Finite Ethics: Revolution or Threshold?


Ethics for a Finite World. An Essay Concerning a Sustainable Future . Elliott, H. 2005 . Fulcrum Publishing , Golden , CO . 188 ( xxx + 158 ) pp . $12.95 (paperback) . ISBN 1-55591-545-0 .

Elliott argues for a finite ethics. Because we humans evolved on the planet, we have been pushing back limits. But that is over. Now we need to recognize limits. We are living at one of the hinge points of history. For millennia humans have lived with a deep-seated belief that life will get better, that one should hope for abundance, and work toward obtaining it. Now we need “a steady state ethics” (p. xxvi).

Humans suffer from Pleistocene urges, we are now told; we like fats and sweets. Once we could hardly get enough food to make it through winter. For Elliott ethics too suffers from a kind of Pleistocene urge. Fulfilling more and more human desires is a good thing, something we ought to do. “Because every human being has intrinsic value, to increase the human population maximizes the amount of value in the world. Moral behavior should also maximize the instrumental values of goods and services that people want. Growth is always desirable. Growth is a moral ideal.” (p. 27).

We have in the West built that into our concept of human rights: a right to self-development, to self-realization. The egalitarian ethic is wrong because it scales nothing down; it scales everybody up and drives an unsustainable world. The ethic of “human rights,” of a right to food, development, education, employment, reproduction is, in this sense, pushing in the wrong direction. Asserting such rights is contributing to life-system breakdown (cf. pp. 74–75). Such human rights also lead us to suppress caring for nonhuman lives (pp. 27–28; pp. 103–105). It doesn't make much difference for Elliott whether this ethic is selfish or altruistic. When everybody seeks their own good, there is escalating consumption. When everybody seeks everybody else's good, there is, again, escalating consumption.

The new ethics that Elliott advocates has to be not so much rational as ecological, in the sense that any ethics that respects life must recognize the inclusive biological system of life of which we humans are a part. “The first duty of moral behavior is to preserve the endurance and resilience of the Earth's system of living things” (p. 18).

Elliott claims that his version of ethics is empirical, even scientific, fact of the matter (chapter 1). He operates with a sort of a falsification principle for ethics. “Nature never tells people what they ought to do; but it does alert people to what they cannot do. Nature always has a veto over the moral laws and principles that people use” (p. 7, cf. p. 102). At this point he claims that the naturalistic fallacy is false. We can move from what is the case to what ought to be the case (pp. 61–66). Or, more accurately, we can move from what cannot be to what we ought not to do. Ought implies can. I ought implies that nature can. If nature cannot, I ought not.

Elliott dislikes ethics derived from philosophical reasoning (John Rawls's original position, e.g., p. 31, pp. 66–69) and quite disparages ethics handed down from God (Moses and the Ten Commandments). Nor does he like “rationalism” in ethics (pp. 38–51, p. 110). Such ethics are too much abstracted or built on transcendent principle. Elliott wants his ethics Earth bound, on the ground. He is not particularly interested in its being “personal ethics,” however, because this is too individualistic and not corporate or systemic enough (pp. 85–92).

This Earth system of life, which we are urged to defend, is built of trophic pyramids in which life feeds on life; an ecological system is a webwork, yes, but one in which there is value capture. The nature of which Elliott so much approves is a system of trade-offs. In fact life in both nature and society involves incessant trade-offs, and what ethics needs to offer for humans in society is guidance in such trade-offs. Here ethics only starts when we find out what is and what is not possible within nature's limits. Alternative decisions are possible within these limits. “Impending scarcity changes the nature of ethics. It makes the fundamental problem of ethics become how to justify the trade-offs of materially dependent values. An ethics for a finite world must make sure that the conditions of scarcity do not arise that will necessitate trade-offs that thwart the goals of moral life” (pp. 97–98).

But now I will wish to ask Elliott whether we might need, and need badly, some of the rationalism, universalism, human rights, transcendent principle that he has tossed out. True, as Elliott so forcefully claims, nature can veto some choices. But ecologists who discover such veto powers have no special competence in evaluating what rebuilding of nature a culture desires, and how far the integrity of wild nature should be sacrificed to achieve this. A people on a landscape will have to make value judgments about how much original nature they have, or want, or wish to restore and how much culturally modified nature they want and whether it should be culturally modified this way or that.

Ecologists studying nature may be able to tell us what our options are, what will work and what will not, and what is the minimum baseline health of landscapes. But there is nothing in the scientific study of nature that gives ethicists any help at making these further social decisions. Science does not enable us to choose between diverse options, all of which are scientifically possible. At this point science, unaided, does not teach us what we most need to know about nature: how to value it.

Elliott has brought us, as it were, to the threshold of ethics, to the ground floor, on which everything else must be built. But it can hardly be said that either Elliott or nature gives us a complete ethics. As he says, we are not told what we ought to do, only what we can't. Humans can have quite sustainable landscapes without wolves and tigers, but should they? Humans can flourish without many, perhaps most, of the naturally rare species. But will they be impoverished without them?

Beyond resource sustainability, nature offers essentially no guidance at all about how humans ought to relate to other humans in their cultural affairs. Nature offers no Ten Commandments or Golden Rule, or Categorical Imperative, nor does nature even urge justice or charity in the use of these resources–only their sustainability. At this point, we may even need some of the religion in ethics, about which Elliott has been so suspicious.

Elliott might have noticed that Jesus' beatitudes can hardly be said to escalate consumption. Moses' last commandment, often taken by the rabbis as pivotal, is that one ought not to covet. The central idea in Buddhist ethics is the control and elimination of desire, resulting from the Buddhist insight that “thirsting” (desire for more) produces “suffering.” Yes, these ethical systems are compassionate and believe that people ought to be fed; they also urge sharing. “Some values are nonmaterial” (p. 95); Elliott approves of developing these. And so also have the sages, saints, and philosophers for centuries.

Having established his threshold ethics, Elliott might go on to notice that a great deal in ethics has little or nothing to do with scarce natural resources. Tell the truth. Keep promises. Do not steal. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Treat equals equally, unequals equitably. Love your neighbors. Treat animals humanely.

Elliott thinks that prevailing Western ethics is doomed to failure because it does not recognize the environmental basis on which an ethic must be built, conserving Earth's sustainability. Despite his dislike of human rights, he needs also to recognize that any conservation ethic with insufficient caring about the huge numbers of persons in deep poverty is equally doomed to fail. “To those who are not blinded by human arrogance or blinkered by a species narcissism, human beings have become like a plague of locusts” (p. 148). Because I myself have been criticized for comparing human growth to a cancer, I can appreciate the point. But we both know that one does not deal with millions of humans as one might with a locust plague. In part, Elliott's final chapter makes a commendable effort to set forth practical strategies to make his ethic operational: limit immigration, restrict imports, ration petroleum, use tax incentives; encourage vegetarians; curtail advertising; and reduce the work week. His suggestions here often have considerable merit.

Elliott is a retired professional philosopher, now a vegetarian farmer in remote Vermont, living without utilities and indoor plumbing, eating mostly what he grows and stores. We can admire his lifestyle, but we can no longer universalize it. There is also something almost archaic about his ethic; it is earthy and on the ground, fundamental. But his practical advice notwithstanding, this “finite ethics” is almost too basic, too simple to reckon with the complex global problems of conservation where meeting growing human needs must be balanced with protecting nature. If this is half the truth, it ought not to be mistaken for the whole.

Within his finite ethics, Elliott closes with an escalating moral goal after all: “to discover how to make human life in society ever more worth living” (p. 151). Amen.