Philosophy Talks: Context and Values in Conservation

Communications Specialist Sara Kaiser engages philosopher Nickolas Knightly in a conversation about the connection between philosophy and conservation.

Does philosophy have a place in conservation? Philosophical inquiry can provide pathways to broader and clearer understandings of the daily efforts and deeper purposes of any pursuit, including conservation. The process of asking questions often gives rise to insight and new awareness even if the initial questions remain unanswered.

Sara Kaiser, Communications Specialist at Island Conservation, recently audited a class titled Philosophy of Mind at UC Santa Cruz. With this blog series, Sara hopes to highlight the questions and unknowns that pervade conservation work, demonstrate the value of inquiry, and stimulate productive dialogue and action throughout the conservation sphere–all in support of the flourishing of life on Earth. This blog series is not intended to make a claim or endorse a particular ethical stance or opinion by Island Conservation.

Nickolas Knightly is a philosopher at UC Santa Cruz. He is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on philosophy as a way of life. His work arises at the intersection of ecology, art, and spirituality.

Sara: What does philosophy have to do with conservation?

Nickolas: What does philosophy have to do with conservation–that’s a very good question. It’s not possible to do conservation without philosophy. For instance, if you approach an activity you have to approach it in some way or other, and in order to decide how you’re going to approach it—what your aims and purposes are—you have to answer certain philosophical questions. So therefore all conservationists are philosophers—but that’s because all human beings are philosophers. There’s nothing we can do without having some philosophy of how and why to do it.

In conservation there are many philosophical questions. One very important nest of philosophical questions that we have to ask has to do with “What do you think you’re going to conserve? What do you think it means to conserve?” We use the word “conservation” the way we use a lot of words, as if we really know what they mean. We say “I love you,” and yet, to define it, it’s not so easy. We may then say, “I’m very interested in conservation.” But what does it mean? Does it mean we’re preserving or conserving nature?

But see that doesn’t quite make sense because we have to ask, “What’s the context?” What is the context of “nature,” and further, should we not see nature as the context for all of us? And this may lead us to see that in one way or another we are trying to conserve human beings. But then we have to ask, “Which aspect of ‘human being’ or ‘human activity’ will we be able to conserve?” Because if we think we can conserve certain systems of thought, certain ways of being, while also conserving nature, we’ll end up in a terrible situation. We’ll create tremendous negative side effects and we may drive ourselves crazy (or, perhaps we should say that we will further manifest a kind of craziness already evident in some patterns of our behavior).

So there are these very important philosophical questions and I’m giving them two answers: One is, you can’t escape philosophy; and then there’s a second level which is, “Are there philosophical questions that we’re not asking?” Because we may think, “Well, who needs philosophy? We need to save the polar bears.” Okay, but if you’re conserving over here, and destroying over there, you are never going to be successful.

In other words, philosophy is how we do things. It’s our way of life and way of thinking. We could think of it as the pattern holding together and even generating our thought, speech, and action. If we are destroying the conditions of life, perhaps we are caught in a pattern of insanity. If we try to restore the conditions of life, if we try to become a force for good, but we take this pattern of insanity with us—however subtly—then we will perpetuate insanity. We need to find a pattern of sanity. We need to root ourselves in wisdom and compassion in order to take the most creative and effective kind of action.

Philosophy is how we do things. It’s our way of life and way of thinking. We could think of it as the pattern holding together and even generating our thought, speech, and action.

Those are some of the basics, but I don’t know, what do you think about that? Given your experience, both in conservation and then a little bit more into philosophy now?

Sara: Well, in my limited experience I would definitely say that decision-making is one of the key ways that philosophy ties into conservation, and you mentioned if one entity benefits while another loses out because of a conservation action, how do you make that decision? Who are we to make that decision?

Nickolas: Yes. Right.

Sara: Philosophy itself is already such a giant word and concept that you could tie it into conservation in many ways.

Nickolas: Yes, well, it’s only giant in the sense that it’s the thing that we’re never going to be able to step out of, because every attempt to step out of it would itself be an expression of philosophy, it would be some expression of what a human being is in some important sense. Again, philosophy is just our way of life. That’s the general point. In a more specific sense, we could think about the act of valuing anything at all. We must keep in mind that our actions are intimately bound up with the values that we actually practice, and not just the ones we claim to hold, and this valuing is always philosophical, even though we typically don’t view it that way. Sometimes this happens because we think the values are obvious, or given by a deity or something like that, but even so, we still have to make philosophical decisions about how to interpret and enact them.

We must keep in mind that our actions are intimately bound up with the values that we actually practice, and not just the ones we claim to hold, and this valuing is always philosophical, even though we typically don’t view it that way.

Sara: And I think one of the challenges is that philosophy can seem a bit abstract a lot of the time.

