Does a competing account of moral history by Abram plausibly undermine Leopold’s argument for the Land Ethic?

By Benjamin Edwards

This essay will show that Leopold’s account of moral history argued for in the Land Ethic can be undermined by an alternative account. Showing this, I will further suggest that although an account of moral history appears to be a minor part of Leopold’s Land Ethic, its undermining has damaging implication for how convincing the remainder of his argument is (Leopold, 2001). The alternative account I will choose to explore in opposition to Leopold’s is David Abram’s in The Spell of the Sensuous (Abram, 1996). There are a number of social-anthropological accounts of moral history that could be given as an alternative to Leopold’s. I have chosen to focus just on Abram’s account as it seems closely related to Leopold’s in many respects and its description and discussion can be encapsulated in this relatively short essay. I will, however, return to the topic of other alternative accounts towards the end.

To begin the essay, I will set out a reconstruction of how Leopold’s account of moral history links to his overall argument for the Land Ethic. I will argue in the following section that Abram’s account undermines a specific premise of this reconstruction. In Section 3 I will present two possible responses in defence of Leopold. Finally, in the last section, I will suggest that even though there could be questions as to the validity of Abram’s account, a weaker claim can be levelled against Leopold which successfully undermines his argument without requiring a conclusive answer as to whether Abram’s account is valid.

  • 1: The Land Ethic and Moral History

Aldo Leopold begins his argument for the Land Ethic with an example of Ancient Greek morality as contrasted to our current moral framework (Leopold, 2001, p.168). Although it appears at first sight merely as an example, it plays a significant rhetorical role in making his entire argument plausible: we have expanded our moral sphere before, therefore we can expand it again to include the land.

P1: Past humans had a limited sphere of social co-operation

P2: Humans now have a larger sphere of social co-operation

SC1: [from P1 & P2] The sphere of human social co-operation has expanded

P3: An ethic is a system of social co-operation

SC2: [from SC1 & P3] Our ethic has expanded

P4: The Land Ethic would be an expansion of our ethic

P5: [from SC2] Humans have expanded their ethic in the past

P6: If an expansion has occurred in the past then it is plausible that it will occur in the future

C: [from P4 & P6] It is plausible that the Land Ethic will occur in the future

Leopold builds on this claim in the rest of his argument for the Land Ethic, going on to suggest that we ought to act as if we are citizens of a biotic community rather than dominant over it. He ends with the loosely ethical claim that we ought to encourage actions that “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (Leopold, 2001, p.190; p.189). Although there is interesting discussion to be had about these other elements of his argument, the undermining of the argument concerning moral history – as something of a keystone in the Land Ethic – will be a serious objection to Leopold’s position even without addressing any of the other elements of his argument.

  • 2: Abram’s Alternative Account of Moral History

The alternative historical account presented in Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous will undermine [P1] of Leopold’s argument. Abram argues that early human cultures had an enlarged ethical sphere that included that which Leopold conceives of as ‘the land’. Abram’s account is based on a rejection of the kind of stories of moral history told by the likes of Leopold:

There are those who suggest that a generally exploitative relation to the rest of nature is part and parcel of being human, and hence that the human species has from the start been at war with other organisms and the earth. Others, however, have come to recognise that long-established indigenous cultures often display a remarkable solidarity with the land that they inhabit, as well as a basic respect, or even reverence for the other species that inhabit those lands (Abram, 1996, p.93)

Abram is therefore arguing that our current hostility and dominating attitude towards nature is something of a modern (post-Greek) aberration. For much of human history, we have had a far more convivial, co-dependent relationship with the land; the kind of relationship Leopold suggests we need to move towards in his vision of the land ethic. If we accept Abram’s picture we turn Leopold’s argument on its head; there has not be a gradual expansion of our ethical sphere, instead there has been a considerable contraction. By undermining P1, SC1 is rendered false and by extension the conditional at P6. This filters through Leopold’s argument to seriously unsettle the plausibility of the Land Ethic.

