Book Review of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics by Christopher G. Framarin (Reviewed by Elisa Freschi)

Christopher G. Framarin. Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, literature, and philosophy. 192 pp. London and New York: Routledge. 2014. 140 USD. Hardcover
[Book Review Editor’s Note: This book has previously been reviewed on this blog by Stephen Harris.  See Harris’s review here.]

The book is, as frequently the case when Framarin writes, very clearly argued. In each chapter, the Introduction anticipates the gist of the argument and the Conclusions summarise it again. Each step is fully argued for by taking into account all possible scenarios. Thus, as with his previous book, Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (2009), and as readers of the Indian Philosophy Blog have seen in his lecture here, the book starts with long discussions of the competing views and only at the end reaches the view which is the one Framarin endorses. For his own argumentation, Framarin appeals to intuitions, in the way analytic philosophers do. Examples of the intuitions he uses are the intuition that in case of a car accident we should save the person involved, although this could lead to harming a plant. Slightly less controversial (in my opinion) is the intuition that ceteris paribus we should prefer humans over animals and animals over plants, but I will come back to that later.

A further asset of the book is that it is an extensive bibliographical survey of Anglophone literature related to the topic of environmental ethics in Hinduism. I wrote “Anglophone” because most articles and books cited are either originally written in English or are quoted from their English translation, but an important exception are Framarin’s important references to Madeleine Biardeau’s interpretation of the episode of the burning of the Khāṇḍava forest in the Mahābhārata.
Framarin analyses the literature with upmost attention, the kind of attention other scholars (probably: me included) only reserve to primary texts and extracts out of the scattered or systematic remarks of the various scholars three competing interpretations of why flora and fauna should have moral stand in “Hinduism”. Framarin labels the first interpretation “Instrumentalist interpretation” and explains that according to it we should avoid harming flora and fauna because non-violence leads to merit and merit leads to good things, whereas violence leads to demerit, which leads to bad things (thus, non-violence is instrumental to something else). The second interpretation is the “Interconnectedness interpretation” according to which we should avoid harming flora and fauna because, due to karman and rebirth we are all part of the same continuum and sooner or later the harmed animal will in turn harm us. The third interpretation, called “Sameness Interpretation” holds that the whole world, including flora and fauna is either an emanation of brahman or nothing but brahman erroneously conceived as something else. Thus, we should not harm it, because the brahman has moral standing.
Framarin shows how all interpretations have flaws (actually he is so convincing that the  flaws seem obvious). Framarin discusses the issue with much more detail, but starting with the last theory, the main problem appears to consist in the fact that if the world is (as with the Advaita Vedānta-flavored version of the Sameness interpretation) just illusion and only the brahman exists, then there is nothing bad we can do at all when we affect the illusory world, whereas if the world is an emanation of brahman (as with the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta-flavored version of the same interpretation), then the theory is just wrong, since hairs also emanate from human beings, and yet do not derive from this derivation the fact that they have also moral standing. The Interconnectedness interpretation is wrong, among other things, since it stands on premisses not found in the texts (which do not mention interconnectedness as a value) and since it leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that all living beings have equal moral standing. Last, the Instrumental interpretation does not work, since this leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that if ahiṃsā led by itself to salvation although flora and fauna had no moral standing, then this would lead either to circularity (ahiṃsā leads to mokṣa because it is meritorious but, given that fauna and flora have no moral standing, it can only be meritorious because it leads to mokṣa) or to arbitrariness (ahiṃsā leads to mokṣa by chance), which is counter-intuitive.
By contrast, Framarin maintains that the texts he examines (Mahābhārata, Mānavadharmaśāstra, and Yogasūtra, henceforth MBh, MDhŚā and YS respectively) uphold the moral standing of flora and fauna on the basis of the fact that they say that ahiṃsā leads to merit and merit leads to pleasure. Now, given that this pleasure is not instrumental to liberation (in fact, it might even be counterproductive, as shown by the fact that in heavens where there is too much pleasure no one can reach liberation), it must have an instrinsic value. If it has an intrinsic value, then it makes sense that causing pleasure to one is at least a prima facie reason for performing a certain action. The reverse applies to pain and its intrinsic disvalue. Thus, entities which can feel pleasure and pain have moral standing (with “moral standing” being described as that which should orient our actions).
So far, so good, or even very good, and the book (which contains way more than I could summarise here) recommends itself as a clear and analytic study of the issue both for analytic philosophers and for Sanskritists.
Given that the book solved all it directly raised, in the following, I will need to focus on some questions the book implicitly raised, hoping to initiate a discussion with Framarin.
1. Is it really the case that the case in which “a human agent must choose between destroying an animal and allowing a plant to live, or destroying an animal and allowing a human being to live” is not a “genuine moral dilemma”? I agree that we would all save the human being trapped in the car, but would we necessarily save a tree over an insect? Or a rare tree over a common rat? Or over a starfish which is reproducing too fast and devouring coral reefs? And, more importantly, is the fact that we would save the human being trapped in the car even if this meant killing thousands of rare plants and rare animals a moral choice or just a speciesist choice, just like the choice of one who would save her own sibling even if this meant letting thousands of other people die?
2. Framarin’s argument from the intrinsic value of pleasure to the moral standing of flora and fauna seems to me to neglect an aspect of the question, namely the fact that the texts speaking of pleasure and pain as the results of merit and demerit could be just trying to engage people of lower intellect, who would not understand that the only things which really counts is mokṣa. Thus, they could claim that merit leads to pleasure because claiming that merit leads to mokṣa would not be enough to motivate people to undertake a certain meritorious action. I think we can still reasonably argument (as Peter Singer does, and as Śaṅkara and Arindam Chakarabarti do, see p. 86 and p. 121 of Framarin’s book respectively) that pain is in itself bad and that we need to avoid it for us and for any other being. But I am not sure that the intrinsic value of pain follows directly from merit according to the texts (MBh, MDhŚā and YS) that Framarin quotes.
3. One of the reasons in favour of his final interpretation that Framarin quotes is the fact that it “contribute[s] to an explanation of the common Hindu dietary recommendations  [=vegetarianism] that the other accounts have trouble explaining” (p. 165). However, vegetarianism could also be justified on the basis of the fact that plants are deemed not to be sentient at all, a position which was common in philosophical texts (see Schmithausen 1991, unfortunately not present in the bibliography of Framarin, and see also my own studies thereon), although common sense might have rather run against it, as attested by the formula “from Brahmā to grass”, to refer to all living beings. I imagine that Framarin could easily reply that he is not concerned with Indian philosophical texts, but only with MBh, MDhŚā and YS, which is completely legitimate, but leads me to the following point:
4. The only aspect of the book I am not completely satisfied with is its dealing with generic categories such as “plants”, “animals” and “Hinduism”, although (see again this article of mine and more importantly Findly 2009) Indian authors distinguished between the status of grass and that of trees, that of cattle and that of wild animals and although different Indian schools had different attitudes towards these issues. But, again, ad impossibilia nemo tenetur and no one can expect an author to take everything into account!
Reviewed by Elisa Freschi, Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia, Vienna

