I often get requests for permission to reprint "Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair." For many years now I have been refusing to permit that essay to be reprinted and I recommend something else of mine in its stead, such as "The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic." Recently a publisher in Portugal asked permission to reprint it for a book of classic essays on animal ethics to be translated into Portuguese. I refused, as is my wont, and offered the publisher "Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Back Together Again" as an alternative. The editor, Pedro Galvão, of the proposed book, Os Animais Têm Direitos? [Do Animals Have Rights?], pleaded that the former essay was a classic and that the latter essay would make little sense except as a follow-up to the former. He offered to publish both. I acceded to his plea provided that he would preface "Triangular Affair" with this introductory palinode. Because that essay remains so well known—despite my efforts to limit its availability—and most of those who know it are unlikely to read a Portuguese translation of my palinode, I am posting it here.
An Introductory Palinode to “Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair”
In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates delivers an extemporaneous speech critical of erotic love and thus, by implication, of Eros, the god of erotic love. The speech is intended to rival one written by Lysias, which Phaedrus had just read out to Socrates, as they were lounging beneath a “very tall” plane tree (Platanus orientalis). In that speech, Socrates prosecutes the same indictment as Lysias and advances pretty much the same arguments—that the jealous madness of a lover would ruin a young man’s soul, body, and property. The superiority of Socrates’s speech is just a matter of organizing Lysias’s brief into those categories of goods (soul, body, and property) and, by dint of such organization, avoiding tiresome repetition. Upon completing his speech, Socrates gets up to leave, but is stopped by his divine sign—which always forbids, but never commands him to act. He interprets this supernatural intervention to mean that he has blasphemed against the god. And he remembers that the poet Stesichorus, who had maligned Helen (a devotee of Eros and Aphropdite), was struck blind for such an offense. To recover his sight, Stesichorus—apparently unlike Homer, who never recovered his—knew the remedy. Stesichorus forthwith composed a “palinode” in which he recanted all his former accusations against Helen. Socrates, lest he himself be struck blind, figured that he too must compose a palinode recanting his case against Eros. There follows the famous paean to Eros—the beautiful Myth of the Charioteer—that constitutes the centerpiece of the dialogue.
I rather think that the Phaedrus is itself Plato’s palinode. Stylometric analysis indicates that the Phaedrus comes relatively late in Plato’s body of work, well after the Republic. In the Republic, Plato had indeed offended the god of love. As everyone knows, the Republic is constructed on the premise that the state is the soul writ large. Thus, in accordance with the psycho-political structure of the Republic, for each political regime, Plato explores a corresponding psychological regime. The worst and most pernicious political regime is tyranny. And so Plato must identify a pernicious tyrannical desire in the soul. That desire is eros. The prominent presence of the plane tree in the dialogue is the key clue that the Phaedrus is Plato’s own palinode. The ancient Greek name of that tree is platanos, which is derived from platus, meaning broad in English. The author’s nickname, Plato (Platon), is derived from same word. (Plato’s given name was Aristocles, son of Ariston.) Such word play is common in the dialogues and suggests to me that the author, usually well off stage, wishes to make a rare cameo appearance in this particular philosophical drama. By so doing, Plato alerts his savvy, thoughtful readers that he himself is present there, by the Ilissus, outside the city walls of Athens, in human spirit if not in human body and that the orations of Socrates are indeed truly inspired—the first by Lysias; the second by Plato’s own philosophical muse.
But all this is another matter, the subject of another essay. To compare small matters with great, the small matter at hand is my own introductory palinode, for I have sinned against animal liberation. And so I must herewith atone. “Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair” (TA) was only the second paper I ever wrote on environmental ethics, composed in 1979 and published the following year in the fourth number of the second volume of Environmental Ethics (the journal). I was not yet forty years old when it appeared in print. My youth may account for its brashness; my inexperience for its mistakes.
By the time environmental ethics had emerged as a field of philosophy, animal liberation and animal rights had enjoyed a nearly decade-long head start (for documentation of this claim see TA’s copious endnotes). And—distressingly to me—the pages of Environmental Ethics, then the only journal dedicated to the emerging field, were increasingly filled with papers focused on animal ethics. The Aldo Leopold land ethic—to which I had been attracted after I first read A Sand County Almanac in the late 1960s and which I had championed in my first paper in the field, “Elements of Environmental Ethic”—was being completely ignored. Thus my main motive for writing TA was sharply to contrast individualistic animal ethics with holistic environmental ethics.
Just as there is a genuine practical difference between individualistic animal ethics and holistic environmental ethics, there is a genuine theoretical difference as well. TA amply elaborates both kinds of difference. I was attracted to the Aldo Leopold land ethic in large part because of the latter kind of difference. It presented a challenge to me as a philosopher. Leopold had but faintly sketched the land ethic. I was determined to provide it with fully developed theoretical foundations.
