JSNH&B home • 2015 • vol. 6 no. 1

Leopold and the Ethics of Restoring Hetch Hetchy

by Vernon J. Martin

Sierra College Philosophy Professor

Aldo LeopoldIn Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, his famous “land ethic” begins with a look back on Homer’s Odyssey. He recounts how, upon Odysseus’ return from the wars of Troy, he “hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household whom he suspected of misbehaving during his absence.” Leopold’s point is clear: when people are viewed as merely property, as some were in Ancient Greece, then we should not be surprised to find Odysseus’ actions lacking an appropriate amount of ethical reflection. After all, “the girls were property” and “the disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and wrong” (Leopold, 1949, 201).

Our repulsion towards Odysseus’ actions illustrates that over time humanity has the ability to expand its sphere of moral concern. Even though not universally realized in practice, we have, by and large, come to understand that human beings are not property, and because of this, our treatment of people has evolved. While the long moral arc was bending towards justice for humans, the task of expanding moral thought beyond the human sphere was unfinished. In a general sense, Leopold’s “land ethic” is an argument that attempts to draw the connections between the new ecological understanding of his time and a new enlarged ethical understanding that would have positive implications for our future treatment of the land. What makes Leopold particularly noteworthy here is that he realized long before others that the job of ethics isn’t just a job for philosophers. J. Baird Callicott describes Leopold’s integrated thinking in the following way:

In Leopold’s integrative thinking, ecology was never just another specialized science nor merely a tool and fund of information for the efficient exploitation of natural resources. It was, rather, a profound new way of perceiving and cognitively organizing the natural world, validated by his own extensive field experience. Moreover, Leopold found his values changing as his ecological understanding deepened and therefore suggested that ecology was also pregnant with profound ethical precepts. (Callicott, 1989)

Leopold’s vision of an expanded sense of ethics contains a double move: in order to extend the sphere of moral consideration beyond the human realm we must recognize the ecological relationships that bond the biotic community together as a whole.

Leopold's Land Ethic

As ready-made as Leopold’s insights appear, much of the heavy-lifting was left undone, needing to be completed by environmental theorists and practitioners interested in putting his ideas into action. Indeed, during the early decades of the academic discipline of environmental ethics, philosophers continually struggled to develop moral principles upon which non-human animals, ecosystems, and even nature itself could be re-conceptualized and justified as beings worthy of moral consideration. With Leopold as our guide, perhaps we can think about our justifications to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley along the lines he set out in his “land ethic.”

One could see how the decision long ago to dam the Tuolumne River would make sense, according to an understanding of the moral worth of the Hetch Hetchy Valley at the time. Thought of as merely a source of fresh water and hydro-electric power for the San Francisco Bay Area dwellers, the Valley’s moral worth was reduced to its value as useful property. But now—a century later—what should our justification be for undoing what was done? How should we articulate and defend restoring Hetch Hetchy? Should we talk about the flora and fauna, and the unique ecological benefits that would come from removing the dam? My sense is yes, and moreover, it would be a mistake not to speak of such things. Perhaps this is why former Sierra Club President, Larry Fahn, said, “Now is the time to complete a full analysis of the feasibility and many benefits of bringing back the treasure of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite.”

This is the way one must talk about restoration projects and about environmental decisions in general if we are to be taken seriously. But still there is a lingering sense that this “cost-benefit” approach rings hollow. Perhaps our intuition is that while benefits certainly count toward something, there’s also much more to it—there’s something more to the value of restoring Hetch Hetchy than mere calculation of costs and benefits. The job of justifying some actions over others can leave us with a lingering sense that our moral vocabulary has become emaciated, sounding brass and tinkling.

Nature As …

The range of what is permissible value-language for justifying environmental decision-making is telling. Once one speaks in the language of economic aggregation, the possible range of the value of nature tends towards the very thing Leopold warns about: nature as property, nature as mere resource, and nature as a means to an end. Our moral vernacular in the realm of economics shrinks to pocket-sized phrases about costs and benefits, and once that happens it’s nearly impossible to get a word in edge-wise that doesn’t end up looping back into the very moral framework we were trying to extend beyond.

Leopold’s land ethic seems to recognize this dilemma and suggests that we would be wise to think about the land in a new way by rethinking the human place in nature. “In short,” he writes, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” From this new bio-egalitarian perspective we could, it appears, articulate our relationship to the land in a new way since the land ethic “implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” Without this shift in perspective, the “land-relation,” as he called it, “is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations” (1949, 201).

Leopold’s proposal here suggests that the moral language of “respect” is more likely to follow from an ecologically informed perspective that understands our relation to the environment as one that could be expressed as, “we’re all in this together”—you, me, the flora, the fauna, the ecosystem of the Hetch Hetchy Valley itself. It’s the well-being of the whole biotic community that counts, and with it our status is changed. No longer can we rightly view ourselves as slumlords living elsewhere, reaping the benefits and avoiding the costs. In this shift from conquerors to mere members, humans have no privileged or entitled role in the ecological community. Not only does this shift in perspective afford natural objects and ecosystems a type of moral standing, it does so from a perspective that is more consistent with the science of ecology.

