Book Review of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics by Christopher G. Framarin (Reviewed by Stephen Harris)

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)

13 thoughts on “Book Review of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics by Christopher G. Framarin (Reviewed by Stephen Harris)

  1. Thanks for this review, Stephen!
    Given that Chris is also among our contributors, let me ask both of you a question: Regarding the sentience of plants only, there was already an interesting and well-documented book, namely Plant Lives (by Ellison Banks Findly, you might want to check my review here: Am I understanding correctly that Chris’ book shares the environmental concern (i.e., it agrees that —ceteris paribus— it is a valuable thing to preserve plants’ lives) of EBF? If this is correct, I would distinguish the contributions of the two books as follows (please correct me): 1. ChFr goes more deeply, he tries to reconstruct the way of thinking hidden beyond a given textual passage (EBF often focuses more on quantity than on depth). 2. ChFr is more interested in creating consistent philosophical arguments on the basis of his sources. 3. the sources are partly different. EBF includes Vṛkṣāyurveda and Buddhist sources, ChFr takes into account the YS (EBF does not, unless I forgot, which might always be the case).
    Or would you describe their distinct contributions in another way?

    • Hi Elisa,

      I’m sorry for the delayed reply on this. I’m back in my office now with Findly’s book in front of me. The portion of this book in which Findly argues most rigorously for the conclusion that certain Indian – and this means Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain – texts and traditions attribute direct moral standing to plants is chapter seven, titled “Plant Rights and Human Duties.” Outside of this chapter, I take her to assert that plants have “inherent worth” repeatedly, without explicitly detailing the argument for this conclusion. Chapter seven, however, seems to contain the actual argument, and her work here comes closest, methodologically, to what I have done in my book.

      In this section Findly seems to argue – invoking Paul Taylor’s “biocentric outlook” – that plants have direct moral standing because they have “a good of their own” (Findly 2008: 338-42). I also suggested a view that I described along these lines in an early paper (“Ātman, Identity, and Emanation: Arguments for a Hindu Environmental Ethic, Comparative Philosophy 2/1), before I was aware of Findly’s work.

      I don’t think this argument works, however, mainly because I think the project of establishing an entity’s good (of its own) in some objective way is hopeless. I’m also skeptical that Indian texts apply this concept to animals and plants. At first the concept of dharma seems promising. Perhaps an entity’s dharma is what it should do – its purpose. But this kind of purpose does not align well with the notion of an entity having a good of its own. The good (of its own) of an entity is supposed to be non-relational. The good (of its own) of an entity is what is good for the entity, “without reference to the good of any other being” (Taylor 1986, cited at Findly 2009: 342). An entity’s dharma, however, is closely tied to what is good for other entities, the natural/cultural system as a whole, and so on.

      Given that Findly attempts to infer this kind of argument from the texts she considers, however, I think I would disagree with your point #1 above. I think Findly at times “tries to reconstruct the way of thinking hidden beyond a given textual passage” in the same way that I do.

      I give this aspect of the project more of a priority than Findly, so I would agree with your point #2. Findly’s book is encyclopedic, and does a very good job of isolating some of the best environmentally-relevant passages in the traditions she considers. It was a huge help to me, and I cite it a number of times in my book.

      The sources that we consider are different even within the Hindu traditions, but Findly also discusses Buddhism and Jainism – albeit in much less detail than she discusses Hinduism. So your point #3 is also right.

  2. Thank you for the very careful review Stephen. I’m luck enough to be sitting on a beach now, with sketchy internet, so I can’t reply in full, but I’d like to make two quick comments and follow up later.

    First, I offer additional arguments for the inference from the claim that pleasure and pain (long and short lifespan, etc.) are common forms that merit and demerit take to the claim that pleasure and pain (long and short lifespan, etc.) must have intrinsic value on these accounts. The arguments attempt to show that no explanation of the mere instrumental/extrinsic value of pleasure and pain are plausible. Pleasure and pain do not generally promote and postpone the attainment of moksa, for example (quite the opposite!).

    Second, I meant for this book to be primarily exegetical. On the implications for contemporary environmental ethics, though, I think it is worth reminding ourselves of the seemingly commonsense connection between our conviction of the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain, on the one hand, and their implications for how we treat sentient things, on the other. The same seems true for long/short lifespan, the functioning of various capacities, and so on. Perhaps these are intuitions shared by these ancient texts and traditions.

  3. Elisa, your sketch of the differences seems right to me (and as I explain in my review, one of the strong points of Chris’ book is careful reconstruction of the positions and commitments of the various Hindu texts). I’ll defer to Chris on this though, of course!

    Chris, thanks for the response. As I’m sure was clear from the review, I liked the book a lot. I simplified the argument you’re referring to a bit, for reasons of space, but you’re right that at least alluding to your argument against the instrumental interpretation would have been a good choice.

    • Hi Stephen,

      One more follow up. The Instrumentalist Interpretation you mention (from chapter two) states that animals and plants have direct moral standing in virtue of their usefulness to human beings. As you point out, I argue that this interpretation is implausible (on the grounds that it makes morality arbitrary – an argument that resembles the Euthyphro dilemma).

      A separate claim (which doesn’t come up until chapter five) is that the value of pleasure and pain cannot be entirely instrumental. The value of pleasure and pain cannot be entirely instrumental because pleasure and pain do not reliably lead to further ends that have the relevant intrinsic value – that is, pleasure does not reliably lead to further ends that have positive intrinsic value, and pain does not reliably lead to further ends that have negative intrinsic value.

      Thanks Again,

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      • Hi Amod,

        Thank you for the comment, and the reference to Wright’s work in particular. This idea of naturalizing karma is extremely common. I find its origins among scholars of Hindu philosophy at least as early as Mysore Hiriyanna’s 1932 Outlines of Indian Philosophy. Karl Potter elaborates Hiriyanna’s view in his Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies (1991: 11-19). Roy Perrett, Chris Chapple, Stephen Phillips, Bruch Reichenbach, and many, many others invoke it. The basic view is that karma is a matter of habit- or disposition-formation – where the words ‘habit’ and ‘disposition’ are translations of the Sanskrit saṃskāra and/or vāsanā. This view is common among scholars of Buddhist philosophy as well.

        I think this view is problematic for a number of reasons, four of which I detail in my paper “Habits and Karmic Results in the Yogaśāstra,” forthcoming in Jonardon Ganeri’s Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy.

        I cannot do any of these final objections justice here, because they only make sense in the context of extensive preliminary revisions to the contemporary interpretation of the theory of karma that Potter and others endorse.

        One initial problem with the Potter, et. al. view is that saṃskāras are mental habits. They are not action habits (YŚ 1.5). Another initial problem is that the account does not explain the role of desire in the process of habit/disposition formation. And yet, it seems clear from many texts that merit and demerit (analyzed as habits/dispositions) do not arise without desire. So what role, exactly, does desire play in producing habits/dispositions?

        I suggest that the desire for the direct results of actions play a central role in the production of habits/dispostions. I brush my teeth. The direct result is fresh breath. I want that fresh breath again, and hence, am disposed to brush my teeth in the future. The disposition arises from action, but only with the intervening desire.

        The problem with this (seemingly best) reply is that I only desire things when I find them pleasant (or good in some other sense). If I brush my teeth and it’s painful, then I become disposed to avoiding brushing my teeth! So now merit and demerit only arise when the immediate result is pleasure! When the immediate result is pain, I get merit when I should get demerit and vice versa!

        This is just the beginning of all the problems here, more of which I detail in my lecture previously posted at

        Much more to consider…

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