Peter Singer and Tom Regan, the principal architects of academic animal ethics, are masterly applied ethicists. Singer is an orthodox utilitarian, the theory for which had been developed by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. Regan works well within the theoretical tradition developed by Immanuel Kant, also in the late eighteenth century. These two genera of ethical theory had dominated subsequent moral philosophy for two entire centuries. The niceties and nuances of the eighteenth-century moral philosophies founded by Bentham and Kant had been so scrutinized by subsequent minions over two centuries that, if working within the confines of these paradigms, there was little left for late twentieth-century philosophers to do. They could (and many did) knit around the margins tying up theoretical loose ends; or they could (and many did) engage in friendly internecine debates about theoretical minutia; or they could (and many did) wage ferocious trench-warfare against the rival theory. Or they could (as Singer and Regan did) apply a species of the utilitarian theory or a species of the Kantian theory to some newly fashionable ethical conundrum—the treatment of animals, in their case, which came into vogue in the 1970s. Not surprisingly then, Singer and Regan (and most all of the other animal ethicists following the trails they blaze) break little or no new theoretical ground; certainly they explore no blank spot on the map in the demesne of ethics. Frankly, I considered it beneath my dignity as a philosopher to work in the theoretical shadows of a Bentham or a Kant. More generally and precisely put, I considered it to be unworthy of my calling as a philosopher to be a mere underlaborer to another thinker. I set out, as a philosopher, to work as a peer to the moral philosophers of the past, to create something new under the philosophical sun—under the gaze of Apollo, as it were—“a new, an environmental ethic,” such as Richard Routley had warranted in 1973.
In rereading TA, I see that my professional dissatisfaction with the quaintly antique theoretical foundations of animal ethics is a persistent theme. Philosophers worthy of the name should not be so intellectually subservient, so uncreatively conventional in their thinking. But apart from my professional vanity and hubristic ambition, the environmental concerns of the late twentieth century and certainly those of the twenty-first century—not only a new century, but a whole new millennium, after all, has arrived!—demand a moral philosophy equal to their scope and scale. So, there is one thing going on in TA that I do not recant and from which I do not retreat: the crying need for a new, an environmental ethic—one that is unprecedented in the Western canon of moral philosophy, an environmental ethic that is both holistic and non-anthropocentric.
Certainly, the Leopold land ethic is both holistic and non-anthropocentric. The summary moral maxim, the golden rule, of the land ethic is
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.
My principal error in TA—the error that entrains all the others—is a simple matter of logic: my reading of the word when in Leopold’s ecological golden rule. The word when has no technical meaning in formal logic. Rather, logic provides two alternative terms for giving when logical significance: if and if-and-only if. The former signifies a sufficient condition, the latter both a sufficient and a necessary condition. In TA, I implicitly interpreted when to have the logical sense of if-and-only-if—that is, to specify a sufficient and a necessary condition:
A thing is right if and only if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if and only if it tends otherwise.
When when is read to mean, as I read it to mean in TA, if and only if—when when is interpreted as specifying a necessary as well as a sufficient condition— the summary moral maxim of the land ethic is absurdly extreme. This misreading of when leads me to affirm many things that I now regret. In the section of TA titled “Ethical Holism” my statement, “The biospheric perspective does not exempt Homo sapiens from moral evaluation in relation to the well-being of the community of nature taken as a whole,” and most of what follows it, is now an embarrassment to me. In the Phaedrus, Socrates covers his head in shame as he excoriates the lover possessed by Eros and praises the cool, calculating venality of the non-lover. I now feel ashamed for suggesting that “the population of human beings should, perhaps, be roughly twice the size of that of bears” and for endorsing Edward Abbey’s cavalier and insensitive misanthropy in Desert Solitaire.
Tom Regan, among other scholars, called me out for this extreme reading of the summary moral maxim of the land ethic. But he did not gainsay that reading. Rather, he exploited it, for polemical purposes, and, accordingly, condemned the land ethic as a case of “ecofascism.” If when should mean if-and-only-if, Regan would be right to so condemn it. But Leopold himself intended when to be read only as if—to be interpreted as specifying only a sufficient condition:
A thing is right if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.
When when is understood to specify only a sufficient condition—and not also a necessary condition—then other things may also be right. More especially, a thing may also be right if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the human community; it may also be right if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of individual human beings; or, for that matter, it may well be right if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of individual animals.
How can we know that Leopold intended that when should be read only as if, not as if-and-only-if? That is, how can we know that Leopold intended to specify only a sufficient, not a necessary as well as a sufficient condition for the rightness of things? Because he characterizes the evolution of ethics as a series of “accretions.” New ethics are layered over old ones; they accrete like successive rings under the bark of a tree. Newly evolved ethics do not substitute for or replace older ethics; rather, they enlarge—by accretion—our moral heartwood. The land ethic is characterized as a “step in a sequence”; the other steps in the ethical sequence—regard for the integrity, stability, and beauty of human individuals and of human society collectively—remain intact.
I explore how these various ethical accretions, these steps in a sequence, can be theoretically unified in “Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Back Together Again.” And, of course, if many things are right—because they preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of various entities—some right things may come into conflict with other right things. When they do, we are forced to choose to do one right thing at the expense of not doing another right thing or, worse still, we are forced to choose to do one right thing at the expense of doing a correlative wrong thing. In the corner of that universe of right things that we are here focused on, preserving the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community may sometimes conflict with preserving the integrity, stability, and beauty of individual animals—as TA notes. To provide second-order principles for sorting out which right things trump other right things is a further task for the environmental philosopher, one that I have elsewhere taken up.
