Are ethics human in nature


Konrad Ott

Prof. Dr. Konrad Ott is professor for philosophy and ethics of the environment at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel. His philosophical focus is on discourse ethics, environmental ethics, theories of justice, sustainability, ethical aspects of climate change, nature conservation justifications and the normative foundations of environmental policy.

What's wrong with turning rock formations into quarries or exterminating predators like wolves? Right from the start, nature conservation had to take on the burden of justification, as it was directed against practices that benefit people. How can the protection of nature be ethically justified?

European wolves. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


Human existence is essentially relational, i.e. constituted by relationships. Since ancient times a distinction has been made between a) relationships with oneself (individuality), b) with other people (you experiences, community and society), c) with a sphere of cultural artefacts, historical traditions and the arts, d) with a world of nature and e) a religious sphere (the sacred). These relationships are correlative, i.e. in each relationship the other relationships are also presupposed. With this assumption, the article places an emphasis on relationships with an extra-human nature, the real existence of which is assumed. All societies or all of their individual members are dependent on a continuous metabolism with an external nature. This begins with breathing and digestive activity. In order to reproduce them, people intervene in the surrounding nature in different ways: hunting, gathering, farming and animal husbandry, fishing etc. The "that" of interfering with nature is unalterable for people, the "how" is highly variable for a free cultural being . The history of mankind has produced very different forms of use of nature, some of which have existed for several millennia.

In this sense, any nature conservation theory always deals with historically and culturally mediated human-nature relationships as well as the values ​​and norms implied in these relationships. Nature was and is assessed and regulated in a variety of ways (e.g. through forest regulations). If these values ​​and rules are described neutrally ("reconstructed"), a historical or social science perspective is adopted. If nature-related values ​​and sets of rules are critically and reflexively assessed for their quality and their effects, a perspective is implicitly adopted that is based on an initially vague guiding principle of successful human-nature relationships. The exact explanation (explication) of the assessment criteria and the guideline leads into the field of natural ethics (synonym: environmental ethics).

Interventions in nature gradually transform it. The degree of this transformation is called the degree of cultivation ("hemerobia") (Greek: "hémeros" = tamed, "bios" = life). The concept of nature is a scaled concept that extends from "untouched" wilderness to urban spaces. Different entities move on this comprehensive scale, which can be described as individual beings (plants, animals) or as natural collectives (soils, forests, moors, meadows, springs). Biology and ecology are responsible for the descriptions. The concept of wilderness, which constitutes one pole of this scale, must be distinguished between absolute and relative, primary and secondary wilderness. Outside of the absolute wilderness, which probably only exists on earth in the deep sea and the Antarctic, human interference can also be demonstrated in relative wilderness, although it does not shape natural events in such natural areas. Whenever people stop using nature (for whatever reason), a new, i.e. secondary, wilderness gradually sets in as a result of natural processes ("natural dynamics"). However, this process can extend over centuries. Therefore, secondary wilderness areas can also arise in the midst of cultivated landscapes. Even in the opposite pole of the wilderness, the urban spaces, diverse nature can still be found (gardens, pigeons). It becomes clear that modern societies in particular have great degrees of freedom to further reshape or level nature or to protect or promote it. An example of leveling would be the transfer of species-rich biocenoses into monotonous usable landscapes.


From a diagnostic perspective, we live in a world that we ourselves rightly named after our species, i.e. the Anthropocene. It could be that its origins can be seen in the achievements of Neolithization, the quality of which was later increased quantitatively. In this sense, fishing with nets is quality, whereas today's nets of deep sea fleets increase it quantitatively, which leads to overfishing of many species. Domestication of large mammals such as cattle, sheep and pigs is the quality, industrial factory farming is today's quantitative increase. Agriculture turns into industrial agriculture, cities turn into urban conurbations, etc. This gigantic increase aroused the fear in many that modern man has gone "far too far" in the process of constant mastery of nature and should ethically rethink and practically correct his natural relationships.

