Gregory M. Mikkelson and Colin A. Chapman
Departments of Philosophy and Anthropology, McGill University
Within environmental ethics, much debate has focused on whether we owe direct moral concern to individual organisms only, or also to larger wholes as such, e.g., species, ecosystems, and/or relationships between organisms. Meanwhile, in environmental law exciting recent progress has occurred in establishing and/or extending the rights enjoyed by sentient animals, on one hand, and entire ecosystems, on the other. What ties these developments in ethics and law together is that they are all "non-speciesist": they go beyond human rights, to acknowledge the claims made on us by non-human and/or more-than-human natural entities.
We seek to answer three questions concerning this topic:
1. To what extent do utilitarianism (the best-developed form of moral individualism) and richness theory (the most promising form of moral holism) converge or diverge in their judgments about concrete choices between biodiversity conservation and so-called "development"?
2. What conclusions can be drawn from the answer to Question #1 about the relative merits of the two theories, and of ethical individualism and holism more generally?
3. Which kind of legislation holds the most promise for protecting biodiversity: animal rights (as the German constitution now enshrines) or ecosystem rights (as the new Ecuadorian constitution upholds)?
Our aim will of course be to publish our findings, in such journals as Ethics, Environmental Ethics, and Environmental Values, and perhaps also in biological or conservation journals that have sections devoted to societal issues or facilitate thought pieces.
We intend to carry out the phase of this work funded by the Québec Centre for Biodiversity Science from January to May 2012. We seek three research assistants for this period: one each in philosophy, biology, and law. At this point, we are agnostic about whether these will be undergraduate or graduate students. The philosophy and biology students will collaborate closely with each other, and with Greg and Colin, in figuring out how to operationalize utilitarianism and richness theory so that both theories can be applied to realistic cases of choice between more vs. less domination of ecosystems by humans. This will require judgments about, e.g., how best to interpret the tenets of utilitarianism and richness theory; and to quantify and estimate the relative sentience of different species (the relevant criterion for utilitarianism), the abundances of such species, their overall diversity, and their degree of integration as indicated by levels of ecosystem function (diversity and integration being the main determinants of intrinsic value according to richness theory).
The task of the law student will be to canvass the state of the law around the world regarding animal and ecosystem rights. Colin has contributed to some recent progress in animal rights, i.e., for our fellow primates. And Greg has worked with the NGO – the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund – that started the ecosystem-rights "revolution" in small-town Pennsylvania and then helped Ecuador write the relevant section of its newly-ratified constitution. We will thus be able to set the law student going. However, we will seek help as needed, e.g., from legal scholars at McGill and elsewhere.