The Ethics of Nature

On Nature, values and our duties towards animals


In this paper we will mainly be discussing three related topics: first, the values of life; second, the view that we humans have of nature; and, third, our duties towards animals.

Before addressing these concerns directly I would like to explain why they are of capital importance today. For a long time, I have felt that our assessment of the values of life is deeply inadequate, that we are frequently wrong regarding what really matters and that we tend to view everything that we encounter in the world solely from our own private and very narrow vantage point. Further, we have a tendency towards a certain self-centredness which entails the thought that we are higher and beyond all other living creatures; that we humans are such unique and remarkable beings that our interests should have absolute priority over against the interests of other creatures; that we have the right to manipulate other creatures as we please, guided solely by our own interests. According to this train of thought, the interests and the rights of other living creatures must always give way to our interests and our right to enjoy the values of life.

In my mind, it is quite clear that this standpoint violates the principles of true morality, and one of the most important tasks of ethics consists precisely in showing why it is wrong to put such weight on the specific character of us humans that, in the end, we cease to take the interests and the rights of other creatures into account.

In this short lecture, however, I will neither be able to give a sufficiently thorough account of the narrow-mindedness of us humans nor enter into a detailed analysis of what it is that separates us humans from other animals. Instead, I will let it suffice to specify some important things that all living creatures have in common, as well as pointing out what sets them apart.

Every living creature can be said to consist of two sides. The first of these is the passive (or receptive) aspect, while the second is the active (or creative) aspect. Insofar as the living creature is passive, it receives incentives from its environment, undergoes all sorts of stimuli, perceives communicative messages from other creatures, etc. Insofar as the living creature is active, it exerts an influence on its environment, performs various functions, emits communicative messages etc. Apart from these two aspects, each living creature is furnished with some sort of equipment that has the purpose of joining the aspects together, processing the incentives that the creature undergoes and organising its actions. With regard to what sets creatures apart, there are of course numerous possible answers to that question, but in the end all the possibilities are related to the equipment that creatures have in order to process the incentives that they undergo as well as to organise their actions. In this regard, the specific character of the human being consists in the fact that its equipment for processing sense data and making plans for action is much more powerful than that of other creatures – for example with regard to the establishment of goals to pursue. In this equipment – which in everyday parlance goes under the names of reason, rationality, soul, consciousness, mind, spirit etc. – lies the ability to make it clear to oneself what is for the better and what is for the worse, not only for oneself and not only for all other human beings, but for all other living creatures. Here, above all, lies the particular nature of the human being. It can perceive the values of life in much richer detail than other living creatures that we know. Education in the broadest sense of the word consists in the cultivation of this gift of the human being; in gathering knowledge of life and of the world which would make us more capable of appreciating and enjoying the values of life – as well as safeguarding and multiplying these values and ensuring that they don’t go amiss.

But what are those values that life has to offer? In a nutshell, I propose to schematize the values of life as follows. Firstly, there are mental values which are divided into scientific, artistic and technical values. Their main characteristic is that they are unlimited in themselves, there is no need to compete for them and they are said to be enduring or even eternal. Secondly, there are worldly values which consist of economic, political and cultural values. They are mainly characterised by the fact that there is a perpetual shortage of them, and therefore people compete constantly for them; furthermore, they are unreliable and fleeting. Thirdly, there are moral values which can be subdivided into three categories according to the kind of personal relationship they entail: first, relationships between people in general (whether they are familiar with each other or not), secondly close personal relationships (family ties and the bonds of friendship), and thirdly one’s relationship with oneself (manifested in one’s self-esteem and one’s judgments about oneself, among other things). What matters most in all possible relations between people in general is justice and respect for life. In close personal relations, love and friendship play the key role, but for the individual as such, good judgment and freedom are of capital importance. Good judgment is of great value because it provides the individual human being with the key to all other values, whether worldly or mental; we make use of our judgment when evaluating all the values of life; good judgment enables people to act and think independently.