In the Christian tradition, people are accorded the right to subjugate nature and to rule over it (Gen 1). This "dominionist" (from Latin dominium = property, domain) history of impact does not correspond to the actual meaning of the so-called creation narrative of Genesis (Hardmeier / Ott 2015), but profoundly shaped the European understanding of nature. According to Genesis 2, people had to wring their livelihood from (cursed) nature "in the sweat of their brow", but had a right to control of nature. The secular early modern philosophy (Descartes, Bacon) propagated the project of scientific-technological mastery of nature, which became the paradigm of industrialization. Modernism has not been wrongly called the "Bacon Project" (Schäfer 1993). This also applies to Marxism, which is to be understood as a project for the further development of the productive forces in the service of egalitarian ("classless") provision. Only in the wake of a successful mastery of nature did the idea arise that not only people should be protected from the dangers and rigors of nature, but that in view of the increase in technical power over nature, natural structures could also be protected from human access. The idea that nature is both in need of protection and worthy of protection is the foundation of the nature conservation movement. The word "nature conservation" was coined in the 19th century. It is younger than the expression "sustainable", which can be traced back to 1713 (Ott 2016) and from which today's "sustainable" is derived. The sustainability idea is directed against the overexploitation of natural resources, but in contrast to the nature conservation idea, it is a more economical concept. Sustainability and nature conservation are, as one could show from the controversy about nature conservation in forests, competing concepts in the 19th century. A suggestion for combining sustainability and nature conservation can be found in Ott and Döring (2008) and Ott (2015).

The important role that (intensive) experiences of nature play in the conduct of human life was emphasized in Germany by artistic and philosophical currents that can be broadly described as the "spirit of the Goethe era" (Korff 1966). They are divided into a rather "classic" current, which was based on ideal Mediterranean landscapes in an antique style, and a "romantic" current, which was enthusiastic about northern nature and which, after the age of scientific enlightenment, wanted to re-enchant nature into a mysterious wonderland. A Goethean conception of nature that wanted to combine science and enjoyment of nature can be found in Alexander von Humboldt's work. The industrialization of the 19th century, which profoundly reshaped land use and the landscape (Blackbourn 2007), was thematized as a history of loss by generations who were habitualized by the spirit of the Goethe era. The early nature protection emerged as a romantic Goethean criticism of civilization. In terms of the history of ideas, nature conservation can be assigned to national romanticism and conservatism, and it should not be concealed that nature conservation swung into the doctrine of "blood and soil" around 1933. Only the so-called ecology movement of the post-68 era had a more "left" self-image politically. In the 1970s, an extensive body of literature emerged that addressed the natural crisis as the destruction of the natural foundations of life with regard to its causes and how it could be overcome. The critique of growth at the time is the predecessor of today's "degrowth" movement (Muraca 2014).

The reasoning space of natural ethics

Since the beginning of the nature conservation movement, the reasons why certain natural structures should be withdrawn from human access have also been discussed. What should actually be wrong with the practice of turning rock formations into quarries, exterminating "predators" (wolves, cormorants), channeling rivers, converting moors into arable and grazing land ("meliorating") and turning forests into forests? Nature conservation thus had to take on an initial burden of justification, as it was directed against beneficial practices. These reasons constitute a nature (protection) ethic as early as the 19th century. A) a "social need to return to pure and unadulterated nature" (Wetekamp 1914), b) the right to deep experience of nature in pure nature (Rudorff 1897), c) the necessary difference between "wild" and "tame" national culture were put forward (Riehl 1854), d) the protection of remains of original nature in analogy to monument protection (Conwentz 1904) and e) the preservation of Germanic primeval landscape to preserve national identity (Schwenkel 1932, Schoenichen 1934). These reasons were without exception anthropocentric, i.e. related to human interests in the broader sense. In philosophical ethics, which has surprisingly few points of contact with the early nature conservation discourse, theories of ethics have been developed since the 19th century (in today's terminology: "physiocentric") that also included non-human beings in the circle of moral consideration, such as Arthur Schopenhauer's ethics of compassion, Leonard Nelson's ethics of interests and Albert Schweitzer's ethics of reverence for life. The term "physiocentrism" is a generic term that includes various approaches (see below).

Different reasons for nature conservation have been non-exclusive, heterogeneous and pluralistic since their inception. The academic establishment of the discipline called "environmental ethics" has not changed that much. A new addition, however, is the intense debate about the so-called inclusion problem, i.e. the problem of the attribution of moral self-worth (synonymous: moral self-worth) with regard to certain natural beings, which leads into the field of physiocentrism.

