“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.” – Seathl, Duwanish chief.

In investigating cosmic virtue, we have considered various philosophical positions on treatment of animals and land ethics and environmentalism by modern Western thinkers. Today we explore the perspective of America’s indigenous people. Viewpoints from three separate sources1,2,3 reveals the following distinctive beliefs. First Nature should be honored particularly for its consistency, purposefulness, and truthfulness. Second Mother Earth (Ina Maka) should be revered as the source of all life, a bountiful provider and sustainer, and as ‘holy book.’ Third fellow creatures should be respected because we, as animals, identify with them, need them for food, require them in order to avoid ‘loneliness of spirit,’ and as teachers. Finally the soil is sacred as it is eternal, “soothing, strengthening, cleansing, and healing.”4

Native peoples offer an astute critique of apparent Western indifference to Nature. Ed McGaa (“Eagle Man”) notes we all start life as great observers of Nature, but by indoctrination into ‘Dominant Society,’ we develop an attitude of Nature as a resource to be exploited.5 The result is that we commodify Nature and its parts looking only at their economic value, but the paradox is we then commodify ourselves and humanity as well. We become not members of an ecosystem, but functions in an economic order, a form of self-imprisonment.6 In the end we become alienated from Nature by ‘modernity and mass culture’ and eventually from ourselves.

John Lame Deer defines the problem in symbols. Native people believe the world has a symbolic character and symbols are central to the meaning of life. They see themselves and Nature as a circle mirroring the world- for example a rainbow, the Sun and Moon, the planets, etc. The circle is a symbol of the “harmony of life and nature.”7 In his opinion, the symbol of conventional society is the square as is seen in our houses, offices, walls, and buildings. Lame Deer believes these are symbols of separation and thus the wrong symbols, not ones of organic life or unity with Nature.

(continued next post)


1Cleary, Kristen Marée (editor), Native American Wisdom. Barnes and Nobles Books, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-7607-0320-5.

2Garfield, Jay L., The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions: Course Guidebook. The Great Courses, Chantilly Virginia, 2011. Pages 114-119.

3McGaa, Ed (Eagle Man), Nature’s Way: Native Wisdom for Living in Balance with the Earth. Harper One, 2004. ISBN 978-0-06-075048-0.

4Cleary, page 15, quoting Luther Standing Bear, Lakota Sioux.

5McGaa., page 4.

6Garfield, page118.

7Ibid. page 115-116.


“The world degenerates and grows worse and worse every day…the calamities inflicted on Adam…were light in comparison to those inflicted on us.” – Martin Luther.

Having looked at principles in the ethical treatment of animals and the more comprehensive land ethic of Leopold and Callicott, we pause briefly to consider the Christian humanist viewpoint of Steven F. Hayward on environmental ethics.1 He offers a biblical perspective on the relationship of humans to the natural world, one in which, not  surprisingly, environmentalism is reworked as ‘creation care.’

In response to thinkers such as Lynn White and Richard Means who blame religion and especially the Bible for environmental degradation, a new form of Christian apologetics has developed.  Briefly while the book of Genesis states that God gave man dominion over His creation, this should not be interpreted as domination or conquest of it. Man was instructed to cultivate and watch over it. Degradation of God’s creation was the result of the Fall which facilitated the entrance of evil into the world, so can be traced back to a failing of humankind. Still Hayward believes unlike conventional environmentalists who have a misanthropic perspective and loathing of civilization that seeks to constrain humanity, the Bible asserts human distinctiveness and a responsibility for stewardship of nature. In addition Christians should revere nature as connection to supernature.

Hayward places the blame for environmental degradation on the industrial revolution and technology, both of which led to alienation from nature – the secular version of sin. Eighteenth century Romanticism and nineteenth century Existentialism (especially Martin Heidegger) “developed the sophisticated view that technology separates humanity from nature in a fundamental way and is the cause of our alienation.”2 In fact Christianity offers significant principles that encourage conservation of the environment – the most important being the tenth Commandment that formulates individual property rights, that is to say, one is more likely to accept degradation of common spaces or of another persons’ property than of one’s own property. He also notes an interesting paradox: while early industrialization of a society leads to environmental degradation, advanced societies protect the environment (for example, no Western city is on the current list of the 50 most polluted cities).