8 thoughts on “Book Review of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics by Christopher G. Framarin (Reviewed by Elisa Freschi)

  1. Thank you, Elisa, for the careful reading and the useful, challenging feedback.

    With regard to question #1 in your post: When you discuss the chapter on the Interconnectedness Argument (chapter three), you mention that one of my main objections to this view is that it implies that all entities (living and non-living) have equal direct moral standing, and hence, that the choice between saving a person or saving an animal or plant is a genuine moral dilemma, when in fact it is not. In the conclusion to the book, I argue that certain Hindu texts and traditions share this intuition, and that the interpretation of certain Hindu texts and traditions that I defend is in accord with this intuition. So my own argument depends on this kind of appeal to intuition in two separate places.

    You suggest possible counter-examples. The first is a tree vs. an insect. It seems like tree has greater direct moral standing, and yet, my account seems to imply that insect does (since the insect is an animal). My account claims that certain Hindu texts and traditions attribute direct moral standing to plants and animals (1) because they are sentient (capable of experiences of pleasure and pain), (2) because they are alive, and (3) because they have a range of other attributes and abilities. In discussing (2), I argue that the fact that an agent’s action might shorten an entity’s lifespan by 30 years constitutes a stronger reason to avoid the action than the fact that an entity’s action might shorten an entity’s lifespan by less time. If this is right, then a tree might have greater direct moral standing than an insect on these grounds. I consider this in the conclusion to the book as well (166-67).

    The second example is a rare tree vs. a common rat. Here I think it depends on how the importance of rarity is explained. If the reason humans should consider the rare tree in deciding what to do is that preserving the rare tree will bring happiness to entities other than the tree in the future (because people will enjoy seeing this species in particular, for example), then its moral standing in virtue of its rarity is indirect rather than direct. This would be consistent with the account I defend, because my claims are about the direct moral standing of entities rather than their indirect moral standing. I assume that the direct moral standing of an animal is greater than the direct moral standing of a plant (mitigating circumstances aside). The same might be said about the third example: the starfish vs. the coral reef, where the starfish is devouring rare plants and animals. The direct moral standing of the starfish won’t be affected by the fact that it destroys other entities. Only its indirect moral standing will be.

    As for the appeal to intuitions: I think it makes sense to ask whether these intuitions are just prejudices. Since the intuitions are quite strong, however, the onus must be on those who claim that they are mere prejudices to show this is so. In my own experience, these intuitions stand up well to scrutiny. Arguments that try to show that the intuitions are based on mere prejudice (like those of Paul Taylor) are not convincing.

