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Philosophy and the Environment

From Necessity to Authenticity:
An Argument for Environmental Angst

David Waller
California State University

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ABSTRACT: In this paper I propose to answer the age-old reductio against vegetarianism, which is usually presented in the form of a sarcastic question ( e.g., "How do you justify killing and eating plants?"). Addressing the question takes on special significance in the light of arguments which seem to show that even nonsentient life is intrinsically valuable. Thus, I suggest that we rephrase the question in the following manner: When beings (who are biological and thus dependent on the destruction of other forms of life in order to sustain their own) evolve into societies of moral agents are they entitled merely to assume that they retain their license to destroy other life in order to sustain their own? I answer in the negative. I argue that such societies must continually earn that right by engaging in activity that makes up for and augments the values that they destroy. Unlike other biological beings, humans have complete control over what they eat, whether they eat, and whether they reproduce. Hence, the appeals to necessity that are ubiquitous in justifications of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets are inauthentic and must be accordingly forsaken. We will have to appeal instead to the value of particular human activities that are fueled by our consumption of other lives.

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'So you don't eat animals, but you do eat plants. Plants, like animals, are living things how do you justify killing and eating them?'

The mock indignation and air of self-congratulation which invariably accompany this question make it plain that the speaker does not expect the requested information but rather believes that he or she has delivered an original and decisive reductio ad absurdum against vegetarianism. In this paper I propose to supply the requested information. The issues involved suggest that we rephrase the question thus: When beings which are biological, and thus dependent on the destruction of other life in order to sustain their own, evolve into societies of moral agents, are they entitled to assume that they retain their license to destroy other life in order to sustain their own? I answer in the negative. I argue instead that such societies must continually earn that right by engaging in activity that makes up for and augments the values that they destroy.


The reductio has a venerable history going back at least as far as Solon (Sorabji 1993, 102), and it is still called upon, refuted, and otherwise alluded to by philosophers on all sides of the vegetarian issue.

Bertrand Russell once remarked of vegetarians that, "if they refuse to eat meat because of humanitarian principles, they should also refuse to eat bread," i.e. because we have to kill wheat in order to make it. (Harris 1972, 108)

It is pointed out that there is no clear line of demarcation between animals and creatures that cannot be subsumed under the concept of person, and our assertion must therefore include the rights of plants. (Nelson 1972, 151)

Animal liberationists put their ethic into practice (and display their devotion to it) by becoming vegetarians...(No one, however, has yet expressed, as among Butler's Erewhonians, qualms about eating plants, though such sentiments might be expected to be latently present if the rights of plants are next to be defended.) (Callicott 1989, 17)

When non-vegetarians demand that vegetarians act consistently toward nonhuman forms of life, the usual line of defense is to show that an outward practical consistency between the various cases is inappropriate. The appeal is usually to animal consciousness. Plants, after all, do not feel pleasure, pain, terror, and so on.


Still, a number of arguments have been advanced for the view that non-sentient life is morally considerable on its own account. Some arguments rely on a modification of Routley's last-person argument, which undercuts anthropocentric morality:

The last man (or person) surviving the collapse of the world system lays about him, eliminating, as far as he can, every living thing, animal or plant (but painlessly if you like, as at the best abattoirs). What he does is quite permissible according to basic [human] chauvinism, but on environmental grounds what he does is wrong. (Routley 1973, 207f)

Routley, now Sylvan, includes the destruction of animal life in his story. Philosophers who want to establish the moral relevance of nonsentient life have put forward modified versions. Robin Attfield considers the last man about to chop down the last elm as an act of protest (Attfield 1981, 103); Mary Anne Warren weaves us a story about two viruses, the first of which has been released and will kill all sentient life, the second of which will, if released in the meantime, kill all plant life long after the conscious creatures have been destroyed (Warren 1983, 128f). If we conclude that the last man should desist from destroying the elm and that we should not release the plant-killing virus, then we are committed to the view that even non-sentient life is intrinsically valuable.

Yet there are two windows of escape for the opposition. First, there is the fact that all the stories we have considered invite us to judge human actions or characters. Our conclusion about the worth of nonsentient life might be riding piggyback on a simple existential failure on the part of the last people to spend the closing days of the human species doing something more becoming.

We might want to supplement these arguments with some scenarios that discount the moral weight of human actions. (1) Let us start with G. E. Moore's famous argument (first published in 1903 yet rarely, if ever, mentioned by environmentalists) designed to show the objective value of beauty. The goal of the argument and the content of the example anticipate Sylvan and his followers:

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admiremountains, rivers, the sea; trees, and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine the all combined in the most exquisite proportions, so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to increase the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature...The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other. Well, even so, supposing them quite apart from any possible contemplation by human beings; still, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist, than the one which is ugly? (Moore 1993, 135)

Even if Moore's argument solves the problem of discounting human acts, there is a second task before us. Neither Moore's argument nor the modifications of Sylvan's argument say anything about the comparative worth of humans and non-sentient life.