Hayward concludes that restrictions to the human species is unnecessary for a sustainable Earth. He believes humility on the part of environmentalists is lacking especially with respect to alarmist and cataclysmic predictions. His four points: (1) Do not underestimate nature’s resiliency, (2) Think globally, but act locally, (3) Consider tradeoffs, and (4) Environmental issues are heavily fact-dependent, thus there is legitimate controversy among experts. At the end of the day, solutions ought to be “compatible with individual liberty and democracy.”3

Of course the importance of environmentalism for this site is not social policy, but rather individual ethics. Next time I will offer some Native American perspectives before we tying all of this up in a final synthesis.


1Hayward, Steven F., Mere Environmentalism. AEI Press, Washington, D.C., 2011. ISBN 978-0-8447-4374-5.

2Ibid., page 15-16.

3Ibid., page 66.


Callicott also believe that the simplistic Utilitarian approach to ethics – aimed at a net reduction in pain and increase in pleasure – is unnatural or “biologically preposterous” to use his words. Pain is used by nature for animal survival while pleasure is brief and confined to eating and mating. “If nature as a whole is good, then pain and death are also good.”4 Land ethics asks us to “play fair in the natural system.” Conversely, he thinks humanism and humane moralism are ‘world-denying’ or ‘life-loathing’ philosophies.”

Callicott then offers some guidance on societal and personal conduct compatible with the land ethic. Modern people should not alienate themselves from nature, but reaffirm their participation in it by accepting her biologic laws, principles, and limitations. He offers the example of tribal peoples who manage population through abortion, sexual continence, even infanticide and stylized warfare. If we can abstract and integrate this ethos into modernity, we can achieve a viable mutually beneficial relationship with nature. Personal, societal, and environmental health trumps comfort, self-indulgence, and insulation from pain. In short he urges a reappraisal of the contemporary values of civilization.5

In this context he disparages vegetarianism as perhaps unnatural for humans, but also conducive to further development of farm land at the expense of natural environments and permissive of increased human population at the expense of animals – in his opinion a future ecologic catastrophe. Moreover the land ethic discourages “transmogrification of plants by mechanochemical means.”6 Our concern should not be animals versus plants, but rather organic versus factory-originated food. He concludes with the warning that land ethics requires discipline, sacrifice, and economic reform “tantamount to a virtual revolution in prevailing attitudes and life styles.”7

Next we will entertain an alternate vision of ethical environmentalism as espoused by Steven F. Hayward. Join me then.


4Arthur, John (editor), Morality and Moral Controversies. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2005. ISBN 0-13-184404-0, page 174.   Interesting as this mirrors Christian theodicy.

5Ibid., page 175.

6Ibid., page 176.

7Ibid., page 177.


“Since we have to combat nature or society, we must choose between making a man or making a citizen- we cannot make both.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau

Of course Nature consists of more than animals, and the virtuous person must master relationship with the entirety of Nature. Philosophy of the environment is one of the newest area in ethics and I would like to think through various writers before a synthesis. We start with J. Baird Callicott1 who, following Aldo Leopold, calls environmentalism LAND ETHICS in contradistinction to ETHICAL HUMANISM which presupposes a special status of humans and HUMANE MORALISM which assigns humans and animals equal but greater status than the environment. The focus of land ethics – what is good for the ‘biotic community’- is surprisingly dissimilar to animal rights thought. Instead of worrying predominately about domesticated animals, land ethicists are concerned about air, soils, waters, and plants in addition to wild animals specifically. Quoting Leopold, land ethics “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.”2

Callicott believes the alternate moral systems are atomistic and axiologic, evaluating entities piecemeal while land ethics is holistic and functional  – a system of duties to the biome as a whole. It begins with Leopold’s 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.”3 The summum bonum for the land ethicist – i.e. the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community – is not an instrumental but an intrinsic good. Land ethics does not devalue the parts of the ecosystem, but instead provides a means or standard by which to adjudicate contradictory interests.  The immediate beneficiaries are wild animals, plants, mountains, rivers, seas, and the atmosphere while domesticated species justify reappraisal. Callicott considers wild animals superior to domestic varieties due to the latter’s dependence on humans. Liberating domestic animals would be meaningless as most would be unable to survive although some might return to wild status (like mustangs in the West).

(continued next post)


1Arthur, John (editor), Morality and Moral Controversies. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2005. ISBN 0-13-184404-0, pages 166-177.

2Ibid., page 166.

3Ibid., page 169.



