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Philosophy and the Environment

Some Problems With Ecofeminism

Susan Feldman
Dickinson College

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ABSTRACT: Karen Warren presents and defends the ecofeminist position that people are wrong in dominating nature as a whole or in part (individual animals, species, ecosystems, mountains), for the same reason that subordinating women to the will and purposes of men is wrong. She claims that all feminists must object to both types of domination because both are expressions of the same "logic of domination." Yet, problems arise with her claim of twin dominations. The enlightenment tradition gave rise to influential versions of feminism and provided a framework which explains the wrongness of the domination of women by men as a form of injustice. Yet on this account, the domination of nature cannot be assimilated to the domination of women. Worse, on the enlightenment framework, the claim that the domination of nature is wrong in the same way that the domination of women is wrong makes no sense, since (according to this framework) domination can only be considered to be unjust when the object dominated has a will. While ecofeminism rejects the enlightenment view, it cannot simply write off enlightenment feminism as non-feminist. It must show that enlightenment feminism is either inauthentic or conceptually unstable.

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Karen Warren claims that there is an interconnection between the domination of nature by humans and the domination of women by men. She uses the following argument schemas to set out the 'logic of domination'.

A1. Humans do, and plants and rocks do not, have the capacity to consciously and radically change the community in which they live.

A2. Whatever has the capacity to consciously and radically change the community in which it lives is morally superior to whatever lacks this capacity.

A3. Thus, humans are morally superior to plants and rocks.

A4. For any X and Y, if X is morally superior to Y, then X is morally justified in subordinating Y.

A5. Thus, humans are morally justified in subordinating plants and rocks. (1)

She points out that the assumptions A2 and A4 are critical, since without them, all that can be shown is that people are different from plants and rocks.A4 in particular expresses the logic of domination.(269) This key assumption recurs in the reasoning justifying male domination of females:

B1. Women are identified with nature and the realm of the physical; men are identified with the "human" and the realm of the mental.

B2. Whatever is identified with nature and realm of the physical is inferior to ("below") whatever is identified with the "human" and the realm of the mental; or conversely, the latter is superior to ("above") the former.

B3. Thus, women are inferior to ("below") men;or conversely, men are superior to ("above")women.

B4. For any X and Y, if X is superior to Y, then X is justified in subordinating Y.

B5. Thus, men are justified in subordinating women.

Claims of superiority, moral or otherwise, justify the subordination of the alleged inferior by the alleged superior, via the justifiable domination assumption 4. Feminism involves the principled opposition to domination, hence it opposes B4. But since B4 is virtually the same as A4, and since women are culturally identified with nature, feminism should also involve an opposition to A4, and its use in the A argument justifying the subordination of nature by people. "That all feminists must oppose the logic of domination shows the breadth and depth of the ecofeminist critique of B; it is a critique not only of the three assumptions on which this argument for the domination of women and nature rests ,viz. the assumption at B1, B2 and B4; it is also a critique of patriarchal conceptual frameworks generally,i.e. of those oppressive conceptual frameworks which put men "up" and women "down".....Therefore, ecofeminism is necessary to any feminist critique of patriarchy, and hence necessary to feminism..."(270) That is, feminism involves a rejection of the logic of domination, value dualisms, and value hierarchical thinking, which treats differences as grounds for moral rankings of superiority and inferiority, and which justifies domination, as reflected in B4. But that same logic of domination operates to justify the human domination of nature, so feminists must be as opposed to the latter as to men's domination of women.

(In what follows I will use the term domination of X by Y to express the relation of subordination of X by Y, since Warren objects primarily to the 'logic of domination' although she couches her arguments in terms of subordination.)

I have no doubt that a feminist's principled objection to the logic of domination could lead her to reject that logic when applied to natural objects such as plants or rocks. However, it does not follow from this possibility, or from Warren's parallel reasoning that this objection must lead to her to reject 'naturism' (Warren's term for the unjust domination of nature by people, in parallel to 'sexism'). There are undoubtedly multiple theories of domination and its wrongness, but in at least the enlightenment tradition, which played a major role in the development of contemporary feminism, the conditions for there being grounds to object to domination do apply to the domination of women by men, but do not apply to the domination of nature by people.