Here, then, is a story. Unlike the previous last-person arguments, it does not leave an opening for a moral judgment about a human act. Unlike Moore's argument, it does ask us to consider the relative value of human life.

Consider an astronaut floating about in a vehicle millions of miles above some distant planet. She does not know it, but she will never be able to return to earth, or to any other planet for that matter, because the engine has a subtle malfunction which is starting to have effect and, in a week, will result in the ship's exploding, killing its passenger. The planet she is orbiting is teeming with non-sentient life. The astronaut has been studying this life from afar. At the same time, an errant asteroid is heading in her general direction at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. She does not know this. Now, in one world, the asteroid hits the planet, destroying it utterly but sparing the astronaut. She spends the next week recording the events following the asteroid's impact. Then her ship blows up. In the other world, the asteroid misses the planet, but smashes through the spaceship, instantly killing our astronaut.

Which world is preferable? Anyone who assents to Attfield and Warren's arguments should judge that it would be best for the asteroid to miss the planet. Any other judgment would threaten either the conclusion that last-person stories prove the moral significance of non-sentient life or the practical relevance of that conclusion.


Yet, we make a similar, if more modest, trade-off every day. This has yet to prompt serious concern in environmentalist literature. Even while recognizing the value of non-sentient life, philosophers in the west have been content to assume that we have a right, or that it is somehow for the best, that we eat other life in order to sustain our own.

There is no hope of avoiding killing. And to allow oneself to die instead would certainly be irreverent of life. (Tideman 1983, 318)

Some opponents to vegetarianism all of a sudden discover a sentiency in plants, therebythey thinkreducing the vegetarian's arguments to absurdity, for we will have nothing left to eat. (Dombrowski 1984, 52)

Not seeing the clear line between sentient and non-sentient beings that Singer does, I find the logic underlying vegetarianism leading me, as it led Samuel Butler's Erewhonians, to abstain from plant life as well, at which point the whole enterprise becomes absurd. (Rodman 1977, 107)

Only Schweitzer seems to appreciate the serious difficulties for justifying human existence in a value-laden world:

Man is subject to the puzzling and horrible law of being obliged to live at the cost of other life, and to incur again and again the guilt of destroying and injuring life. (Schweitzer 1962, 252)

However, even Schweitzer never fully wrestles with the difficulty. What is this 'law', this 'obligation' that he speaks of? It seems to me that he avoids a meaningful confrontation with the paradox by characterizing our killing and eating other creatures as actions undertaken 'under the law of necessity,' excusable 'only so far as a compelling necessity exists for it' (303). Again, 'since we are so often compelled by necessity to bring pain and death to living creatures, it is all the more incumbent upon us, when we can act as free beings, to help rather than harm these creatures' (305). Yet again, 'each time I do harm to any kind of living thing whatsoever, I must ask myself most carefully if this action is inevitable [!] or not. I must never go beyond what is absolutely necessary even in apparently trivial things' (cited in Regamey 1966, 164 n. 7). Schweitzer sometimes speaks as if he means to ground this necessity in the will-to-live itself: 'we find the simple fact of consciousness is this, I will to live' (255). But this will not hold water, for there are those who commit suicide in despair, whom Schweitzer criticizes (253, 256), and those who give their lives in sacrificewith Schweitzer's blessing.

Now, if humanity's bodily existence really is founded on a horror, if choosing one life over any other is an arbitrary matter (as when feeding worms to an injured birdsee Schweitzer, 303), if the will-to-live is neither necessary (witness the suicide) nor morally binding (witness the martyr), and if a person is an ethical being obligated to escape whenever possible from the necessity of injuring other life, then what room is there for the affirmation of human life?


The first thing to do to understand the puzzle is to dispose of the idea that our destruction of other life arises from necessity.