Abram finds evidence of commonalities amongst many pre-Greek human cultures in the way they respected nature as part of their ethical sphere. This often manifested in a form of animism, with common themes being the imbuing features of nature – such as the air – with a pseudo-religious significance (Abram, 1996, p.226). Pursuing the example of the air, Abram finds a varied selection of current and now-extinct indigenous cultures whose religious connection to the air motivated a relationship with nature similar to that which Leopold suggests we ought to cultivate in terms of our relation with ‘the land’.

A final important element of Abram’s book to consider, is the mechanism by which this expanded ethical sphere of indigenous communities went about contracting. Abram suggests the reason for this was the advent and spreading of alphabetic writing systems (Abram, 1996, p.240; p.250). In pre-alphabetic societies, human needs such as finding food and water were necessarily externalised through an oral tradition (Abram, 1996, p.120). The anthropomorphising of natural phenomena was a common method by which to memorise important information and this anthropomorphising was a major driver for the animism that was the impetus behind an ethical sphere that included the land. Once stories and instructions as to how to serve these needs could be written down, the anthropomorphising of the land was no longer necessary. This, in turn, led to the collapse of the animist religious traditions in these communities, the respect for the land evaporated, hence a contraction of the ethical sphere (Abram, 1996, p.121). The above account by Abram suggests that [P1] of Leopold’s argument is an incorrect story of the development of human ethical systems.

  • 3: Two Responses in Defence of Leopold

I suggest there are two possible responses that could levelled against Abram. They both assume the validity of Abram’s account as I will come onto the question of validity in §4. I will address them both in turn, presenting successful rebuttals to both.

Firstly, Leopold could salvage his argument by suggesting that although [P1] may not be true if we include the entirety of human culture, he can dispense with it and simply accept that [P2] is true: there has been an ethical expansion ever since the Greeks (Leopold, 2001, p.167). From the more limited post-Greek claim we can still derive the rest of Leopold’s argument successfully.

However, I would suggest for Leopold to pursue this line of argument would lead him to accept some implications that may be troubling for proponents of the Land Ethic. Looking back at Abram’s argument for his account of moral history, he suggests that respect for the land is fundamentally bundled with the kind of animist oral tradition that preceded alphabetic cultures. To be an alphabetic culture is to necessarily be one that does not see nature as significant to one’s own existence (Abram, 1996, 263). This shows us that for Leopold to accept Abram’s picture of pre-Greek history, he must also accept the implications Abram sets out for the kind of culture that has the expanded ethical sphere the Land Ethic seeks to create. Leopold would have to go beyond the claim he makes about the ethical maxim of the land ethic – that of promoting those actions which “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community”. Instead he would have to bundle these claims with those that Abram suggests would go along with such an arrangement: an animist, oral culture. Although this is not technically contradictory with Leopold’s project and he could simply bite the bullet, this is a significant departure from the Land Ethic as it stands.

A response to my above reply could be put forward that nothing in Leopold implies that he would have to accept that the way in which the expanded moral sphere worked in the past would necessarily be the way it functioned in the future. However, Leopold’s argument, as reconstructed, uses the inductive premise of [P6]. If he is to employ this premise in the argument concerning moral history, then it would suggest that he is forced to accept that the cultural implications of the non-literate societies Abram describes would be carried over into future manifestations of the expanded ethical sphere.

The second response Leopold could level against Abram would, again, accept the validity of Abram’s picture of moral history, yet say that it does not do the work it may seem to do in presenting an objection to his argument for the Land Ethic. Leopold may, instead say that the non-literate communities that Abram describes do not truly have an expanded ethical sphere. Instead they are, at base, working in a self-interested manner. Leopold appears to suggest that self-interest and the expanded ethical sphere of the Land Ethic are essentially incompatible:

a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. (Leopold, 2001, p.179)

Having stated this, Leopold could argue that the mnemonic function (of where edible plants are etc.) described in §2 represents the respect for nature non-literate societies possessed to have self-interested foundations. Given that, as stated in the above quote, self-interest always leads to an undervaluing of some aspects of the biosphere; the kind of respect for nature these communities had was not truly analogous with the Land Ethic and therefore it can be said that an expansion of our ethical sphere did occur – this pre-Greek enlarged ethical sphere never existed in the truest sense.