    With regard to question #2: you ask whether it isn’t possible to infer that sentient entities (that is, entities capable of pleasure and pain experiences) have direct moral standing from the seemingly self-evident fact that pain is bad. This argument is more direct than my “Sentience Argument” from chapter five, which infers the intrinsic disvalue of pain (and the intrinsic value of pleasure) from the fact that demerit takes the form of pain (and merit takes the form of pleasure), and so on.

    In chapter five of the book, I contrast my “Sentience Argument” with this other argument, which, as you say, Śaṅkara defends explicitly. The strongest reason to prefer the Sentience Argument is that Śaṅkara’s arguments are not easily generalized to texts that do not make the same points that Śaṅkara does. The Sentience Argument, in contrast, seems to apply to any text that claims that (1) right and wrong actions produce merit and demerit, (2) merit and demerit take the forms of pleasure and pain, respectively, and (3) pleasure and pain are not reliable means to further intrinsically valuable ends. Many texts make these claims, while few make those that Śaṅkara does (86-88).

    With regard to question #3, I think the evidence that the Manusmṛti and Mahābhārata count plants as sentient is strong. The evidence in the Yogasūtra seems weaker, but it is attested in the Sāṃkhyakārika and elsewhere. So yes, I would reply as you anticipate.

    Question #4 deals with some issues that I would like to consider in the future. How do wild animals differ from domesticated animals, and so on? I thought about these issues in writing the book, and my view seemed to have the capacity to deal with these distinctions, but I did not defend them. The direct/indirect moral standing distinction (see reply to #1 above) might come into play here as well. Perhaps domesticated animals have greater indirect moral standing on account of their relevance to the welfare of people, and so on.

  2. I confess to not having read the book, but allow me to chime in on why plants may be seen as worthy of more protection than insects and even some animals.

    There is a concept of “obligation” which, among other things, colors actions as dharmic (akin to moral). Some words are “rin” (debt) and “paropkar” (return of favor).

    Trees give fruit/shade, therefore we respect the tree. Particularly, a fruit-giving tree should not be cut down. The river irrigates the fields, we should praise the river.

    Cows give milk/dung/bullocks for farming, so we respect cows. Particularly, beef should not be eaten. The guru, parents, king, society, all teach /raise /protect/ accept us , so we should give honor to them. Ancestors and Gods bring us to life, so we worship them.

    On the other hand, it was quite acceptable to have a war and kill over cows — see the various cow raids in the Mahabharata. It is also the case that if the god Agni dictates, one should burn down a forest.

    I am not sure that the concept of a species becoming extinct ever occurred to these people. Remember, it was a land of plenty, with vast untapped wilderness and resources. Applying an anachronistic dimension of morality does not make a compelling point.

  3. Thanks for your comment Ashutosh. First, on the extinction point, I think you are interpreting Elisa’s comments about a rare plant/animal too narrowly. A plant or animal could be exceedingly rare within a certain region, without being under threat of general extinction. Even if the notion of extinction “never occurred to these people,” surely the notion of rarity did.

    Your previous comments about respect echo comments by certain western environmental ethicists, but I find them confusing. As I argue in the first chapter of the book, talk of “respect” in this context must mean one of two things. Either it means that agents morally ought to consider the entity for its own sake in deciding what to do, or it means that agents morally ought to consider the entity in deciding what to do, but only for the sake of other entities/states of affairs. The first amounts to direct moral standing, the second amounts to indirect moral standing. My arguments in the book are about the direct moral standing of plants and animals. So any considerations about indirect moral standing – their moral relevance as means to the welfare of other entities – is not directly relevant (although I do owe an explanation of how indirect moral standing factors into moral deliberations – which I try to provide). So my question to you about respecting trees because they give shade, cows because they produce milk, is this:

    In light of their capacity to produce things that are useful to humans and other entities, morally, ought agents consider the tree/cow for its own sake in deciding what to do (direct moral standing), or morally, ought agents consider the tree/cow in deciding what to do for the sake of those humans and other entities that they benefit (indirect moral standing)? On the surface, it looks as if the instrumental value of the tree/cow (as means to shade/milk) translates into increased indirect moral standing, rather than increased direct moral standing. It is possible that it translates into direct moral standing, but some argument is needed to show why this is the case. The fact that my actions help my students does not entail that I have greater direct moral standing than I otherwise would. It entails that I have increased indirect moral standing – moral agents morally ought to consider me in deciding what to do for the sake of my students.

  4. Pingback: Nature in Mīmāṃsā (and Indian thought in general) | elisa freschi

  5. Pingback: Again on the non-sentience of herbs in Indian Philosophy | elisa freschi

  6. Pingback: Again on the non-sentience of herbs in Indian PhilosophyThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>