I will now attempt to demonstrate how the values of life are related to our view of nature, and then I will discuss a few moral consequences that arise in this context and that relate to the way we should behave towards animals.



We can distinguish three kinds of fundamental views that human beings have of nature:

1)    Nature is what we perceive as outer reality. This is a subjective view that entails the conception of nature as the origin of mental values and regards the human being as passive or receptive.

2)    Nature is what we seek to struggle with and seek to exploit. This is a practical view that conceives of nature as the origin of worldly values and considers the human being in its creative or active aspect.

3)    Nature is what we need to reconcile ourselves with and return to. This is a moral view that sees nature as the origin of moral values and conceives of the human being as simultaneously receptive and creative, i.e. equal weight is given to the two aspects of the human being.


The subjective view

In the first place, nature is what we can perceive by means of our senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. But we also know from experience that “mother nature” does not reveal herself completely to our senses. She is at once visible and invisible; she is full of mysteries. It looks as though nature is specifically designed for us to discover and try to understand; and, further, for us to play with, train and discipline our senses and mental faculties, imagination, understanding and feeling. Thus, we can safely say that nature amounts to an inexhaustible source of mental values for us: of sciences, arts, sports and games.

This subjective view is sustained by various kinds of emotions, wonder and admiration as well as fear and dismay with regard to the natural forces. We also have the habit of making a distinction between what is normal (or natural) and abnormal (or unnatural). Sometimes it looks as though nature herself decides to act unnaturally (for example when a cat eats its offspring). This distinction between what is normal and what is abnormal has had considerable effects on our evaluation of people’s behaviour, not least in relation to sexuality and sexual morality (consider, for example, the debate about the question whether homosexuality is “natural” or “unnatural”).

How do animals appear to us when we adopt this view of nature? They are infinitely astonishing and interesting in their great variety. And the most astonishing thing is that they appear to be so different from us – and thereby the idea emerges that maybe we just aren’t animals at all, that we don’t belong to nature, that we aren’t a part of her in the same way that other living creatures are. Our sciences, our arts, games and sports can not be compared to any natural phenomenon that we know of. These mental values are totally different from all natural phenomena, they are even to be placed above nature and thought of as belonging to another world. Consequently, the question „do we maybe belong to a different world?“ has addressed itself to human beings from the moment they started investigating and systematically discussing nature.

In this way, then, a certain distinction between nature and culture comes on the scene – a distinction that remains, to a great degree, an enigma for human beings. Culture seems to imply a distancing or an alienation from nature. Whoever seeks to discover and understand nature seems thereby not to be of the order of nature, not to be an ordinary part of nature. Hence, the distinction between the human being and the animal has habitually been considered to be a clear-cut difference in nature: the human being is not an animal, but rather a mental creature which is temporarily held captive in the body of an animal. It follows that the animals are thought to be in every way inferior to human beings; according to this view, animals are subordinate because they do not perceive or understand the world in the same way that humans do.

This attitude towards animals is common among people who, paradoxically, do not believe in the idea that the human being is eternal in some way or that the human being comes from another world. The sole fact that human beings, by way of their manner of viewing and understanding nature, elevate themselves above all other animals as well as above nature in general, is taken to be a sufficient reason for human beings to attribute greatness to themselves and disregard the animals at the same time.


The practical view

Secondly, nature poses a perpetual task for us in our striving for establishing ourselves on the earth. This struggle constantly calls for a great variety of practical operations, calculations and projects. In this respect, we wage a persistent war against nature and its forces which we try to exploit or defend ourselves against. We situate ourselves in opposition to nature, we make use of her in order to obtain the things we value, in view of establishing ourselves on the earth, travelling around the world, etc. Here the opposition between nature and culture is even starker than we saw when discussing the subjective view of nature. According to the practical view of nature, culture is akin to our victory over nature and its forces. Thus, nature has become a source of worldly values for the human being, a source which, until very recently, has been considered to be inexhaustible. Nature provides human beings with endless possibilities for earning their livelihood, for demonstrating their greatness and for showing off.