As we examine increasingly controversial areas of human relationship with animals, we come to recreational areas such as horse racing, circuses, and zoos. The issue with the first two of these is similar to that of service animals. A virtuous approach is utilitarian, meaning the desired outcome is a net greater good than evil. If we concede that human contentment comes in part from varying experiences and entertainments,1 then a case can be made that horse racing and animal acts can lead to greater good, as long as cruelty is avoided (as is not possible in the case of cock- or dog-fighting). Still the calculus here is likely to be debatable, even unfavorable.

Regarding zoos, I believe a good case can be made they result in net good: (1) safety from predators, disease, extinction, (2) human exposure to animals leading to species protection, (3) scientific research and learning, and (4) entertainment value. As virtual temples to nature, zoos should have trustees committed to superb care of the animals, numerical limits consistent with natural group sizes, and maximal value as outlined above. Drive-through zoos may be more ethical than typical zoos.


The paradox of Homo sapiens is that we alone can both inhabit any area on Earth and possess the intelligence to serve as its stewards. Since areas people occupy and exploit impact the range and viability of other species we have the responsibility to behave in ways that limit extinctions and encourage the largest number of species (A5). The ethical consequence is the obligation to create nature preserves and factor in animal habitat in land development and industrial decisions. Societal inconvenience, financial loss, and personal sacrifice are no excuse for endangering harmless species, no matter how little we value them subjectively (A8). The virtuous course is clear – each individual must support directly, economically, and politically the conservation of sufficient space for all existing species. One does not wish an otherwise meaningful life blemished with personal responsibility for the extinction of innocent animals.


There are two major scientific uses for animals – education and experiment; as a physician, I see value in both. Some direct study of animals is a meaningful portion of education and stimulates interest in zoology, naturalism, and medicine. The blanket decision to cease all classroom uses of animals seems an arbitrary moral absolute. The calculus comes back to harm to animals versus benefit to human understanding, though clearly the bias should be for limiting living animal study while promoting ethical treatment and killing of specimens.

The issue of animals in medical research is too complex to address in this forum, but the utilitarian rule applies;  benefits should outweigh the evil done and under no circumstances should experiments be done when alternative means of gathering the needed data are available (the same ethical rules as apply in human experiments). Of course no unnecessary suffering or deprivation should occur and all living things should be respected at all times in the laboratory. The use of animals to evaluate cosmetics and the like should not be undertaken by the virtuous.


1See post this site Societal Virtue – Service on January 25, 2021 where I discuss George Santayana’s assertion that civilization offers us three advantages – greater wealth, safety, and variety of experience – all of which are recognizable goods.



Humans have domesticated animals for thousands of years, but domestication requires at least an initial capture and subjugation of a wild animal, which is potential vice. While some of these animals may have been injured or starving, it is unclear whether they could choose to stay or go given unanswered metaphysical questions on free will in animals. Certainly some pets such as domesticated dogs and cats would struggle to survive in the wild and thus are ethically kept, though we could prevent their reproduction to eliminate additional dependent animals.

Fish, birds, gerbils, horses, etc. and wild animals such as snakes, ferrets, and lizards are different as they are involuntarily limited to spaces much smaller than in their natural environment and could survive without us. Virtue requires at a minimum the avoidance of making pets of these species while greater virtue is to foster and heal injured animals for later release, and to care for animals unable to survive if released for life. Of course, all ‘pets’ must be treated humanely at all times.


Service animals such as seeing-eye and herding dogs or draft animals are not only captive, but also forced to work. If we grant the preferential status of humans due to our greater opportunity to further the purposes of the universe, then some animal servitude is justifiable. However the utilitarian rule (A7) applies, i.e. the evil of subjugation of an animal must be balanced by a greater good for a human. Individual cases must be individually reconciled, but at a minimum, no animal should be in bondage when an alternative solution exists. For example when tractors are available, horses should not be forced to pull a plow.


While killing harmless animals, even for food, seems unseemly for civilized people, Nature endorses it for survival (P3). Therefore the virtuous modern person can hunt and fish for sustenance, but not for furs, horns, antlers, or tusks. A few other general ethical points are worth stating:

  1. One should not hunt endangered species.
  2. Hunting animals is ethical when there are insufficient predators to control their population.
  3. Since fish over-population is not an issue, fishing should be for consumption only.


The killing of domesticated animals for human consumption is supported by Nature (P3) and by the preferential role of humanity in the function of the universe. Conversely, the end of consumption of livestock would reduce their number to a minimum or endangered state which is arguably an evil. Nonetheless, the categorical imperative not to cause suffering requires responsible farming and slaughter – issues more appropriately addressed elsewhere.

