Presented to the Dallas Philosophers Forum, January 24, 2012, Dallas, Texas


Noted environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott has recognized that “to affect change in both individual behavior and social, political, and economic institutions we have to do more than preach and browbeat, analyze and reform.”[1] He observes that “…as individual persons and as complex societies, we operate within distinct intellectual and moral atmospheres,”[2] and further, Callicott prescribes that “…we must deliberately explore the contours of an ecological consciousness and conscience. We must, in other words, also work at articulating an environmental ethic.”[3]

In consideration of Callicott’s exhortation for multiculturally considered environmental sensitivities, this presentation examines foundational contours of environmental conscience, specifically assessing the role of metaphysical presuppositions in formulating environmental ethics. Such presuppositions are foundational – oftentimes forming the first descriptive premise of argument for ethical responsibility. But, as Hume’s is/ought dichotomy cautions, it is with care that we ought to proceed from descriptive to prescriptive. First, this discussion considers Hume’s statement of the problem and examines a solution to it, then works with Hume’s framework of argument to compare two competing metaphysical presuppositions, assessing environmental ethics they may derive.

David Hume questioned the relationship of is to ought, in a pivotal paragraph in his Treatise on Human Nature. That paragraph reads as follows:


In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason. [emphasis mine][4]


Hume critiques here the idea that reason directly governs ethics, particularly taking aim at those who, on metaphysical grounds, argue that is leads to ought. Callicott rightly observes that Hume’s is/ought dichotomy is a challenge that “has haunted academic environmental ethics and threatens to be its Achilles’ heel.”[5]

Environmental ethics is, at its core, prescriptive, and is so based upon assessments of actuality – determinations of what is. The problem for ethics is that in addition to the first descriptive premise (is) and the final prescriptive conclusion (ought) there is an unstated assumed premise that must be identified and justified if an is/ought argument is to be warranted.

Hume justifies his own ethical structure on grounds that feeling, not reason governs the issue.  He is emphatic in this regard, saying for example,


Actions may be laudable or blameable; but they cannot be reasonable. Laudable or blameable, therefore, are not the same as reasonable or unreasonable. The merit and demerit of actions frequently contradict, and sometimes control our natural propensities. But reason has no such influence. Moral distinctions, therefore, are not the offspring of reason. Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.[6]


Rather than a set of descriptive propositions giving rise to a reasoned descriptive conclusion, Hume understands that feeling offers the missing piece in the argument. He considers moral sentiment to be as universal and normative to the human condition as the physical features whereby we recognize humans (exceptions though there may be), and reckons that moral sentiment bridges the gap between descriptive and prescriptive. To illustrate, we might consider this problematic example, which is missing the pivotal premise entirely:


P: Eating too much candy is unhealthy (is, or descriptive)

C: We should not eat too much candy (ought, or prescriptive)


The question left unanswered by this argument is why we should not prefer to be unhealthy. Here is another problematic example, adding a reasonable premise (P2), but still not having sufficiently explained the premise:


P1: Eating too much candy is unhealthy

P2: It is bad to be unhealthy

C: We should not eat too much candy


The earlier question – though addressed in this second argument with a reasonable premise – has not yet been answered. We now understand it may be bad to be unhealthy, but we don’t yet know why the description of unhealthy as bad would suggest we should do anything. There remains an assumed premise (implying bad is an action point), that Hume would argue cannot be supplied by reason. Instead, Hume might frame the argument like this:


P1: Eating too much candy is not healthy

P2: We view being unhealthy negatively (or with bad sentiments)

C: We should not eat too much candy (if we do not wish to violate our universal moral sentiments)


The end goal here, for Hume, is not to establish a necessary connection via reason between is and ought. Instead, he interjects moral sentiment as the only reliable justifier for ethical prescription. Finally, it is important to recognize that for Hume, the moral determination was not made by the agent (the one acting) or the receiver (the one being acted upon), but rather by the spectator. The impartial observer – only to be affected by universal moral sentiment, is the one Hume feels is best fit to make the moral determination. With these things in mind, perhaps we can formalize Hume’s three-step approach as follows and then apply it to environmental questions:


