Saving St. Aldo

There is a long-running debate in the field of environmental ethics between Bryan Norton and J. Baird Callicott over the meaning and the legacy of the works of Aldo Leopold.

I have been a near observer of one side of this debate, as Bryan’s office was, until his retirement last year, just around the corner from mine.

To throw around a lot of technical jargon, while Callicott reads Leopold as a moral monist espousing a form of ecocentrism, Norton reads Leopold as instead seeking to foster a pluralistic pragmatism that is compatible with or encompasses the more generous varieties of anthropocentrism.

In more ordinary terms, Callicott thinks environmental ethics needs to produce a single, compelling moral theory (that’s “monism”) that includes acknowledgement that non-human living things, and especially, ecological systems have value in themselves (that’s “ecocentrism”).

Callciott seems quite anxious to claim the legacy of Aldo Leopold in favor of his position, reading Leopold by way of Hume’s theory of moral sentiments by way of Darwin’s evolutionary account of moral experience.

Norton, for his part, thinks environmental ethics can encompass many different ways of thinking about value and obligation (that’s “pluralism”), including ways of thinking that focus on human values and the richness of human experience (that’s “anthropocentrism”), and that the aim should not be to base all decisions on an appeal to first principles, but on a much more open, experimentalist engagement with the complexities of situations (that’s “pragmatism”). Environmental ethics, in other words, should converge with the recent approach to conservation biology called adaptive management.

Norton also seems quite anxious to claim the legacy of Aldo Leopold in favor of his position, reading Leopold by way of his training in forestry and attempting to establish a direct connection from American Pragmatist philosophers of the time to Leopold’s intellectual formation, and then forward from Leopold’s approach to conservation to the more recent emergence of adaptive management.

As far as the motivation for the debate goes, I tend to lean toward Norton’s approach to environmental decision making in general and environmental ethics in particular.

That said, I’ve always looked on the terms of the debate itself – and the two of them do still fire salvos at one another, from time to time, at conferences and in the pages of journals – with something like amusement.

Why does it matter so much whether Leopold would have sanctioned one approach or the other? Leopold is one of the forebears of environmental ethics, but is his status so exalted that a current approach to decision making cannot stand or fall without his posthumous blessing? Isn’t that just an argument from authority?

Thinking along these lines has led me to dub the Callicott-Norton debate, “Saving St. Aldo.”

I am currently rereading A Sand County Almanac for my environmental ethics course. The book is remarkably rich: though I’ve read it on average once a year for many years, I always discover something new in it.

I think my reading of Leopold is quite different in spirit than that on offer from either Callicott or Norton. I see Leopold as an example of someone who moved through the world with finely tuned awareness, a feel for living things and connections and systems that is remarkable in its subtlety, and he was able to write about it with great clarity and humanity.

I do not wish to become – nor do I wish my students to become – just like Leopold in any particular way, nor do I expect my students to line up behind the banner of the land ethic.

Instead, we will focus on the particular things Leopold noticed in his surroundings, how he responded to them, how he thought about them, and see if we can develop a comparable sort of awareness of everyday things in our surroundings.

A salient quotation, from my reading over the weekend:

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, his ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? A goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.

– Aldo Leopold (1949), A Sand County Almanac, Oxford, p. 18

For me, the important thing is that Leopold had and could write compellingly about a skill worth emulating and practicing, rather than that he had an idea that compels intellectual allegiance . . . or built a rampart to be defended.

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