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Epicurean Environmentalism

What follows is part of my book review of Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion.

All perceptions are true because perception is continuous with nature … Our sense organs dilate and palpate in a diffractive harmony with the world. – Ethics of Motion, pages 188 and 181

Nail does a good job of explaining some of the ways in which we are embedded into nature. In page 2, Nail speaks of the need to “extend rights to nature”. I was looking forward to his explanation of this, but never really found a methodology by which this could be founded, if not in Epicureanism, at least in Lucretius. Nail is on to something when he discusses mutuality, and when he explains that we are part of our environment. But since Nail focuses on Lucretius while rejecting his Epicurean foundation, it’s hard for an Epicurean to find coherence in his theories.

This is not to say that there is no Epicurean environmentalism, or that we could never be able to theorize one based on Epicurean guidelines about justice based on mutual advantage. In the past, I’ve read environmentalism into the architecture of the Garden itself. Hermarchus–a co-founder of Epicureanism–does address some ecological issues, which I discussed in an essay on his posited vegetarianism. In that essay, we find Hermarchus saying:

Those who first defined what we ought to do, and what we ought not, very properly did not forbid us to kill other animals. For the advantage arising from these is effected … since it is not possible that men could be preserved, unless they endeavoured to defend those who are nurtured with themselves from the attacks of other animals.

… Some of those, of the most elegant manners, recollecting that they abstained from slaughter because it was useful to the public safety …. for the purpose of repelling the attacks of animals of another species

Here, we see that advantage is cited as the criterion for what is right and what should be approved by law. Hermarchus did not call for vegetarianism, but did say that the choice of which animals are killed for food, or to protect a household from attack by wild beasts, depends on advantage. Later, Hermarchus seems to argue that humans occupy an ecological niche in society that allows us to control the populations of certain animals. Again, his arguments rest on issues of advantage, including the possibility that some animals will compete with us for food.

Since, if we suffered them to increase excessively, they would become injurious to us. But through the number of them which is now preserved, certain advantages are imparted to human life. For sheep and oxen, and every such like animal, when the number of them is moderate, are beneficial to our necessary wants; but if they become redundant in the extreme, and far exceed the number which is sufficient, they then become detrimental to our life; the latter by employing their strength, in consequence of participating of this through an innate power of nature, and the former, by consuming the nutriment which springs up from the earth for our benefit alone. Hence, through this cause, the slaughter of animals of this kind is not prohibited, in order that as many of them as are sufficient for our use, and which we may be able easily to subdue, may be left.

On this account, from the above-mentioned causes, it is similarly requisite to think, that what pertains to the eating of animals, was ordained by those who from the first established the laws; and that the advantageous and the disadvantageous were the causes why some animals were permitted to be eaten and others not.

This is interesting to me because I have recently noticed and written about the emergence of insect-eating as society is attempting to adapt to the environmental cost of how we produce meat and the pragmatic problems related to overpopulation. We see that issues of advantage and disadvantage are often being cited in the educational literature concerning this trend: they cite disadvantages like the production of methane gases by cattle, the depletion of the fish in the sea, marine pollution, mercury in the waters, and on the side of the advantages, they cite the nutritional benefits of eating certain insects, and the ease and sustainability of production with few resources.

While acknowledging that there are no absolute standards of justice, Hermarchus appealed to advantage for human communities to defend a variety of environmental policies, depending on the circumstances. This is consistent with Principal Doctrien 37:

Among the things accounted just by conventional law, whatever in the needs of mutual association is attested to be useful, is thereby stamped as just, whether or not it be the same for all; and in case any law is made and does not prove suitable to the usefulness of mutual association, then this is no longer just. And should the usefulness which is expressed by the law vary and only for a time correspond with the prior conception, nevertheless for the time being it was just, so long as we do not trouble ourselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts. – Principal Doctrine 37

Notice that the advantage being considered is that of humans capable of creating, abiding by, and agreeing to laws. Laws are human cultural artifacts. One can not expect a shark, or a wolf, or a cat, to understand and obey laws–even if we may feel compassion for these creatures at times, and be naturally inclined to help them if they are suffering. An Epicurean environmentalism must recognize that humans are, at present, the stewards of our planet.

Another thing we CAN say and observe is that nature has set limits to what is needed for a life of complete pleasure. While it’s a good idea to have a reserve of grain and other goods, there’s a point beyond which Epicurus would acknowledge that the excesses of preparation create greater disadvantage than advantage.

In page 186, Nail says that “matter from the environment affects our mind”–which is accurate–but then he says that Lucretian ethics must consider non-sentient things … on what base? How? By which methodology? Who decides the laws and who abides by them? Whose considerations would be valid? In one passage, Nail mentions that non-sentient beings also “do ethics”. In what way does a stone DO ethics? As I’ve said before, in On Moral Development Epicurus mentions the anticipation of causal responsibility, which rests on individual moral agents. If we follow Nail’s attack on the individual, we lose an important point of reference for all morality–because not only are we the cause of our actions: we also suffer from them. We can’t say the same about non-sentient beings, or about an impersonal “environment”.

And so while we co-exist in mutuality with our environment, and could not live without the air we breathe and the food we eat and the other relations we have in our environment, it’s important to never lose sight of our agency and our causal responsibility.

The next essay of this book review will be my conclusion, and mention some of the good and bad things about Nail’s book. I wish to note that it was never my intention to write a diatribe against Nail. I am mainly writing this review for the benefit of newer students of Epicurean philosophy who might pick up this book expecting to gain Epicurean insights. Please, read what I and other Epicureans have to say, and read critically!

Further Reading:

Lucretius II: An Ethics of Motion