From Metaphysics to Environmental Ethics: Aristotle or Zhu Xi?

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Arne Naess distinguishes the shallow from the deep ecology movement. Whereas shallow ecology, according to Naess, prioritizes the “health and affluence of people in the developed countries,” so that man is externally related as a “man-in-environment,” deep ecology favors “the relational, total-field image,” urging an intrinsic, constitutional relation between man and the environment. Naess's deep ecological philosophy insists on grounding non-ultimate arguments on ultimate bases. He says, “the limitation of the shallow movement is not due to a weak or unethical philosophy, but due to a lack of explicit concern with ultimate aims, goals, and norms.” The philosophies of Aristotle and Zhu Xi (1130–1200 CE, Song Neo-Confucian) share the explicit concern with ultimate aims and norms about which Naess speaks. Comparing Aristotle and Zhu Xi, I aim to illustrate how each one's metaphysics, or concern with the ultimate, affects his ethics – and can offer better or worse resources for an environmental ethics. More specifically, my goal is to show how each author can or cannot justify something like the first two of Naess's eightpoint platform principles for the deep ecology movement which stress intrinsic values. More specifically, Naess's first principle states: “The flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth has inherent value. The value of nonhuman life-forms is independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.” His second principle asserts, “richness and diversity of life-forms are also values in themselves and contribute to the flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth.” If a philosophy (such as Aristotle's or Zhu Xi's) can account for these principles, then it can also provide the resources for defending the kind of intrinsic value Naess maintains in the deep ecology movement, thus illustrating my claim that one's metaphysics has direct implications for one's account of ethics and man's relation to the environment.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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  • Democracy, Ecological Integrity and International Law
    Democracy, Ecological Integrity and International Law is the latest product of research by the Global Ecological Integrity Group (, an organisation that has been meeting annually since 1992 to discuss scientific, philosophical, political and legal aspects of ecological integrity. This collection examines various aspects of governance from the standpoint of integrity: from democracy, to forms of Native governance, from globalization and neocolonialism to specific human rights to food, water and climate.
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