Modern western feminism is very much the product of enlightenment political thought. This is not to say all enlightenment thinkers were in fact feminists---far from it. Kant and Rousseau, for example, were thoroughly anti-feminist and indeed misogynist. However, certain key notions for feminism and feminist objections to unjust domination arise from the enlightenment framework, exemplified by Kant's moral theory: moral autonomy, involving the moral agency and rights of rational beings, and moral equality of persons, independent of factual equality. The domination of women by men, women's lack of political and legal standing, their social inferiority inside and outside of the home, offends the enlightenment sensibility (and should have offended Kant) because it violates the autonomy and equality requirements: that all persons, by virtue of their rationality, (whatever the particulars of their actual abilities) are entitled to self rule, in the moral and social sphere. Subordination of other persons, whether in the form of human slavery, denial of political rights, or conventional treatment of women as not full political, and social actors is morally offensive. It treats rational agents as non-rational patients, "thingifying" them. Even under the guise of being for their own good, the control of women's choices and activities by men ignores the fact of women's moral agency and concomitant responsibility. Treating women as moral inferiors whose choices must be more carefully controlled and constrained than those of most men, on this enlightenment view is a paradigm of disrespectful, immoral treatment.

This enlightenment view objects to the domination of women by men not because it is domination but because it is unjust domination. B4 becomes moot because factual equality for persons is delinked from moral equality. (2) Just being the same kind : human, and putatively rational, is sufficient proof of moral equality. Either B1 reports a false belief (one that identifies women with nature) or B2 is a false premise: if women are culturally identified with nature, it is illegitimate to leap to claims of inferiority. Thus, the conclusions B3 and B5 do not stem from a sound argument.

So far, I have been outlining the broad enlightenment picture in which the moral equality of women with men has been advanced. On this picture, that the domination of women by men is unjust provides no grounds to object to domination of other beings. It is unjust domination, not domination itself, which is the target of moral objection. And much of contemporary feminism emerges from this enlightenment tradition. Hence, a contemporary feminist may easily separate objection to sexism from objection to 'naturism'.

But more, and worse for ecofeminism, follows from the reflection on the enlightenment rejection of the unjust domination of women by men. The rationale for finding domination unjust involves moral objection to "thingifying" an agent: bending or ignoring the will of the one being dominated for the satisfaction of the dominator. This requires, at the very least, that the one being dominated has a will, and raises the question of the intelligibility of applying the characterizations of justice/injustice to the domination of non-conscious, non- volitional objects for the reason of that domination. (3) Consider the options:

a. If domination of X by Y can be taken to be unjust and morally objectionable for the reason of that domination, then X must have some kind of will.

b. If X has no will, then domination of X by Y is not unjust because of that domination. (It might be unjust for other reasons, but not from the simple fact of the domination relationship; additionally,it might be taken to be connected to a vice, in the same way that gluttony is taken to be a vice, but such vices are defects in character and are not unjust conduct).

Re:a. As the line of reasoning concerning the enlightenment view of the domination of women suggests, the reason that it is wrong to dominate women lies in the control of the rational or moral will by another. Ignoring someone's choices, overriding them, or forbidding the conditions for the consciousness and articulation of those choices are paradigmatically immoral acts. The value and dignity of each rational individual lies in her rational will:the source of the moral law. Subordinating her capacity of choice to that of another, controlling, overriding or ignoring the choices stemming from this will treats the person disrespectfully, as a thing, ignoring in that individual the source of her unique and priceless worth:the capacity to be a moral agent. Thus, a necessary condition for the domination of X by Y to be morally objectionable is that X is conscious and volitional.