I would counter this response by showing that Leopold’s own understanding of self-interest does not preclude communities that respect nature out of self-interest from embodying the Land Ethic. As the quote shows above, self-interest is not bad simply because it is self-interest, it is because respect for the land based on self-interest is necessarily self-defeating. We can, however, use one of Leopold’s own examples to show that non-literate communities (even if they are essentially self-interested) do not perform actions that are self-defeating in the way Leopold would need to suggest:

This same landscape was ‘developed’ once before, but with quite different results. The Pueblo Indians settled the Southwest in pre-Columbian times, but they happened not to be equipped with range livestock. Their civilization expired, but not because their land expired (Leopold, 2001, p.172).

To present a contrast with the way in which post-Columbian settlers cultivated the land, Leopold presents the example of the Pueblo Indians. The Pueblo Indians were exactly the kind of culture Abram describes in his characterisation of non-literate societies: their religion had large elements of animism, their traditions were oral and they had no alphabetic written language (Vecsey, 1983). If we are to say that this society is, at base, self-interested, and that they do not, in fact, embody the land ethic, we would expect Leopold to say that their land did “expire” because of the “lopsided” way in which self-interest functions. However, this is the opposite of what Leopold actually suggests.

Therefore, if Leopold follows this response he has two options: either he recants his claim that self-interest is contrary to the land-ethic, or maintain this but recant on the claim that non-literate cultures are essentially self-interested. The first option has significant negative consequences for the Land Ethic generally, and the second means this response does not stand. I have here presented two responses that could be made in defence of Leopold. I will now briefly move to assess whether Abram’s account is a valid account of moral history.

  • 4: Is Abram’s Account Accurate?

At this juncture, there are two paths I can go down. I could make the strong claim that Abram’s account is the correct characterisation of moral history, affirming my above argument wholeheartedly and concluding that Leopold’s argument for the Land Ethic is fundamentally flawed. I could also make the weaker claim that any – even a limited – story of moral history is an impactful counter to Leopold.

I would like to make the case for the weaker claim in this final section. The strong claim would, of course, be more convincing, but I do not have the space nor the expertise to close the book on which account is the more anthropologically valid. I would, however, like to say that there are various sources that support an account of moral history that is broadly in line with Abram’s. Although they are not making entirely the same argument, writers such as Peterson and Campbell make claims that suggest that nature was, for much of human history, treated as part of an enlarged ethical sphere (Peterson, 1999; Campbell, 1959).

The weaker claim is therefore the only route to pursue in this essay. Leopold’s account of moral history is tremendously limited. The evidence to support it are but a few examples contemporary to the time being discussed. Although this limited account does the work it needs to push the Land Ethic forward, the lack of evidence to back-up the account makes it precarious. Hence, by simply presenting at least an equally plausible claim about moral history – as I have done with Abram – is in many ways sufficient to dislodge Leopold’s fragile claim about moral history. In the vein of Nietzschean and Foucauldian genealogy, all that needs to be done to dislodge a particular theoretical picture of history (especially one as delicate as Leopold’s) is simply to present another, competing and coherent account (Foucault, 1998, p.386; Nietzsche, GM Pref: 5; Nietzsche, WP 254).

This latter, weaker claim is enough, I think, to show that the project of this essay has been successful in showing that we can undermine Leopold’s account of moral history with a competing one from Abram. With both more space and a deep knowledge of social-anthropology, the strong claim would be more convincing. However, within this essay, the weaker claim gets the job done without succumbing to two responses in defence of Leopold.


Abram, D. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. Vintage: New York.

Campbell, J. 1959. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. UK: Secker & Warburg.

Foucault, M. 1998 [1971]. ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’. In Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume Two, ed. Faubion, J. Trans. Hurley, R. USA: The New Press, pp.369-393.

Leopold, A. 2001 [1949]. Sand County Almanac. OUP: USA.

Nietzsche, F. 1967 [1887]. The Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Kaufmann, W. New York: Vintage.

Nietzsche, F. 1967 [1901]. The Will to Power. Trans. Kaufmann, W. New York: Vintage.

Peterson, J. 1999. Maps of Meaning. Routledge: London.

Vecsey, C. 1983. ‘The Emergence of the Hopi People’. In American Indian Quarterly, 7:3, pp.69-92.

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