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Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” — On Ethics, Aesthetics and Education

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is one of the great pioneers of environmental ethics. In 1948, the year he died, he wrote his influential “The Land Ethic” as one article of an edition of the Sand County Almanac that was devoted to his work. The Almanac was published posthumously.

Leopold is known for having proposed one of the earliest environmental ethics. He does so within a social evolutionary framework. Like Peter Singer after him (who writes of the “expanding circle”), Leopold sees ethical systems as having evolved over history to be more encompassing. Over time slavery has been displaced and in various domains ethical concern has replaced mere considerations of expediency. Leopold underlines the need to expand our ethical sensibilities further – namely to encompass consideration for “the land,” which includes “soil, water, plants and animals.” In our interaction with our ecosystems, the time for thought of mere expediency has also passed.

Leopold’s proposed ecological ethics entails the development of an “ecological conscience” along with a new understanding of ourselves as part of a larger community that includes “the land.” As he highlights: “[A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (204). As the fundamental principle for judging our dealings with the land, Leopold proposes what many have come to view as his categorical imperative: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (224-5). In proposing a simple rule for guidance, this principle is similar Kant’s categorical imperative that we should “Act only on that principle that we can at the same time will to be universal law” or “Act so as to treat humanity, whether within ourselves or others, always as a means and never merely as a means.” But unlike Kant’s principle, it shifts the focus to our dealings with the natural world.

It is often overlooked that a major part of Leopold’s concern in developing this ethics was to address a problem in land management education. Leopold, who had the first professorship of game management at the University of Wisconsin, viewed ethics as a remedy to one of the problems of that field. As he noted “Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace…” (207)

The new ethics that should address this was one that focused on the value of the land and understood humans as members of a larger ecological community. Leopold expresses an implicit understanding that education occurs within a broader culture and is expressive of the values of that culture. So reform within the discipline is related to reform outside it. He thus doesn’t propose a narrow ethics for his field but a broad vision of how society should reconceive of its own ethics.

A typical response to the problem of the slow changes within conservation was that we simply needed “more conservation education” (207). While Leopold recognized that education has its place, in “The Land Ethic” he underlines that this education has so far seemed to have brought “no change in the current philosophy of values” (208). At issue is that economic interests – then as now – were dominant among those in land management, among farmers, and in education more generally. For land use practices, the lack of an adequately formed conscience was the fundamental problem: “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land” (209). For the formation of conscience, we need a shift in our sensibilities that includes intellectual education but also involves what philosophers like Schiller called an “aesthetic education.” As Leopold puts it: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in” (214).

Leopold’s focus is nearly exclusively on the role an explicit ethics can play in shifting our sensibility. Here he may overestimate the degree to which ethical theory shifts perspectives, but he hints at the need for something more than a new way of theorizing about the right and the good. Besides needing to “understand” that toward which we have an ethical relation, we also need to “see, feel, and love” it. This also means that a philosophical ethical teaching is not enough. In sync with such a sensibility, generations of educators have focused on the need to move beyond the classroom, to provide students with the possibility of encountering the natural world, to recognize it, to see what is often so much in plain sight that it is overlooked. This has something to do with the “aesthetic education” insofar as “aesthetics” is also understood in its general Kantian sense to include our general way of perceiving reality. For Schiller, art and exposure to beauty were to play a fundamental role in that. Leopold only hints at something similar, suggesting that we bring a standard of beauty to our evaluation of nature to counter the dominant view of nature as of mere economic interest. Nonetheless, this suggests that in addition to exposing students to the natural world, or even exposing them to ethical argument, exposing them to experiences of beauty more generally can also help to counter the dominant logic of our economic system that is at play in our evaluation of everything from the natural world to education.

Leopold proposes the outlines of an ethical perspective that should inform our worldview and that should be used in education and in land management decisions. At the heart of the dilemma he was concerned about are values conflicts that play out still – in education and more broadly: “man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe” (223). Education, still under the dominance of confining economic interests, needs a greater focus on ethical and aesthetic values. What is needed “is an intellectual as well as emotional process” (225). The resulting sensibility should be one that results in social praise for right actions and social disapproval of wrong ones; and it would give a fundamental place to our ecological community.

It is now 72 years since Leopold wrote “The Land Ethic.” While in the intermittent period environmental ethics has become a fundamental part of the curricula of philosophy departments and environmental ethics is integrated into the curricula of many earth science departments, in general we still have not seen the fundamental shift in our consciences that Leopold hoped for – either culturally or within education. Culturally we still stand in need of a fundamental realignment of our moral sensibilities and an expanded sense of our community to include the ecological community. The educational reform Leopold envisions involves an education about the physical world and about ethics, but it also hints at the need for a related education of our aesthetic sensibilities. Together these may lead to the “community instinct in-the-making” that Leopold viewed as “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity” (203).

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