Air travel cultivates appreciation for nature. That I am sitting in a metal tube, bumping elbows with strangers and developing neck strain all fade as I open my window to the blinding beauty outside. Trans-Pacific flights reveal lonely cargo ships, barely visible in the vast blueness that swallows the world. Trans-continental flights survey the barren crags and mesas of the southwestern deserts. From this high up, patterns sifted from the soil by flowing water draw the eye with artistic precision.
Shorter, lower flights allow intimate interaction with aerial terrain. On a hopper from Dallas to Colorado Springs, my propeller plane banked and wove its way through glowering thunder banks. On the way from Charlotte to Gainesville miles of farmland sprouted plumes of smoke that rose and then flattened upon encountering wind. They seemed to be gargantuan, flagged pins on the only real map.
But what did these pins mark? Was the farmers’ attempt to clear their land and produce food harmful as well as efficient and artful? What are the consequences of vaporizing tons of carbon-based plant life through combustion? What, for that matter, is the ecological impact of the flight that enabled me to see what these farmers were doing?
We revel in the beauty of nature, and we must use nature to survive. Both of these truths will not let us leave it alone; they will not let us leave nature natural. Even to experience nature, a pleasure that makes us feel more alive and more human, we must enter it and thereby change it.
There is whimsy and power in human smallness before nature—the gentle curve of a foot-path enhances the grandeur of a mountain. The orange streak of a fragile jetstream lit by a dying sun deepens the purple cast over the Blueridge Mountains. But frail footpaths and ephemeral jetstreams breed the sterile flatness of parking lots and runways.
Perhaps parking lots have their place. But the intuition that the natural world is something good, and therefore is something that must be treated carefully, is undeniable. It strikes us at 32,000 feet and when looking into the eyes of a puppy, when contemplating the cruelty of some humans to that sweet nose and those clumsy paws.
While people differ over where, precisely, this intuition points, and what, exactly, it should lead us to do, members of nearly every demographic and tradition acknowledge that the natural world is good and that our treatment of it is not a neutral matter. Regardless of what is felt to be the right way to treat nature, the conviction that wrong ways exist and have been practiced is nearly universal.
This moral intuition is deep and widespread, but how it meshes with other widespread beliefs is not clear.
If we all got here through the survival of the fittest, why should we be concerned about the wellbeing of non-human species? Certainly, the general wellbeing of the biosphere is important for the wellbeing of humans, but cruelty towards domesticated pets does not impact the survival of humanity. If anything, nurturing these pets diverts resources that could be used by humans. To say that caring for these pets increases our psychological wellbeing is simply to restate in psychological terms our moral intuition that the wellbeing of animals is important.
If mass-extinction events are part and parcel of evolution, then why do we have a moral duty to avoid them? Perhaps, by avoiding mass-extinction events, we are preventing evolutionary progress. How would we feel if primates had thwarted our emergence?
Naturalistic evolutionary attempts to explain our moral intuitions generally attribute them, like everything else about us, to a highly sophisticated sense of self-interest. Our moral intuitions towards nature developed because they are, in the end, best for our own survival, or at least for the propagation of our genes. But even if a sufficiently nuanced evolutionary mechanism could produce these instincts, it cannot explain why it would be wrong for us to act contrary to them. We regularly engage in activities, from eating Oreos to choosing Netflix over exercise, that reduce our health and, through epigenetics, reduce the fitness of our descendants. But if reducing our evolutionary fitness in these ways is not wrong, why would disregarding our survival-driven instincts towards nature be wrong?
It seems that naturalism can only explain the psychological phenomena of our moral intuitions towards the natural world by reducing them to mere instincts. It cannot give these instincts the moral weight we know they possess. Pure naturalism cannot explain our knowledge that the natural world is valuable and that abuse of this world is wrong. It takes something more than naturalism to explain what we know about nature.
But not any type of supernaturalism will do. The trick is to find a way of explaining the value of nature without reducing it, as naturalism does, to something that is unable to ground our moral intuitions. Supernaturalisms that link the spiritual world too closely to the natural world risk reducing the value of the natural world to the worth and power of the spirits that inhabit nature: “The tree is the home of the god, so it is sacred,” or, “I will treat this tree carefully because the spirit that lives in it will make my children sick if I don’t.” Viewpoints like these do not reflect a feeling that the natural world has value in and of itself. Rather, they render it valuable merely by association.
But I think Classical Theism might be a type of supernaturalism that can ground our moral intuitions. Because Classical Theism posits a God who is distinct from nature, it does not reduce the value of nature to that of spirits who inhabit it. Under Classical Theism, to say that the value of the natural world comes from God does not reduce nature’s value to something else, because everything comes from God. God-given value is as inherent, as intrinsic, as real in and of itself as anything in the world. God-given value is not a reality that we can, like our genetic instincts, transcend and ignore.
Many portray our treatment of the natural world as the moral issue of our day. It is certainly one of them. But why is it a moral issue? It seems that naturalism cannot explain the moral significance of nature. Something more is needed. Classical Theism might be this something.