Category Archives: Environmental

The Indefensibility of Callicott's Subjectivist Environmental Ethic

Darren Domsky, York University

J. Baird Callicott has, over the past two decades, developed a bio-empathic environmental ethics grounded in the works of David Hume, Charles Darwin, and Aldo Leopold. Callicott’s moral metaphysic, inspired by Leopold’s Land Ethic, has its original basis in the Humean concept of moral sentiment, in which moral judgment is founded on internal sense or feeling, rather than reason. It is scientifically reinforced by Darwin, who claimed that altruistic moral sentiments were naturally selected for and made universal in human evolution, and subsequently expanded by Leopold to include as objects of those sentiments not just fellow humans but the entire biotic community.

Over the years, many interesting and perplexing problems have been raised with respect to this communitarian ethics. I show that although many of these criticisms can be shown to be harmless, some of them are much more serious. I argue that Callicott’s theory has three unavoidable flaws: that it is unacceptably immune to cognitive criticism because it is biologically determined; that it cannot successfully apply moral sentiments to the entire biotic community; and that it counterintuitively makes the existence of our ecosystem’s inherent value logically dependent on the contingent facts of our evolutionary history. Because of these flaws, I conclude that Callicott’s metaethical position is ultimately untenable.