Extending "The Land Ethic" and The Golden Rule to the Whole Biotic Community

Don Foran, The Evergreen State College and Centralia College

Summary

This is a component in a four-credit Introduction to ethics course (Phil. 103) which involves a group collaboration / report on a sustainability issue viewed in light of Aldo Leopold's The Land Ethic and various ethics of reciprocity anticipatory of and reflective of the "Golden Rule" ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you") Both the Leopold text and the various formulations of the "Golden Rule" are available online:

"Big ideas" in this component of the course are pluralism in ethics (our text is Lawrence Hinman's Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory); viewing land and dwindling resources as legacy of all, not inexhaustible supplies for a business civilization; respect for all of nature; reciprocity in nature and relationships; human rights; rights of sentient beings; rights of all of nature.

Learning Goals

The learning goals for this teaching-and-learning activity are:

  • Learning about pluralism, and focusing on Leopold's The Land Ethic and diverse formulations of The Golden Rule; and learning about pluralism in ethics by using the text by Lawrence Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory.
  • Viewing http://www.storyofstuff.com;
  • Researching a specific sustainability issue (eg. diminishing animal habitat, pollution of streams and oceans, etc.); and,
  • Giving a 10 to 11 minute presentation to the class (role-playing, quiz show format or whatever creative mode students decides within their group) helping the rest of the class understand how the issue they have chosen helps them think freshly about extending the "land ethic" and the "Golden Rule" to the whole biotic community.
"Big ideas" in this component of the course are pluralism in ethics viewing land and dwindling resources as legacy of all, not inexhaustible supplies for a business civilization; respect for all of nature; reciprocity in nature and relationships; human rights; rights of sentient beings; rights of all of nature.


The "big idea" of the group exploration is respect for the rights of nature and of future generations to be sustained by humankind.

Context for Use

Because most students taking an Introduction to Ethics have not considered the prescient words of Aldo Leopold or even the implication of the Golden Rule in their own religious or cultural traditions (let alone the traditions of others), and by reading Lawrence Hinman's Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory the ideas in these materials provides background for fresh thinking. Because the creation and marketing of products and commodities often obscures our thinking about a land ethic or an ethic of reciprocity altogether, students also view the powerful Annie Leonard video clip, http://www.storyofstuff.com just prior to the assignment.

The assignment takes place about three-and-a-half weeks into the quarter. Students have four classes to prepare their presentation and one class to present. Thus the assignment takes exactly one percent of the course time, but the sustainability themes reverberate through the final six weeks of the course.


Possible Use in Other Courses:I have done similar assignments in Argumentation and Research (English 102) classes, and I believe this assignment could be adapted in other venues.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

Prior to this assignment, students view Annie Leonard's video clip, http://www.storyofstuff.com.

Our text is Lawrence Hinman's Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory); and, Aldo Leopold's The Land Ethic

For Students - Your assignment Involves the following activities: Taking into account the "big idea" of the course, pluralism, and focusing on Leopold's The Land Ethic and diverse formulations of The Golden Rule; Viewing www.storyofstuff.com; Researching a specific sustainability issue (eg. diminishing animal habitat, pollution of streams and oceans, etc.); and, giving a 10 to 11 minute presentation to the class (role-playing, quiz show format or whatever creative mode you decide in your group) helping us all understand how the issue you have chosen helps you think freshly about extending the "land ethic" and "The Golden Rule" to the whole biotic community. The "big idea" of the group exploration is respect for the rights of nature and of future generations to be sustained by humankind.

The Learning Activities- Each group will choose both a unique focus and a "vehicle" (role-play, TV show, jail cell conversation, etc.) to bring to life fresh thinking.

Teaching Notes and Tips

It helps to have a fine primary textbook like Hinman's noted above. That way a vocabulary is built up. Students learn to distinguish Utilitarianism from Kantian ethics from Rawl's Theory of Justice from Gilligan's Ethics of Care, etc.

Examples of Student Work - The topics chosen by the groups which embarked on this assignment on April 27, 2009 were:

Mistreatment of animals (caging and feed lots vs. free-range practices);
Deforestation (focus: lemurs in Madagascar);
Decreasing water-quality and toxic runoff and pollution problems caused by industrialization;
Over-fishing, and fish/water contamination affecting quality and quantity of fish in Puget Sound;
Carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide pollution from automobile emission and the impact on global warming;
Pollution of the air from sources other than automobiles (eg. fossil fuel pollution and jet contrails); and,
The link between consumerism, overbuilding, loss of green space.

Thirty-four students participated in seven groups. Two groups used role-playing, two used Jeopardy-like quiz show formats, three used PowerPoint with visuals.

Assessment

Students are asked to respond to one question on a three-question test soon after the assignment: What specific ideas and understandings did you acquire from viewing one of the group presentations not your own? What was communicated? How creative was the research and the communication? I learn from this how much attention was paid, how students view other students' work, how course themes and big ideas are understood, appreciated, and how they echo each student's own assimilation.


There is no formal assessment rubric beyond "Prove your familiarity with texts and class activities." and "Organize your answers."


Informal assessments: I note that I hear sustainability issues raised in the subsequent six weeks of the course. That indeed occurred this spring, my trial run for this assignment.

References and Resources

See websites noted above, but also, in the weeks before the assignment, we viewed "Does the End Justify the Means" focused on the Bakun Dam controversy in Malaysia, the play "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley, and the academy award winning film, "The Mission."

Evergreen State College