This view of nature is very old and it can even be found in the Bible. According to the commandment of the creator, we should conquer nature, the earth and the animals; in other words, we should not let it suffice to understand nature or revere her, but go further and subject her to our will and to our powers. The human being is, or should be, the master of the earth. Everything in the realm of nature should comply with the wishes of this particular being. And this applies especially to the animals. If this viewpoint is taken to its extremes – as we have been doing here – then we arrive at the point where everything is subjected to the needs, wants and interests of the human being. Accordingly, animals are seen to have no justifiable interests which have to be reckoned with – unless these interests happen to coincide with the interests of humans. Animals that are of no use to the human being or that stand in defiance of human interests are swiftly defined as pests and thereby become unwelcome, unwanted and fit to be killed regardless of the circumstances – and even any which way we please. As regards domestic or “exploitable” animals, the picture may be different. It is in accord with human interests to take proper care of them and ensure that their condition is at least bearable, for otherwise they might fail to serve the human being in the desired way – for example, for food or nutrition, for physical work or for participation in various games. In this respect, the utilitarian perspective dominates our attitude towards animals and prescribes the way we treat them. A starved dog that has been severely beaten is not likely to be of much use for gathering sheep.

The view of nature and of animals in particular thus described is and has been predominant among humankind, not least after the advent of the industrial revolution and all the new possibilities for exploiting nature opened by technology. But it has to be said that this view, when taken in isolation from other perspectives, has given rise to a great deal of immoral actions dominated by a short-sighted utilitarian way of thinking. Various experiments with animals have been made in the name of human interests, whether imaginary or real. In that way, such “interests” have been used as justification for questionable or even downright criminal treatment of animals.


The moral view

Thirdly, nature is, for us, the foundation of human life, not only in the sense that we live on the earth – our world is an earthly world – but also in the sense that nature is at work in ourselves. We are born, we live and we die like other living beings. The vital force at work in us is the same one that we see at work throughout nature. For this reason we say that nature is the mother of all life, we speak of dwelling in the embrace of nature and of retreating back into nature: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Humankind in general, every one of us is a child of nature, we owe our life to her, and in the end the price we pay for life is our very own life.

When we adopt this view of nature we discover or perceive ourselves as a part of nature as well as that particular part of nature which enables her to become conscious of herself, as it were. Simultaneously, our responsibility for nature and life dawns upon us. Our special status does not consist in our being of a different kind than everything else in the realm of nature, nor does it lie in our capability to conquer nature and bring her forces under our control; rather, our singularity consists in the fact that we can observe nature, and decide how to act, based on any perspective that we please. We can decide to take into account what is for the good of other living creatures than ourselves and we can do an infinite number of things in order to promote life in nature, completely regardless of ourselves and our private interests. In other words, we can understand the interests of every element of nature and take these into consideration without any commitment to our own real and changeable situation. We can choose to direct our attention towards the past or towards the future and we can conceive of various circumstances that may arise in the world. For this reason, we also make a sharp distinction between illusory interests, which serve that which only appears to be for the good, and real interests, which truly relate to what is good when taking nature in general, or even the world at large, into account.

Thus we discover nature as the inexhaustible source of all the values that make life truly worth living, not only for me and you, and not only for humankind, but for all living creatures. In this respect, moral values enjoy a special status compared to worldly and mental values. The attitude towards worldly values varies greatly from one individual to another, some people thirst for money, others for power, etc. And the variety is still greater when we consider the worldly values that animals strive for – what an animal needs to sustain itself, for example, is very different from one species to another. The same applies to mental values: the attitude towards them depends on the individual, some people are totally fascinated by the sciences, others are completely preoccupied with the arts, and still others only wish to play and enjoy themselves. The diversity is still greater among the animals with regard to their inborn capacities to enjoy mental values. But it is clear that most animals play, if not all of them, they possess a certain knowledge, and they express themselves in many different ways even though they do not deliberately create works of art like human beings do.

