibilities to the Natural World



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2. Responsibilities to the Natural World
The present day environmental crisis has its roots in a period of more than 2000 years ago. It has arisen due to our lackadaisical attitude towards nature. The attitude, that nature’s resources are unlimited and that nature is made for man, for his use. If we look back into history we can see how ethics has progressed and how the concept of rights and duties has undergone change. To quote Holmes Rolston III, who wrote in 1975,

if we now universalize ‘person’, consider how slowly the cycle has enlarged to include aliens, strangers, infants, children, Negroes, Jews, slaves, women, Indians, prisoners, the elderly, the insane, the deformed and even now we ponder the status of fetuses. Ecological ethics queries whether we ought to again universalize, recognizing the intrinsic value of every ecobiotic component”.(Rolston, 1997: 831)


There was a time when women, slaves, blacks were not given any rights. Even the religious bodies gave sanction to the maltreatment of these individuals. Under such circumstances the question of reverence for nature was hardly imaginable. In a male dominated society two books that were quite effective in extending ethics were the work of women. In 1852, Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin where she put forth a simple argument that blacks were not commodities to be exploited but were members of the moral community. In this connection Abraham Lincoln characterized Stowe as the lady who caused the civil war. 110 years later Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, which once again questioned American assumptions. It argued that all life forms, even insects, were not commodities but deserved ethical consideration. Thus we see that there has been a historical extension of ethical concern as described by Aldo Leopold (1970: 47) in his essay “The Land Ethics”. In this essay Aldo Leopold mentions three ethics :


  1. religion as a man-to-man ethics

  2. democracy as a man-to-society ethics,

  3. a yet undeveloped ethical relationship between man and his environment.

We would agree with Leopold that these three ethics are stages in the development of a general ethic in which man extends his thinking in stepwise fashion from man-to-man relationships to the totality of human existence. He says that here we have come to a stop, for : “There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land, to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like ‘Odysseus’ slave girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations. When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged, all on one rope, some dozen slave girls whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence. This hanging involved no question of property, much less justice. The disposal of property was a matter of expediency not of right and wrong. Criteria of right and wrong were not lacking from Odysseus Greece. The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not been extended to human chattels.”


Leopold continues, “the extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity”. (Leopold, 1970: 47) The content of the next step in this ethical extension is “we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from the aesthetic harvest, it is capable under science, of contributing to culture. That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”
Leopold has pointed out that we are still not prepared intellectually for the extension of the social conscience from people to land. “Philosophy and religion have still not yet heard” of including nature in an expanded morality. Thus we can see that if we wish to avert the environmental crisis we need to change our conception of morality or extend our conception of morality. The need for morality occurs only when there is a conflict. Earlier environmental ethics was not needed or we can say its need was not felt. Today due to dwindling environmental resources excessive pollution, we need a morality which will take into account man’s relationship with nature.



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