An Almanac on Dehumanization: The Trend in Ethics

James LynchThe following Gutenberg student post was written as an assignment for Tim McIntosh’s sophomore writing class. The assignment is intended to help prepare students for writing to a public readership. The views within do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Gutenberg College.


A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold discusses the ethical relationship between man and nature. He likens it to the relationship of a master over property. Leopold wants that ethical relationship to change from a master over property to a relationship between equal citizens. Although the book has many insights, Leopold’s ethics are both enlightening and frightening.

Larissa Weisse's Nature ShotThe origins of the naturalist, or “green,” movement can be traced back to Leopold, whose love and respect for nature flows through the tradition of the movement. But while the naturalists took the torch of ecological awareness from Leopold, they deviated significantly from his ethics. Two terms describe the difference: citizenship and pestilence. Leopold makes man an equal to nature, while the naturalists view man as a blight on nature. The naturalists went further than Leopold originally intended, but their evolution from Leopold makes sense. They morphed Leopold’s ethics, in which man is no longer a conqueror of nature but an equal citizen, into radial extremism.

The naturalist movement diverted from Leopold’s line of succession, which passed instead to bio-ethical philosopher Peter Singer. Singer fleshed out Leopold’s ethics and followed it to its logical conclusion. Arguing for a change of ethics similar to Leopold’s, Singer proposes to end “speciesism”—that is, not to favor one living being over another purely based on its species. In a FAQ page from the Princeton University website, Singer wrote that, under the right conditions, it would be morally right to save a mouse instead of a human being if both were in a burning building and only one could be saved.

Now, some would argue that both the naturalists and Singer went further than Leopold intended. True, the naturalist’s ethics are more dehumanizing than Leopold’s. Singer’s ethics, on the other hand, are similar to Leopold’s—only more clearly articulated. So then, two views confront us: the radial naturalist’s view that man is a blight on nature and Leopold’s and Singer’s view that man is an equal citizen with nature. Which do we follow? Either way, both ethical systems are willing to sacrifice not only man’s position in nature but human lives if need be.

The two options, if followed consistently, will protect nature—but at the price of risking endangering human life. Is protecting nature so important that it justifies dehumanizing man and risking his place in the world? If the answer is yes, then society has lost sight of what’s truly important.


[Thanks to Gutenberg student Larissa Weisse for the nature photo.]


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