Re b:A species can be said to dominate an ecosystem or an eagle can be said to dominate a mountaintop. However, in these cases, it would be unintelligible to characterize this domination as unjust or morally objectionable, without further explanation. A fact about the proliferation of one species, and its dominant role in an ecosystem, by itself implies nothing about its value. There may be reasons to deplore the domination in particular cases: e.g. the proliferation of a given species might disrupt the balance of an ecosystem, and this could be judged wrong, say, by a land ethicist. This judgement, however, although negative, is not one of injustice, and is based on valuing balance and integrity of ecosystems, so it is in content and grounds different than the judgment of wrongness of the domination of women by men. In different cases, there is no reason for a moral judgement about the fact of domination: that an eagle dominates the mountaintop, or that dogs are subordinate to the dominant member in a dog pack, invites no moral concern. In the case of humans and nature, e.g. logging an old growth forest, it is not domination as such which raises concerns for environmental ethics, but rather that the logging destroys an increasingly rare functioning ecosystem. Ethical concerns about the treatment of natural objects can, and for a true environmental ethic, should stem from commitments to the value of these natural objects, and their functioning and biological integrity, and not from concerns about justice.

We can now return to A4. If Y has no will, then either moral justification of this relationship is irrelevant, or if this is an issue of moral concern, it is because of other features of the treatment of Y by X, and the context in which it occurs.

The ecofeminist claim that the plundering of nature and the oppression of women represent the same logic of domination and are both wrong for the same reason is thus problematic. On the historically influential enlightenment view of unjust domination, the claim is unintelligible. Yet the enlightenment framework provided a decent explanation of the wrongness of domination of women.

Of course an ecofeminist such as Warren will object to the importation of enlightenment views to analyse domination:after all, the enlightenment celebrated human control over nature, and most of its adherents fudged the case for the moral equality of women. However, to link every feminist position with the rejection of naturism, Warren has to debunk, and not simply ignore, enlightenment feminism. She must argue either that the enlightenment tradition is incompatible with feminism, which is historically false, or that enlightenment feminism is conceptually unstable, so that while such feminists try to separate the domination of nature from the domination of women, the grounds for doing so are incoherent. However, that case has yet to be made.

It is at this point that we can see the artificiality of Warren's B argument: while her reconstruction of patriarchal reasoning in B is supposed to reveal the deep motivations underlying the acceptance of the sexist premise B3, as a point of fact B3 has been supported in multiple fashions throughout intellectual history. For example, the inferiority of women to men is fashioned, by Aristoteleans, in terms of the weakness of women's faculty of reason and inability to control appetites and passion by reason. This might tend to support Warren's view, if we assume the passions are identified with nature, and not just, say, with animal life. Yet, in contrast, the enlightenment misogynist Rousseau justifies training women for inferiority and submission to men for the purpose of upholding family order. The point is that the reasons for misogyny are various and premise B1 and B2 are entirely replaceable in the argument for patriarchal control of women. B, in short, is not a sketch of the only argument supporting the domination of women, or even an influential one; rather B represents ecofeminist conjectures about the deep cultural/cognitive reasons for belief in B3. These conjectures then reconstruct intellectual history to cast patriarchy and the domination of nature as evil twins when in fact, in other genealogies, they might not even be in the same family.

The upshot is that the 'logic of domination' is not a single logic after all, at least in the tradition which gave clear articulation to the moral objection to unjust domination.

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(1) Karen Warren, "The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism". Reprinted in Donald Van DeVeer and Christine Pierce. The Environmental Ethics and Policy Book (Belmont, CA.:Wadsworth Publishing Co.,1994.)pp.267-281).Originally in Environmental Ethics,Vol 12,No.2 (Summer 1990)125-146.

(2) The enlightenment feminism view a):that women as well as men hold rights naturally, and b):that women are men's moral equals runs through writers such as Mary Wollenstonecraft and later John Stuart Mill. In both writers, however, there is a question mark concerning women's factual equality with men. Are women as capable as men in certain activities? Mill raises his famous objections to claims about factual equality in this connection: we cannot at present tell what women are naturally like because no one has ever seen them absent their domination by men. John Stuart Mill. The Subjection of Women. (Cambridge,MA:MIT Press.1970).p.22.

(3) Non-human animals pose a complication, to both the enlightenment view and to Warren's A2, since many have wills, and are conscious, yet are not considered to be agents, capable of making choices. In what follows, I will bracket the issue of whether human domination of non-human animals is unjust (although I will assume that animal domination of other animals(as in the dominance hierarchy of a wolf pack) is not subject to moral characterization.

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