Relations and the Moral Circle

Summary—Although wildism professes to be a non-humanist philosophy, it has been unclear how it diverges from the “expanded moral circle” approach traditionally taken in environmental ethics. This piece makes the distinction clearer by better connecting the wildist concept of relations to the ethical imperative to rewild. Specifically, while humanist ideologies wish to expand the scope of individual altruism and to enforce this expanded scope with technical infrastructure, wildists note that nature has value only because individuals grant it value, perhaps even for non-altruistic reasons, so they advocate global action as only a temporary coalition against the common threat of industry.


Earlier in 2016, I published “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics,” the culmination of some years of conversations and study about the tension between the technical and the biological. There were, however, a few defects, and one of them was egregious: I didn’t distinguish properly between those views that expand the humanist project and those views that fundamentally challenge it. As a result, some of my metaphors, explanations, and examples were either mixed up themselves or failed to properly communicate their challenge to humanism.

This piece is an attempt to better emphasize and explain those concepts and ideas that I inadequately addressed in “Foundations.” In particular, I better link wildlands advocacy and the conservation of human nature; I take a stronger position on the source of values; and I clarify the concept of relations and how it plays into the ethical imperative to rewild.

I should admit here that the small element of confusion that I generated in my text was due primarily to my own failure to properly draw out the consequences of what I was saying. Thus, while the ideas offered here do not fundamentally change anything in “Foundations,” I might have used more particular wording in certain places in the text. In order to resolve this, readers should favor this text over “Foundations” wherever there are minor discrepancies.

The Prevailing Paradigm in Environmental Ethics

Deep ecology’s core contention is that nature has intrinsic value, but from the very beginning environmental ethicists (nearly all belonging to some variant of eco-radicalism) have had to confront a series of philosophical conundrums attached to this claim. For example, where does this value come from? And, regarding the most popular formulation of deep ecology, “left biocentrism” or “biocentric egalitarianism,” should we understand swatting a fly or other similar acts as having the same degree of moral seriousness as murdering a person? Is egalitarianism at the cellular, organismic, or ecosystem level? And so on.

The traditional response has been squarely within the humanist tradition, despite attempts to break free of these constraints. For example, some deep ecologists speak of the “rights” of nature, which is clearly an expansion of humanism, no more a challenge to it than the animal rights activists who push for societies to include some animals in their definition of sentience.

In one attempt to remove this talk of “rights,” some deep ecologists devised an ill-defined and even more terribly articulated concept of “the expanded self.” Devall (1987) explains: “If we experience the world as an extension of ourselves, if we have a broader and deeper identification, then we feel hurt when other beings, including non-human beings, are hurt.” In another, closely related, concept, Leopold speaks of a “land ethic” under which humans situate themselves within a “biotic community.”

But these formulations are also an extension of the humanist project. As Singer (1981) writes, along with several others, the history of civilization is the history of human beings expanding the circle of moral consideration. It begins with the band, moves outward to the tribe, the chiefdom, the ethnic group, the state, and so on, until now, when the dominant ideology of industrial civilization sustains and enforces a moral circle encapsulating all of humanity. And even here we have the margins of humanist activism, usually left-wing movements, pushing for consideration of all sentient creatures.

One of the more recent and not-entirely-resolved expansions of the moral circle included the shift from white supremacist, colonial, and racial progressive narratives to the inclusion of blacks and other non-whites. This shift was encouraged by changing technical and economic conditions for quite a while before social revolutions began to catch up. This is why, by the time events like the American Civil War occurred, there was a fundamental tension between the humanistic language of the US Constitution or the documents of the French Revolution and the continuing institution of slavery. Arguably, the industrial revolution was the major event that allowed these new humanist ideas to become dominant.

Also in the early years of industry, humanist activists developed certain characteristics, like extreme sympathy for victimized classes, in order to resolve the tension between humanist ideals and the state of, for example, the poor living in slums. Thus, when Aldo Leopold argues for a “biotic community,” he is doing nothing new, and this explains why some conservationists and environmentalists argue that their fight for the recognition of nature’s rights is akin to the recognition of black people’s rights or poor people’s rights.