Regarding other incidental errors that I regret in TA, I might add that in the late 1970s I was enthralled by Garret Hardin’s neo-Malthusianism and Paul Shepard’s postmodern primitivism. I now think, pace Hardin, that human population dynamics are as much influenced by cultural forces—such as the empowerment or disempowerment of women—as by biological forces. The human population, I now think, is not biologically bound to overshoot the Earth’s carrying capacity if not limited by the draconian policies that Hardin recommends or, as I obscenely suggest, by a carnivorous diet on which fewer (and affluent) people can subsist. And while it may be true, as Shepard believes, that the apex of human evolution was the Paleolithic and that Homo sapiens began to degenerate, as a species, with the Neolithic Revolution, there is no possibility of our return to a gathering-hunting way of life short of the apocalyptic collapse of human civilization, which I certainly hope will never occur.
My biggest regret is that I achieved exactly what I set out to achieve by means of TA—to drive a wedge between animal ethics and environmental ethics. According to Mark Sagoff, continuing the sexual innuendo of my title with his: it was a “Bad Marriage: [followed by] A Quick Divorce.” Yes, animal ethics may be theoretically retrogressive and uncreative and one may continue to share my feelings of frustration with the philosophical conventionality of animal ethics. And yes, environmental desiderata—such as preserving endangered plant species—may sometimes come into conflict with preventing the suffering and saving the lives of the individual mammalian pests that threaten them. And yes too, one may continue to think that saving species is a higher moral imperative than saving the lives and preventing the suffering of individual animals. But on the whole, few other practical agendas are as congruent with the practical agenda of environmental ethics as is the practical agenda of animal ethics.
Suppose people suddenly ceased raising, slaughtering, processing, and shipping the billions of animals now eaten each year by human omnivores. There would immediately follow significant and positive effects on the natural environment. It takes just a small fraction of autotrophic plants to make a vegetarian meal as it does to make a meat-centered meal, because the heterotrophic animals that are eaten by humans will have converted only a small fraction of the vegetable matter that they themselves have eaten into their own flesh (to say nothing of their inedible body parts). After a global vegetarian revolution—a dream of animal ethicists of both the Kantian and utilitarian persuasions—far less land would, therefore, be needed to feed the human population. All that land no longer used to pasture and graze domestic meat animals or grow domestic-animal feed crops could revert to wildlife habitat, soon providing many times the habitat currently available to wildlife. As noted, the human population is not governed exclusively by Malthusian laws of increase. Cultural forces can constrain the human population well short of expanding to completely fill a more capacious herbivorous ecological niche. Growing grain and soy row crops to feed animals causes soil erosion by wind and water and causes water-borne eroded soils, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to run off into streams and rivers and eventually into the ocean. So, if there were no reason to grow feed crops for animals, because no humans were eating meat, we would greatly reduce freshwater pollution and dead zones in near-shore seas. With the cessation of animal agriculture, far less methane—a potent greenhouse gas—would be belched and farted into the atmosphere, thus helping to stave off global climate change.
These are but a few of the practical reasons why, after cleaving them asunder, I soon was (and now still am) all for getting animal ethics and environmental ethics back together. “Animal Liberation and Environmental Ethics: Back Together Again” is all about how it would be possible to unite these two domains of moral concern theoretically. As noted, I aspire to be a moral philosopher of the first water and so that’s what I consider to be my business, leaving the practical application of the theories we philosophers create for others to deploy. But whether or not such a philosophical project proves to be successful, the two (animal ethics and environmental ethics) can and should certainly unite in solidarity—if not in theory—for practical purposes. After a global vegetarian revolution—as noted, high on the practical agenda of animal ethicists of both the Kantian and utilitarian persuasions—the suffering of domestic animals bred for meat, milk, and eggs would be greatly reduced and their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would cease to be violated. But their numbers would be greatly reduced as well. Likely a standing population of only a few thousand well-cared-for specimens, respectively, of cows, pigs, chickens, and the like would be kept as museum pieces. Such a paradox—the vast majority of the beneficiaries of animal ethics would wind up not existing at all—is apparently untroubling to animal ethicists. But there is no corresponding paradox from the point of view of practical environmental ethics. If there were far fewer cows, pigs, chickens, and the like in the world, that would be an unmitigated sheer boon for the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.
In the Phaedrus—Plato’s palinode if I correctly grasp his purpose in that work—Eros gets his due regard and encomium, but Platonic limits on erotic love are still imposed. Here in my little palinode, I acknowledge my mistaken reading of the summary moral maxim of the land ethic and the egregious excesses to which that misreading led me in “Triangular Affair.” And I affirm much of the practical agenda of animal liberation, in solidarity with that of environmental ethics, while still insisting on its theoretical limitations. I hope to have provided a theoretical unification of animal liberation and environmental ethics in “Back Together Again.” Only time will tell, however, if that theoretical project is eventually validated as the future of philosophy unfolds.