On Martin Heidegger and the Need for a Genuine Environmental Ethic

On Martin Heidegger and the Need for a Genuine Environmental Ethic

For some time now, it has been generally acknowledged that our characteristic relation to the natural environment has resulted in a degradation of the latter so extensive that its capacity to sustain human inhabitation in the future may be critically threatened. This situation as a whole has been designated by the appropriate but ambiguous phrase, “environmental crisis.” Appropriate because, with regard to the condition of the natural environment itself, the medical implications of the English word “crisis” are in order: We have reached a point at which the patient is likely to either get better or die. Ambiguous because, with regard to our role in inducing this condition, it is more pertinent to speak of a krisis in the ancient Greek sense of a “deciding,” a “judgment,” or a “sentence” in which not only our future survival but also our comportment toward nature is called into question.

As the fact of the environmental crisis has become recognized, largely due to the efforts of scientists and conservationists, a sustained discussion of the issue has arisen in the philosophical community, engendering a distinctly conceived subject area: environmental ethics. Not surprisingly and not without some justification, philosophical reflection on the problem has generally tended to take as its primary point of departure the findings of the natural sciences, and particularly the science of ecology. This has also been the case when the issue is addressed by historians, theologians, political scientists, and others. Either tacitly or explicitly, the character of the environmental crisis is regarded as authoritatively defined by the natural sciences. This assumption dictates not only the primacy of scientifically objectified nature as the subject of the crisis but also the primacy of the cybernetic concept of ecosystem as the definitive frame of reference for any further analysis. The problem is thus defined as involving the profound and unprecedented disruption by human beings of a biosphere consisting of overlapping homeostatic or self-regulating “systems.” Given this point of view, the basic problem is solely and simply that we are out of step with the rest of nature. From this it follows that the philosophical task lies in analyzing and criticizing the principles of action that led to this imbalance, that is, in arriving at an environmental ethic. Such an ethic, in turn, is likely to be successful only to the extent that its resultant prescriptions conform to the findings of the natural sciences, again, especially the science of ecology.

In view of the magnitude of current ecological problems, the practical expediency of this type of inquiry is self-evident. Yet it is possible to approach the problem from a different direction altogether, taking our fundamental relation to nature, rather than nature alone, as the primary subject of the crisis. The crisis in this case is interpreted as a literal krisis, a radical questioning of the relation as such. It may be worth considering this relation, then, with reference to a position that is within the relation itself. Such a position is indicated in the work of Martin Heidegger. In particular, three aspects of Heidegger’s thought carry special significance for  contemporary environmentalism: the question of rights and values, the meaning of thinking, and his emphasis on wonder and mystery.

The concepts of rights and values constitute the very core of environmental ethics. Over the years, a number of environmentalists have argued for the extension of legal and moral rights to animals, plants, and even geographical features, such as rivers, forests and mountains. However, in “The Liberation of Nature?” John Rodman argues that the anthropocentric basis of environmental legal rights theory makes it ill-suited as a means for changing the way we treat nonhuman beings. According to Rodman, Peter Singer’s call for “animal rights,” for instance, is anthropocentric not only because it supposes that we are in a position to “extend” rights to other beings, but also because it offers such rights only to beings with nervous systems like our own: sentient beings. Similar objections are raised against Christopher Stone, who suggests that just as male-dominated societies have gradually granted rights to women, children, slaves, and even animals, we may now be ready to grant rights to entities such as trees, rivers, mountains, and the like, insofar as they share in the trait we humans, too, possess: consciousness. Rodman asks pointedly: “Is this, then, the new enlightenment — to see nonhumans as imbeciles, wilderness as a human vegetable?” We degrade nonhuman beings not only by treating them as commodities, but also by “giving” them rights on the basis of their status as inferior human beings.

To counter the inherent anthropocentrism of legal rights theory, some environmentalists have instead argued that nature has intrinsic value and that nonhuman entities therefore have inherent rights, which humans must respect. Yet, in his “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger criticizes the very notion of values: “It is important to finally realize that precisely through the characterization of something as ‘a value’ what is so valued is robbed of its worth.” Heidegger’s point here is that valuing something—no matter how positively—subjectivizes it. By valuing it, we reduce it to an object for our own estimation. Heidegger’s critique suggests that despite all claims to the contrary, “environmental ethics” is unavoidably anthropocentric. If Heidegger is right, environmentalists accomplish precisely the opposite of what they intend when they seek to establish the integrity of nature by arguing that it has “inherent” or “intrinsic” value.