If one turns from a historical to a systematic view, nature conservation must first be differentiated into a) the ("media") protection of the environment and resources (water, soil, air, handling of waste, avoidance of pollutant emissions) that is geared towards the central environmental media etc.), b) animal protection (protection of sentient individual organisms), and c) protection of higher biotic units (so-called "natural wholes" such as genomes, species, communities ["biocenoses], landscape forms, the biosphere) and / or "moral patients" (beings under protection) can be differentiated according to the questions 1) after all, 2) the extent and 3) the classification. Questions about the general are philosophical questions: "Why do x or not?" Questions about the extent (e.g. of nature conservation areas, reduction targets or increased animal welfare) already have political aspects "worthy of the national park") must be explained and negotiated on site. The ethics of nature is primarily dedicated to the "why at all?" - questions.

All those good (insightful, reasonable) reasons that can claim to be able to answer these questions constitute the argumentation space of natural ethics (Ott 2010). Philosophers, including Angelika Krebs, have contributed to its analytical reconstruction since the 1970s. From a discourse-ethical perspective, one cannot understand reasons without implicitly recognizing them as reasons, i.e. expressing an affirmative or negative position on them. Therefore, it enables the said reconstruction that everyone reflexively appropriates their own version of the argumentation space by orienting themselves with reasons to the reasons of the argumentation space. In the extreme, this includes the possibility of rejecting all reasons (and thus advocating a negative natural ethic). These reasons can be differentiated as follows. Certain natural beings are worthy of protection - to be determined in more detail according to extent and classification - because 1) people are existentially dependent on their continued use, because 2) they contribute to a good human life, because 3) present-day people are more specific than future people Natural assets are obliged to be considerate, or because 4) certain natural beings are worthy of protection for their own sake. Dependency, a good life, responsibility for the future and moral self-worth are "classic" natural ethical values. There are also 5) natural philosophical and 6) religious approaches. The deep ecology (Naess 1989) speaks with a view to 5) and 6) of "ecosophies", whose concept of nature deviates from the strictly value-free understanding of nature of modern science. If, for example, a concept of a self-affirming life (as in Hans Jonas 1973) or an objectively valuable "projective" nature (as in Holmes Rolston 1988) is represented, then an ethical natural philosophy is assumed. Spiritual approaches to nature, as found in many religions (such as in shamanism, Daoism and Hinduism), belong to this area of ​​natural ethics (see articles in Kearns / Keller 2007), which is, however, characterized by the fact that non-believers People are confronted here with "cosmo- / theological" assumptions which they cannot be obliged to accept even if they understand and respect them.

We can enter this pattern of justification into the argumentation space of environmental ethics, whereby it is subdivided. This structure can be refined as desired, since many arguments have several aspects. The area of ​​dependency arguments presupposes a moral obligation to consider the life prospects of people with regard to their access to essential natural resources. However, the reliance on nature is often gradual and substitutes are often considered. In addition, no limit values ​​for certain pollutants can be derived from the dependence on water, oxygen and food. Arguments of dependency become additionally complex as soon as assumptions regarding causal, often economic interdependencies are introduced. The disputed principle is not so much that one should not live at the expense of others, especially not at the expense of poor people, but rather the question of which practices and structures worsen natural living conditions elsewhere. Does the western ("imperial") way of life undermine the life prospects of poor people in the global south and, if so, how and by what means (CO2 emissions, agricultural exports, "land grabbing", mining, etc.)? In this sense, arguments of dependency lead into the highly complex area of ​​a political economy of global nature use and so-called environmentalism often he poor (Martinez-Alier 2002). The problem is that all too often cheap moral or "post-colonial" sentiment triumphs over thorough analysis and case studies in this area.

The area of ​​the so-called eudaimonistic reasons (with Aristotle "eudaimonia" means the good and successful human life) presupposes an understanding of the corresponding experiences, values, traditions, and goods (axiological aspects), but it also presupposes that we are moral are obliged to nature-loving people not to diminish the conditions of their good life without need (deontological aspect). Axiology deals with the study of valuations, while deontology deals with possible obligations.

More specifically, this area is divided into natural aesthetics, the question of familiarity at home, the question of ("deep") relaxation in nature, and the transformative forces of intense experiences of nature (Norton 1987). A reflection on eudaimonistic arguments (Ott 2013) leads to the question of a possible biophilic disposition that could be a dowry of the natural history of our species (Wilson 1984).The eudaimonistic arguments, applied reflexively, lead to questions of the type: "What kind of person do I want to be?" This opens up access to environmental virtue ethics, which can be broken down into different individual virtues (Cafaro / Sandler 2005).

