Thinking Beyond Human Value


Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature. Theory and Practice . Heyd, T. , editor . 2005 . Columbia University Press , New York , NY . 240 ( x + 230 ) pp . $45.00 (hardcover) . ISBN 0-231-13606-4 .

What does it mean to respect nature? Editor Thomas Heyd has collected 10 articles from leading environmental philosophers addressing this question. The key concept as indicated by the title is autonomy, a word associated in the minds of most Western philosophers with Immanuel Kant. While acknowledging this heritage, the book's authors assert that nature is autonomous in virtue of its self-sufficiency (i.e., its ability to exist for itself independently of human intentions) and that rationality and choice are not necessary conditions for nature to be autonomous. Thus, human beings and nature are autonomous in two different senses. In fact this difference between human intentionality and nature's autonomy creates the central issue handled by these authors: Does nature's autonomy morally obligate us to leave nature alone?

The authors are split. Some argue that nature ceases to be itself, becoming a human artifact, when we begin conforming it to our designs, as in cases of agriculture, domestication of animals, genetic engineering, and even restoration, for in each case nature bears the marks of our intentions. Thus, whenever possible, we should withhold interference. Others, however, argue that nature continues to be itself—self-sustaining and self-generating—so long as our interactions with it do not constitute domination, a preponderance of influence. We are obligated to recognize our dependence on nature and treat it accordingly, which means that we should not use nature merely as a means to our ends. Just as we may use each other respectfully, we may use the rest of nature respectfully, acknowledging that the influence is bidirectional.

But does nature really exist? The first two articles focus on this question, specifically in response to two concerns: does the idea of “nature” have meaning any longer in this postmodern age of the social construction of reality, and does physical nature in the absence of human intentions exist given our enormous ecological footprint?

Plumwood argues that although postmodern critics have effectively revealed many ways in which our thinking about nature is influenced by social and political practices, they have “backgrounded” the many ways in which our social and political practices are fundamentally dependent on nonhuman nature. In other words there are two dangers: conceiving of nature as wholly separate from us and conceiving of it as our construction. Both dangers can be avoided by an ecological understanding of “mutual production,” that is, humans cooperating with an equally influential and valuable nature. Thus, for Plumwood, the trick is to recognize our differences from the rest of nature while not, on the one hand, pretending those differences indicate human superiority and not, on the other hand, basing nature's value on our absence, a mistake she calls “hyperseparation.”

Lee also confronts the social constructivists, arguing that although our concepts are our inventions (hence, anthropogenic), this does not entail the impossibility of self-sufficient nature or of its independent value. In other words, a nonanthropocentric environmental ethic is possible. After delineating multiple conceptions of nature, Lee asserts that nature as autonomous is “the contrast or foil to human artifacts”; thus, to the extent that nature is subjected to human intentions, its autonomy is violated. Notably, in her discussion of seven senses of “nature,” Lee emphasizes our differences from (the rest of) nature and locates nature's noninstrumental value, its autonomy, in that difference. Thus, our biological condition is backgrounded, and nature is hyperseparated, gaining its value from our absence.

The remaining articles develop either the Plumwood or Lee perspective on nature's autonomy. Katz makes the clearest case for leaving nature alone, lest we turn Earth into an artifact. This preservationist ethic is explicitly endorsed by many of the authors, but several recognize that such an ethic is incomplete. Hettinger supplements it with a partnership ethic, to guide agriculture and other necessary interactions with nature. He writes, “Rural nature can preserve its autonomy in relationship with humanity even when significantly influenced by humans because it can significantly influence us in return.” Thus, farmers respect nature's autonomy so long as they leave “themselves open to significant influence from natural entities and processes” on the farm. Throop and Vickers also attempt to develop an agricultural ethic, basing theirs on the pragmatism of philosopher Putnam. Other aspects of the nature–human relationship are explored. Bavington and Sandlos warn land managers against thinking the land needs their care or that scientists can accurately know nature's needs. And Light, Woods, and Jordan consider reasons for restoring land previously subjected to human intentions, despite the ironic fact that the restoration will further impose human intentions on it.

Jordan's article reflects on the previous nine articles, serving as the book's conclusion. He confesses that “what struck me in reading the preceding chapters is the hold, a century and a half after Darwin and more than a century since the emergence of ecology, the categories of ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’ indeed the old nature/culture dualism, still has on our thinking about nature and our place in it.” Like Plumwood, he takes a more ecological approach to understanding nature. It includes us, and thus the direction of influence between us and the rest of nature “works both ways.”

But this bidirectional influence is of course a problem because our influence can be vicious. In the language of the book, our influence can be dominating, not respectful of nature's autonomy. The book valuably helps one think about this influence. Should environmental conservation and preservation be guided by a nonanthropocentric ethic? If so, what justifies the ethic? What moral obligations does it impose on us and how can we fulfill those obligations? In offering answers to these important questions, the authors write clearly and boldly. Many of their points are presented as easily understood arguments from analogy to human relationships. They frequently compare and contrast their positions to the positions taken by other authors in the volume, giving the effect of a roundtable discussion.

Despite these virtues, however, more could have been accomplished in its 200-plus pages. Specifically, more care could have been taken in defining domination, kinds of domination, and ways we habitually and unconsciously participate in domination. In addition, although the book makes valuable critiques of social constructivist arguments, it tends to overcompensate and thereby obscure nuances in the nature–culture relationship. This is regrettable because those nuances had been successfully elaborated 10 years earlier in another Columbia University Press publication, Conserving Natural Value, by Holmes Rolston III (1994. Columbia University Press, New York).

Nonetheless, Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature is an important exploration of nonanthropocentric ethics. There is little in our Western world that challenges or inspires us to think beyond human value. This book provides that challenge and for that reason should be read by land-use decision makers: land managers, developers, city and county planners, and especially restoration ecologists.