The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics
by Roderick Frazier Nash
Summary written by T.A. O'Lonergan, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics, Roderick Frazier Nash, (Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 278pp.
The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics, according to the author, is "... concerned with the history and implications of the idea that morality ought to include the relationship of humans to nature." This work focuses upon the intellectual history of this idea and thus presents the philosophical foundations of environmental ethics.
The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics is required reading for PHIL 5140 as taught by Professor Dale Jamieson. Nash begins his work with a graphical representation of the parallel development of the evolution of ethics and the expanding concept of rights. This expansion from natural rights to the rights of nature is the focus of chapter one. Nash traces this expansion from natural rights to: English barons, colonists, slaves, women, Native Americans, laborers, blacks, and, finally to nature. He acknowledges that the expansion has not been as smooth as his representation would seem to make it.
Nash places the ideological origins of environmentalism in the likes of John Locke, John Adams, Jeremy Bentham, Henry David Thoreu, John Muir, Aldo Leoplod and Charles Darwin. Nash traces the evolution of ethics as applied to the environment through these historical environmentalists. The author asserts that the formation of the scientific pursuit of ecology was the beginning of the widening of the ethical circle. He credits Darwin, by his assertions of the scientific interconnectedness of all life forms, with the beginnings of thought about the moral interconnectedness of all things. Ecology and ethics also developed parallel to one another and engaged in a hidden dialogue which resulted in a synthesis which became environmental ethics. Thus, environmental ethics is informed by science and grounded in ethical theory.
Nash asserts that with the blooming of environmental ethics came the greening of both monotheist religions and philosophy. The former has begun to consider a more circular and less linear schema for the relationship among God, humans and the rest of nature. Philosophy was forced to attempt construction of arguments which denied some sentient creatures equal consideration with others. Without risking logical inconsistencies this could not be accomplished and philosophy began to extend its circle to include more beings among those who required moral consideration.
The penultimate chapter of Nash's book is concerned with the liberation of nature. That is, the once oppressed entity must be freed from oppression and allowed to proceed according to its own course. The beginnings of this sort of liberation is evidenced by: contemporary disdain for canalizing rivers, the trend to emulate nature's patterns in the landscaping of our parks and a growing appreciation for the beneficial role of fire in some ecosystems. The final chapter examines the kindred natures of the abolitionist and theenvironmentalist and their shared philosophical foundations. Finally, Nash looks at the limitations of Liberalism for accomplishing the liberation of nature.
The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics is more than a history of environmental ethics; it is a genealogy of environmental ethics as the off-spring of ecological and ethical thought.