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How Much Do We Owe the Earth?

Environmental philosophy symposium seeks answers to big questions

David Schmidtz, the Kendrick Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, will discuss Saving the Elephants at Friday’s symposium. Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona

How much do we owe the Earth? Are the lives of some animals worth more than the lives of others? If humans have changed the environment for the worse, do we have an obligation to change it back?

These difficult questions are the stuff of the Karbank Symposium in Environmental Philosophy this Friday, March 9. The annual event offers a forum for discussing issues in environmental philosophy, broadly construed. Topics range from biodiversity and transgenic respeciation to global warming and nature aesthetics. The symposium is being held in the ninth floor Colloquium Room of the Photonics Center.
 
This year’s Karbank Symposium features six highly regarded philosophers discussing and debating three current issues of environmental philosophy. David Schmidtz, the Kendrick Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, will talk about Saving the Elephants, and Northeastern University’s Ronald Sandler, author of the forthcoming Character and Environment: A Virtue Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics, will respond to his thesis. Nick Zangwill of Oxford University, author of The Metaphysics of Beauty, will deliver a talk titled Clouds of Illusion in the Aesthetics of Nature, and Amelie Rorty, who is currently honorary lecturer in social medicine at Harvard University, will respond.
 
Felicia Nimue Ackerman, a professor of philosophy at Brown University, will speak about Nature vs. the Tragedy of Emma Faust Tillman’s Death, and Charles Griswold, a professor of philosophy at Boston University, will respond. The symposium is named in honor of series sponsor Steven Karbank (CAS’79), a generous benefactor of BU’s department of philosophy.

To better understand some of the quandaries of environmental philosophy, BU Today spoke briefly with philosopher and guest speaker David Schmidtz.

BU Today: Are the lives of some animal species worth more than the lives of others?
Schmidtz:
Species egalitarianism may be the simplest and easiest position here, at first glance. It seems to relieve one of the burden of defending any particular preference. But I don’t think it withstands inspection. I think that if we take life seriously at all, we have to say that if we could save a drowning chimpanzee or a drowning cockroach, but not both, it would be, well, inhuman to choose to save the cockroach.

If an animal’s activities are more central to the maintenance of an existing ecological system, is that animal more valuable than one that functions on the fringes of an ecological system?
There are different ways of being valuable. Keystone species are more important ecologically, or at least, I suppose that’s just what it means to be a keystone species. But there are other ways to be valuable. Whether I value redwoods just for being the miraculous living things that they are doesn’t depend on whether they are keystone species.

Are the lives of some humans worth more than the lives of others?

Put it this way. You probably think your own life, the worth of it, can be affected by the choices you make. If you succeed when it counts, that’s a better life than if you failed.

In whatever sense that is true, that at least suggests that if your own life can be worth more or less, and if lives in general can be worth more or less, then they aren’t likely to all end up being worth the same.

Is there a moral rationale for vegetarianism?

Absolutely. Is the rationale compelling? It is one of many things that seemingly reasonable people disagree about, but I have met few vegetarians who didn’t have reasons for being so.

Is it too late to save the environment?

Possibly, but I doubt it. The planet has taken some big hits over the aeons. The climate will continue to change, as it always has done — that’s guaranteed — but life will go on.

Finally, if humans have changed the environment for the worse, do we have an obligation to change it back?
These are hard issues. I just don’t know.

To see the Karbank Symposium schedule of lectures and colloquia, click here.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.