This project also comes with no truly new problems. For example, it is sometimes said that the quest to find the basis for nature’s rights is a major problem for environmental ethicists. But this is not all that different from the problem faced by the French philosophes who attempted to find justification for the rights of man. Tellingly, the answers are very similar. Then, the French philosophes established the concept of “natural [materially intrinsic] rights,” while now environmental ethicists like Holmes Rolston III argue that nature’s value is objective. And in regards to economic conditions, then, the philosophes’ concept of rights made for a very efficient blueprint by which society could run more smoothly, with ideally no excluded classes, which was useful for production; now, the concept of nature’s rights is being produced by economic and technical conditions that require nature be preserved for the survival of the industrial system. In other words, environmental ethics conceived in this way is merely an expansion of humanism and a direct product of the dominant social system.

The Wildist Critique

Clearly, “rights” is an illegitimate concept. A scientifically-informed understanding is that values come from valuers, based on the various processes going on in their brain and whatever external circumstance affects those processes. That is, “nature has intrinsic value when it is valued (verb transitive) for its own sake, as an end in itself” (Callicott, 1995). Furthermore, even if one tried, one could not heed the calls of some deep ecologists to “think like a mountain.” We humans are tethered to a human perspective, and the mountain, in any case, has none.

For these reasons and more I will not address here, wildists dispose of the rights concept completely. There is no right to autonomy (in the humanist sense), to equality, to respect, and so forth, and one cannot condemn an action of another human being based on the idea that he violated some other thing’s rights. This includes even the most egregious of actions, like murder. Note that this does not mean that actions are not condemnable; only that the rights concept is insufficient.

I also generally avoid the terms “anthropocentric” and “eco-” or “biocentric.” For one thing, all three terms are notoriously ill-defined, “anthropocentrism” sometimes being equated with the very idea that something is valuable only if humans value it. Clearly, by this definition, wildism is anthropocentric, since, being informed by scientific materialism, we cannot say that a world without humans “has” value any longer, simply because it is no longer being valued. See Bradford (1989) for more on this point. And insofar as “anthropocentrism” means “the belief that humans are due superior ethical consideration compared to other creatures,” it might be useful to invoke it only in order to reject it; but because the term is so closely associated with eco- and biocentrism, it is best to simply let it go.

Biocentrism’s premise that all living things have intrinsic value is irrelevant to wildism both because it is articulated as an expansion of humanism and because of its bias for “life.” The former has been addressed. The latter is an issue because wildist concern for “life” generally is a subset of the more pressing and relevant concern for wildness. And wildness includes death, pain, suffering, and a good deal of awful things just as much as it contains cozy ideas like “life.” Thus, rhetoric that speaks of a “dying earth,” for example, is revealed to have a rather ridiculous character.

Of course, some have pointed out that biocentrists take a metaphorical approach to include these concepts. Devall and Sessions (1985, pp. 70-71), for instance, write, “The term ‘life’ is used here in a more comprehensive non-technical way to refer also to what biologists (and also dictionaries) classify as ‘non-living’; rivers (watersheds), landscapes, ecosystems. For supporters of deep ecology, slogans such as ‘let the river live’ illustrate this broader usage so common in most cultures.” However, this comes across as intellectual laziness, and it is clear that the language of “life” should be tossed. In the specific example cited by Naess and Sessions, the concept of “wildness” is better anyway.

Ecocentrism includes non-living things, but beyond this distinguishing it from biocentrism is a difficult task. It is also, like biocentrism, simply an untenable ethic, or at least not a very clear one. For instance, ecocentrism nearly always needs to be accompanied by systems like “biospherical egalitarianism” to explain what, exactly, the ethic obligates us humans to do. Yet even if we maintain some “egalitarian” ethic only at the level of “ecosystems,” we resolve no problems associated with the more extensive egalitarianism in the traditional formulation. For example, by what do we mean “ecosystem”? Even ecologists admit that it is an amorphous concept. Furthermore, are all ecosystem’s truly equal? Would destroying the rainforest be just as devastating as destroying a small forest in upstate New York? These kinds of questions quickly get absurd.

Ecocentrism is also closely associated with the “thinking like a mountain” sentiment, its advocates arguing that the value of nature does not come from what it offers humans, or at least it does not exclusively come from this idea. Of course, natural processes are important for animals to live, so can be said to have value to non-human creatures, but this just transforms the question. Why should we be concerned with that animal?