If we now direct our attention towards moral values, the picture becomes somewhat different. I would like to assert that with regard to these values, all living creatures are equal. It is in the interest of each and every living creature to have access to the values that it needs in order to live and enjoy life according to its own nature. And it is also a question of justice that no living creature should be deprived of the values of life except for special reasons. Broadly speaking, these special reasons can be of two kinds. On the one hand, animals need other animals for their livelihood, and some animals live off other animals in a direct way, not only by killing them in order to eat them, but also by using what they produce for nourishment.[1] On the other hand, in some cases there may be reason to exclude specific living creatures from enjoying life on the grounds that they cause irreparable damage to other creatures, like, for example, a virus that causes infections in humans and other animals. We generally call such animals pests and we try to exterminate them. In this context it is worth noting that the most terrible pest on the earth is, of course, the human being itself which has caused other creatures such a degree of mindless damage that if we would add up all the arbitrary damage done by other creatures to each other, the outcome would be negligible compared to the catastrophes inflicted on nature by humankind through the ages.

There is much more to be said about these issues, but we’ll let these remarks suffice for the time being. However, what emerges clearly from this discussion is that justice is in no way a private affair of humankind. It is a question of justice for all living creatures to have access to the values of life. Or – if we look at the other side of the coin – it is a question of justice for all living creatures that they should not be arbitrarily subjected to malicious acts by other living creatures; they should not be made to suffer pain or made to starve if this in no way serves the cause of ensuring the subsistence of life. Thus all human beings should heed the unconditional demand to show animals the highest degree of compassion and take their interests into account.[2] Of course, this does not entail that the interests of human beings should always give way to the interests of other animals; the idea is simply that human beings should guard themselves against the prejudice that other animals do not have any interests that should be reckoned with.

Let us now consider moral values other than justice. It is quite evident that all so-called “higher” animals seem to be able to experience the sentiments that we humans call love and friendship, or at least similar emotions such as affection and kindness of some kind. The same applies to freedom, the phenomenon with which we humans are so intensely preoccupied. Most animals are able to choose what is good for them up to a certain point, at least insofar as they live in their natural surroundings. Now it so happens that the natural surroundings of many animals have undergone a fundamental transformation at the hands of humans, or have in some cases even been produced by humans, and in these instances it goes without saying that humans have the obligation to ensure that the animals can enjoy the freedom of which they are capable and which obviously serves their well-being. The rule that applies here is the same that we find at work in human life. We should not limit the freedom of humans or animals unless that is absolutely necessary in order to prevent their causing damage to themselves or others.

The heart of the matter is that life – in the sense of the life of human beings as well as of other living creatures on this earth – becomes unbearable unless there is a just distribution of values, unless friendship and love prevail and unless the conditions for the enjoyment of freedom are ensured. This is a lesson that we learn from nature, from life itself; it is in no way a mere product of us humans, of our caprices or whims.



It seems to me that on the basis of our preceding discussion we can make several inferences related to the question of what a reasonable and honest attitude towards animals would consist in. To put it briefly, such an attitude would entail taking into account, in a serious way, the fact that we ourselves are a part of nature, that every living thing harbours the same vital force, that revering and respecting life is the condition sine qua non of learning to appreciate and enjoy the values of life, of learning to live with humans and animals alike.

All the same, the way we humans actually behave is in no way determined by the reverence for life which I proclaim to be the prime condition of morality. In my view, there are two reasons for this. First, this is caused by the fact that our sense of value is frequently defective, confused or underdeveloped to such a degree that we often don’t even notice when we behave immorally towards other people or other living creatures. Second, it is often the case that we become dogmatically adherent to a variant of either the mental or the practical view of nature and thus we fall short of adopting a genuinely moral view of nature. As it happens, in most cases a defective sense of value goes hand in hand with the lack of a moral view of life.