We are left with an enigma – should one eat meat or consume eggs and milk (also requiring animal bondage)? The answer is I think a personal one, but at a minimum we should avoid eating animals treated inhumanely (e.g. veal) and seek ethical sources of food (e.g. eggs from free range chickens). Another strategy is to reduce meat consumption to the smallest quantity consistent with good health, likely no more than a few times per week.  The most virtuous may choose vegetarianism or even veganism, although I doubt this is an ethical imperative for everyone.

(further continued next post)


“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.” – Aldo Leopold.




Having completed preparatory work on axioms relevant to Nature and ethics, principles of high certainty regarding animals, and justifications of human use and consumption of animals, we can now elaborate guidelines for the practical philosopher’s treatment of animals. There are nine domains for our consideration, in order of increasing controversy: (1) animal pests, (2) animal euthanasia, (3) pets, (4) service animals including seeing-eye dogs and draft animals, (5) hunting and fishing, (6) agricultural/consumption, (7) recreational use such as zoos, circuses, sports, (8) habitat restriction, (9) scientific uses.

We begin with the categorical imperative: Never cause animals unnecessary harm or suffering. This imposes an ethical corollary: All harm or suffering imposed on animals must be justified by greater good. As philosophers, we may lack sufficient knowledge to complete the calculus of good over evil, but what follows is my attempt at a logic-based program of virtue with respect to nonhuman animals by domain.


If we grant a favored place for humans in the purposes of the universe, we may justify limitations on pestilent species based on the safety and comfort of our species.

  1. Animals should not be designated pests based on simple human preference or aesthetic considerations. As such stink bugs and non-poisonous spiders should not be singled out for killing compared with less objectionable species such as ladybugs or fireflies. In other words, pests should truly be pests.
  2. Extermination of pests should be limited to the least required for human comfort and safety and methods chosen to cause the least amount of suffering possible. Thus, for example, mouse traps may be less ethical than painless poisons.
  3. No pest should be pursued to extinction.


This subject if far too complex for this blog, but for our purposes, I will grant euthanasia for suffering animals is ethically justified . Two concerns remain. First is whether temporary animal suffering justifies the unethical decision to terminate life as for example in the case of a thoroughbred with a broken leg. One must ask whether the issue is in truth the cost and resources required to bring the horse back to health knowing that its commercial value is unlikely to be restored. If a mainly financial calculus is involved, the virtuous course is the less fiscally sound one.

The second issue is the euthanasia of unwanted but not impaired animals. In my opinion it is unconscionable that a living thing, especially a domesticated dog or cat, be deprived of its life merely because it is “in the way,” and a virtuous society will find alternative solutions. At the personal level, my wife and I adopt only neutered, rescue dogs, and donate money only to non-kill shelters.

(continued next post)


Last time I listed 8 axioms and 11 principles (now designatedA1-A8 and P1-P11) as the building materials for a program of ethics towards nonhuman living things. I believe the first three axioms lead to the reasonable, not arbitrary, conclusion that Homo sapiens is the most valuable species of life by virtue of its ability to contribute to the complexity of the universe. While bees can construct a hive, birds a nest, and beavers a dam, humans create the most complex, most enduring structures with the highest level of informational content. We are the only species that can potentially transfer life from our planet to other celestial bodies and thus offer the hope of expanding the range of living things. Conversely humans are potentially the most dangerous species to the trajectory of the universe as the only known life form which can destroy the amazingly complex Earth.

Anthropologists tell us Homo sapiens evolved as an omnivore and in fact meat-eating was critical to the growth and nurturing of the enlarging brain. If we accept Nature as the arbiter of acceptable behavior for living things (A4), then it seems specious to say humans ought not to eat meat. Likewise since Nature did not impose an instinct on one species to protect another and does permit some species taking advantage of others, any categorical imperative that humans should not control or use other species is unsupported by Nature itself.

Resorts to animal consciousness, emotions, and equality suffer from similar inconsistencies. If consciousness or emotional sensitivity is the bottom line of categorical limitations on us, then we must all mimic the Jains, forbidding the killing of flies, mosquitos, ants, predatory animals, rabid dogs, plague-carrying rats, etc. Few animal rights advocates would argue that a common mole has equal value to a rare white rhino. Levels of consideration for living things must be based on specific factors filtered through axioms A5-A8 above. Paradoxically animal rights laws might actually diminish the number of animals – leading to marked reductions, if not extinction, of domesticated animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. In the case of elimination of zoos may result in reduced human interest in the protection of other species.

