Land ethic

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A Land ethic is a philosophy that seeks to guide the actions when humans use or make changes to the land. The term was coined by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) in his book A Sand County Almanac (1949). He wrote that there is a need for a "new ethic", an "ethic dealing with human's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it".[1] Although Leopold is credited with coining this term, specific land ethics were in place prior to his writing Sand County Almanac. For example, Leopold himself defines and argues against an economic land ethic.

Aldo Leopold's land ethic[edit]

Aldo Leopold proposes that the next step in the evolution of ethics is the expansion of ethics to include nonhuman members of the biotic community,[1] collectively referred to as "the land." Leopold states the basic principle of his land ethic as, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

He also describes it in this way: "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land...[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."

Economics based land ethic[edit]

This is a land ethic based wholly upon economic self-interest.[1] Leopold sees two flaws in this type of ethic. First, he argues that most members of an ecosystem have no economic worth. For this reason, such an ethic can ignore or even eliminate these members when they are actually necessary for the health of the biotic community of the land. And second, it tends to relegate conservation necessary for healthy ecosystems to the Government and these tasks are too large and dispersed to be adequately addressed by such an institution. This ties directly into the context within which Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac.

For example, when the US Forest Service was founded by Gifford Pinchot, the prevailing ethos was economic and utilitarian. Leopold argued for an ecological approach, becoming one of the first to popularize this term created by Henry Chandler Cowles of the University of Chicago during his early 1900s research at the Indiana Dunes. Conservation became the preferred term for the more anthropocentric model of resource management, while the writing of Leopold and his inspiration, John Muir, led to the development of environmentalism.[citation needed]

Utilitarian based land ethic[edit]

Utilitarianism was first put forth by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Though there are many varieties of utilitarianism, generally it is the view that a morally right action is an action that produces the maximum good for people.[2] Utilitarianism has often been used when deciding how to use land and it is closely connected with an economic based ethic. For example, it forms the foundation for industrial farming; as an increase in yield, which would increase the number of people able to receive goods from farmed land, is judged from this view to be a good action or approach. In fact, a common argument in favor of industrial agriculture is this it is a good practice because it increases the benefits for humans; benefits such as food abundance and a drop in food prices. However, a utilitarian based land ethic is different from a purely economic one as it could be used to justify the limiting of a person's rights to make profit. For example, in the case of the farmer planting crops on a slope, if the runoff of soil into the community creek led to the damage of several neighbor's properties, then the good of the individual farmer would be overridden by the damage caused to his neighbors. Thus, while a utilitarian based land ethic can be used to support economic activity, it can also be used to challenge this activity.

Libertarian based land ethic[edit]

Another philosophical approach often used to guide actions when making (or not making) changes to the land is libertarianism. Roughly, libertarianism is the ethical view that agents own themselves and have particular moral rights including the right to acquire property.[3] In a looser sense, libertarianism is commonly identified with the belief that each individual person has a right to a maximum amount of freedom or liberty when this freedom does not interfere with other people's freedom. A well known libertarian theorist is John Hospers. For libertarians, property rights are natural rights. Thus, it would be acceptable for the above farmer to plant on a slope as long as this action does not limit the freedom of his or her neighbors.

In addition, it should be noted that this view is closely connected to utilitarianism. Libertarians often use utilitarian arguments to support their own arguments. For example, in 1968, Garrett Hardin applied this philosophy to land issues when he argued that the only solution to the "Tragedy of the Commons" was to place soil and water resources into the hands of private citizens.[4] Hardin then supplied utilitarian justifications to support his argument. However, you could argue that this possibly leaves a libertarian based land ethics open to the above critique lodged against economic based approaches. Even excepting this, the libertarian view has been challenged by the critique that people making self-interested decisions often cause large ecological disasters such as the Dust Bowl disaster.[5] Even so, libertarianism is a philosophical view commonly held within the United States and, especially, held by U.S. ranchers and farmers.[dubious ]

Egalitarian based land ethic[edit]

Egalitarian based land ethics are often developed as a response to libertarianism. This is because, while libertarianism ensures the maximum amount of human liberty, it does not require that people help others. In addition, it also leads to the uneven distribution of wealth. A well known egalitarian philosopher is John Rawls. When focusing on land use, what this translates into is its uneven distribution and the uneven distribution of the fruits of that land.[5] While both a utilitarian and libertarian based land ethic could conceivably rationalize this mal-distribution, an egalitarian approach typically favors equality whether that be equal entitlement to land and/or access to food.[6] However, there is also the question of negative rights when holding to an egalitarian based ethic. In other words, if you recognize that a person has a right to something, then someone has the responsibility to supply this opportunity or item; whether that be an individual person or the government. Thus, an egalitarian based land ethic could provide a strong argument for the preservation of soil fertility and water because it links land and water with the right to food, with the growth of human populations, and the decline of soil and water resources.[5]

Ecologically based land ethic[edit]

In addition to economic, utilitarian, libertarian, and egalitarian based land ethics, there are also land ethics based upon the principle that the land (and the organisms that live off the land) has intrinsic value. These ethics are, roughly, coming out of an ecological or systems view. This position was first put forth by Ayers Brinser in Our Use of the Land, published in 1939. Brinser argued that white settlers brought with them "the seeds of a civilization which has grown by consuming the land, that is, a civilization which has used up the land in much the same way that a furnace burns coal.” Later, Aldo Leopold's posthumously published Sand County Almanac popularized this idea. Another examples is the deep ecology view which argues that human communities are built upon a foundation of the surrounding ecosystems or the biotic communities and that all life is of inherent worth.[7] Similar to egalitarian based land ethics, the above land ethics were also developed as alternatives to utilitarian and libertarian based approaches. Leopold's ethic is currently one of the most popular ecological approaches. Other writers and theorists who hold this view include Wendell Berry (b. 1934), N. Scott Momaday, J. Baird Callicott, Paul B. Thompson, and Barbara Kingsolver.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, New York.
  2. ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/ History of Utilitarianism
  3. ^ Vallentyne, Peter, "Libertarianism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  4. ^ Harden, Garrett. (1968) "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science, 162, 1243-1248
  5. ^ a b c Thompson, Paul. (2010) "Land." "Life Science Ethics." ed. Gary L. Comstock. Raleigh: Springer Publishing.
  6. ^ Arneson, Richard, "Egalitarianism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>
  7. ^ Naess, Arne (1973) 'The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement.' Inquiry 16: 95-100
  • A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1949
  • "The Land Ethic" from A Sand County Almanac 1948

External links[edit]