Moral Obligation?

So, should we try to frame the restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in terms of respect, moral obligation, and ethical holism? My sense is, again, yes. And yet this too is equally tricky business. In what way could it be said that I am morally obligated to respect the flora and fauna of Hetch Hetchy? How does one translate our notion of respect for the inherent and intrinsic dignity of persons to respect for the inherent and intrinsic dignity of ecosystems? Anyone familiar with the reams of academic literature in environmental ethics knows that articulating a notion of inherent/intrinsic value—where nature is in some sense valuable in itself—is no easy task. Even for an environmentally friendly audience sympathetic to the goals of sustainability, justifications attempting to graft the moral language of inter-human ethics onto ecological concepts can feel like a bit of a stretch.

This, of course, is not to say that the notion of intrinsic value is nothing more than moral hand waving and should be abandoned. For better or worse, the fact is it’s anything but easy trying to carve out a foothold for intrinsic value when competing among the mix of various stakeholder justifications that can point to concrete cost-effect implications. Justifications for environmental decisions that don’t in some way point to how the benefits outweigh the costs can be sincerely held beliefs. Yet, at the same time, the ability to stretch our moral concepts regarding respect for persons and successfully apply those concepts to ecosystems can prove a bridge too far.

So how should we justify the decision to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley? Even if we followed Leopold’s lead and viewed nature from the citizen-of-the-earth perspective, we are still stuck firmly on the horns of the instrumental vs. intrinsic value dilemma. So as much as there is to appreciate and learn from the insights of Leopold’s land ethic, I can’t help but think that we’ve missed an altogether different opportunity here that’s very close at hand.

Recall that the general outlook here has been to adjust the way we value nature. To be sure, Leopold sees respect for the land, and even love of it, flowing much more naturally from the perspective of a biotic citizen, and this would, of course, entail a shift in how we view our own species. But in all of this, Leopold’s goal was to expand our moral horizons by encouraging a redrawing of the lines of moral consideration to include the land—the ecological whole—itself. But as much as environmental decisions are about the “land” in the expanded Leopoldian sense, they are also about who we are as a people.

Ancient Greeks

Perhaps Leopold left us a clue about all this back at the beginning of the “land ethic” with his reference to Homer’s Odyssey. For the Ancient Greeks, heroes such as Odysseus were not morally perfect individuals—not quite as “God-like” as Leopold lets on. In fact, Greek heroes were most often morally complex individuals struggling to find a way to persevere in the face of conflicting values and various levels of moral obligation. Given that the Greeks recognized the human condition as fraught with difficult decisions, it’s no surprise then that a rich philosophical tradition of virtue ethics emerged from such a culture. If one must use the term, “morality” for the Greeks was much more a matter of one’s character, disposition, and aspiration towards achieving human excellence than it was about acting in accordance with a justifiable moral principle or rule.

While not wholly disconnected from one’s actions insofar as one’s behavior is a natural expression of values, virtue ethics emphasizes character over actions. The stories of the Greek heroes are full of action, but they established cultural currency because of the way they identified and reinforced a sense of collective ideals and values—an image of character and virtues to strive toward. This framework of virtue ethics, I argue, is firmly situated in Leopold’s land ethic and, as such, he gives us a powerful set of ideas that we should find both familiar and inspiring when thinking about environmental decision-making.

Why should we restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley? In answering this question from a virtue-based perspective, the answer would start with a different and more basic question; namely a question that asks, “What kind of person should I be?” In the context of environmental decisions, virtue ethics describes and defends laudable character traits in such a way that it simultaneously draws on a rich tradition of character values and instantiates those very values by way of actions. Why restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley? Because that’s who we want to be, that’s the sort of people we can be.

While we’ve proven that we can dramatically alter, harness, and use the earth’s resources, we can also be a type of people that strive towards being excellent stewards of the environment. While we can be the type of people that disregards the value of non-human life and ecosystems in the service of economic expediency, we can also be the type of people capable of extending moral consideration in new ways—expressing values in terms of ecological and economic health. While we can be rapacious in our appetite, we can also be the type of people that finds virtue and a sign of human flourishing to be able to limit our self-indulgence.

While not expressed in identical terms, Leopold’s “land ethic” contains this shift expressed by virtue ethics. Leopold argues for a more dynamic view of the environment. But in doing so what’s at least as important is for us to take a different view of ourselves. Justifications of environmental decisions on this view takes on a much-needed dimension. In defending what’s valuable we must not just address those values that determine what we want. These moments also create a space for articulating the values that determine who we are and who we are capable of being. This is not to say that a virtue based environmental ethics is without problems of its own. The point is that justifications that tend to be one-dimensional and forget the human side to environmental decision-making miss the chance to see these as transformational opportunities for us to re imagine what we can be. Restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley could help forge a new way of thinking about nature and ourselves that current and future generations can look to, identify with, and be inspired to live by.


Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac, Oxford. 1949
J. Baird Callicott. In Defense of the Land Ethic, SUNY. 1989

Images Credits

- Aldo Leopold sketch by Joe Medeiros