Chapter Three: Sample Essays
Sample Essay Three: Richard Watson’s Critique of Deep Ecology (Debater’s Model)
In an intelligent and provocative essay titled, “A Critique of Anti-Anthropocentric Biocentrism,” Richard Watson challenges influential Deep Ecologists such as Arne Naess, George Sessions, and John Rodman by asserting that their Biocentric philosophy is incoherent. To Watson, the basic view of Deep Ecology does not properly explain the place of humans in the natural world. Deep Ecologists believe that humans are equal to all other living animals and should view themselves as merely another aspect of the natural community. Since all living beings are our equals under this philosophy, we should “let all natural things act naturally.” However, Richard Watson sees a flaw in this logic. Deep Ecologists place special moral restraints on human behaviour which sets humans apart from other organisms. These special restrictions and moral obligations are intended to protect the rest of nature from destructive actions of humans. But by enforcing these limits and obligations, humans are being separated from all other animals and, as Watson argues, Deep Ecologists are violating their own logic by treating humans differently. In this essay, I intend to clarify the reasoning of Richard Watson and show how his critique of Deep Ecology utilizes an inappropriate definition of the term ‘natural.’ I will argue that Watson fails to prove that Deep Ecology is an incoherent environmental philosophy.
Watson argues that Deep Ecologists are inconsistent about their beliefs regarding the place of humans in the natural world. On one hand they state that humans are equal members of the natural community and not the masters of other living things. Yet, on the other hand, they insist that humans are immoral, often harming other species with their actions, and must become more eco-conscious by stopping activities that cause serious harm to the natural realm. Watson argues that the belief of letting “all natural things act naturally” is incompatible with the belief that humans should not be allowed to “act selfishly and destructively in their treatment of the rest of nature.” If species act on the basis of their needs and desires, then curtailing human actions that seek to satisfy their own needs and desires, is inconsistent. Following the Deep Ecologist view that allows “all natural things to act naturally.” Humans should not have restrictions placed upon them. If ecologists accept that species such as beavers and woodpeckers alter their environments, then humans should be allowed to do the same thing without being labelled as ‘bad.’ There is a flaw in Watson’s thinking, however. In stipulating that the term ‘natural’ be a morally neutral term, he misrepresents the views of Deep Ecologists. For them, nature cannot be a morally neutral arena due to the fact that all living things possess their own intrinsic value. My primary reason for rejecting Watson’s critique of Deep Ecology is the fact that he forces a definition of the term ‘natural’ on the Deep Ecologists that violates their actual views.
A critic might challenge the claim that Watson forces a definition of the term ‘natural’ on the Deep Ecologists that violates their actual view. This critic might argue that I am overlooking an obvious weakness in the outlook of Deep Ecologists. The argument might be that the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of those who might reject the view that nature is a morally neutral arena of facts. Since the beginning of modern science, Watson might note, it has become clear that nature is just a collection of material particles without any inherent value. My view could be challenged on the grounds that it contradicts something that has become self-evident: that all values are merely creations of human beings. Without proof, any view that states that nature possesses beings of inherent value is implausible.
In response, a person might argue against any view that states that nature possesses beings of inherent value, is implausible. Watson’s stance on the meaning of ‘natural’ takes for granted a view of reality, in existence since the Enlightenment, that reality is nothing more than a collection of facts and laws about how subjects will behave. But such a view is not, in fact, self-evident. As many post-modern philosophers have argued, all acts involve some context of value. A scientist who wishes to set aside personal ambition for the objective results of an experiment acts on a set of values. The scientist is placing value on achieving reliable test results. It is apparent that all human actions take place in a social or narrative context in which goals are pursued in relation to self, other people, and the concept of past, present and future. And if all human thinking is composed of complex values and relationships, then the practice of natural science cannot be merely factual and neutral to specific values. This account of human thinking still leaves the question of whether it makes sense to see the world in the morally rich way that Deep Ecologists do – possessing natural values independently of human preferences and interpretations. Without careful argument, however, Watson cannot assume that science makes his own perspective on a valueless nature rationally compelling. In other words, Watson critiques Deep Ecology by forcing a definition of the term ‘natural’ on the Deep Ecologists that violates their actual views. In doing so, he begs the question.
The claim that Watson critiques Deep Ecology by forcing a definition of the term ‘natural’ on the Deep Ecologists that violates their actual view is convincing. Watson’s argument has some merit because it raises some fundamental questions about the nature of value and the value of nature. But because he makes assumptions within his argument, like a model of nature that is not the only possibility, Watson does not provide us with the necessary arguments that prove Deep Ecology is untenable. Therefore, he fails to make a convincing case that Deep Ecology is an incoherent environmental philosophy.