Finally, this expansion of the moral circle is the product of and can only be maintained by artificial systems, especially the material technical base on which societies are built. For example, to press an ideology that values all of humanity is only tenable with industrial infrastructure. In fact, one could argue that no individual human even holds true to the ideology. We may not outright reject the notion that we should care for every human equally (because this is the dominant ideology, and it would be rather radical to reject the notion), but in practice we favor those close or useful to us. For sure, there are oversocialized individuals who truly are motivated by the expanded circle, and who feel immense guilt when it is violated, but for the most part the expressions of this ideology are by technical systems rather than individual humans, such as NGOs that operate autonomously of any individual or small group of individuals in order to do humanitarian work. In other words, the ideology is not the product of man’s nature; it is a product of the technical system itself. We note that without technical infrastructure, some primitive people would, for example, pluck the feathers from living birds and then cook them to death (Turnbull, 1961, p. 101; 1965, p. 161). And of course primitive people could be very violent to human outsiders (e.g., Chagnon, 1997).

The Wildist Alternative

Wildists adopt a scientific materialist, Darwinian perspective: things are valuable when humans value them. Furthermore, to say that someone values something is to make a statement about the physical state of that person’s brain, hormones, and so forth. And to say that the person ought to do something is a shortened way of saying “If you value X, you ought to do Y.” If you value nature, for instance, you ought to preserve it. There is technically a logical jump here from the “is” to the “ought,” but it is akin to the problem of induction, posing no serious threat to the reasonableness of the “ought.”

Thus, the starting point of wildism is an “is”: we value nature intrinsically. In “Foundations” I wrote that “intrinsic” means “non-instrumental” and “non-derivative” (p. 15). However, “non-instrumental” is not always strictly accurate. I used it for much the same reason I still sometimes speak of “free will”: the reality underlying what we perceive as free will is non-intuitive, and acting as though we have free will is still necessary for various reasons. Still, after further thought I have concluded that it poses no real risk to say that our valuing nature is in some ways instrumental, but not in the solely economic sense.

To say that nature has “intrinsic” value, then, is mostly a way of saying “here is a point at which further elaboration is unhelpful.” That is, we could say that I value nature because of a love of natural noise (compared to the industrial racket), because of aesthetic preference, because of my cravings for communion with animals to a greater degree than is possible in the city, because of my desire for purposeful, goal-oriented activity, or I could even say “simply because.” And then another person might name some other specific convergence of wants and needs that join to make him concerned with nature, the world maintained by the absence of human control. Elaboration on these points, however, is unhelpful, because the state of nature makes now the time to figure out the basis on which we can find political affinity. The starting point of this political project, the thing with non-derivative or intrinsic value, is nature.

Before moving forward, let’s note a few things. First, although the wildist mode of analysis uses moral language, it does not attempt to obscure the fact that morals are really just another way of speaking about psychological realities. This is why, for instance, “Foundations” drew so heavily from the field of moral psychology. The implications of this is that “convincing” people of our values is really just another way of saying we are finding people who already have the capacity to value these things, and since we have no way of knowing whether we or some other factor will awaken this capacity, we converse with them while perceiving this as an act of will against will. Perhaps it is unhelpful to say that “will” in light of scientific materialism is an illusion, much like it would be unhelpful to say that Newtonian physics in light of quantum science is an illusion. Both Newtonian physics and will are a part of our reality in an important sense. The point is just to understand the “deeper” realities that underlie them. See “Foundations,” pp. 10-11 for a somewhat more extended discussion on this point.

Also note that many components of the wildist ideology are instrumentalized, not-exactly-arbitrary cut-off points for the sake of political unity. (This is not to say that the moral principles of the individual members are instrumentalized, only the collectively agreed-upon markers.) One example is the assertion of the intrinsic value of nature (rather than, say, a highly-detailed list of things that make nature valuable), and another is, as discussed in “Foundations,” the assertion that wildness has value enough to make civilization morally unjustifiable. I write, for instance, that “while there can be more or less radical elements within the bounds set by the given benchmarks, they are narrow enough to entail a politically discrete population of conservationists and not so broad as to be meaningless” (p. 19). We are, in other words, forming a coalition of individuals with a range of moral beliefs definite enough to produce a clear goal and a population unified enough to achieve that goal. Each of the individuals involved finds the coalition to be necessary because industry has violated the autonomy of nature in so thorough and unrelenting a manner that we hope to now move things in the opposite direction.