Nickolas: Yes.

Sara: And to understand how it is manifested or how it’s realized or how it’s involved in the everyday activities of a conservation organization or just in a person’s life, in their behaviors and choices, what they consume, produce, and whatnot. How do you see it? How do you touch it? How do you talk to people about it? It’s difficult to pin down.

Nickolas: Well it’s because of this pervasiveness. On the one hand, it’s like trying to pin down life itself. You can’t ever do it. On the other hand, what we don’t see is that philosophy is how we set the table and enjoy a meal. That is already philosophy, because you can’t prepare a meal, set the table, and eat the meal without a certain idea of how it should be done, and what it all means. And you may say, “Oh, come on now—you’re just talking nonsense. Setting the table is not a philosophical act.” But if we look carefully and sensibly, we find that it really is. If we use common sense, we can begin to see that, and we can begin to see the consequences of having an unskillful philosophical relationship with food, in terms of how we grow the food, how we prepare it, and how we eat it.

At the very least, whatever is important to us must be there when we’re doing ordinary things as well as when we’re doing very extraordinary things. Philosophy is very ordinary, even if it also includes extraordinary things. The trouble is that certain forces in our culture have made philosophy into this thing where we say, “Well philosophy seems kind of abstract,” and we can even act as if we need a formal education to read philosophy and think philosophically. But it never was really an “abstract” thing in the past, and it still is not today, because it’s just about how we live our lives. We already organize our lives according to philosophical notions, most of them not carefully examined.

Some philosophers are quite explicit about this rootedness in life, and for them, any sort of venture into apparent abstraction was only because you had to actually live your life–and this can be a very challenging thing to do. For instance, when Socrates stops Euthyphro on the way to court, he engages Euthyphro in a philosophical dialogue. Euthyphro is on his way to court to charge his own father with impiety. This is a serious charge, one that could result in a death sentence for Euthyphro’s father, so it’s a weighty situation. When he tells Socrates what he is up to, Socrates thinks that, in order to take such momentous action, Euthyphro must really know what he is doing. You shouldn’t charge your own father with a crime punishable by death unless you are really sure you know what you are doing. Since the alleged crime is impiety, Socrates is eager to learn from Euthyphro what piety is. But, after some discussion, it turns out that Euthyphro does not actually seem to know what he is talking about.

Keep in mind that we tend to go around thinking we know a thing or two about very important matters, matters of justice, righteousness, and so on. At the very least, we take action in the world, often with serious consequences, as if we know what we are up to.

I might be on my way to protest something, and Socrates might stop me and say, “Hey, what are you protesting about?”

“Environmental justice, Socrates!”

“Oh. Well then, you must know quite a lot. I myself don’t know what justice is. Will you please teach me? And what is ‘the environment’?”

These are the same sorts of questions he posed to so many of his fellow citizens. And we may think that if we feel somehow that we’re on the side of the just, then it’s all quite obvious. But other people think they’re on the side of the just too. How can we sort this out? And how can we make sure that we aren’t carrying some subtle pattern of insanity into our work to help the world? It is like the wonderful notion that, “There is no path to Peace; Peace is the path.” How do we enter that path, truly and fully, with graceful steps? How do we walk beautifully on the Earth, and fulfill our function and our highest ideals?

Since we see that things are out of attunement, the advice of Socrates is to STOP. First stop. We have to slow down and change our ways of looking, our ways of knowing, our ways of taking action. This can prove tremendously difficult—and not because of any abstractness. Rather, the whole thing troubles us. We begin to realize that we can’t just keep moving forward, and this is uncomfortable, because we think we know what we’re doing, and to suddenly find that we may not is disconcerting. To find out that we may have to give something up is not so comforting, because we have lots of little attachments and addictions. Yet this is the heart of spiritual growth: To grow, we have to let go of what we think we are.

No matter what “side” we’re on, we face these deep challenges. We might be on the side of what we truly believe. If we really believe that we should try to halt the mass extinction, it may feel very congruent and ethical. But we still have profound questions to answer about who we are and what we are doing and how we will proceed. Moreover, we may yet find that this extinction is going to happen. How would we deal with that? How would we go on when we think, “Well we could try to save this species but maybe we can’t?” These are difficult questions, and they likely require the incorporation of more sophisticated decision-making procedures than we have so far employed.

Philosophy Talks Series
Philosophy Talks: Context and Values in Conservation 

Philosophy Talks: Mind and Nature
Philosophy Talks: Self and Ecology

Featured photo: Flora of Floreana Island. Credit: Island Conservation

About Sara Kaiser

Sara received a BA in anthropology from UC Santa Cruz in 2014. As a freelance writer and editor, she seeks to produce and highlight stories that support ecological responsibility, body awareness, emotional intelligence, and creative action, and reveal the connections between them.

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