Heidegger’s Da-sein and Environmental Ethics

The formulation of a meaningful environmental ethics is an ongoing philosophical endeavor that has been marked by historical influences and attempts to apply earlier theories to problems on a scale never faced by humanity (Kottak, 2006, p. 41). While these theories have much to offer, it is doubtful to me if any of them are wholly adequate, without some adaptation, to be applied to the complex environmental issues we face today. In my opinion, the inadequacy of earlier ethical systems seems to lie in their attempts to determine the value of some thing. In environmental ethics, this is formulated through attempts to ascertain whether nature has inherent value or purely instrumental value (Simmons, 2006, p. 53). A further question of environmental ethics is on how much future generations should be worthy of moral consideration – if they should play a role in our determination of how to conserve the environment (Pojman, 2008, p. 11). These questions provide an inadequate basis for approaching the environmental crises. In spite of these inadequacies though, I find many of the ideas put forth in earlier ethical theories, especially those of Heidegger, are at least partly valid and provide the beginnings of a foundation to and formulation of my relationship to the environment, and offer a more adequate ethical theory, based on the value of life, for the contemporary human interaction within the environment in general.

In a summary of ethical systems, Simmons (2006) looks at different lenses with which to view ethical attitudes toward nature. All of these can be summarized in his description of two overarching attitudes toward nature, that of stewardship and that of oneness. He respectively labels these Benedictine and Franciscan (Simmons, 2006, p. 62). Though I see these categories as problematic, the attitudes they represent are traced back to interpretations of bible passages concerning humanity’s relationship to nature. Simmons (2006) describes the Benedictine view as arising from the idea that the bible places humanity above nature, but in a position of stewardship with “acute responsibility” (p. 62). The Franciscan view, in contrast, is a process of an “evolution of consciousness which would end with a total enfolding of the universe” (Simmons, 2006, p. 62). This is a result of the doctrine of immanence tradition in Christianity (Simmons, 2006, p. 61), in which humans are simply an inherent part of nature in which there exists a basic spiritual equality between humanity and nature as co-creators (Simmons, 2006, p. 62). Though the one view does not necessarily exclude the other, it can lead to confusion, and at best, is not adequately serving the needs of our times.

Simmons (2006) provides an alternative approach to environmental ethics with his summary of the thought of Heidegger. One aspect of what Simmons (2006) suggests is what Heidegger termed sorge (care). In some respects, sorge is an extension of the concept of stewardship, but one that encompasses all of Da-sein (being-as-such). Heidegger (2004) describes Da-sein as existence “for the sake of itself. As long as it is, up until its end, it is related to its potentiality-of-being” (p. 300). Da-sein, is thus a process of unfolding authenticity and potentiality of all being-as-such. Sorge applies to all of Da-sein, and not only to humans or nature. In this idea we find a unification of the Benedictine and Franciscan views. Sorge is especially a form of stewardship in the scope of its responsibility – it is not only concerned with the conservation of being, but with the nurturing of that being in becoming it’s true self, in its striving for authenticity and reaching of potential (Heidegger 300).

Sorge is therefore an ongoing process of stewardship of all being-as-such that is never finished. This is an ongoing project of being which Simmons (2006) claims to occur when “we allow ourselves freedom to be what we truly are when we understand rightly what our place is in the universe” (p. 66). It seems to me that sorge is a better approach to engaging the human existence in the ecosystem. In matters concerning the life giving and sustaining environment, the questions on the type of value or moral consideration, typical of early ethical theory, is merely a distraction from the essential questions, and can even become detrimental to life. Heidegger offers a valid approach that provides a more thoughtful basis to my relationship with the environment than would other value based theories. Instead of inquiring into the value of the environment as some object, I can simply accept the self-evident value of life and instead ask how I can most effectively live with and within the world – as it actually is.

The concepts of sorge and Da-sein summarize my relationship with the environment, and one that I feel would resolve many of the issues we face. Once the obvious value of nature as life is accepted, we can more effectively engage our place in the ecosystem, not only the local level, but also on the global scale with its frantic contemporary movement of people, information, and technology (Kottak, 2006, p. 41). We should practice sorge neither for ourselves, nor for nature, but rather for being-as-such. Through this liberation of environmental ethics from questions of value, moral consideration, and Cartesian duality (Simmons, 2006, p. 54), we allow the Da-sein of nature and of humanity to authentically reach their true potential, as a whole, and thus autonomously meet any requirements for value or moral consideration. It is a safe assumption that humanity is the most active (and most likely, the highest) consciousness on the planet, and therefore, part of our authentic potential is to act, through thoughtful sorge of the Da-sein, as caretakers of the physical well-being of the environment.

Through their dichotomous nature, many earlier ethical systems become sources of contention and are thus inadequate. Heidegger’s theories likely will also not escape criticism and prove inadequate to fully address the scale of the environmental issues we currently face. However, while Heidegger’s entire philosophy likely cannot (and should not) be applied one-to-one in questions of environmental ethics, I feel his concepts of dasein and sorge should be adopted. It is evident to me that by acknowledging the value of being, the distraction of semantics is avoided and the real problem can be engaged. This will allow for a more meaningful human interaction with everything else within the environment. It will lead to a more thoughtful, intentional (and presumably, healthier) adaptation of culture to the limitations of the environment, and the forced adaptation of nature to human needs. Environmental ethics, and indeed our entire relationship to the environment will be on a completely different footing.

Works Cited

Heidegger, M. (2004). from Being and Time. In G. D. Marino (Ed.), Basic writings of existentialism (pp. 299-336). New York: Modern Library.

Kottak C. (2006). The New Ecological Anthropology. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 40-52). New York and London: New York University Press.

Pojman, L. P., & Pojman, P. (2008). Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application. Belmont, Calif: Thomson Wadsworth.

Simmons, I. G. (2006). Normative Behavior. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 53-72). New York and London: New York University Press.


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