Challenges and Responses

Are Subjective Values Impotent Values?

Some environmentalists are uneasy with subjectivizing nature’s value. In their view, this makes our arguments impotent, or at least weaker, and it reduces us to Machiavellianism. However, such worry is unnecessary.

For instance, some might argue that if there is no basis for our moralities, then the world is simply a collection of interest groups competing against each other, and the human story is just a story of clashing selfishnesses. This is only partially accurate. It is true that, since there is no objective value, and since subjective values are bound to have irreconcilable differences, then resolving those differences is a question of power, territory, and other such things. This is true even in the case of objective value, unless one believes in some supernatural mechanism for retribution, like Karma.

However, it is incorrect to presume that all human interests are inherently selfish. Some may be altruistic, and truly so. Those who argue that this is not a Darwinian perspective misunderstand evolution. The so-called “selfish gene” theory (an unfortunate metaphor that has obscured more than clarified) applies in a strict sense only to the gene, and it therefore applies to the organism only so much as it is a function of the gene’s selfishness. In other words, an organism may be selfish or altruistic depending on the advantage that this confers to the genes. This is why a male spider mates with a female spider even though it puts him at risk of being eaten by the female.

So while human social life is indeed one of competing interests, this need not mean that we have to seek ulterior motives underneath every interaction, nor does it mean that our quest to achieve political goals as a group with a defined range of interests is best achieved by pulling one over on some other group. Cooperation, while not always the best path forward, is certainly an effective possibility.

Nevertheless, the Darwinian perspective does mean that humans are inclined to a higher degree of selfishness than the humanist would like. This is simply because organisms are bound to be largely self-interested, since this self-interest would preserve their own genes. The extent to which we are altruistic usually only expands to a small circle of friends, family, and close ones, called relations. More on this below.

Finally, if one is ever faced with an opponent who laughs at the idea of nature’s value because of its subjectivity, one can simply point out that the same applies to his belief in nature’s non-value. If subjectivizing value truly does weaken value-claims, it does so to all claims, not just conservationist ones.

Why Care for Non-Human Nature?

Another worry of some environmentalists is more substantial: they worry that by saying that nature has value only because humans value it, this would reduce our efforts to conserve non-human nature. This worry is unfounded for several reasons.

For one thing, if a wildist professes to have disdain for largely artificial environments and hopes to see these environments collapse into less managed states, then I would regard this person as not very serious if he then failed to preserve the very unmanaged places that he professes to value. These are the freest places available to us as individuals, and, furthermore, by conserving them we are ensuring a quicker rebound from nature as industry’s stronghold is broken.

Of course, since humans are bound to their puny individual perspectives, then without reasoning abilities each wildist would only be concerned with the nature with which he is familiar. Luckily, we do have reason and science, and with these intellectual tools we can discern reasons to form a coalition to conserve even that nature with which we are not individually concerned. For instance, the interconnection of world ecosystems indicates that we should be concerned with at least some foreign conservationist efforts. And global threats like climate change and the industrial system as a whole push disparate efforts toward unity.

Of course, this global networked coalition requires global infrastructure, something we ultimately hope to see collapse, but for now it is clear that at least some large-scale, networked coordination is a necessary temporary step toward effective political action. The difference between this and the humanist position is that the humanist environmentalists see permanence of this infrastructure as legitimate and attempt to “improve” human nature to suit it to the infrastructure. Thus, they attempt to enforce an expanded moral circle that includes all of humanity and nature, while the wildists simply acknowledge that together each unit of resistance is stronger at this time. (As a brief aside, human biology changing to suit artificial conditions is not a negative thing in every instance. Boyd and Richerson, 2005, show, in fact, that it is now simply a part of the human condition. I’ll remind the readers, then, that wildists have chosen the industrial mode of production because of its scale and perpetuity. See pp. 18-19, 37-38 of “Foundations” for a more sophisticated treatment of this point.)

