Whose Land? Part 5 -- Moral Standing

I am a recovering lawyer, having been deeply engaged in the practice of corporate law for about 35 years.  Now I have a part-time practice that mostly consists of pro bono work for conservation organizations.  I suppose that background explains why the legal theory of standing and its ongoing development in the courts is of more than passing interest to me, as has been clear in this Whose Land? series (see links to previous posts below). 

Legal issues are not my main focus here, however.  We can learn from the legal analogy, but I pose the Whose Land? question from an ethical viewpoint, not from a strictly legal one.  Who has the moral standing to fight for wilderness, especially in Alaska?

As in so many areas, Aldo Leopold paved the way in this philosophical debate, especially in his essay regarding The Land Ethic, which forms the third part of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.  Leopold points out that all systems of ethics deal with the fundamental question of how an individual relates to a community of others.  For example, the duties that we owe to our fellow citizens, and what we may rightfully expect of them in return, can be defined in legal terms but are more fundamentally questions of ethics.

If ethics are inherently about community, he wrote, the “land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively:  the land. …  In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

In his writings, Aldo Leopold viewed environmental ethics as inherently dynamic, evolving with the state of the human condition.  In a sense, a land ethic is a luxury made possible by progress.  In prior ages, survival required exploitation of all natural resources; none could be spared for the sentimentality of a land ethic.  Wild things “had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”

Even under current conditions, when developed nations can afford, perhaps for the first time in our species existence, to set aside some areas for purposes other than economic development, “[i]t of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can and cannot be done for land.  It always has and it always will.”  Leopold’s plea for a land ethic is a modest one; it is to cast off “the belief that economics determines all land-use.”  He asks that land and its inhabitants be given a place at the table, not that all other interests be subordinated to them in every case.  The land ethic is not a universal trump card.  On the other hand, as the saying goes, if you're not at the table, you're on the menu.

Leopold's conception of the land ethic is fundamental to the question of moral standing.  Public policy debates are often formulated around specific economic or even cultural positions -- for example, in the Pebble Mine proposal in southwest Alaska or the controversy about development in the arctic coastal plain.  When considered within the confines of this construct, it is understandable for protagonists on either side to resent the intrusion of outsiders whose economic interests are not perceived to be directly at stake.  However, if the same debates are framed, at least in part, in terms of a land ethic, there is a much more intuitive seat at the table for anyone with a legitimate concern for wilderness.

Previous posts in this series have developed the legal arguments advanced by Professor Stone and embraced by Justice Douglas in the Mineral King case.  These arguments focused on claims for legal standing on behalf of natural objects that Leopold would have included in his comprehensive notion of the land.  By analogy to these legal assertions, one might say that natural objects have an ethical claim to be considered in their own right, but need to find voice through champions who will speak for them. 

Obvious candidates are established conservation organizations like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy, the Alaska Wilderness League and many others.  Sporting associations like Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society fall in a similar category.  And individuals who support and care for the same goals as these organizations are not different in kind from an ethical point of view.  They should have the same moral standing.

When the issue of moral standing is viewed through the lens of the land ethic, the question shifts to the suitability of the spokesperson to represent the interests of natural objects, the land included.  It is therefore the depth and sincerity of the person or organization’s commitment, not the happenstance of their geographic proximity, that is relevant.  The champion speaks for the land itself, for its plants and animals and the conservation of their habitat.  When their standing is recognized, the rest follows.


Click on the titles below to read previous posts in the Whose Land? series:

Whose Land?  Part 4 – Mineral King

Whose Land?  Part 3 -- Are Corporations People?

Whose Land?  Part 2 -- Universal Values?

Whose Land is it Anyway?

To see all of the Northern Passages blog posts, click here for the Blog Index page.