It is worth pondering whether environmental issues require an approach that is different altogether. Here, we may find Heidegger’s notion of “original thinking” helpful. In his “Memorial Address,” Heidegger calls such thinking “meditative,” and contrasts it with the dominant mode of thinking. Calling the latter “calculative thinking,” he describes such thinking as reductionistic, coercive, and means/ends-oriented. It attacks and grasps an operationally defined “reality” and is concerned with utility, management, planning, prediction, and control. Heidegger acknowledges that such thinking has its place, but he is concerned that it has become the predominant way of thinking and may soon be the sole way of thinking. He notes that “[t]he world now appears as an object open to the attacks of calculative thought… Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.”

By contrast to calculative thinking, “meditative thinking” is profoundly reflective and receptive to Being. As “the thinking of Being,” meditative thinking is non-manipulative and non-coercive. It lets Being and beings be, which can mean for us an active engagement to reveal them, but can also mean letting beings alone to pursue their own course without human interference. Beings are not somehow fulfilled or made worthy because humans are aware of them and thus reveal them; instead, humans are fulfilled insofar as they are truly open for what things are. Such receptivity opens us to nature’s meaning and mystery.

For environmentalism, Heidegger’s meaning of thinking is particularly important at this time, as is his emphasis on wonder and mystery. Given the increasing extinction of plant and nonhuman animal species, the rapid disappearance of habitats (including old-growth forests), the growing mass of pollutants, the acceleration of climate change, and several other pressing environmental issues, environmentalists may well feel increasing pressures to “do something,” and to wrap environmentalist concerns in the prevailing, “calculative” way of speaking. Heidegger emphasizes that succumbing to such pressures brings even greater estrangement from Being, and the destruction of any authentic relation with nature. Instead it is essential to cultivate receptivity to Being—all the more so, given the contemporary preoccupation with commodification, control, and the quick fix. There can be no “fix” for environmental issues. Rather, there must be a radical change in humans’ relation with Being. In the end, we cannot will that such a paradigm shift come about, though we can be receptive to it.

Heidegger claims that morality must be rooted in a genuine environmental ethic: a profound understanding of and respect for Being and beings. Such respect for beings is owed not because they resemble humans, not because they are valued by humans, not because they are experienced by humans, but because they are what they are. Animals are not inferior human beings; they are other than human, and they are endowed with their own mode of Being. Only insofar as we remain open for the strangeness and otherness of the nonhuman can we avoid subsuming everything under some human project. Hence, the best course of “action” is to let beings be, to let them take care of themselves spontaneously in accord with their own natures.

To make way for such a paradigm shift to occur, radical changes will have to take place in ourselves and our place in nature. Heidegger would agree with what some contemporary environmentalists say would be necessary steps in the return to an environmentally responsible way of life: a new psychology, acceptance and stability of natural areas untouched by technology, movement toward “soft” energy paths, decentralization of power and authority, changes in lifestyle, and so on. The question is, how will such changes come about, especially in the face of what Heidegger himself sometimes described as the uncheckable movement of planetary technology?

Heidegger provides a basis for contemporary environmentalism insofar as he calls on us to remain open for the creative renewal of the Western tradition that offers a more appropriate understanding of Being—a new and genuine environmental ethic in which to dwell. We must do what is needed to sustain the present world while remaining open for the paradigm shift needed to usher in a new world. Heidegger always held that possibility is more important than actuality. To heed the summons of the possible requires humility, which in turn requires acceptance of one’s finitude and limits. Today, perhaps more than ever, each of us is obligated to be open for the possible. Lack of such openness invites destruction of our species and of the living Earth. Even while resolving to act in accordance with the possible and necessary, we must practice patience, humility, and acceptance—so we will be prepared for the unexpected that comes from the familiar.

(Overhead picture: pixabay.com)

What Makes a Good Protest?

What Makes a Good Protest?

When Ignorance Kills: On The Lack of Federal Research Into Gun Violence

When Ignorance Kills: On The Lack of Federal Research Into Gun Violence