With regard to responsibility for the future, a number of metaethical and epistemological questions arise. The general warning about responsibility for the future (Jonas 1979) becomes concrete when it deals with detailed questions such as the acceptable risks, uncertainties regarding the more distant future, ignorance about future values, the right discount rate, etc. Here it is important to take the ignorance about the future seriously and to combine it with a precautionary principle. It is also quite possible that, due to a change in values, future generations would like to live much more close to nature than we do today. Under certain premises, all political collectives (up to and including the large collective "humanity") have to decide which bundles of goods they should (not) leave to their descendants in a fair way. A distinction must be made between positive and negative goods (such as highly radioactive residues). The majority of sustainability theory assumes that natural capital can only be substituted to a limited extent and that, according to a precautionary principle, it would be sensible to preserve the existing stocks of natural capital and to invest in diminished and degraded natural capital, i.e. to renaturalize ecological structures. It should be noted here that nature conservation can be divided into conserving and renaturing strategies, although these are more interventionist, i.e. allow or even require interventions. From a natural ethical point of view, those living today owe extensive renaturation to future generations.

It is indisputable that an ethically "deep" anthropocentricity is conceptually possible, which leads to the protection of natural assets of different levels and to the basic attitude of biophilic closeness to nature, which is expressed in practices such as gardening, hiking, climbing, bathing, diving, etc. It is opposed to the view that anthropocentrism leads at most to a technical environmental protection of the pollutant filters and waste glass containers.

The inclusion problem

The realm of possible moral self-worth inquires into the extent of the set of beings that are to be considered morally for their own sake. Conceptually, moral self-worth must be distinguished from dignity and rights. It is possible to attribute self-worth to a natural being, but deny dignity and rights. Moral self-worth implies a claim not to be treated purely as a means for any purpose. If moral self-worth is recognized and awarded to a natural being N, then all persons have to obey at least one moral duty directly towards N. Self-esteem is recognized on the basis of criteria, i.e. of morally relevant characteristics on which people communicate. A metaethical value naturalism is not implied in the concept of self-worth. I have analyzed the logic and metaethics of the inclusion problem in detail elsewhere (2008).

The most popular criterion in natural ethics is that of sentience, which includes joy and sorrow. Sensibility is the relevant criterion of so-called sentientism (also called "pathocentrism"). Sentientism opens up the so-called animal ethics, which does not deal with all animals (in the zoological sense), but the relatively small group of vertebrates, which can be subdivided into domesticated and wild animals. In animal ethics, the approaches of animal rights activists and animal rights activists differ. While animal rights activists want to significantly improve the lives of domesticated animals compared to the status quo, animal rights activists advocate the rights of animals, including a right to life and even political rights (Donaldson / Kymlicka 2013). Some animal ethicists even advocate intervening in wild food webs with the intention of reducing animal suffering (so-called "policing nature") (Nussbaum 2007, p. 379).

Liveliness is the relevant criterion for biocentricity. The morally relevant property is the teleological, i.e. its purposeful or purposeful constitution of organisms. The teleology argument (for example in Jonas 1973 or Taylor 1986) is, however, controversial. Weaker versions of this argument can be found in Agar, Attfield, Warren and Wetlesen (Engels 2016). However, one should also remember the biocentric ethics of Albert Schweitzer (Günzler 2016). Biocentricity increases conflict and dilemmas as human life is doomed to destroy non-human life. For Schweitzer, this permanent conflict-prone nature of biocentricity was ethically advantageous, as it counteracts moral blunting.

Further positions on the inclusion problem are ecocentrism (Callicott 1980, Westra 1994, Johnson 1991) and pluralistic holism (Gorke 2010). Ecocentrism ascribes moral self-worth to all ecological systems as such. This is epistemologically questionable, since ecosystems do not simply exist, but are constructed and modeled by ecologists. Ecocentrism relativizes the rights of human and non-human individuals with a view to certain morally relevant properties of ecological systems. These properties are referred to as "integrity", "resilience", "health", where "health" can only be metaphorically related to ecosystems. A higher order of ecosystem integrity legitimizes the sacrifice of individuals, including human individuals, which, following Callicott (1980), has led to a debate about so-called eco-fascist consequences. Ecocentrism cannot refer to Aldo Leopold either, since recent Leopold research has led to the insight that the famous sentence: "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 (Leopold 1949) was not intended by Leopold himself as a supreme moral principle, but as a principle of land management (Norton 2016). In this sense, Leopold's principle can be obtained from sustainability theory. "With a view to the use of land (and waters and seas), act in such a way that your actions always maintain and promote fertility, resilience and the diversity of living nature at the same time." This principle applies to individuals and collectives.

