Environmental Pragmatism

Pragmatism Defined

In general, the term pragmatism refers to the ethical approach in philosophy that considers ends and the means by which we accomplish such ends. The term was originally espoused by the late American philosopher John Dewey, whose philosophical initiative assessed the consequences/ends of human actions and how we go about improving such ends. Pragmatism seeks to provide a practical solution to our end-in-view.

Pragmatism Explored: The Case Against Factory Farming

In her article "Pragmatism and the Production of Livestock," Erin McKenna explores a pragmatists view on the factory farming and experimentation of animals. McKenna’s main argument applies pragmatic philosophy as means to condemn the mass-production and experimentation of animals. Instead of applying the popular theories of deontology, feminism and utilitarianism that “fail to have a sense of the problems and needs that lead to how we are currently situated”, McKenna argues that the pragmatic perspective provides a more applicable and compelling argument against animal cruelty (170). Although McKenna’s primary concern in her article is to address the mistreatment of animals, she does so by first demonstrating the actual harm animal experimentation causes humans; however her intentions, nonetheless, are to argue for the overall better treatment of animals.

Like many who espouse an Ecocentric view on nature, McKenna highlights the importance of humankind’s interconnectedness with animals. This is where McKenna introduces the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey. McKenna writes that “it is our awareness of our connectedness that enables us to direct our behavior to certain goals” that “…Dewey believes, makes us different from many other being in our environment” (164-65). Additionally, “altering habits is the key” which, according to McKenna, is what we as humans must be mindful of as we move towards social progression (165). The notion of “altering habits” is what McKenna proposes as an important element to pragmatic philosophy, because ultimately “what is needed is the intelligent examination of the consequences that are actually effected by inherited institutions and customs” (166). She says that if we alter our routine habits, habits we don't normally think about but do anyway, and replace them with intelligent habits, we can fix the problems. She says that people need to think about the things they do routinely; an example would be eating meat for every meal. This is neither necessary nor usually healthy for people to do, however most people do this out of habit. McKenna argues that people need to look at their habits intelligently, and reform them if unintelligent. For McKenna altering our habits is a way in which “different ends-in-view will emerge”. Having “ends-in-view” is what drives us to the “intelligent examination” of our surroundings; thus consequently leading us to question our poor habit of objectifying animals. While she does however make many arguments to extend animal rights, she does admit that there can be cases where using animals may be necessary.

Although McKenna presents a new alternative to the question of animal ethics, her pragmatic approach lacks a quality of universality that many find important to the question of animal rights. Thus when approaching the question of animal ethics, should it be acceptable to exclude principles of universality? (i.e. all animals are have limited rational capacity/are non-rational beings, therefore all animals should not be merited equal treatment in humankind’s moral community)

Anthony Weston - Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics

In the article “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics”, Anthony Weston introduces a new way of thinking about pragmatism and dealing with environmental issues. He starts out by clarifying that pragmatism is subjective but not necessarily anthropocentric. Rather, the items valued via pragmatism are much more diverse and include “a plurality of values” which should be respected and recognized without searching for some single or specific end (307). Instead of aiming towards some end or purpose, we should respect the different values of the group and work constantly together as a whole. Weston then moves on to discuss whether or not nature has intrinsic value. He mentions three key criteria for an item to have intrinsic value. First of all, the item or value must be self-sufficient, meaning that it can be considered good despite having nothing that is “necessary, useful, or satisfying” (308) in any way whatsoever. Intrinsic values must also be abstract and have what Weston calls special justification. These values “cannot be justified by reference to other values.” (310). Basically, these criteria cause it to be very difficult to qualify anything as having an intrinsic value, especially when it comes to nature. After coming to this conclusion, Weston makes some points arguing against the idea of intrinsic value. Rather than thinking that each value leads in a chain of values to some end, he prefers the idea of values in a net or a web, working together to support each other. A good example is when he states that he sometimes values “the mountain air because in it I feel (and am) healthy, other times I value health because it enables me to reach the mountains.” (311). If we are to try to say that some values are intrinsic, it would in a way remove them from the web of support. Rather than simply declaring an item to have intrinsic value we should “justify a value by articulating the supporting role it plays with respect to other values.” (313). Weston continues to argue that instead of wasting our time searching for the intrinsic value of nature, we should accept that most people have various reasons for valuing nature and that those reasons for value are just as valid as any intrinsic value might be. Pragmatists will be happy enough indeed just to know that such values form a system within our life. Last but not least he says that even if an intrinsic value were to be discovered, it probably wouldn’t change the reasons most people value nature. In this way pragmatism has a unique way of looking at environmental issues because it “celebrates a wide-open and diverse culture” and wants us to “struggle for our own values without being closed to the values and the hopes of others.” (317).

This article is interesting in that it suggests a sort of new way of thinking about the value of the environment. Who is to say that the environment must have some particular value which causes us pleasure? It can be appreciated that the pragmatist viewpoint allows us to place our own personal values on such things. However, this reasoning may not satisfy everyone. Is there a more specific reason that should cause us to value nature? Does the pragmatist viewpoint seem like a bit of an easy way out of answering that question? Which side seems more reasonable? The side that says let go of the rigid concept of trying to find intrinsic value or the side that says letting everyone decide on their own what is valuable is lazy? As Weston mentions, “are these arguments offered merely for a lack of better (philosophical) ones? (316).

McKenna, Erin. “Pragmatism and the Production of Livestock.”

Weston, Anthony. “Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics.”Environmental Ethics. Ed. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

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