This means it is fine to principally dedicate oneself to the ecosystems that are of most direct value. For instance, Dave Foreman, an activist behind The Wildlands Network, works primarily on North American ecosystems, hoping to preserve core building blocks of the continent until industry settles down or collapses. But his rewilding efforts are still connected to a larger movement that has now taken hold in Europe. From a wildist perspective, coordination between these two efforts is only expected to the degree that each benefits the other. At this point in time, mutual benefit is almost assured.

Of course, this set up does mean that animal rights ideologies, for example, and their cousin ideologies, would be excluded as justifications for wildist conservation. It is perfectly fine to kill invasive species if these species will degrade a wild area; it is perfectly fine to hunt a bear; and no human is expected to care too viscerally about an endangered turtle in the US if he lives in China. This is no doubt repugnant to some involved in the environmentalist movement, but it is not because wildists are not aware of the implications of our argument. We are aware, and we are not bothered by them.


The traditional approach in environmental ethics argues that humans should expand moral consideration from humans to the environment, and this often involves applying some formulation of “rights” to non-human units, the boundaries of those units a recurring point of tension. However, the metaphysical claims on which these “rights” arguments rest are false. Furthermore, even if one accepted wildist metaphysics, arguing that nature has rights because humans confer the rights, this formulation would still be incompatible with wildism, because it would be incompatible with human nature.

For one thing, an expanded moral circle is only sustained by underlying technical infrastructure, like communications technologies. For another, one cannot expect a human being to feel altruism toward things he doesn’t know, or even many people and animals he does know but that aren’t close to him. We observe, for instance, that some in primitive tribes would pluck the feathers from living birds and then cook them to death. We also note that primitive man had no compunction against treating outsiders differently from his own relations. The point here is not to enforce this behavior, which would contradict the concern for wildness. It is only to acknowledge that in a world less managed by humans and technical systems, these sorts of behaviors would become more prevalent, just as certain ecological trends blossom when human artifice is removed from the landscape. We also note that to a large degree these behaviors are still present in man, and the expanded moral circle is truly only enforced by technical systems themselves, like NGOs that operate autonomously of any one human or group of humans. On the individual and small group level, humans still favor their relations.

Thus, wildists, valuing nature, including human nature, and not hoping to improve it, do not wish to enforce an expanded altruistic outlook on human beings. Rather, wildness is a rational ideal borne from the fact that it addresses a convergence of concerns of value to wildists. Put simply, the world maintained by the absence of artificial control, the unmanaged world, also known as nature, has value that is irreducible to any one thing that gives it value. Furthermore, the core quality of nature, its wildness, itself has value.

On an individual basis, we can expect that a wildist would only or mostly be concerned with those landscapes and people and animals that concern him directly. This is why it is no matter that some may be involved in preserving the ecological building blocks most relevant to their own geographical region. However, reasoned analysis clearly makes a temporary coalition desirable. The interconnection of ecosystems, and the fact that nearly all conservationists face the same core threat of industry, means that individuals and their small groups may network to form a resilient means of resisting industrial development, regardless of how they personally feel about others in the movement, or whether or not they feel for the others at all. Rewilding, then, is a collective task only insofar as the coalition is necessary, and talk of “collective human duty” should be avoided. And of course, the ultimate practical goal is to extinguish the need for a coalition by eventually extinguishing, for all practical purposes, the very industrial threat that makes it necessary.


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Bradford, G. (1989). How Deep is Deep Ecology? Times Change Pr.

Callicott, B. (1995). Intrinsic value in nature: A metaethical analysis. The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy(3).

Chagnon, N. (1997). Yanomamo: The Fierce People. Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Devall, B. (1987, July 10). Interview with Bill Devall. (C. Manes, Interviewer) Arizona.

Devall, B., & Sessions, G. (1985). Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Utah: Peregrine Smith.

Jacobi, J. (2016). The foundations of wildist ethics. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(1), 6-55.

Singer, P. (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Princeton University Press.

Sylvan, R. (1985). A critique of deep ecology. Discussion Papers in Environmental Philosophy(12).

Turnbull, C. (1961). The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Turnbull, C. (1965). Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies. New York: The Natural History Press.


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