Pluralistic holism (Gorke 2010) assigns self-worth to all entities, including inanimate things and even technical artifacts. Holism claims that taking the moral point of view implies holism, since from the moral point of view one should not judge arbitrarily and any exclusion of a being from the "moral community" could possibly be arbitrary ("picky" in the egoistic sense). The principle of ontological frugality is used as the criterion for freedom from arbitrariness, which states that unnecessarily complex assumptions should be avoided. This criterion is carried over into ethics. Any judgment that recognizes some beings with a moral self-worth and denies it to other beings (and gives reasons for both) is necessarily more time-consuming than a judgment of the type: "All beings have self-worth". In addition, holism shifts the burden of justification ("onus probandi") to the justification of exclusions from the moral community. The (refined) combination of the principle of ontological thrift in connection with the burden of justification puts all opponents of holism in the "dilemma" of having to argue without being allowed to make substantial assumptions. Under these speech conditions, holism always wins, regardless of how the content is argued.

Recent developments

For many years, natural ethics has placed the problem of inclusion at the center of its considerations. In the past few years there has been a turn away from the problem of inclusion and a move towards pressing issues of the present, which also include issues of distributive justice, which are therefore not purely questions of nature conservation. Particularly noteworthy are disciplines such as agricultural ethics, climate ethics and water ethics. Agricultural ethics links questions of protecting the fertility of the soil and maintaining agrobiodiversity with socio-ethical demands for food security for a growing world population. In the future, agricultural ethics will have to take account of the growing scarcity of fertile land. Climate ethics has largely detached itself from the problem of inclusion and has turned more to questions of the theory of justice; The focus is on distributive justice in the division of a tight "carbon budget", compensatory justice for the victims of climate change, including so-called climate refugees, and responsibility for the future with regard to limiting climate change (according to Paris: "well below 2 °"). Climate ethics also deals with the permissibility of research and the use of large-scale technical possibilities to sequester carbon ("carbon dioxide removal") or to intervene in the planet's radiation budget ("solar radiation management"), which affects questions of the political economy of these technologies ( Ott 2018). Finally, water ethics asks for a fair distribution of the scarce resource of fresh water, which can be used for human consumption, industrial production, agricultural irrigation and for the preservation of rivers, lakes and wetlands. The field of ocean ethics is strangely underrepresented, although the ocean covers 71% of the earth's surface and is increasingly used intensively and polluted with pollutants (Dallmeyer 2003). Topics of ocean ethics would be littering, warming, acidification, overfishing, coastal protection, aqua and mariculture, mining on the sea floor and the designation of marine protected areas. Interestingly, it seems questionable to what extent biocentrism, ecocentricity and holism can plausibly be applied to an ocean ethics. What does it mean for ocean ethics, for example, if each individual phyto- or zooplankton is assigned a moral self-worth?

These thematically specified sub-disciplines of a comprehensive nature ethics are linked to certain "Sustainable Development Goals" on which the United Nations have agreed. In the coming years, a lot will depend on how socio-ethical or humanitarian goals and the demands for global justice are communicated with nature conservation goals. This mediation requires more than morally good will - it also requires prudence to find and follow the steps and paths in and out of danger (von Weizsäcker 1976). Much will depend on whether - for example with the further development of the international environmental regime - a human-planetary consciousness develops. Strangely enough, especially in the Anthropocene, we could appreciate the natural ethical reasons that could limit our access to nature from free insight. We can unequivocally announce the Anthropocene as the age in which people make a lasting peace with nature (and not only agree to short breaks in the fight). From a nature conservation policy perspective, collectives (states and confederations of states) capable of political action are required, which agree and implement global, continental, national and regional protection goals in the medium of international treaty law. The prosperous democracies of the north should take on committed pioneering roles.


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