In the last chapter of the book edited by me “The Balance of Nature and Human Impact, Cambridge University Press 2013″, we, i.e. Klaus Rohde, Hugh Ford, Nigel R.Andrew and Harold Heatwole” deal with “How to Conserve Biodiversity in a Nonequilibrium World”. The first section of the chapter discusses economic, esthetic and ethical arguments for conserving biodiversity. We conclude that in the modern world people are most impressed by economic arguments, whereas the ethics of the problem is very rarely considered. Are there ethical reasons for conserving biodiversity? We point out that there indeed are, convincingly demonstrated by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. His philosophy is particularly suitable, because it appeals not only to philosophically educated Westerners, but also to all those who have a Buddhist or Hinduistic background, i.e. a very large proportion of mankind. Schopenhauer was the first Western philosopher who taught that ethical (moral) behaviour must be based on compassion with humans and animals.
I have given a concise outline of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of ethics and justice earlier:
Here I mention a few important points in excerpts taken from my earlier essay:
Schopenhauer’s ethics and theory of justice follow from his epistemology, according to which the world as it appears to us, as we perceive it, is to a large degree shaped by our mental apparatus. Following Immanuel Kant, he assumes that time, space and causality are not characteristics of the thing-in-itself (“Ding an sich”) but categories of our mind. All distinctions between individuals disappear once these categories are taken away. In other words, all beings are in essence One.
Schopenhauer’s ethics has had a deep influence on many philosophers and writers after him. Albert Einstein, for example, mentions Schopenhauer as an important influence on his views. Schopenhauer was the first who arrived at conclusions similar to those in Eastern philosophy, in particular Hinduism and Buddhism. And he was the first in Western philosophy who based ethics on compassion with man and animals.
……… Schopenhauer develops a theory of ownership, of natural justice and law in general. Injustice is the original and positive, justice the derived and negative concept. “The only purpose of law is determent from encroaching on others’ rights”. Schopenhauer considers Kant’s thesis that humans should always be considered to be the end (“Zweck”) and never as means, as vague and problematic, because “a murderer sentenced to death must with full justification be used as means”, as a determent and for the re-establishment of public security. However, this applies only to justice in time (“zeitliche Gerechtigkeit”), eternal justice which applies to the entire world (that is, lies in its essence) and does not depend on human constructions (“Einrichtungen”), cannot be retaliatory, because it lies not in time unlike justice in time which is based on retaliation. “Punishment must here (in eternal justice) be connected with the crime in such a way that both are one.” If one wants to know what humans as a whole and in general are worth from a moral perspective, one only has to look at their fate as a whole and in general. This is indigence (“Mangel”), misery, agony and death. Eternal justice at work…..”. However, the “crude individual” has a different view, since he knows only the temporally and spatially separate appearances: he sees tormentors and murderers on the one side and sufferers and victims on the other, who are really only One. Nevertheless, in the depth of his consciousness he sometimes has the “somewhat dark hunch” that “all this is not entirely foreign to him”. Horror (“Grausen”) is founded on this sometimes appearing hunch. All evil in the world derives from the Will which is the real essence of each single person. Hence (Schopenhauer quotes Calderon’s “Life as Dream”, in which the Christian dogma of original sin is expressed: “Since the greatest guilt of man is that he was born”). – Esoterically depicted in the Vedas and especially in the Upanishads, the myth of transmigration expresses the cognition of eternal justice in an easily understandable form for the people. You must not kill an animal, because at a time in eternity you will be born as such an animal and suffer the same death”. This is the meaning of “tat twam asi” (This is you), which is the foundation of Hindu teaching. – In the same sense Christian ethics forbids retaliation of evil with evil and submits to eternal justice (“Revenge is mine, I shall retaliate, says the Lord”).
Our discussion to this point permits a description of the ethical significance of action. According to Schopenhauer, genuine virtue can come only from the insight which recognizes in a foreign being the same being as one’s own. “In principle (“an sich”) all deeds…. are just empty images, and only the attitude (ethos, “Gesinnung”) that leads to them, lends them moral significance.” The principle of justice (based on the negation of evil) commands that one must not hurt others.” Genuine goodness goes much further and leads to love of mankind (“Menschenliebe”): one distinguishes much less than usually between oneself and others, one sacrifices one’s property and even oneself to one’s neighbour (“Nächster”) and one does not torture an animal. Love is based on the recognition of foreign suffering and pure love is therefore by its nature compassion. All this is in direct contradiction to Kant’s view that any truly good and virtuous deed is based on abstract reflection, on the concept of duty and the categorical imperative.
In Schopenhauer’s time (the first half of the 19th century), destruction of the environment had not become the important issue it is today. Hence, he does not deal with conserving the environment as such. However, his conclusion that moral behaviour of humans must be based on compassion with fellow humans and animals should be interpreted as meaning that animals must be protected and therefore also their habitats and the environment in general. In other words, we must not preserve organisms and the environment as a whole because they are of economic benefit to us, we must conserve them because we have an ethical responsibility towards nature, i.e., not only to the next generations of humans, but also to other living beings.