Christopher G. Framarin. Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, literature, and philosophy. 192 pp. London and New York: Routledge. 2014. 140 USD.
This book is a welcome addition to the literature on Indian philosophy and environmental ethics. Framarin’s main thesis is that certain important Hindu texts are implicitly committed to the claim that plants and animals have direct moral standing, that is to say that their well-being ought to be considered when we decide how to act. He focuses his account on three classics of the Hindu intellectual tradition: the Manusmṛti, representing law, the Mahābhārata, representing literature, and the Yogasūtra, representing philosophy (1-2). Part one of the book surveys and critiques existing work on Hinduism and environmental ethics. In part two Framarin advances an original set of arguments defending his claim that these texts are implicitly committed to ascribing direct moral standing to plants and animals.
The first chapter lays the groundwork for the book by arguing that any plausible environmental ethic will need to ascribe direct moral standing to plants and animals. This chapter also makes useful distinctions that help clarify the issues at stake. For instance, Framarin distinguishes direct moral standing, the position that an entity’s well-being should be considered in deciding what to do, from intrinsic value, the claim that something is valuable for its own sake (6-7). On the basis of this distinction, he later dismisses as unconvincing an argument that Hindu texts ascribe direct moral standing to plants and animals as a result of their identity with brahman. Since brahman has intrinsic value, this identification does entail that plants and animals have it as well; nevertheless, it does not entail direct moral standing, since brahman cannot be affected by human actions and therefore requires no consideration at all (6-7 and chap. 4). Framarin’s employment of an analytic methodology in marking distinctions like this is a strong feature of the book that will doubtless have a positive influence on future work in the field.
The remainder of part one surveys and critiques the existing literature on Hindu environmental ethics. Chapter two summarizes instrumentalist interpretations that claim plants and animals have value only as a result of their relevance to human well-being. Chapters three and four address positions that ascribe direct moral standing to nature, but whose arguments are flawed. Chapter three focuses on arguments that appeal to the karmically connected nature of everything that exists as the basis for this ascription, while chapter four surveys views claiming that the identification between Brahman and nature grounds ascriptions of direct moral standing. Each chapter skillfully distinguishes between various versions of the argument in question. Care is taken to represent the authors’ positions fairly, after which Framarin offers objections to each version of each argument. An interesting feature of these chapters is the way they draw attention to similarities in the underlying structure of the arguments of the authors they critique.
Part two of the book advances Framarin’s original arguments that certain Hindu texts are implicitly committed to ascribing direct moral standing to plants and animals. Each chapter focuses on a respective text from law, literature or philosophy, with chapter five focused on the Manusmṛti, chapter seven on the Mahābhārata and chapter eight on the Yogasūtra. Chapter six responds to a potential objection to chapter seven’s argument by showing why an episode of burning a forest in the Mahābhārata should not be taken literally as a lack of concern for plant and animal lives. Framarin develops several distinct arguments for his position that these texts ascribe direct moral standing to plants and animals. Variations of each argument apply to multiple texts, so here I will just mention the basic form of each, rather than giving a chapter by chapter summary.
The first of Framarin’s arguments is called “the argument from sentience.” This takes as a premise that Hindu texts claim certain actions are meritorious or demeritorious, and therefore give rise to good or bad results in the future. Moreover, pleasure and pain are respectively an important result of meritorious or demeritorious action. Therefore, pleasure and pain must have intrinsic value; if they did not, it would make no sense for them to result from morally good and bad action. Framarin concludes that all creatures experiencing pleasure and pain must therefore have direct moral standing. Moreover, Hindu texts claim that plants as well as animals experience pleasure and pain. Therefore, plants and animals have direct moral standing (77, 86 etc.) Framarin claims that versions of this argument are applicable to all three texts that form the basis of part two of his book, and offers carefully reconstructed versions of each argument in the relevant chapters.
Framarin offers two additional arguments that the relevant texts ascribe direct moral standing to plants and animals. Both of these are variations on the sentience argument, and both take the fact that certain actions are meritorious or demeritorious and therefore must have intrinsically good or bad results as an important premise. One argument, which he calls “the life argument” claims that since Hindu texts view lengthening or shortening of lifespan as a potential result of good or bad action respectively, they are committed to viewing all living things (which of course will all have lifespans) as having direct moral standing. A third argument, called “the birth argument” uses the same basic form, but substitutes particular abilities such as motion and moral agency as the good result that implies direct moral standing. Framarin claims that the life argument applies to the Mahābhārata and the Yogasūtra, while the birth argument applies to the Manusmṛti and the Yogasūtra. Versions of each argument are developed in detail in the relevant chapters.
There are I believe at least two primary audiences for the book. First and primarily, the book speaks to specialists in the field as it makes substantive contributions in the field of cross-cultural philosophy focused on the intersection between environmental ethics and Hinduism, both by the original arguments developed in part two, and in the critique of existing work in part one. Another important feature of the book, however, is the great care Framarin has given to organizing and where necessary reconstructing the argumentative structure of past work in Hindu environmental ethics. As a result, the book will serve well as a kind of primer for the second primary audience: those new to the field of Indian environmental philosophy.
Another feature of the book that I appreciated was Framarin’s methodology, which combined textual analysis with philosophical reconstruction and argumentation. On the one hand, Framarin takes seriously the underlying presuppositions of the Indian tradition. Likewise, he skillfully appeals to textual evidence in reconstructing premises in his argument. On the other, he uses philosophical argument to go beyond what the texts explicitly say and reconstructs what they are intellectually committed to in a way that lets him put the tradition into dialogue with contemporary work in environmental ethics. A good example of this technique is his sentience argument referred to above. The argument leans heavily on the fact that Hindu texts claim morally right and wrong actions bring about good and bad results. Framarin moves beyond this explicitly stated position, however, by inferring that this commits the tradition to accepting that the effects of these actions must have intrinsic value, and that therefore beings experiencing these effects will have direct moral standing. He then returns to what the texts explicitly state and references passages ascribing sentience to plants as well as animals, thereby allowing him to conclude that plants should also be viewed as having direct moral standing.
Although a strength of the book, Framarin’s appeal to basic Hindu tenets also relates to what I thought was a potential weakness. This is that in relying on presuppositions of the Hindu tradition, it becomes less clear what the relevance of Framarin’s original arguments are to those outside of the Hindu intellectual worldview. Few contemporary authors, for instance, will accept the metaphysical connection between morally charged action and its results that forms the basis of each of Framarin’s original arguments. Laying out the implicit philosophical commitments of these Hindu texts is of value in itself, but I also found myself wondering if Framarin believed these texts contributed something to contemporary debates that will not be able to employ premises about the meritorious results of action.
This criticism does nothing to disvalue the many admirable features of this work. It will be an invaluable addition to the library of any scholar interested in the intersection between classical Hindu texts and environmental philosophy. I warmly recommend it for close study.
Reviewed by Stephen Harris, Leiden University (website here)