In my previous blog (June 2, 2017), I quoted a verse from the Hebrew Bible: “But now ask the beasts to teach you” (Job 12:7) and suggested that it provides a universal, ethical rationale for preserving biodiversity. More specifically, I proposed that animals have something to teach us about regenerative environmental relationships. In this blog, I make good on that claim by drawing on and augmenting Aristotle’s conception of virtue ethics to show that animals (in this case, African animals) can function as moral exemplars for human beings and as such, have something to teach us about living more harmoniously with the natural world.
Aristotle outlines his moral philosophy in his classic work, Nicomachean Ethics. The theory is more complex than can be addressed here, but for our purposes, we only need a brief summary. Virtue ethics is a teleological system of ethics in which actions are justified if they aim toward an ultimate telos (end goal or purpose). For Aristotle, that end goal was eudaimonia, which is translated into English as “happiness” and defined as “a certain activity of the soul in accord with virtue.” Happiness does not exclude a pleasurable feeling (our default definition of the word) but neither can it be reduced to it.
But this leaves open the issue of defining what a virtue is. The word itself is derived from the Greek word, aretē, which means excellence, so a virtue is excellence in moral character. And excellence is understood to be the “mean,” the balance between two extremes – the extreme of excess and the extreme of deficiency. The classic example is that of courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, nor the overabundance of confidence, but rather, the willingness to act in spite of fear. It is the “mean,” – the right balance between the vice of recklessness and the vice of cowardice. Aristotle’s emphasis on balance means that a virtuous person is “gentle and moderate,” and therefore not given to extremes.
Photos courtesy of Pixabay
Moral virtues are initially acquired through habituation in childhood. Children imitate the virtuous behaviors of their moral exemplars, much like toddlers mimic language and linguistic conventions. Over time and through repeated practice, these virtues shape interiority and become their second nature (or disposition to act). Think of the way carpentry skills are second nature to a master builder, or the way in which a skilled harpist effortlessly plays the harp. For the accomplished builder or musician, these skills have become second nature. “Similarly, then,” Aristotle writes, “we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.”
But we must recognize that moral exemplars are teachers. To make this point, Aristotle continues to draw analogies between the development of virtues and the practice of playing the harp or building: “For playing the harp makes both good and bad harpists, and it analogous in the case of builders and all the rest; for building well makes good builders, and building badly makes bad ones. Otherwise no teacher would be needed, but everyone would be born a good or a bad craftsman.” Exemplars set the standards of behavior and provide corrections when necessary.
Will Durant succinctly summarizes virtue ethics in this way: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Virtuous character begins its formation in childhood, and through practice coupled with the skillful use of practical reasoning (phronesis), becomes the basis of ethical behavior and decision-making in adulthood.
Aristotle has been criticized, rightly in my opinion, for his elitism. First, only well-born (i.e., wealthy), male children could be ethical. Women and slaves were excluded. Second, ethical character was largely fixed in childhood. However, as Donald Palmer notes, “Aristotle’s moral theory would be left substantially intact if his elitist bias were deleted.” Subsequently, we can acknowledge Aristotle’s insight concerning the centrality of exemplars in shaping moral character while at the same time rejecting his determinism (elitism) and the calcification of character in childhood.
But there is still one aspect of Aristotelian theory that needs to be augmented before pressing it into service for the preservation of biodiversity. For Aristotle, only human beings have the capacity to function as moral teachers. He maintained that virtuous character was devoid of “brutishness” or beastly behavior, an assertion that juxtaposes human beings with nonhuman animals. But just as cognitive science overturned Aristotle’s elitism by demonstrating the neuroplasticity of the brain, so too contemporary environmental science upends an absolute separation between human beings and nonhuman animals. To be sure, human beings are not the same as nonhuman animals, but neither are they separate.
We can, as Pope Francis suggests, “speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world.” As such, there is no good reason why nonhuman animals cannot serve as moral exemplars, especially with respect to our relationship with the natural world. Further, given our current understanding of learning and change (which is connected to the neuroplasticity of the brain), we are in need of these exemplars throughout our lifespan.
The theoretical framework is now in place for us to “ask the beasts,” (i.e., allow them to serve as moral exemplars), and see what they have to teach us about relating to nature. A few examples will suffice to make the point.
First, African elephants are a “keystone species,” which means their natural behaviors play a significant role in maintaining biodiversity and the health of their ecosystems. Some of those behaviors include:
- Eating trees and shrubs in the savannas, which allows the grasslands to grow and is a food source for herbivores. If elephants go extinct, an important food source will be lost.
- Digging water holes and unearthing salt licks, which are used by other animals.
- Dispersing seeds in their dung (elephants don’t digest all the seeds), which leads to new tree growth and diversity.
Second, some scientists are now suggesting that African rhinos are also a keystone species. According to a 2014 study, their grazing behaviors promote more plant diversity (known as “short grass”) and “prime grazing lawns” (patches of grass that are “prime-eating” for a number of species, including rhinos). This study indicates that their grazing behaviors provide a rich food source for other species, which if lost, would have a marked impact on those species.
Third, on other end of the spectrum, scientists are learning more about the vital role that predators play in their ecosystems through the concept of “trophic cascades.” The term was coined by Robert Paine in 1980 to describe the top-down, cascading effects of the removal of keystone species on ecosystems and other species. His pioneering work “showed that individual species…are prima donnas” and that “their absence can warp the entire production into something blander and unrecognizable.”
