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The Deep Ecology/Ecofeminism Debate: an Enquiry into Environmental Ethics


The question of the relative merits of deep ecology and ecofeminism has recently received considerable attention within environmental framework. This question has obvious significance to anyone concerned with ecophilosophy and ecopolitics since it contrasts two of the most philosophically and socially influential approaches that have developed in response to ecological concerns. Many would agree that the two perspectives, deep ecology and ecofeminism, have much in common, notwithstanding their different theoretical histories. Some writers have begun to perceive a significant tension between these two perspectives. In this paper, I would like to consider first some of the points of contention in the deep ecology/ecofeminism debate. I would then try to show that ecofeminism at most modifies, in important ways, deep ecology’s negative analysis, and that, therefore, ecofeminist solutions are not logically incompatible with the negative side of the deep ecological framework. I, then, hope to show that such solutions may not be incompatible with deep ecology’s positive view either, at least with certain versions. I conclude that the tension between these two perspectives can, perhaps, be resolved if we take a multiple perspective approach described by the theory of context.

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  1. Naess (1973a)

  2. The term ‘deep ecology’ can be seen as one that does double duty, referring, on the one hand, to a whole class of approaches (i.e. all non-anthropocentric approaches) and, on the other hand, to a particular kind of approach within this class which raises deeper question, placing the cause of nature first—Earth first.

  3. The deep ecologists call this ‘bio-centric’ or ‘life-centred’ egalitarianism. However, the term ‘ecocentric’ seems closer to the spirit of deep ecology because ecocentric etymologically means ‘oikos’—home and by implication ‘earth centred’.

  4. The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement, p.96. Naess adds the qualifier ‘in principle’ because he realises that ‘any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation and suppression’. Ibid. p.95. This point has been discussed later. Naess (1986)

  5. Ibid., 1986, p.24

  6. Deep ecologists do believe that population problem is a central causal factor in the destruction of the biosphere and wilderness because of the limitations of the Earth’s carrying capacity.

  7. Naess (1986)

  8. In view of this objection, some deep ecologists like Warwick Fox abandon biocentric egalitarianism, asserting that all biota are not equal in intrinsic value because of the differences in the experiences. ‘Deep Ecology: A New Philosophy of our Time?’ Fox 1984 This point is taken up towards the end.

  9. Fox (1995)

  10. Devall and Sessions 1985

  11. In the words of the environmental activist, John Seed, the statement, ‘I am protecting the rain forest’ would develop into ‘I am part of the rain forest protecting myself’—I am part of the rain forest recently emerged into thinking—that is, once one realises that one is indistinguishable from the rain forest, its needs would become one’s own. Sessions, p.199, 1985

  12. Warren (1990)

  13. Adams 1994

  14. King 1989

  15. Warren 2005

  16. Plumwood 1993

  17. Ibid. 1993

  18. Plumwood criticises the overgenerality of this account—if there is no distinction between the self and the rain forest (John Seed), then there is no distinction between the self and the bulldozer either—one could equally well take one’s own needs for its.

  19. Naess 1973

  20. For Kant, duty is the necessity of an action from respect for ‘law’ or what is universally valid for all rational beings. ‘Necessity’ here refers to inner rational self-constraint. Dutiful actions, then, are those which are motivated not by self-interested reason or empirical inclinations, but by universally valid rational principles that have moral worth or moral content. Kant does not mean that only actions done from duty are approved by morality or have moral value. He maintains that if an action is done from an immediate/natural inclination—like a beneficent action from sympathy or a just action from love of honour—is in conformity with duty—then it also merits moral approval. The latter kind of action, he terms, ‘beautiful action’. For Kant, the difference between the two lies in this that, when one performs a beautiful act, like a beneficent action from sympathy, it is no doubt a good action which has moral value (i.e. is in conformity with duty), but here the benevolent feeling is natural and instinctive, rather than in obedience with a universally valid moral principle. The action from duty, for Kant, has true or authentic moral worth, because it is the one where the agent, even faced with adversity, rises to the occasion and performs the act in spite of the adverse circumstances. Kant further holds that acting from duty is a special case of good will, which shows itself in the struggle against limitations and hindrances. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,trans H.J. Paton, Harper & Row NY 1964-First Section-4:397–9,437-9. Cf. Wood 2008

  21. Fox 1984

  22. Sessions 1985

  23. Fox 2006

  24. The idea of ‘reflective equilibrium’ is one of several key ideas about justification in Rawls’s theory of justice. To provide a justification for some claim or action is to provide reasons for believing that the claim is true or that the action is right or reasonable. Rawls’s idea of reflective equilibrium presupposes: a. is a thesis about justification in moral philosophy. It is not a metaphysical theory about the nature of truth nor is it a general epistemological thesis about the nature of justification in general; it assumes that b. we can have confidence in our capacities for moral reasoning and judgement; and that c. justification in moral philosophy must work within moral reasoning. It is necessary and, perhaps, sufficient to the justification of a moral conception that it ‘fit’ (i.e. is brought into an equilibrium upon due reflection) with our considered judgments or moral convictions, at all levels of generality, and after consideration of alternative moral views. Finally, d. reflective equilibrium is ‘Socratic’ –i.e. it involves a kind of critical ‘self-examination’—to discover the principles that regulate our considered moral judgments. Thus, reflective equilibrium, for Rawls, is especially appropriate to ethics. Cf. Rawls 1971 rev. ed. 1999

  25. Ibid. 2006


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Correspondence to Roma Chakraborty.

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Chakraborty, R. The Deep Ecology/Ecofeminism Debate: an Enquiry into Environmental Ethics. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. 32, 123–133 (2015).

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  • Deep ecology
  • Ecofeminism
  • Ethics