How to consider the balance between environmentalism and liberalism in the class

- Kaneo Inoue
Omiya-chuo High School, Tokyo, Japan
Email: bxs05622@msi.biglobe.ne.jp

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 15.


I am a teacher of a public high school teaching mainly ethics. Over a period of ten years I have positively introduced bioethics and environmental ethics in my classes. I have aimed to provide lessons where not only knowledge is transferred but also where guidance to consider actual problems is offered for students. Through trial and error I have improved the class contents accordingly.

I believe that bioethics and environmental ethics are two essential disciplines that should be viewed in close connection. In my class, I have taken up a variety of themes from this viewpoint. One Japanese philosopher, Hisatake Kato has, however, pointed out a theoretical contradiction between bioethics and environmental ethics. According to him, bioethics, which has developed in the US as the center, has a basic principle of individual self-decision, while environmental ethics is based on a principle of survival of the whole.

In liberalism, which is the central ideology of contemporary moral and political theory, freedom of the individual and a diversified sense of values are respected to the maximum. In contrast, radical environmental ethics or environmentalism maintains that environmental values should basically hold the top priority, and overall restrictions on individual freedom are necessary for the goal of global environmental protection.

Consequently, a substantial problem occurs as to whether environmentalism can be compatible with liberalism. It is therefore natural for students to question the compatibility of environmentalism and liberalism, when the topic is discussed in class. This is a difficult issue that we must face. In this paper, I would like to briefly describe my idea of how to deal with this issue in class.

Environmentalism can be explained as involving a sort of communitarianism in the sense that it links social regulations with shared or public values. Therefore, when an issue is viewed as a contradiction between individualistic liberalism and communitarian environmentalism, we realize that it parallels the liberalist vs. communitarian argument. In addition, it can be said that the topic shares the same issues represented in the debate over surrogate motherhood or sperm trading. In other words, the argument is a confrontation between those who insist such practices can be done at the discretion of the individual and those who claim that they should be prohibited because they conflict with public order.

The most significant theme to study is how to understand liberalism. "Liberalism," Mark Sagoff states, "is the political theory that holds that many conflicting and even incommensurable conceptions of the good may be fully compatible with free, autonomous, and rational action."

The basic idea of classical liberalism was laisser-faire. After the so-called age of New Deal liberalism was converted into the idea of attaining social integration through the pursuit of common values. New Deal liberalism reinforces income re-distribution and interventions in the market, aiming at a total social security institution covering the whole nation, with full employment as a policy goal. The mainstream of contemporary liberalism is deontological or Kantian liberalism, as represented by John Rawls, and its standpoint can be understood to be an ideological expression of the New Deal-type liberalism or welfare (welfare-oriented) liberalism.

Allen E. Buchanan emphasizes that within the ideas of the leading liberal theorists, "values of community" are fully respected as well as "individual autonomy". For instance, he says that Rawls's priority on basic civil and political individual rights aims to flourish communities under conditions of pluralism as well as to keep up the autonomy and well-being of individuals. Moreover, Buchanan states that the thought of the right to equal concern and respect, which lies at the base of Ronald Dworkin's notion, includes the concern for "well-being of individuals," and the most important factor of well-being of individuals is the pursuit of the common good.

Mark Sagoff also argues that liberalism is not a mere individualistic political theory but involves a communitarian aspect in that it seeks common values and the social integration of individuals. And he insists that "it need not push pluralism into individualism. Rather, by balancing pluralism with integration, individuality with community, "liberalism makes itself consistent with environmentalism and democracy.

Standing by Kantian liberalism's "basic principle of respect for persons," Gerald F. Gaus directs us toward appreciating environmental values. Gaus tries to observe the crucial features of moral persons, in what Kant called the "public use of reason." It requires that we should "think from the standpoint of everyone else." In addition, he says it is through such "public reason" that we can take the opinion recognizing the existence of the "intrinsic value" of the species and ecosystems into the public principles in the forms of a explanation of "respect for persons."

However, Gaus supports pluralistic values, refusing radical opinions that theoretically give priority to environmental values. In this way, we can avoid to a certain extent a risk of being trapped in "environmental fascism" which is reflected in holistic environmentalism.

On discussing the relationship between environmentalism and liberalism in my class, I do not think that the discussion should end as a mere emphasis on a theoretical contradiction between the two. If it ends that way, students will have utterly denied one of the two concepts, or will be thrown into a dilemma without a way out. I believe it is necessary to give students an opportunity to think more deeply by presenting them with the opportunity to seek the possibility of the coexistence of the two.

I have taken this topic up once in class. At that time the numbers supporting each view were the same. There had been sharp differences of opinion between both sides, and they were talking on very different wavelengths. So I believe it is necessary to give students an opportunity to think or discuss the topic more deeply by presenting them with viewpoints seeking the possibility of the coexistence of the two.


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