P1: The descriptive statement

P2: The moral assessment by Hume’s spectator, based upon universal moral sentiment

C: The prescriptive statement


Now, it is quite apparent that Hume’s ethical construct is preloaded with a naturalistic worldview – and was well intended to support such a worldview. Darwin, for example, illustrates the compatibility of Hume’s non-metaphysical model to Darwinian materialism, in describing the origin of ethics in very similar terms. He attributes the development of social virtues to the “love of approbation and the dread of infamy,”[7] which derived from “the instinct of sympathy,”[8] and which “was originally acquired…through natural selection.”[9] He further poignantly noted, “…even dogs appreciate encouragement, praise, and blame,”[10] and observed, “It is obvious that members of the same tribe would approve of conduct which appeared to them to be for the general good, and would reprobate that which appeared evil.”[11] Darwin speaks of the utilitarian benefits of virtue to the tribe, and does so in materialistic terms.[12] Nonetheless, applying Hume’s three-step axiom is an interesting prospect both for naturalistic and metaphysically grounded ethics.

First, in considering a naturalistic model, Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic fits Hume’s framework well, and is best summarized by two key remarks by Leopold as he introduces A Sand County Almanac:


Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science of contributing to culture.[13]


This first observation is a repudiation of what Leopold perceives to be a Judeo-Christian perspective toward land – a perspective Leopold believes leads to abuse. Instead, Leopold prefers the perception that land and human are co-citizens of a biotic community.  He follows that warning with a description and prescription that at first glance may seem guilty of the is/ought jump:


That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten. These essays attempt to weld these three concepts.[14]


Leopold purposes to join three ideas: (1) land is community, (2) land should be loved and respected, and (3) a revisiting of the benefactions of land. While Leopold does assert both an is (land is community) and an ought (we ought to love and respect land), he includes a third element that justifies his model with Hume’s axiom. Hume requires the intermediary moral judgment by the spectator, based on universal moral sentiment. Leopold provides that, though he does so only generally. Leopold’s argument for the Land Ethic might look something like this:


P1: Land is community

P2: The spectator views the functions and contributions of the land to the community with positive sentiment, and would view the lack thereof with negative sentiment.

C: Land should be loved and respected


Leopold’s argument is compatible with Hume’s model both in form and substance. In form, it adds the missing premise in order to avoid the is/ought jump. In substance, it is consistent with a naturalistic ethic, because it relies on a third party spectator who needs no divine origin or mandate. Leopold’s Land Ethic is an appealing and cogent prescription based on a non-metaphysical premise. However, for those who do perceive the need for metaphysical grounding of ethics, the Land Ethic is necessarily problematic.

The “Abrahamic” perspective that Leopold critiques is that same Judeo-Christian premise that Lynn White vilifies. Namely, it is that traditional interpretation that the Genesis creation account grants humankind a lasting and comprehensive dominion over creation, resulting in, as White puts it, “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”[15] Such heavy-handed anthropocentrism seems not to offer much promise for a metaphysically grounded, Biblical environmental ethic. As a Bible expositor I find more problems with the dominionist interpretation besides the anthropocentric ramifications. The interpretation also fails to account for the Fall described in Genesis 3 and the adjustments in chapters 3-9 to the original creation economy.

In light of the anthropocentric implications of the dominionist interpretation, a number of Biblical interpreters have espoused a stewardship interpretation, which softens the dominion terminology of Genesis 1:26-28 to reflect stewardship rather than dominion. This interpretation lessens the anthropocentric implications, but does not escape them entirely, asserting that mankind is still the centerpiece of creation and has a lasting superiority over creation even if only to supervise it as a divinely appointed representative. Further, this interpretation faces hermeneutic challenges, being somewhat at odds with the literal grammatical-historical interpretive method to which its advocates often appeal. Additionally, like the dominionist interpretation, stewardship fails to account for the data of Genesis 3-9 – changes which present mankind as failed and unfit steward.

