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  • Environmental Atrocities and Non-Sentient Life
  • Claudia Card (bio)

Environmental Atrocities and Non-Sentient Life

1. To Whom (or to What) Can Evils Be Done?

Mention of environmental atrocities calls to mind such catastrophes as major oil spills, which ruin the fishing (not to mention the fish) for extended periods. Such carelessness is not simply a disaster to human projects. It destroys or endangers species and ecosystems as well as individual organisms, plant and animal. It pollutes waters that normally sustain life and interferes with the healthy development of new biotic communities. Not all environmental catastrophes result from of failures of attention. Massive deforestation with agent orange by U.S. armed forces during the war in Viet Nam was no accident.

If culpably produced, such catastrophes are moral atrocities—major evils—at least to humans and other animals who suffer horribly or die miserable deaths. Intuitively, I lean toward the even stronger judgment that such culpable omissions and deeds are atrocities also in the sense of evils to a great many kinds of life, including non-sentient nature—plants, [End Page 23] species, biotic communities, and ecosystems. But can that intuition be sustained philosophically?

To do so may require showing not only that non-sentient lives suffer but also that they create moral constraints. Some argue, using Kenneth Goodpaster's concept "moral considerability" (what a being has if it should receive direct moral consideration), that even non-sentient beings can constrain us morally in virtue of their having interests that give rise to rights or define a good, a wellbeing, that can be harmed.1 "Interests" here cannot refer, of course, to what the organism cares about. They refer, rather, to what it needs in order to survive, do well, even flourish; what is in the organism's interests is what contributes to its good or wellbeing.

Yet thinking about evil has led me to distinguish questions of harm from questions of wrong, that is, of moral constraint. It is not always wrong to cause even extreme harm. In this essay I support the more modest thesis that the idea of "intolerable harm" is no barrier to the idea that environmental atrocities can be evils even to non-sentient life. The question remains whether there are other barriers. Evildoers not only cause intolerable harm but are culpably wrong to do it. To whom must that wrong be done? In concluding I turn briefly to that issue, raising more questions than I can currently answer. Some may be disappointed. Yet the limits of my ambitions in this essay do not make them trivial. For any plausible account of environmental atrocities in a sense that includes evil to non-sentient beings must be able to make sense of the idea of doing such entities intolerable harm and should also indicate something of the range of non-sentient beings so vulnerable and in what ways they are vulnerable. These are my present objectives.

In my book The Atrocity Paradigm I develop the theory that evils are reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms produced (or supported, aggravated, maintained, and so on) by culpable wrongdoing.2 Taking atrocities, such as genocide, slavery, and saturation bombings of cities, as paradigm evils, I refer to this view as "the atrocity theory" of evils. It both draws on and mediates between stoic and utilitarian approaches to evil. On my theory, evils have two irreducibly distinct components, wrongdoing and harm, linked by causality. Evil is popularly equated with wickedness or moral turpitude. But on the atrocity theory, the depth of harm to victims, rather than perpetrators' motives, is usually what distinguishes evils from other wrongs.

The atrocity theory not only focuses attention more on harm than on [End Page 24] wrongdoing but also directs attention to the grossest harms. Some of the worst damage culpably inflicted by human agents has been to the natural environment. Can such damage be downright evil? In my book I indicated that the atrocity theory was intended to make sense of evils done "to many living beings, not just people or even just sentient beings,"3 although I did not defend that idea or work out the details. The present essay attempts a working out of...


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