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Does a Public Environmental Philosophy Need a Convergence Hypothesis?
Name: Does a Public Environmental Philosophy Need a Convergence Hypothesis?
Author: andrew light
Pages: 41
Year: 2008
Language: English
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Does a Public Environmental Philosophy Need a Convergence Hypothesis? Andrew Light The convergence hypothesis, which Bryan Norton rolled out at the end of Toward Unity Among Environmentalists (1992), is often held as offering a core challenge to one of the received dogmas of contemporary environmental ethics, namely, that a truly "environmental" ethic would have to embrace some form of philosophical nonanthropocentrism which in turn would ground some account of the non instrumental or intrinsic value of nature. According to this largely empirical claim, "provided anthropocentrists consider the full breadth of human values as they unfold into the indefinite future, and provided nonanthropocentrists endorse a consistent and coherent version of the view that nature has intrinsic value, all sides may be able to endorse a common policy direction" (Norton 1997, 87). i One upshot of this fairly straightforward claim was to free up environmental ethicists from towing the line of the nonanthropocentric orthodoxy which had dominated the field since the early 1970s. If a more fully fleshed out, or as he later put it, "broad" anthropocentrism, could provide reasons for more morally responsible environmental policies (such as claims about our obligations to future human generations which entailed substantial environmental commitments) which converged with the policies advocated by nonanthropocentrists, then it was not necessary to always start the moral defense


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2 of such policies with nonanthropocentric claims for the non instrumental value of nature. If true this would mean that environmental ethicists did not need to see their views as necessarily at odds with other ethical arguments aimed at promoting other aspects of human welfare. For those of us interested in doing environmental philosophy in a way that was more likely to make an impact on public policy this view was most welcome given the overwhelming, and not necessarily inappropriate, anthropocentrism of the policy process. In his recent book, Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management (2005), Norton claims that the convergence hypothesis is only appropriate in a world dominated by dualistic categories of analysis, namely that human interests are necessarily at odds with the "interests" of nature, whatever those may be. If we were to follow his advice in Sustainability, and reject all such dualistic approaches, then "the convergence hypothesis will wither away for lack of polarized interests to be brought together" (510). Such a view seems to advise that those publicly engaged environmental ethicists who agree with Norton's approach should set a priority on working with him toward the elimination of these dualisms. In this chapter I will argue that an environmental philosophy intent at making a contribution to environmental policy (what I will call a "public environmental philosophy") may need to hold on to the convergence hypothesis. I do not think this is a view which Norton will necessarily disagree with, but the discussion of the importance of the convergence hypothesis will help to highlight some interesting differences between our respective approaches


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3 to what has become known as environmental pragmatism and also provide an opportunity to extend and defend the hypothesis. I will begin with a discussion of our different approaches to environmental pragmatism, summarize my own pragmatist view, and then finish with a defense of what I believe is one of the most useful tools that Norton has provided us in a career that continues to produce some of the most important insights in environmental ethics. 1. Two Kinds of Environmental Pragmatism In 1992 I began developing a position in environmental ethics which I called "environmental pragmatism" (Light 1993). Though not originally inspired by Norton's work I quickly came to see his views (and those of a few others like Anthony Weston) as allied with the general thrust of what I saw as the core elements of the position and absolutely essential for fleshing it out. At the time no one else was using this particular term to describe the infusion of pragmatist ideas into environmental philosophy but rather, like Norton, were describing their views as "broadly pragmatic" (Norton 1991, x), or, like Weston, were describing a role for the insertion of the thought of canonical pragmatist figures, such as Dewey, in environmental ethics (Weston 1985). Seeing this variety of views, with Eric Katz, I collected and commissioned what I saw as representative examples of this emerging strain of environmental thought, if not a school, in an anthology, which I titled using my preferred term: Environmental Pragmatism


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4 (1996). Whatever the benefits or faults of that book, at the very least, it demonstrated that there were a wide variety of views that could be collected under this general term and there were a number of people out there who were looking for an alternative to the main currents of thought that had oriented the first generation of thinkers in the field. However, my primary motivation for investigating this general line of thought was clear enough in my own head: the point of environmental pragmatism was to try to push environmental ethicists away from the various debates in value theory in which they had arguably become stuck since the early 1970s (anthropocentrism vs. nonanthoprocentrism, instrumental vs. intrinsic value, subjectivism vs. objectivism, etc.) toward a more pluralist approach which would improve their ability to contribute to the formulation of better environmental policies. To my mind then, and today, while there are many purely theoretical philosophical questions about the environment that are interesting and well worth teaching and pursuing, if, in the end, at least some elements of the field cannot contribute to the actual resolution of environmental problems then, at the least, the field is not fulfilling the promise which many of its founders espoused at the beginning, and, at worst, would be a failure. To strike an analogy, if environmental ethicists had nothing to offer the policy or advocacy process it would be like a counterfactual history of medical ethics which had nothing of use to offer medical practitioners, policy makers, or patients. Given that the realms of human health and environmental health


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5 (broadly construed) clearly contain substantial, pressing, and critical moral issues, a medical ethics or an environmental ethics without a robust capacity to engage these issues on the ground would mark some kind of intellectual or moral failure. At first glance however one may worry that my goal of policy relevance for environmental ethics under the name "pragmatism" is fraught with a fundamental complication. If, as I believe, the first goal of environmental pragmatism is to coax environmental ethicists away from their intramural debates, then does it actually do any good to at least appear to be adding another "school" to the meta ethical debates already established in the field? For, as mentioned above, in the early 1990s there were other pragmatists in environmental ethics as well who were not describing their views as "broadly pragmatic" like Norton, but rather offered a straightforward application of established pragmatist thought to environmental problems and the on going debates in environmental ethics. These figures, such as Larry Hickman and Kelly Parker were included in the 1996 volume as well. In this sense it may have appeared that Environmental Pragmatism was actually creating a new side to those intramural debates over value theory (most likely of interest only to other philosophers) rather than finding a way of getting around those debates and encouraging a more policy relevant body of literature in the field. Such a picture is not actually far off from what has happened. Now, instead of filling the pages of journals like Environmental Ethics with arguments