In practical affairs, the expression 'x is necessary' presupposes some end. Consuming the environment is, of course, necessary for our own biological survival, but is that an end environmentalists should embrace? The value of our bodies has been called into question both by philosophers with little interest in the environment (Plato) and by those who are hypersensitive to it (the Jains). Indeed, philosophical and religious traditions from Platonism to Christianity to existentialism have had to confront the idea that suicide might be in our own best interests (in order to contemplate the forms directly, in order to be in the presence of God, or in order to relieve ourselves of the absurdities of existence). Jainism, with an ideal of non-violence so extreme that it even precludes sitting on sprouting plants, cannot easily dismiss suicide as the best we can do by others (although, as in Plato, the official line is against it). (2)

Cosculluela (1995) observes it is not that difficult to concoct simple scenarios that raise the possibility of obligatory suicidee.g., where I have contracted an incurable mental illness which I know will lead me to commit horrendous acts of murder (76). If we attach Cosculluela's observation to an environmental axiology, we might conclude that our astronaut is obligated to commit suicide. Some will reject that conclusion while at the same time allowing that her suicide would be supererogatory. Still, supererogatory actions are not merely actions that are permitted; they are also considered in some way ideal.

The issue of suicide can be sidestepped by remembering that we need not have existed in the first place. The 'necessary consumption' of the environment by our descendants can be avoided by simply preventing their existence, which is not necessary for our own physical survival.


We must lay aside, then, Schweitzer's appeals to necessity as well as claims like that of Bookchin that 'human intervention into nature is inherent and inevitable' (Bookchin 1995, 131) and that of Ghandi that 'to observe [nonviolence] fully is impossible for men, who kill a number of living beings large and small as they breathe or blink or till the land' (cited in Naess 1974, 47). Rather, a choice lay before us, and we must take seriously the question of whether life forms which have developed intellectual and moral sense do the best thing in continuing to consume other life.

Among mainstream environmentalists, only Rolston has attempted a systematic justification of all predation. In Rolston's axiology of nature the food chain is a 'trophic pyramid' (Rolston 1988, 82) with carnivores at the top not only in terms of diet but in terms of value. What happens when a wolf eats a caribou is that the lower values of caribou life are transformed into the higher values of wolf life. 'Lower organisms do not express the richness in potential in the ecosystem as fully as do higher ones' (Rolston 1988, 68).

Rolston views predation as a simple transformation of the value associated with the life of the prey animal into the higher values associated with the life of the predator animal. He calls predator-prey relations a system of 'value capture.' Humans, of course, are at the very top (the system, Rolston tells us, is 'anthroapical').

There are two problems here. First, if it is true that the value associated with a Thompson's gazelle is not destroyed but rather is transferred and transformed into a higher value attached to the cheetah who ate it, then a cheetah, who will in its lifetime eat many a gazelle, must be many times more valuable than any one (or two, or three) of the gazelles it consumes. That seems unlikely.

Next, consider the sharks and snakes that feed on birds and mammals, the invertebrate jellies that capture and consume vertebrate fish, the plants that prey on insects, the hawks that eat monkeys, and so on. Rolston's conception of predation as a mere transfer of lower values into higher values does not come close to justifying nature as we know it.

When a human consumes other, more humble, creatures, there is still no guarantee that 'higher' instead of 'lower' values will be realized. This is the two-edged sword of being knowledgeable, rational, moral agents. Our consumption of other life might result in activity that realizes goods unique in degree and kind in the universe, but we need look no further than the evening news to see that it can just as easily be the fuel for astonishing evil.

Rolston's error is in understating the purely instrumental and contingent nature of the value of predation, even though these aspects of predation seem to find implicit acknowledgment in his 'value-transfer' theory. Predation cannot be assigned positive value without reference to the circumstances attendant upon itintrinsically, there is nothing good about one creature's being eaten by another. His theory also implies, correctly, that predation is at its best when it involves the most efficient 'transfer of values.'

While it is certainly false as a descriptive theory, a society of moral agents may nevertheless take it as a sound prescription for its own role in the world. We should freely acknowledge that our own predation, like all predation, has value that is purely instrumental and contingent, and that we (usually) have the power to determine the nature of those instrumentalities and contingencies. Both egalitarian and 'anthroapical' (not to be confused with anthropocentric) theories of environmental ethics tend to propagate half-truths. Human society is in the position of having to determine its axiological position and its contribution to the overall value of this worldpositive, negative, or neutralby its choice of activity.

We should, in fact, make use of the environment when human life and activity and peculiarly human projects are goodswhich they often are. When they are not, the persons in question do an injustice to that which they consume for the sustenance of their bodies and their bodies' activities.

