Minteer, Ben 2011 Refounding Environmental Ethics: Pragmatism, Principle, and Practice, reviewed by Tom Young
Ben Minteer, Refounding Environmental Ethics: Pragmatism, Principle, and Practice, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2011, 212 pages, $27.95 paper, ISBN 9781439900840 (
Environmental ethics is by this point a well-established field of academic study. Growing out of the environmental awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, environmental ethics challenged established Western ethical traditions that concerned themselves only with the interests of humans – a perspective environmental ethicists labeled “anthropocentrism”. A new ethics for the environment would value nature not for the benefits that it could deliver to humans but because it was intrinsically valuable and therefore worthy of protection in its own right. In his provocative book Refounding Environmental Ethics, Ben Minteer challenges this dominant perspective in the field of environmental ethics with its emphasis on nonanthropocentrism and the intrinsic value of nature. He argues that the near-exclusive focus on these issues has left the field isolated and largely irrelevant at a time when environmental problems are crying for ethical guidance.
One of the problems Minteer identifies with the predominance of nonanthropocentric perspectives is that they do not reflect the full range of commitments held by most members of society. Valuing nature purely for itself may be an attractive ideal to some, but very few people are prepared to see natural resource decisions made solely on the basis of protecting nature’s intrinsic value. Many of those who feel concern for the well-being of the forest and its denizens are at the same time unwilling to give up consumptive uses of forest products that are important to their own well-being. They experience a conflict between values that reflects an analogous conflict at the broader societal scale. According to Minteer, traditional environmental ethics offers little to resolve the conflict when it simply insists that people relinquish their anthropocentric commitments. Of far more use, he says, is the pragmatic tradition in ethics, particularly as represented by John Dewey.
Pragmatism seeks to determine the right action not by the consistent application of a single overarching principle but by the close examination of the “problematic situation” and all the contingencies associated with it. These contingencies may shift the balance of competing ethical principles so that a principle that provides useful guidance in one situation may be less applicable in another. Minteer underscores the open-ended character of pragmatist conclusions; new or newly-recognized contingencies can open them up to a re-evaluation. This attitude goes by the name fallibilism, and in Dewey’s writings is closely connected with scientific method. Fallibilism eschews the quest for certainty that characterizes foundationalism–a term he borrows from Michael Walzer to describe the purification of lived experience into abstract notions of “truth”, “right”, and “good”. Minteer argues that fallibilism’s less ambitious claims make it more suited to public ethical decision-making in the messy realities of contemporary environmental conflict.
One of Minteer’s central arguments for a pragmatist approach to environmental ethics is pragmatism’s full compatibility with a commitment to democratic governance. By contrast, foundationalist ethics determine right action by deducing it from what it posits to be the fundamental principles. When those principles are not widely recognized as fundamental by the broader society, as seems to be the case with nonanthropocentrism, proponents’ commitment to democracy may waver. Environmentalists may find themselves tempted by visions of green authoritarianism or green despotism. Pragmatism’s open-ended quality leads in a different direction. Pragmatism is committed to the process of intelligent inquiry and deliberation with no pre-determined outcome. Minteer turns to Dewey to show that such inquiry can only take place under conditions of democracy. He argues that unconstrained deliberation and inquiry in a democratic context will ultimately serve environmentalists better in the long term, even if in the short term they may not produce ideal environmental outcomes.
Minteer essentially is asking environmentalists to have faith in the deliberative process, to believe in their ability to present their commitments persuasively in the public sphere. Equally important is the idea that the process of genuine deliberation transforms all parties, which is ultimately what allows a solution to emerge. It may be that in the course of deliberation, environmentalists come to see the importance of other principles and are persuaded to find a way to accommodate them. I suspect that many readers will feel that Minteer is asking them to take too much on faith without providing much evidence that a deliberative approach can be successful. He illustrates situations where deliberative conflict resolution is called for (e.g., the management of invasive species such as mute swans, feral pigs, and golden eagles), and he provides a description of formal components of a deliberative process, but he does not describe and analyze in any depth situations where deliberation has successfully resolved environmental conflicts.
Despite this lacuna, Minteer cannot be accused of being too abstract in his treatment of environmental ethics. The last three chapters of the book set about the task of envisioning how pragmatic environmental ethics can be applied to management dilemmas. Chapter 7 turns to the empirical social sciences to develop an understanding of the actual ethical stances members of the public adopt. Minteer presents a survey that solicited respondents’ assessment of a range of management contexts. He interprets the results as providing evidence that context is an important factor determining what action people deem appropriate, which undermines foundationalist views that a single principle can be applied to all cases. Chapter 8 presents a series of cases that raise dilemmas for ecologists and biodiversity managers and identifies the competing ethical principles at play. The final chapter considers the fundamental rethinking that global climate change forces on what has been a key assumption in environmental ethics: that nature exists in an undisturbed state that can and should be safeguarded. With the loss of the bright line between nature and disturbance, preservation becomes a more difficult concept to apply and pragmatist deliberation comes to the fore as a promising method for sorting through different options.
This book is a good introduction to a debate that is likely to become more important as pressure on the environment mounts. Political solutions to environmental conflicts will be more robust if they are grounded in careful ethical deliberation, and Minteer’s book provides a number of concrete forays into establishing an environmental ethics that can serve in this role. This book is a fairly gentle introduction to philosophical concepts that are important to environmental debates and succeeds well at tying philosophy and ethics to fields that focus more on concrete, empirical phenomena. Political ecologists may be particularly interested in the book as it seeks to provide a basis for balancing human and non-human interests in keeping with the general thrust of political ecology (see Chapter 4 in particular for treatment of a classic case of “fortress conservation”). Overall, this book is a timely intervention that calls for a fundamental reorientation of environmental ethics so as to make the field more directly relevant to the pressing challenges we face in the coming decades.
Tom Young, Department of Humanities, Philosophy, Religion, John Abbott College, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, H9X 3L9 Québec, Canada