Elsewhere I proposed an interpretation of the early Genesis account that remains true to the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic method, accounts for the cataclysmic changes described in Genesis 3-9, and is decidedly theocentric rather than anthropocentric.[16] Coining this interpretation redacted dominionism, I argue that Genesis 1:26-28 indeed granted humanity dominion over creation based on the image of God in humanity. However, that dominion was redacted after the Fall (Genesis 3), and the dominion mandate is noticeably absent when fallen humanity is given its post-deluge marching orders (Genesis 8-9).  The enduring role of humanity is not one of functional superiority to nature, but rather one of equal instrumental value with all other creatures – all creation serving the purposes of God rather than the purposes of mankind.

Now, for purposes of this present discussion, I suggest here that redacted dominionism offers an additional benefit of compatibility with Hume’s three-step axiom – and even Leopold’s argument in part.


P1: Land is community


In redacted dominionism, all creation is described as a kind of community serving God’s own purposes, and does not differ dramatically from the essence of Leopold’s first premise.


C: Land should be loved and respected


Redacted dominionism is even compatible with the conclusion that land is to be cared for and respected beyond being human property. Ownership is God’s, and while mankind may be entrusted with a kind of stewardship (in the same sense that any community member has a responsibility to that community), it is God’s agenda that is at the center, not that of humanity. Certainly, redacted dominionism will not advocate that land should be the primary object of love and respect, but love and respect are appropriate nonetheless.

While the first premise and conclusion of the Land Ethic and redacted dominionism are not incompatible, it is the second premise that determines compatibility with Hume’s model and shows the contrast between naturalistic and metaphysically grounded environmental ethics. I characterized Leopold’s second premise as follows:


P2: The spectator views the functions and contributions of the land to the community with positive sentiment, and would view the lack thereof with negative sentiment.


Redacted dominionism can abide the same premise with only one significant adjustment: the identity of the spectator. Whereas a naturalistic model requires the spectator to have no divine origin or mandate, a metaphysical – and specifically theistic model – demands divine involvement. Redacted dominionism interprets the early Genesis narrative as representing that God Himself is the judicious spectator – the uniquely empowered bystander (the use of which term I intend not to imply inactivity) who is determinative of moral sentiment.

In short, it is possible to find common ground among metaphysically diverse environmental ethics, and in so doing we can improve the dialogue even between historically opposed worldviews and we can challenge our own views in hopes of refining them further.

Hume’s framework offers a helpful opportunity for both naturalistic and metaphysically grounded environmental ethical systems to be assessed by their respective advocates and critics for internal coherency. In the case of Leopold’s Land Ethic, Leopold’s perspective can withstand the criticism that it violates Hume’s is/ought dichotomy, thus strengthening it as a legitimate ethical framework if naturalistic premises are assumed. In the case of redacted dominionism, the Genesis account can be exonerated from anthropocentric charges, and due to its theocentric recognition of God as ultimate spectator, this Biblical ethic can escape Hume’s criticism of moving from descriptive to prescriptive without sufficient warrant and explanation. Metaphysical presuppositions matter, and Hume’s is/ought problem helps us to understand the contribution of presuppositions to the discussion.



[1] J. Baird Callicott, Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), xiv.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book III, Part I, Section I.

[5] J. Baird Callicott, In Defense of the Land Ethic (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), 118.

[6] David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book III, Part I, Section I.

[7] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York, NY: Appleton and Co., 1871), 157.

[8] Ibid., 158.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 158-159.

[12]Ibid., 159-160.

[13] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac With Essays on Conservation from Round River (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1966), viii.

[14] Ibid., ix.

[15] Lynn Townsend White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in Science, Vol. 155 (Number 3767), March 1967:1204.

[16] Christopher Cone “Redacted Dominionism: An Evangelical and Environmentally Sympathetic Reading of the Early Genesis Narrative” (Ph.D Dissertation, University of North Texas, 2011).