Persons of the latter sort are bewildering in their variety, from members of genocidal militias to the Fortune 500 to even the self-denigrating ascetic who puts on the mantle of an anemonefor a human being who deliberately reduces his or her own existence to the bare sustenance of the biological body does an injustice to the little that is consumed. The latter was, after all, biological body already; to simply redistribute it, to appropriate it for one's own body to no further purpose, would indeed be arbitrary and legitimize Schweitzer's anxieties. (3)

Human beings, then, do have an obligation to flourish. Only in flourishing can we instantiate values that make up for and augment, rather than (at best) simply redistribute, the values that are already present. Those values that we are uniquely positioned to contribute include love, friendship, shared artistic and scientific achievement, and so on. A diet informed by a special compassion for sentient life can be part of that contributionno other creature has such capacity for empathy and the ability to act on it, given the opportunity. But it should also be said that people living in harsh circumstances on seal meat, if they live well, live more in keeping with this active conception of vegetarianism than do those who avoid treading on animal lives at all costs. In whatever environment we drop anchor, we must not simply survive but flourish, so that we might realize the full range of human values and do justice to that which we consume.

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Attfield, Robin. 1986. 'The Good of Trees.' In VanDeVeer and Pierce, op. cit., 96-105.

Bookchin, Murray. 1995. The Philosophy of Social Ecology. Montral: Black Rose Books.

Callicott, J. Baird and Roger T. Ames, eds. 1989. Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy. State University of New York Press.

Coscuella, Victor. 1995. The Ethics of Suicide. New York: Garland Publishing.

Curtin, Deane W. 1992. 'Recipes for Values.' In Curtin and Heldke, op. cit., 123-144.

Curtin, Deane W. and Lisa M. Heldke, eds. 1992. Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food. Indiana University Press.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. 1984. The Philosophy of Vegetarianism. University of Massachusetts Press.

Elliot, Robert and Arran Gare, eds. 1983. Environmental Philosophy: A Collection of Readings. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Godlovitch, Stanley and Roslind and John Harris, eds. 1972. Animals, Men, and Morals: An Enquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company.

Harris, John. 1972. 'Killing for Food.' In Godlovitch and Harris, op. cit., 97-110.

Kalupahana, David J. 1989. 'Toward a Middle Path of Survival.' In Callicot and Ames, op. cit., 247-256.

Kapleau, Roshi Philip. 1982. To Cherish All Life: A Buddhist Case for Becoming Vegetarian, Second Edition. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Miller, Harlan B. and Williams, William H. 1983. Ethics and Animals. Clifton, NJ: Humana Press.

Moore, G. E. 1993. Principia Ethica, Revised Edition. Cambridge University Press.

Naess, Arne. 1974. Gandhi and Group Conflict: An Exploration of Satyagraha Theoretical Background. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Nash, Roderick Frazier. 1989. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. University of Wisconsin Press.

Nelson, Leonard. 1972. 'Duties to Animals.' In Godlovitch and Harris, op. cit., 149-155.

Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge.

Rgamy, P. 1966. Non-violence and the Christian Conscience. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd.

Rodman, John. 1977. 'The Liberation of Nature?' Inquiry 20:1, 83-145.

Rolston, Holmes III. 1988. Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Temple University Press.

Routley, Richard. 1973. 'Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?' Proceedings of the XVth World Congress of Philosophy, 205-210.

Schweitzer, Albert. 1962. An Anthology. Charles R. Joy, ed. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sorabji, Richard. 1993. Animal Minds and Human Morals: The Origins of the Western Debate. Cornell University Press, 1993.

Taylor, Paul W. 1986. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton University Press.

Tideman, T. Nicolaus. 1983. 'Deciding What to Kill.' In Miller and Williams, op. cit., 317-322.

VanDeVeer, Donald and Christine Pierce, eds. 1986. People, Penguins and Plastic Trees: Basic Issues in Environmental Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Warren, Mary Anne. 1983. 'The Rights of the Nonhuman World.' In Elliot and Gare, op. cit., 109-134.


(1) These sorts of arguments only acknowledge, and do not give an account of, the intrinsic value of non-sentient life. Such accountse.g., in Rolston (1988) and Taylor (1986)are usually based on the peculiarly teleological nature of organisms. For an expansion of this sort of account to include non-living natural objects see Plumwood (1993).

(2) Indeed, Jainism has all along presented us with a model of the sort of axiology that last-person arguments are meant to establish. All creatures imaginable are valued and are attributed with at least one sense, from human beings (five-sensed) to leeches (two-sensed) to clods of earth (one-sensed). Any intentional act of violence against any of these is considered sinful, even an act done for a good cause (e.g., to feed human beings). It is odd, then, that Jainism is merely dismissed in environmentalist literature (Nash 1989, 70; Kalupahana 1989, 248; Curtin 1992, 141 n. 12).

(3) My complaint here is against the deliberate ascetic. When people lead meager lives on the edge of physical exhaustion and starvation because of the inequities of economic distribution, it is not they but their oppressors who do an injustice to the environment, using the latter to fill their bellies and their wallets through acts of social injustice.

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