Volume 17, Issue 4, Winter 1995
Bryan G. Norton
Why I am Not a Nonanthropocentrist
Callicott and the Failure of Monistic Inherentism
I contrast two roles for environmental philosophers—“applied philosophy” and “practical philosophy”—and show that the strategy of applied philosophy encourages an axiological and monistic approach to theory building. I argue that the mission of applied philosophy, and the monistic theory defended by J. Baird Callicott, in particular, tends to separate philosophers and their problems from real management issues because applied philosophers and moral monists insist that theoretical exploration occurs independent of, and prior to, applications in particular situations. This separation of theory and practice suggests that philosophers are likely to be effective in policy discussions only to the degree that they can offer unquestioned theories that adjudicate real problems. Callicott offers his monistic, ontological approach as universal guidance to environmental activists and decision makers, arguing that ecosystems and communities are moral subjects that can “own” their own inherent value. Callicott’s theory, however, faces a crucial, unanswered theoretical dilemma which illustrates the impossibility of the dual task Callicott has set for his theory—to provide a single, ontological unification of ethics under nonanthropocentric holism and to capture the fine nuances of ethical obligations as experienced in varied communities. I also show that monistic assumptions have led to an unfortunate interpretation of
Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and that a pluralist and pragmatist direction is likely to provide a more efficacious and theoretically defensible direction for further study of environmental philosophy in a more practical mode.