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park in 1995 after an absence of more than six decades dramatically demonstrated Paine’s thesis with respect to terrestrial ecosystems. Doug Smith, a wildlife biologist, commented on the positive effects of the wolves’ reintroduction: “’What happened,’ said Smith, ‘is that the presence of wolves triggered a still-unfolding cascade effect among animals and plants – one that will take decades of research to understand. It is like kicking a pebble down a mountain slope where conditions were just right that a falling pebble could trigger an avalanche of change,’ Smith mused.” The wolves’ reintroduction set off a cascade of effects that changed the park for the better. (Watch this video to see the wolves’ far-reaching effects on the park: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=255&v=ysa5OBhXz-Q).
African lions are one of the most beloved apex predators, often revered for their majestic appearance and bravery. But their positive benefits to ecosystems are less well-known. The African Lion & Environmental Research Trust highlights the positive effects of lion predation:
- It helps maintain the spread of disease by killing sick and lame animals.
- It regulates the zebra population, which prevents zebra from “out-competing” other herbivores for resources.
- It prevents the rise of “mesopredators,” like baboons who cause damage to crops and prey on antelope offspring.
In short, predation has a positive effect on the environment.
Understood as moral exemplars, these three species model an alternative relationship to the natural world. Instead of only taking from the natural world, they regenerate it.
This mode of relating stands in stark contrast to our own modality, which privileges unlimited growth that relies heavily on extracting from the environment with little regard for sustainability. Pope Francis notes that “each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.” Put differently, we have a duty to cultivate regenerative relationships with the Earth.
These animals model a regenerative way of being-in-the-world. Their example beckons us to critically examine our own relationship with the Earth and to creatively construct a more regenerative relationship, one that aims toward Aristotle’s mean, avoiding both excess and deficiency.
We are in real danger of losing these role models to extinction, and it is (mostly) our actions that are driving them to the brink. As our human societies grow increasingly separate from the natural world, we can ill afford to lose these exemplars who serve as a constant reminder that we ought to live a “gentle and moderate” lifestyle.
About the Author
Janet Rumfelt, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Liberal Arts
College for Contemporary Liberal Studies
SEED Institute Fellow
- Faculty bio
- Running Wild – Racing Against Extinction website
- Running Wild 5K held at Regis University
- Read previous blog, Part I
Bio: Dr. Rumfelt teaches at the intersections of religion, philosophy, ethics, and environmental humanities. She is currently working on an edited volume on animals and religion. She is a board member of The Africa Network for Animal Welfare-USA, and she founded and is the race director of Running Wild, a USATF-Certified 5K and 1-Mile Fun benefiting imperiled African wildlife. In her spare time, she can be found reading magazines and books on midcentury/modern design, walking her Miniature Dachshunds, riding her scooter, biking, meditating, and running. She loves the ocean.
 For this blog, I utilize two translations: Aristotle. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Robert Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (2011) and Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd Edition. Terence Irwin (Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, (1999).
 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Bartlett and Collins, Trans.), p. 18.
 For an example, see President John F. Kennedy’s response to reporter who asked him if he enjoyed the presidency: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4SgZHdfWRc. It important to note that happiness, in part, also depends on externalites, which Aristotle believed to be (at least in part) a matter of fortune, such as good health, wealth, friends, athletic ability, etc. See, Aristotle. (1995). Rhetoric. In The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Volume II. Jonathan Barnes (Ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press, (1995): p. 2163-2165.
 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Bartlett and Collins, Trans.), p. 33-34. See also, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Irwin, Trans.), p. 23-25.
 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Bartlett and Collins, Trans.), p. 36.
 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Bartlett and Collins, Trans.), p. 25.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Irwin, Trans.), p. 19.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Irwin, Trans.), p. 19.
 Will Durant. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of Grater Philosophers. New York: Simon and Schuster, (1961): p. 61.
 For an excellent account of the role of phronesis in the process of habituation see, Nancy Sherman. The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue. New York: Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford University Press, (1991): especially chapter 5.
 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 17.
 Donald Palmer. Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter. 2nd Edition. London: Mayfield Publishing, (2001): p. 77.
 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 135-136.
 Pope Francis. Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, (2015): p. 15.
 For more information on keystone species see, Stephen C. “Keystone Species.” In Nature Education Knowledge, 3, no. 10, (2010): 5. Accessed September 18, 2017. https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/keystone-species-15786127.
 Nuwer, Rachel. “Here’s What Might Happen to Local Ecosystems If All the Rhinos Disappear.” Smithsonian.com. February 27, 2014. Accessed September 18, 2017. http://www.smithonianmag.com/articles/heres-what-might-happen-local-ecosystems-if-all-rhinos-disappear-180949896.
 John Terborgh and James A. Estes (Ed.). Trophic Cascades: Predators, Prey, and the Changing Dynamics of Nature. 2nd Edition. Washington, DC: Island Press, (2010), p. 2.
 Ed Yong. “The Man Whose Dynasty Changed Ecology.” Scientific American. Accessed September 19, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-man-whose-dynasty-changed-ecology/.
 Staff. “Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem.” My Yellowstone Park. June 21, 2011. Accessed September 19, 2017. https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/wolf-reintroduction-changes-ecosystem.
 This list is summarized from, The Ecological Importance of Lions (Panthera leo) in top-down processes within terrestrial ecosystems; the negative impact of their loss. African Lion & Environmental Research Trust. Accessed September 19, 2017. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5654/66e4a2a2500691cb0d3ff6d983ae7859d417.pdf.
 Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, p. 51.