In the final portion of this subject I will offer specific ethical guidelines for different areas of man’s relationship with animals.



“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” – George Orwell, Animal Farm.



In the last four posts we have seen some of the traditional thinking and philosophical arguments for and against a favored treatment of animals. In the search for a meaningful life via a path including a virtuous relationship with nature, the practical philosopher has come to a line which if crossed changes daily life dramatically with implications for diet, health, home, entertainment, and politics. Must we all become vegetarians, give up our pets, avoid attending zoos with our children and grandchildren, abandon horse racing, tolerate pests like mosquitos, flies, roaches, mice, and rats, and so on? Having blundered into this quagmire, we now urgently seek a path out and forward.

Let’s start with a foundation of the most objective axioms possible (in order of relative primacy):

  1. The trajectory of the universe is an increase in complexity.
  2. Life is the most compact complexity known by us.
  3. The value of individual parts of the universe is directly proportional to their contribution to the trajectory of the universe.
  4. Nature, not man, is the final guide of acceptable behavior.
  5. All things being equal, a larger number of species of animals is superior to a fewer number.
  6. In general (i.e. to the extent possible) all living things should be treated as ends not means.
  7. Natural ethics for humans is founded on a net benefit of good over evil in actions.
  8. Animals should not be treated differently based on mere human preference.

By labeling these statements axioms, I admit they can not be proven using logical argument.  If our analysis goes awry, we may need to revisit them.

Next we repeat the process we did in the section on certainty – enumerate the most certain principles possible with respect to animals from which we can attempt a pragmatic strategy founded on our axioms that employs principles of higher certainty while mitigating for less certain ones. The list in decreasing order of certainty here looks like this:

  1. Animals are living things and part of Nature.
  2. Animals have consciousness.
  3. Animals have sensations and can suffer.
  4. Animals can survive only by eating other living things.
  5. Nonhuman animals cannot enter into ethical relationships.
  6. Existing animals are the results of nearly 4 billion years of evolution.
  7. Animals act instinctually and the greatest instinct is to survive and reproduce.
  8. Animals have emotions.
  9. Needless harm or killing of animals is evil (wrong).
  10. No nonhuman species protects members of another species.
  11. Some nonhuman animals use other animals for survival (e.g. ants enslave aphids, lions “herd” herbivores, barnacles live on whales, etc.).

Now we will juxtapose these highly certain statements with our axioms to formulate a program for us on the ethical treatment  of other living creatures.

(to be continued)


Last time we looked at arguments for equal treatment or consideration for animals vis a vis humans by two strong advocates for animal rights, Peter Singer and Tom Regan. Today we will look at contrary viewpoints.

Bonnie Steinbock offers the following response. First she states categorically we cannot and should not allow cruelty to animals which she defines as unnecessary harm or suffering. However she challenges the notion that humans and animals are due equal consideration based on the following differences:

  1. Humans deserve more consideration as they are responsible for their actions unlike animals.
  2. Humans offer each other the possibility of reciprocation.
  3. Humans experience feelings of self-respect or victimization unlike animals.
  4. Mentally challenged persons are unlike animals in that they cannot survive without human and in any case humans identify with them more than with animals.

Discussing items 1 and 4, she refers to Kevin Donaghy’s thesis that humans are entitled to a ‘privileged position’ by virtue of their participation in a moral community that depends on a certain level of intelligence required for morally relevant capacities. She uses item 3 to justify subjecting a horse but not a human to bondage.3

William F. Baxter proposes a utilitarian outlook. He starts by denying Nature has an independent moral standing, and suggesting Nature is protected through a ‘wise human-centric ethic.’ In other words, intelligent advocacy for human interests will indirectly lead to watching out for Nature’s interests. He rejects the proposition that there is a right or morally correct ‘state of Nature’ as there is no normative connotation to what is a human concept. Any attribution of ‘rightness’ in nature is meaninglessness or arbitrary; such attributions are opinion or preference. Instead a ‘cost-benefit’ approach to nature and the environment is the soundest policy for humanity, i.e. ethics in this realm requires decisions be based on the needs and interests of people, not Nature.

It seems both sides in this debate use subjective assumptions rather than fact or even logic to support their positions. The axioms in their ‘proofs’ are in truth the source of the different conclusion, both begging the question at their starting points. I will try in the next blog to synthesize a solution. Join me then.


3Arthur, John (editor), Morality and Moral Controversies. Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2005. ISBN 0-13-184404-0, pages 155-161

4Ibid., pages 161-165.