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6 between those influenced by J. Baird Callicott, Holmes Rolston, and the like, we can, and indeed have, added to those even more pages on the same debates by Deweyans, Jamesians and Piercieans. A tempest, whether it be in a teapot or not I am unsure, has emerged between various figures explicitly endorsing or denying environmental pragmatism as a school of thought (cf. Minteer 1998, 2001; Callicott 1998, 2002), and the editor of the principle journal in the field, without warning and not clearly motivated by any particular recent argument (but citing the introduction to the 1996 anthology), even editorialized against the importance of environmental ethicists being able to communicate anything to those outside of the field (Hargrove 2003). On this view the hard problem of environmental ethics was not application to actual environmental issues but getting the theoretical foundations of natural value right. Norton and I continue to agree that the goal of environmental pragmatists should be to come up with a more pluralistic and practical environmental ethic and in that sense agree on the core idea of what environmental pragmatists should strive to achieve. But where we have parted over the years is how explicitly pragmatist environmental pragmatism needs to be. In Toward Unity Among Environmentalists, a book that helped to cement my ideas on the relationship that environmental ethicists ought to have with environmental advocates and hence define the mission of environmental pragmatists, he eschewed an explicitly pragmatist metaphysics or epistemology claiming that his pragmatism was never to be used as a premise but only as a "constant guide"


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7 (Norton 1991, x.). In his monumental work Sustainability (2005), however, he has brought together what has been emerging in his work for some time, namely, a fully fledged and historically faithful pragmatist metaphysics and epistemology, relying mainly on Dewey and Pierce. Without explicitly criticizing those of us who endorse what I have come to call "methodological environmental pragmatism" the more recent Norton distances himself from those authors in the 1996 anthology who used the term, as he puts it, "broadly to include any problem oriented perspective on environmental theory and practice" and instead embraces an environmental pragmatism that accepts the historical pragmatists understanding of the "nature of language and logic in relation to the world of experience" (Norton 2005, 77). The point of this chapter is not to now dive into a protracted debate with Norton about the merits of methodological environmental pragmatism versus what I will call a "historical environmental pragmatism" (by which I mean a philosophical view more faithful to the pragmatist cannon) toward the goal of staking a claim as to which variety deserves the moniker "environmental pragmatism." ii I would expect that Norton would find such a discussion as tedious as I would. But because it will be important later for my defense of the convergence hypothesis I will say a bit here about my objection to the more historical environmental pragmatism that Norton now robustly defends. While I do have some reservations about Norton's Deweyan Pierceian view my main reasons for stopping short of going beyond a methodological environmental


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8 pragmatism are not principled but rather (1) strategic and (2) more a claim that rests upon what I take to be the proper enterprise of environmental pragmatism, and, essentially, what I hope to see as a good part of the evolution of environmental ethics. My strategic worry is simply that the climate of academic philosophy is such that a position ground in the work of one or more historical pragmatists will be a tough sell despite the not inconsequential revival of pragmatism among figures such as Fine, McDowell and Putnam. Given the fact that most philosophers educated in both the Anglo American and European Continental traditions are taught from the beginning either that pragmatism is a historical relic that should be rejected (see for example Callicott 1997, 133), have it ignored in their curricula altogether, or mistakenly view it as too closely associated with a Rortyian relativism that gets little respect in philosophy departments, the side to debates on environmental values that is being offered to environmental ethicists under the name "pragmatism" is one that can too easily be ignored. If, for example, a view rejecting claims to the intrinsic value of nature is ground in some Deweyan perspective (no matter how well explicated and defended as is Norton's view), then can't one reject it out of hand if one doesn't accept, doesn't understand, or doesn't take seriously Dewey's view on anything else? One can respond to such a worry by arguing that this sort of concern is, as I admitted before, not a principled philosophical reason. If Norton's Deweyan and Pierceian environmental pragmatism gives us the best account of how to


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9 understand a critical concept like sustainability then too bad for those unequipped or unwilling to engage it. But there are two answers to this reply, one straightforward and another which is a bit more subtle. The straightforward reply is one that, so far, has been most eloquently and thoroughly argued by Kevin Elliot (2007): that at least some of Norton's most important substantive positions may not need the elaborate pragmatist works which he employs in Sustainability. The other reply gets to my second reason for preferring a methodological environmental pragmatism to a historical environmental pragmatism: that the point of a pragmatic environmental philosophy should be to encourage as many ethicists and ethically inclined environmental advocates and practitioners to be more fruitfully engaged in the advocacy process regardless of their particular metaphysical and epistemological views. To continue the analogy with medical ethics, part of the point of environmental pragmatism is to make us, as a philosophical community, more "clinical." From the beginning my version of environmental pragmatism explicitly argued that the point of the position was not to convince environmental ethicists that they should become pragmatists in the orthodox sense or even that they needed to go back to school to learn their Dewey, et. al. The idea was instead to develop an approach to doing publicly engaged environmental philosophy which could allow us to set aside our debates in ethical theory largely concerning the description of intrinsic, noninstrumental, or inherent natural value and the moral obligations which followed from that description (see


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