Division in Environmental Ethics

Given this situation, we investigated whether it would be possible to revive the stalled dialogue between the two conflicting parties. With this in mind, we examined the relevant environmental ethics literature. It soon became clear, however, that this discipline was also embroiled in a fierce and protracted conflict, with animal ethicists who assigned a central place to the individual animal on one hand and eco ethicists who considered individual animals only as part of a larger whole, such as ecosystems or biotic communities, on the other.

This conflict erupted when Baird Callicott (1980) published a highly polemical article in which he attacked animal ethicists because they claimed authority over the broad field of environmental ethics and argued that showing proper respect for the welfare and the rights of individual animals would ultimately also benefit the biotic community constituted by these individuals. The eco ethicists, led by Callicott, considered this claim of the animal ethicists to be a sign of “ecological illiteracy,” because they advocate a duty of care for individual animals, regardless of whether these animals are wild or tame, rare or common, indigenous or exotic. Eco ethicists, on the other hand, manifestly do not accord equal moral value to all members of the biotic community; they consider the moral worth of individuals to be dependent on their function in the larger whole. This vision provoked the accusation of “environmental fascism” on the part of animal ethicists (Regan 1983, 362).

After these salvoes, environmental ethics seemed to be heading for a definitive parting of the ways. But eight years after his frontal attack, Callicott offered animal ethicists an olive branch. In an article published in 1988, he distinguished various communities that contain each other like concentric circles: the human community is located in the inner circle, the mixed community of humans and domesticated animals in the middle circle, and the wider biotic community that also includes wild animals in the outer circle. This theory of concentric circles opened the possibility of granting both competing forms of ethics their own sphere of influence: individualistic animal ethics would mainly apply to our interactions with domestic animals and holistic eco ethics to our interactions with animals living in the wild.

This proposal was tempting, as it promised to put an end to the bitter and fruitless struggle between two parties that each claimed a monopoly on matters of environmental ethics. But even though the legitimacy of both the individualistic and holistic visions was now generally recognized, this did not lead to a ceasefire. It merely relocated the battlefield. The new bone of contention became the question of where exactly the line between domesticated and wild should be drawn. And it was precisely this underlying question which kept the two camps in the debate so strongly divided on the introduction of large grazers in nature reserves: Do these animals belong to domesticated species or can they be compared to wild species such as red deer and roe deer? In short, after a tour through the relevant literature we were actually back to square one. In order to find a satisfactory answer to this question, we once again turned to the management practices of the park rangers we had interviewed previously.

The Pragmatist Turn

In the case of the introduction of large grazers we found that we were dealing with a new practice that overlaps with, but is very different from, two longstanding practices, namely, livestock faming on one hand and big game management on the other. The term ‘de-domestication’, already commonly used and well-established among park rangers, proved to be a suitable key with which the door to conceptual solutions could be opened. Animals subject to a process of de-domestication gradually move from a thoroughly cultural context to one that is increasingly natural. They do not simply cross a clear-cut borderline where our duty of care toward individual animals stops and is replaced by a hands-off duty. Instead, they enter a hybrid middle ground, a transitional zone in which neither individualistic animal ethicists nor holistic eco ethicists can claim an exclusive ‘moral jurisdiction’ over these large grazers.

That we were able to find this key to breaking the deadlock in the OVP debate is at least partly due to the pragmatist turn in environmental ethics and philosophy, strongly called for in the watershed collection of essays Environmental Pragmatism edited by Andrew Light and Eric Katz, and published in 1996, the year before the start of our research project. Because of its focus on problem solving and conflict resolution for the sake of further cooperation, pragmatism has always been interested more in the process of moral inquiry than in its readymade products, such as moral rules and regulations. In order for the process of moral inquiry to be successful, pragmatists argue, we should abandon some long-standing philosophical principles that form obstacles to fruitful cooperation and peaceful cohabitation.

One of the main obstacles is the dualistic pattern of thought, which is deeply rooted in Western philosophy and evidenced by the existence of a host of dichotomies such as theory and practice, fact and value, body and mind, and nature and culture. These dichotomies encourage black-and-white thinking that does not allow for shades of gray or for a middle course, but brings conflicts to a head and leads debates to degenerate into unproductive boundary disputes. In order to break such an impasse and open up space for negotiation and deliberation among different and sometimes diverging perspectives, pragmatists suggest that we should replace thinking in terms of binary oppositions with the idea of broad continua, thus turning ‘either-or’ choices into ‘more-or-less’ ones.

Following this pragmatic anti-dualism, we replaced the notion of a distinct dividing line between domestication and wildness with the conception of domestication and wildness as endpoints of a broad continuum—a strategy that we called ‘gradualization.’ The deliberate inauguration of a de-domestication process among large grazers sets in motion a long-term learning process, not only for the animals, who need gradually to develop the capacity to stand on their own feet, but also for the park rangers, the policymakers, and, last but not least, the general public. In this experiment of de-domestication, individualistic animal ethicists and holistic eco ethicists are more or less condemned to each other.

We argued that, as the process of de-domestication advances, our duty of care gradually moves from specific care aimed at individual animals to what we have called ‘non-specific’ care, aimed at maintaining, restoring, or creating ecosystem processes that provide favorable habitat conditions for the animals (Keu-lartz and Swart 2012).

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