Arts & Culture
Cecilia Cassidy
Climate Change
Erin Cline
Spring 2024

Early Ecological Ethics: A Look at Chinese Environmental Thought

By: Erin Cline, Paul J. and Chandler M. Tagliabue, Distinguished Professor of Interreligious Studies & Dialogue; Senior Research Fellow, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs; Affiliated Faculty, Earth Commons Institute

Collage of woman sitting in a door frame looking at mountains and a big tree. Design by Cecilia Cassidy

When environmental ethics began to emerge as a subfield in the discipline of philosophy in the 1970s, it did so by challenging the anthropocentrism seen in traditional Western ethics. Anthropocentrism has been present in Western ethics as far back as Aristotle, who claimed that “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man.” But at the same time that Aristotle was writing — and even earlier — Daoist and Confucian philosophers in East Asia were taking up a radically different position. 

As a specialist in Chinese philosophy and religion and a faculty affiliate of Georgetown’s Earth Commons Institute, I often find myself reading early Chinese thinkers and reflecting on the work of ECo faculty, whose research in areas ranging from coastal ecology to ornithology invites us to turn our eyes toward the earth.

Each in their distinct way, Daoist and Confucian texts from the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. contend that the most important insights we can have about ourselves and the world are rooted in seeing ourselves in relation to the rest of Nature. 

Daoist landscape paintings express this idea through images of enormous waterfalls, looming mountains, clouds, and massive trees. Only when you look very closely at these paintings do you begin to notice that there are people in them, as well as tiny boats, bridges, and homes. They are dwarfed by Nature, tucked into the landscape, and not imposing themselves on it. 

Daoist paintings express the central contention of the early Daoist tradition that we are not the center of the world. On the contrary, we are a small part of a larger whole, and to flourish (that is, to lead genuinely happy, fulfilled, meaningful lives), we must recognize and live into our smallness. We must live by the patterns and processes of Nature, attending close to them, viewing ourselves as one of the myriad creatures or “ten thousand things” that enliven the world. 

From a Daoist perspective, this is not only the truth about us and our place in the world, it is also therapeutic for us to know and experience this truth firsthand. We are happier and more fulfilled when we live lives that are close to the natural world, and when we have an accurate perspective on our problems and challenges, relative to the looming natural world surrounding us. We also tend to take better care of the natural world when we hold such a view. 

Students in my Chinese Philosophy classes will tell you that no one leaves my class without understanding that the early Daoists believed their view “cashes out” in a number of very practical ways; indeed, it leads them to make a variety of counter-cultural (and sometimes extreme) proposals. 

Among them: We ought to live in small, agrarian communities where our food is grown locally. We ought to avoid privileging standard academic subjects over learning about all of the birds and trees in nearby forests and fields (and not just their names and how to identify them, but their habitats, life cycles, how they are affected by weather patterns, and what they contribute to the world). 

As I point out in my book Little Sprouts and the Dao of Parenting, texts such as the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi urge us to question the forms of knowledge and learning that are privileged in our school curriculums and the types of achievement that we celebrate culturally. Moreover, early Daoists also urge us to stop viewing Nature solely in terms of knowledge to be gained (e.g., a list of names) and to view it as something to be savored, valued, enjoyed and treasured. It is therapeutic for us to do so, and it is also critical for our future.

Interestingly, early Daoist thinkers were critical of more human-centric views because of their contemporaries, including the early Confucians. Indeed, great Confucian paintings stand in contrast to Daoist landscape paintings: They depict Confucian sages at the center. Human beings are not only easy to spot; they are the central focus of each scene. However, the Confucians would not have agreed with Aristotle either; instead, they took an interest in sustainability long before many other cultures and traditions did.

The Confucian thinker Xunzi (310-219 B.C.E.) was one of the first thinkers in the world to offer an ecological ethic, writing, “When the grasses and trees are flowering and abundant, then axes and hatchets are not to enter the mountains and forests, so as not to cut short their life, and not to break off their growth. When the turtles and crocodiles, fish and eels are pregnant and giving birth, then nets and poisons are not to enter the marshes, not to cut short their life, and not to break off their growth . . . . Be vigilant in the seasonal prohibitions concerning ponds, rivers, and marshes, and then turtles and fish will be fine and plentiful, and the common people will have a surplus to use. Cutting and nurturing are not to miss their proper times, and then the mountains and forests will not be barren, and the common people will have surplus materials.”

Yet, while Xunzi’s sustainability ethics show an interest in making sure that natural resources are available for human use, that is not his exclusive interest. He maintains that “when the way of forming community is properly practiced, then the myriad things will each obtain what is appropriate for them…When reaping accords with the proper times, then the grasses and trees will flourish.” Note that the stated end goal is not that humans will have enough to eat or enough firewood, but that each thing will grow and flourish. These are not mutually exclusive aims, for Xunzi, but he takes them each as worthy goals to pursue, and he believes that both can be attained if we view ourselves as having a common home or as forming a community together. 

In his book Oneness: East Asian Conceptions of Virtue, Happiness, and How We Are All Connected, Philip J. Ivanhoe, Professor of East Asian Languages & Cultures here at Georgetown writes that for Xunzi, “This aim of harmonizing human needs and desires with other people, creatures, and things offers a clear example of a conception of oneness between self and world and a corresponding expansive view of the self. Those who cultivate the core Confucian virtues to the point where they spontaneously act in ways that harmonize their needs and desires not only with other people but also with the rest of the Natural world will feel a sense of comfort and peace and take satisfaction and joy in living this sort of life . . . . [T]his is one of the most powerful reasons one can have for living a life that is informed and animated by a lively concern for what today we call ‘the environment.’”

Such views are widely found in early Chinese philosophy. In my forthcoming translation of the Confucian Analects (one of the most influential texts in East Asia), I highlight the text’s keen appreciation for nature. Kongzi (known as “Confucius,” 551-479 B.C.E.) practices a conservationist ethic in the way he fishes and hunts, always fishing with a single line and never with a net or trotline, and never aiming at roosting birds. He marvels at streams that flow on and on unceasingly and how the pine and cypress trees are the last to wither. Kongzi praises classical Chinese works such as the Book of Odes for teaching us the names of birds, animals, plants, and trees and to take note of the finest details in Nature, from the movement of the wings of birds to the fins of fish. The metaphors used in the text evince a deep appreciation for the natural world, what it has to teach us about our flourishing and how closely related we are to the rest of the world.

As we celebrate the many goods that the Earth Commons Institute has brought to our community at Georgetown over the past two years, the invitation to turn our eyes toward the earth is heard in the work of our sensory ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and in the work of faculty spanning wide-ranging disciplines. Indeed, it is an invitation that crosses centuries, for if we listen, we will hear it in the earliest ecological ethics of the Daoists and Confucians.

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