The risk of our sense of judgment becoming defective is, for very natural reasons, a constant threat. Quite simply, the reason why this is so is that we are, each and every one of us, simple and transient beings that evaluate things on the grounds of the impression that they leave on us and according to the use that we think we might make of them. Because our horizon is limited, we are frequently wrong about what really matters to us. In fact, actual human morality is marked by short-sightedness; we rank the values of life, as well as the lack of such values and all the evil things in life, by the way they appear to us as human beings. In other words, we perceive life in light of our senses and feelings as well as our longings and wants. For example, one of the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time, René Descartes, held that animals did not have a soul and therefore that they had no feelings; that, consequently, they could not feel pain and hence they could be treated as if they were machines. Thus, Descartes saw nothing wrong with the practice of vivisecting animals in order to investigate their vital organs.

Now people have often tried to justify questionable or downright objectionable treatment of animals for experimental purposes by having recourse to the idea that research carried out on animals often produces important results that are in many ways useful to humans, for example in combating diseases that plague humans or other living creatures. I want to conclude this paper by outlining a few arguments against such a utilitarian line of reasoning as an overarching justification for experimentation with animals in general.

Firstly, even if we admit that it really is possible, in certain cases, to justify experiments that involve direct maltreatment of humans or animals by appealing to utility, then surely we must acknowledge that these cases would be rare exceptions rather than the general rule. Secondly, it is an unequivocal duty of humans to take the interests of animals into consideration insofar as that is possible – just as it is a duty for humans to take the interests of other people into account. Thirdly, it is obviously wrong to assume that the interests of animals should always give way to the interests of us humans. (It may be in the interest of the carriage driver to go as fast as possible, but that does not justify flogging the horse.) Lastly, we should always keep in mind the common interests of all the living creatures on the earth, for if we think of the uncertain future that we are facing then we see that the specific interests of humans and animals alike require that the planetary ecosystem in its entirety be saved from an imminent catastrophe. And here the responsibility has to be assumed by us humans, for two reasons: first, because we happen to be the creatures that have done the greatest damage and thus we are obliged to try and mend what we have broken, and second, because it is in our capacity to secure these common interests.

Quite evidently, this task is in every respect a difficult and delicate one. One of its most important facets has to do with the question of demarcating what is morally permissible and impermissible for us. We have to deal with this question in co-operation in order to arrive at an understanding of the criteria that we need for the just evaluation of the many different interests that necessarily struggle for recognition in human life and in nature. Each and every human being must also try and develop their own sense of judgment, refine their comprehension of what really matters, and learn to evaluate things in different circumstances.

We cannot expect to be able to perfect our criteria for evaluating the values of life; nor can we expect to be able to develop an impeccable sense of right and wrong. It is an infinite task to work to improve each of these two factors, to strive for a better understanding of values and of the moral rules that we should live by. Whether we manage to keep ourselves alive on this earth in community with other living creatures depends above all else on our overcoming our foolish tendency to consider life and nature solely from our own perspective. The first step on this path would consist in giving proof of our willingness to perceive the world and ourselves from the perspective of the animals that nature has placed in our care. The prime condition of all morality consists in permanent concern and compassion for everything that breathes the spirit of life.


(English translation: Björn Þorsteinsson)

[1]To take an example, we could perhaps say that the human being is a parasite of the cow, like the Czech author Milan Kundera has pointed out:

Ekkert er eins hugljúft ... (s. 320 í ísl. útg.)

[2]I even want to claim that it is dubious whether the way human beings play games that involve animals, such as salmon or trout fishing, are morally justifiable when they no longer have any purpose apart from gratifying the hunter’s passion for killing. At the same time, however, it is quite possible that the gratification of this passion will in some instances entail that the hunters will cause less damage to the interests and values of other people than otherwise would be the case, and thereby we would seem to have a justification for some kinds of animal hunting. (To further develop the implications of this hypothesis, we could suggest that potential hunters should be made to apply for permission before they could go out and practise their sport; their application would be evaluated by a commission that would consist of a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a moral philosopher; the criteria that the commission would work with would be the degree of urgency for the applicant to gratify his passion. – On the other hand, one might also be tempted to suggest that such people should give vent to their emotions in computer games, since that would guarantee that the “hunters” wouldn’t cause harm to anyone else than themselves!)

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