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Problems With Transpersonal Ecology

Deep Ecology argues for a transpersonal orientation -- in brief, expanding one's sense of self such that one identifies with all other things in the universe*. A transpersonal orientation is said to imply two consequences: first, that one will care for the environment, and second, that morality in the sense of rules for action will be superfluous. I think both claims are mistaken.

Deep Ecologists argue that once you identify with the environment, you would no more destroy it than you would chop off your own hand. Rebuttals on this point tend to focus on situations where it would be rational to "harm" one's own self, e.g. getting a tattoo. But I think a more serious objection comes from the other end of the self-care spectrum -- the moral permissibility, and even desirability, of self-improvement. While things like plastic surgery are controversial, we clearly recognize the virtue of moderate exercise, practicing new skills, or education. Yet the idea of improving our nature-self would run counter to the kind of policy prescriptions that Deep Ecologists advocate. Indeed, the idea that nature is raw and wild and must be improved by humans is resoundly criticized by Deep Ecologists and other environmentalists. Yet that is exactly what a transpersonal orientation seems to entail, unless we graft on the questionable empirical claim that the world outside our skin is already close to perfect and therefore there's no room to improve it. In short, Hugo Schwyzer would make the most anti-environmental Deep Ecologist ever.

There is also a surface plausibility to the idea that identification with nature will lead us to spontaneously care for it, and that therefore rigid rules instructing us to care for nature become obsolete. The problem here is framing the role of moral rules as strictly restraints on selfish impulses**. Certainly rules-as-constraints are made superfluous by a desire to pursue the prescribed ends for their own sake. However, rules also act as guides. That is, they help us to overcome uncertainty and ignorance as well as selfishness and weakness of will. One could have the purest desire to care for another being, yet still be stumped (or worse, falsely confident) as to what acts would constitute care. Unless identification with the universe somehow also brings extensive empirical knowledge (an obviously untenable assumption), it can't make morality superfluous.

* This is in contrast to ordinary ecocentrism, in which nonhuman entities are to be protected as -- and indeed, precisely because they are -- independent beings.
** A very Enlightenment way of framing the issue, I might add.


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