Volume 23, Issue 3, Fall 2001
Cartesian Environmental Ethics
René Descartes is often thought to have exerted a pernicious influence on our views concerning the relationship of humans to the environment. The view that because animals are machines, “thoughtless brutes,” they have no moral standing, and we thus have a right to use them to further our own interests, is attributed to him. A celebrated passage from the Discourse on Method adds fuel to the view that he subscribes to the “dominion” theory. I argue that this picture is misleading and unfair. Descartes does not hold the dominion theory, and there is evidence that he accords animals (and plants) moral standing. Most importantly, Descartes holds that it is a human good to subordinate one’s interests to those of the larger universe. He can, in fact, be seen as a forerunner of modern ecocentrism.