Personalism, Environmental Philosophy and Genocide


Anthony Cashio: Despite apparent contradictions, personalism is consistent with and supports environmentalism. Several authors have argued for the dignity of nature on personalist grounds.

The problem is that personalism has been frequently aligned with Christian thought emphasizing the preeminence of humans. Buber’s “I-Thou” framework solves this problem. Starting with Kant, only rational beings have value; other entities have value only as means to ends. But all persons are to be treated with respect and dignity. Leopold’s land ethic extends the moral community to include animals, plants, and land.
Back to Buber: We can only think of “I” as opposed to an “it” or opposed to a “Thou.” Moving from a relationship with a “Thou” from an “it” is to care about the nature of the relationship itself. But it’s possible to treat the environment as a “Thou.” And Buber’s approach applied to the environment solves problems in both personalism (anthropocentrism) and environmentalism (eco-fascism). We come to value things and people through relationships with them.

Jason Bell: Winthrop Bell, Canadian philosopher (1889-1965), was one of the first to warn of the genocidal implications of Nazism. But almost no-one believed him, thinking Hitler was engaged in self-contradiction in trying to invade countries containing non-Germans while wanting to maintain German purity (and defenders of appeasement didn’t take his genocidal plans seriously).

But Hitler saw genocide as integral to his plans for German world domination. But foreign observers simply couldn’t believe his hints that genocide was the logically required consequence of imperial conquest in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. Bell also recognized that Hitler’s plans would extend beyond Europe and had clear implications for Canada.

As a sidenote, almost all phenomenologists opposed Nazism, a notable exception being Heidegger.

Comments: I’m not sure if personalism is doing any work in Cashio’s argument. Respect for persons seems predicated on some metaphysical facts about persons: autonomy, self-legislation, rationality. Ignore those and you need to find some other reason to respect entities.

And positing a gradient of “personhood” that somehow embraces the environment seems to unduly pervert the very notion of personhood. It’s akin to someone saying she only eats natural food bt then redefines “natural” so widely as to include Twinkles and Coke.

Bell has uncovered an intriguing episode in Canadian history. But while I don’t like to adopt the principle of charity towards Hitler, perhaps his apologists were not as blameworthy as the latter Bell thinks. Perhaps they thought his plans were mere political fantasy akin to adolescent fantasy. Thousands of alienated teenagers must every year fantasize about killing thier parents, peers, or teachers. Yet only a vanishingly small number actually try to turn their fantasies into reality. Even today, Ann Coulter has advocated converting Moslems to Christianity by force, many political leaders in the US have called for Julian Assange’s assassination, and William Craig Lane has openly and repeatedly defended Old Testament instances of genocide. Yet few of those who find these comments morally repugnant seriously consider that their adherents will translate their views (or fantasies) into action.

Yet, as Rwanda and Nazi Germany show us, the consequences of ignoring plain waring signs is disastrous.


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